People love reality television. People love to hate reality television. The arrival of The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives (TFLBW) has drawn a lot of flak from critics and audiences alike. While some of the criticism is entirely valid, much of it is if not undeserving then at least silly. It’s akin to eating at McDonald’s and complaining that the food’s unhealthy. Some said that the four women that the show focusses on are too far on the fringes of the industry to be considered “Bollywood Wives”. That’s like going to Subway and asking if the lettuce is locally sourced. Who cares? It’s green, isn’t it?
I’m not going to criticise the show or defend it, but rather express my beliefs on the potential of reality television and my concerns over the discourse around it. That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed the show, much like I enjoy McDonald’s from time to time. I may not feel amazing after consuming it, but I had a damn good time while I was consuming it. Perhaps I have a thing for South Bombay socialite aunties just as I do for a McSpicy chicken burger. Maybe it’s the spice?
The primary issue with the conversation around reality television is that it is too often a misnomer. Many reality shows, much like TFLBW, seem to be broadly scripted but that isn’t a valid enough criticism. All fiction television is scripted but we judge those shows on their scripts, acting, and cinematography. Reality TV would be much better off if it was named something like “lifelike television”: a mock reality. This way, audiences can rest assured that what they are watching is not life itself, but a simulation of it. If a critique is then made that the writing of a particular lifelike TV show was poor, that would be completely valid. This also would take away much of the pressure on reality stars themselves as audiences would not judge their real life persona entirely based on what they see on the screen.
In some sense, reality TV stands as a parallel to Italian neorealism more than any other form of cinema or television. While the context around and within Italian neorealist works (poverty, precarity, injustice, and oppression) is rather contrary to that in which much of reality TV is situated today (fame, money, glamour, and freedom), the use of non-professional actors in real-life situations and locations is a big common factor. In this way, despite the situations that reality TV stars are put in being constructed, their reactions to said situations are often genuine and sincere. As opposed to Italian Neorealism, it’s American Hyperrealism.
The wonderful thing about the reality TV persona is that while the actors may be put into manufactured situations, they still attempt to represent themselves, or at least a version of themselves in those scenarios. It’s somewhat similar to YouTube personalities. Their online personas are not not them, but they aren’t exactly them either. They’re somewhere between a complete fabrication and their real selves — an exaggeration of themselves. When an actor plays a written character, it’s easy to believe them (if they’re a good actor) because we forget that they’re an actor playing a part and perceive them wholly as their character. But it’s terribly easy to tell when a reality TV star is acting fake because they’re not supposed to be acting like anyone but themselves (and they’re usually not good actors). While this makes the fake moments very, very fake, it makes the real moments so much more real.
Alfred Hitchcock one said, “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out.” This is precisely the wonderful thing about reality television. A well-produced reality show can take one through all the major themes of life, i.e. childhood, love, friendship, marriage, work, and even death, with an immediacy that perhaps only documentaries can rival, and even then there is usually a distance and obvious narrative with most documentaries that is not apparent in reality shows. Over the course of a good reality show, an audience can come to know, understand, and appreciate the participants almost as well as friends. Even the obvious villains can prove to be well-rounded and fuller than most narrative fiction television. In that sense, reality television can serve a similar function to sitcoms, but where the characters have puffy eyes in the morning and don’t cry pretty.
Let’s come back to the trend of stigmatizing reality TV by comparing our consumption of television and cinema with food. I love artisanal sushi. I love a five-star meal. I love oysters and crab and caviar. But I also love vada pav and I also love McDonald’s and I also love rajma chawal. Even if I eat the best artisanal food 6 out of 7 days in the week, I will likely crave something simpler the seventh day. If I eat vada pav 6 out of 7 days, I will probably want something fancy the seventh day. I don’t judge the food. It is what it is. It exists. And all I know is I crave one some days and I crave the other other days. A similar attitude towards television might serve us best. Go ahead, order McDonald’s. Turn on Netflix. Eat that vada pav. The best you can hope for is that it’s hot and fresh. Even if it’s not very good, it’s still a vada pav, so it can’t be that bad. You knew what you were getting into when you bought it.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.