Understandably, Lock Upp begins with a fraud — the sound of audience applause, a sound that is disembodied and overlaid, because there is no audience. The first episode, a flabby 2 hours 40 minutes sasta-spectacle of acid and accusations, sets the tone. The length isn't surprising for even the 15th season of Big Boss — the very reality show, producer Ekta Kapoor and host Kangana Ranaut were deriding, yet deriving from its plotnessness, punctured with banal tasks, peppering hard love with soft longing — had a 3 hour premiere. There are, certainly, semantic differences between the two shows — these are not contestants but "qaidis", they are not in a house but a "jail". But these are for the most part, aesthetic shifts. The cabin fever raging and ramming is still at the heart of both these mass spectacles, dress it up in the orange of American prison iconography or otherwise.
Kangana Ranaut, in her Fjolla Nila frilly gown with loose threads hanging, invites each of the thirteen contestants, noting their "aarop", the reason for them being "jailed" — which ranges from Munawar Faruqui upsetting religious sentiments to Sayesha for being a trans woman to Payal Rohatgi's charmless, shrill outbursts to Poonam Pandey's skin-show to Kaaranvir Bohra's losing streak on reality television to Sara Khan's short-lived marriage to Babita Phogat's electoral loss to Chakrapani Maharaj's gau mutra party in the heat of the pandemic. (Kangana asks, "Swamiji, gau mootra theek hai. Lekin aapne tequila shot ki tarah, shot glasses mein gau mootra piya. Aur gaai ke gobar ko cake ki tarah kaata. Kya yeh apmaan nahin hai Hindu dharma ka?")
They are, quite clearly, not all accusations worthy of acknowledgement, forget punishment, and not all accusations are playing on the same level field. The aarop is, afterall, just an excuse to bring together names that have a cumulative, rumbling social capital. It's all about the views.
They are all punished with 10 weeks of lock-up. Kangana Ranaut claps twice, clicks her fingers twice and faceless people in head-to-toe black, and gruff sasta-Bane-like voices, come to ferry the qaidis to the jail set, which looks as though it will fall apart any moment, held together by fragile scaffolding and plaster. There is also a jailer, but that is just an excuse to tack on a celebrity — Raveena Tandon and Karan Kundrra, so far. (How can Kangana resist a swipe at Katrina Kaif calling her 'Tip Tip Barsa' re-imagining "chaai kam paani", currying favour with Raveena Tandon who had liked similar tweets when the song came out?) They come and go as wisps.
Kangana, as if whisked off the campy ramp of Fashion, has neither the smarts to shut down the qaidis who skewer her, nor the charm to warm them up to her self-styled pedestal. Instead, she hones in on her ice-queen persona, because it allows her to remain above the proceedings and not enmeshed in them. Do you remember, in Big Boss, Shehnaaz Gill and Salman Khan grasping onto each other in a hug for a good 10 seconds, weeping, Khan whipping out a handkerchief, dabbing his eyes, offering it to Shehnaaz to dab hers? It might be staged, it might be rehearsed, but the flavour lingers. Melodrama moves. Not so much narcissism.
But Kangana — or her scriptwriter — is sharp as a tack. After the first episode, there is no mention of her till episode seven, where she gives each qaidi a run-down of their performance, while asking questions like accusations, wondering why the TikTok star Anjali Arora has more followers on Instagram than Kangana herself (a question even I had, which was also, incidentally, the "aarop" that got her jailed), and what happened to Chakrapani's usual firebrand nonsense that is mute as a mule on the reality show? We see snatches of Kangana's Instagram rabble-rousing, but, thankfully, restrained by the format of the show, which doesn't give her a platform as much as it does a commentary box.
She is content sitting on her make-believe throne, looking down from her position of imposed power. It is a grotesque visual — especially with the leering qaidis — that isn't helped by the sparse set where the acoustics echo into the empty space, leaving behind stunned silences after she cracks a quip. (Like the embarrassing vacuum after her joke on the "6 ungli wala".) When Kangana gestures towards the emptiness, saying, "Yeh logon ka aarop hai", when the only logon seemed to be the lighting and camera crew, it is clear that they either think we are too stupid, or we, truly, are that stupid.
Or there is something else. Call me optimistic, but the beauty of the fraud of reality television is that we know it is scripted and empty, they know that we know it is scripted and empty, and yet they produce and we revel in what Manto called "an effective fraud". A mutual recognition of performing stupidity in a world that values the labour of thought. For example, we are told that the show is taking place in real time, with the contestants being fed viewership numbers as they come and news of the Ukraine crisis and Aryan Khan's clean-chit as it unfolds, and yet the qaidis' social media accounts are buzzing with posts, when the jail is supposed to be no phone zone. Is that, then, their PR team? (The show doubles down on this claim, with Munawar asking for his phone in an insistent hum, and then using this clip to promote the show. I don't buy it.)
The contestants are told that within 48 hours the show crossed 15 million views. (Our viewership numbers, which are more stringent in its criteria, have clocked in 6.9 million views) We are told that viewers voted for an elimination, but no numbers were given on how many votes came in, and what the distribution was. Is there joy in being a skeptical spectator of reality television?
Understandably, the facade of the jail soon crumbles — contestants who were only able to get three things in are now holding make-up brushes, wearing yoga pants, tight fitting vests, mascara fringed eyelids. The question of inner-wear comes and goes. But, to tadka our suspicions, sometimes they fight over chai, sometimes a bed. This is the weakest link of the show, for once the central conceit is questioned, the whole drama of the reality show is suspect. Even Kangana has to keep reminding them, "Shaayad tum bhool chuke ho ki tum lock up mein ho." Someone is asking for cigarettes, someone for sunlight, someone for face wash, someone for cow's milk.
What the show does, and is terrific at both promoting and propagating, is how the hardened political stances, polished with profanities on Twitter and Instagram stories, all melt when you are confronted with the person in full flesh. When Munawar and Kangana face off, the initial hostility wears off, when Payal Rohatgi and Munawar speak, their politics, so distant, softens into a blur in the background. It questions the very notion of the political being as fashioned by echo chambers, by social media where we curate our own parroting bubble. Those protesting against Munawar's participation, disappointed in him for sharing space with acetous right wing pin-ups, refuse this possibility, seeing it as hypocrisy. What to choose, then, between isolated self-satisfaction and hypocritic self-preservation?
Here are characters who fling themselves into emotional tailspins at the smallest of provocations, tears are always stored beneath the eyelids ready to break free, voices like waves crashing against one another till it is a hum of anger. It is hard to follow conversations because the show is edited like knocks against your head — suddenly placing you in the middle of a conversation parading as an exchange of backstories, sudden rips in the composure, yelling, huffing away, puffing back, and holding one another in apologetic affection. It's a haze that is being edited and produced on the go. There is no craft, there are no transitions, but emotional jump-cuts. The incredibly eloquent Munawar — "Raaste pe rehne vaalon ki baat nahin kar raha hoon. Sadkon se seekhne vaalon ki baat kar raha hoon." — who initially styles himself as the middle-ground, the man who will tap your back when you're hissing in anger, coming in between two ramming bulls, suddenly finds himself being pitted against people. The show is smart, because it sensed his centrism and gave him the first task to stir the hornet's nest. But the anger in subsequent episodes? I wasn't even sure why people were yelling at him. Sometimes, it seemed, even he wasn't sure why. Here, anger doesn't need an explanation but merely expression. As one of the characters says, "Jisko dekhne mein maza aaye, voh karo."