Earlier this month, the Ekta Kapoor-produced reality show Lock Upp—hosted by Bollywood enfant terrible Kangana Ranaut—wrapped up its 70-day opening season. Reality television veteran Payal Rohatgi earned the runners-up honours, while who else but comedian Munawar Faruqui emerged as the winner. Amidst hugs and cheers, Ranaut revealed the winner’s trophy—a silhouette standing atop a closed prison, holding the Lock Upp sign aloft in triumph. “This is a very symbolic trophy,” Ranaut said helpfully to the studio audience, in case the carceral imagery didn’t register. “He (Munawar) is beyond the cage.”
If you’re familiar with Indian television, you’ll know that the bizarre and the absurd is always lurking around the corner. But even by those standards, it has been a strange ol’ trip watching Munawar Faruqui win the inaugural season of Lock Upp. It wasn’t too long before the show aired, after all, that the young comedian’s shows were being cancelled all over the country. Right-wing organisations loyal to the incumbent central government were forcing Faruqui himself out of work. This, after he spent a month in lockup in January 2021, the kind that wasn’t a TV set, for allegedly hurting Hindu sentiments. And now here he was, making reality TV’s version of small talk with Ranaut, Bollywood’s most hawkish Hindu nationalist, who has in the past made several Islamophobic statements on social media.
These things may feel like contradictions from afar, but if you spend any amount of time with Lock Upp, you begin to understand how the ‘attention economy’ works in Indian media as well as Indian politics. Lock Upp is essentially Big Brother (or more accurately, its mutant Indian version Bigg Boss) on steroids. The contestants, as usual, are minor-league celebrities who are also controversial to various degrees—based off this broad definition, we have actor Payal Rohatgi (who basically copies Ranaut’s Hindutva hawk shtick online), lawyer Tehseen Poonawalla, model Poonam Pandey and so on. Their ‘crimes’ are moral judgments, one way or another—this one married her co-star for the publicity, that one has too many racy pictures for our liking, that other one is too much of a playboy.
On the basis of these crimes, the contestants of Lock Upp are ‘jailed’, released briefly, rewarded with snacks or punished with tiresome tasks. They’re also pitted against each other in ‘Atyachaari’ tasks and as part of the show’s reward mechanism, allotted a ‘super khabri’, a fan who brings them gossip from the outside world.
Inside this Manichean fever dream of absolutes, however, reside curiously bland, middle-of-the-road people, eminently unsuited for the brand of reality TV Lock Upp aims to deliver. Apart from Faruqui, not one of them had a modicum of energy, verve or demonstrable wit. Babita Phogat and Sara Khan came across as largely vacuous, Anjali Arora and Nisha Rawal largely content in their one-note characters. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for the most part, Faruqui saves the show from the rest of the participants.
Every lever, every instrument of society rewards those who make the biggest spectacle of themselves, on social media and otherwise.
There were many moments where Faruqui highlighted this gulf in quality with some well-chosen words. Like the time has-been comedian Sunil Pal came visiting. Pal was one of the first batch of Hindi-language comics whose popularity soared for a few years at the height of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, hosted by Shekhar Suman and Navjot Sidhu. He and Raju Srivastava, the two biggest beneficiaries of that era, have since become bitter, hate-mongering, Muslim-baiting shadows of themselves on social media. Pal’s duel with Faruqui was brutal albeit short-lived.
When the older comic, deploying his signature rhetoric style, wondered why it was only Munawar who ran into legal trouble when Pal himself had stood in front of Amitabh Bachchan and mimicked the superstar’s mannerisms. Faruqui replied, without missing a beat, “Actually, Sir, Amitabh Bachchan ke ‘bhakt’ nahi hain naa, isiliye” (Amitabh doesn’t have ‘bhakts’, a reference to the fact that online Hindutva followers are sometimes called that).
Pal looked defeated for a second, but recovered quickly to launch another tirade, this time about Faruqui’s usage of ‘gaali’ ie cuss-words. “Dil, dimaag, aankhen, neeyat aur country, hamesha saaf rakhne chahiye (your head, heart, eyes, intentions and country should be kept clean at all times)”, Pal sermonised. Faruqui replied, “Agar sab saaf-saaf hi banne lagaa, phir Alt Balaji toh… (If everything will be made squeaky-clean, what will become of Alt Balaji?),” a reference to extensive soft-porn programming on the streaming network airing Lock Upp.
After show-stealing moments like this, it was clear that Faruqui would win the show quite easily (regardless of whether you feel fan polls on these shows are pre-decided). Which brings us to the elephant in the room—what do we make of Munawar Faruqui, stand-up comedian-turned-reality-TV-star? After his exploits here he has apparently been booked for a different reality show, Khatron Ke Khiladi.
It’s tempting to label Faruqui’s career trajectory as cynical—after all, he is profiteering off the very ecosystem that would’ve loved to see him in real prison for much longer than a month. It could be argued, and rightly so, that his hijinks on a prison-pantomime show demean the struggles of the hordes of Indian minorities, activists and student leaders currently in prison on trumped-up charges.
I am sympathetic to both of these points of view; indeed, I find them empirically correct. But I also find that both Faruqui and in a way, Ranaut’s actions are in tune with the new realities of Indian media and entertainment. We have slid firmly into the ‘spectacle society’ over the last decade or so—loudness and shrillness and emphatic falsehoods are in, restraint and rigour and unsexy truth-telling are out. Every lever, every instrument of society rewards those who make the biggest spectacle of themselves, on social media and otherwise.
Faruqui is every bit a product of this media atmosphere, as is Ranaut herself. So it’s a little simplistic to single him out as a uniquely egregious example of the cynical cash-grab—especially one where the TRPs show clearly that so many of you were watching Faruqui eagerly, night after night (the show crossed 300 million views in mid-April, a number that surely cost some people at Netflix India their jobs).
Don’t ask for whom the bell icon tolls, dear reader; it tolls for thee.