Many years ago, I met a man who ran a little production company at a party. He told me he ran a production company that was looking for ideas for television. I asked if they’d thought of reality tv-type shows, like a show that followed how an arranged marriage happens. Over stiff mojitos, I outlined how the show would let viewers at home see how the classifeds are written, who the candidates are, help shortlist the candidates, the whole shebang. Climax: a great Indian wedding on tv. Like all drunk men I meet at parties, he found me very impressive and asked me to come meet his team. In case of many women, “meeting the team” could be considered a euphemism. In my world, however, things are pretty literal. When someone says “Come and meet my team”, they mean me facing 3 irritable production executives with bags under their eyes, tobacco stains on their nails and entirely too much caffeine in their veins. They ra-ta-ta-ted my idea down with the efficient brutality of a Nazi firing squad. One of told me that I was regressive, brainwashed and unhealthily inclined to objectifying women. This while leaning back against a poster of a television soap about a bindi-encrusted woman who mutely marries her sister’s husband to keep it all in the family.
Genius is rarely recognised when it is in action.
This summer, India’s favourite “item girl” Rakhi Sawant, who began her career clutching ripe mangoes against her equally ripe silicon valley, will get married in a reality TV show. The show is being produced by Fazia Allana, grandkid of the grandest old man of Indian English theatre Ebrahim Alkazi. It will be aired on NDTV Imagine, one of the channels in the NDTV network, which began humbly in the 80s with the weekly program “The World This Week”. Some twenty years later, the makers and producers of that program are now owners of a bouquet of channels that bring you news by award-winning journalists, films like “Persepolis” and now, TV shows like “Rakhi ka Swayamvar“. I quote the press release:
In a unique, first of its kind experience on television, Imagine presents a new reality show that traces the journey of a bride-to-be, from selecting her groom to the marriage ceremony, all captured on television. In a move that is true to her expressive personality, the bride-in-waiting Rakhi Sawant has chosen to search for her real life-partner on Imagine’s new reality show Rakhi Ka Swayamvar. Rakhi is taking matters of the heart into her own hands with a nationwide search for her perfect husband along with the support of the audiences. After exhaustive challenges and eliminations, Rakhi will take the saath-pheras with her husband in a grand ceremony that will be a fitting finale to this unique journey, and everyone is invited.
Rakhi Ka Swayamvar is a concept that has never seen before on television. The show promises to reveal a seldom-seen side of Rakhi and also provide an insightful glimpse of a roller coaster ride of emotions and tribulations. The ultimate selection of the groom will be made by Rakhi herself with the active help and participation of the audiences.
The swayamvar is a ritual that most of us know from the kitschy teleserials Ramayana and Mahabharat. The word at one point of time referred to a ritual where apparently a woman chose her husband from a gathering of hunks who performed tests to prove their eligibility. Actually, it was a big bash that daddy threw to find the richest/ most powerful bachelor and then married his daughter to him. Rakhi’s comment about the swayamvar: “Even Sita had her swayamvar… why not me?” Some may start sputtering at her comparing herself to the Hindu paragon of virtue but Ms. Sawant is on to something here. Sita’s swayamvar had been organised by her father Janak because his kingdom was in all sorts of danger and he was in desperate need of an ally. Since his major enemy was the powerful neighbouring kingdom of Magadh, the nearby princes didn’t want to have anything to do with him so he had to look beyond his immediate acquaintances. Also Sita wasn’t a particularly marriageable candidate since she was illegitimate (what the hell does it mean that Janak found her at the tip of his plough? Which king goes about ploughing fields in his kingdom?) so the swayamvara was basically something of a plea.
Ms. Sawant, like Sita, is estranged from her real parents and she isn’t exactly marriageable by conventional standards (albeit for completely different reasons than Sita), which is why she’s getting a swayamvara. Given she is very much a child of the Indian television industry, one could stretch the argument and say that TV is her Janak, especially since it is organising the swayamvar and the wedding that will follow. Plus, she said, in an interview, the only eligible bachelor in the country (Rahul Gandhi) is already engaged.
Here’s what we have been promised in the summer. Fifteen gents will go through tests to qualify for Rakhi’s hand. Rakhi will go visit their families and do all the things that brides to-be are expected to do. One hopes she will not be wearing her white latex nurse outfit. Audience members will be allowed to vote for candidates. The press release for the show said that Rakhi wants to “solemnize”" her marriage in front of her fans. Rakhi knows what she wants from her life partner. He can’t have a huge tummy and he should be ready to be “test-driven” by her. She summed it up with, “I am looking for a companion who is warm, affectionate, someone who can dance a little bit, someone who respects women for who they are and, above all, who is punctual.”*
Those interested can log on to http://www.ndtvimagine.com, call +91-22-2600-0033 or SMS “RAKHI <YOUR NAME> <YOUR CITY> to 56388.
* Let’s not forget that most of Sita’s misery began with Ram taking too long to hunt that damn deer. If he had been more punctual and not got carried away on his hunt, Sita wouldn’t have sent out Lakhsman and Ravan couldn’t have kidnapped her.