The culture industry perpetually cheats its customers of what it perpetually promises.

—Horkheime and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment

If only she was from a metro. She can see it in her head. Wearing a short skirt, dating. Going out dancing.

Rubi Alley has never been to a disco nor has she set foot in a bar. There are no bars in Salua. It’s just a small town near Kharagpur in West Bengal’s West Midnapore district.

If she were in a metro, there’s one more thing Rubi would do: audition for Splitsvilla. Rubi thinks that’s for the lucky few in Delhi and Mumbai. What are the chances of producers ever setting foot in Kharagpur, she asks. None. No one has any reason to ever venture there.

“It’s pretty boring,” says Rubi. There isn’t much to do; most nights she chats with her friends on WhatsApp. Sometimes they go for birthday parties at the Hong Kong Hotel where they eat momos and chowmein. Her world couldn’t be more different from the MTV shows; she is far from the fun and debauchery of Splitsvilla.

Yet she “connects” with the show. That’s why nothing’s ever planned for Saturday nights at 7 p.m. That hour is reserved for Nikhil Chinapa and the theatrics MTV throws at her.

“Everyone watches,” she says. Everyone in her universe, at least. Rubi has been watching the show for the past five years, since Season 2 aired. She talks about the contestants as though they were her friends: she’s let down by them, she admires them, she’s even had a crush on Siddharth Bhardwaj from Season 2. “You could say I’m obsessed with it.”

Rubi loves the fights; she likes to fight too. That’s why she thinks she’ll be good on the show. But there is the issue of the bikinis, short skirts, and the crazy flirting with boys. She would have to do all that because that’s how big city girls behave, she says. Rubi’s tried to become more modern with her hair and clothes, as have her friends.

But people in Salua talk. It’s an Air Force town and her father is in the force. He would never allow it. “He’d call it indecent. Even vulgar,” she says.

Rubi never watches Splitsvilla with her parents. It’s not appropriate, she explains. One day, Rubi hopes, the conservatism from Salua will go. The town will become modern. “For India to develop, this modernisation needs to happen,” she says. To her, Splitsvilla is “developing India”.

If Salua was not a small town, if it had bars, if the girls went on dates and danced, if its shops sold miniskirts, Rubi is sure of one thing: she would be on Splitsvilla. Rubi’s often been compared to Mandy, a contestant from Season 6, and Ria from Season 3. “It’s a compliment,” she says, because they are famous even if just for the season. It doesn’t matter if Mandy or Ria have no talent. Rubi would love to be famous, for fame’s sake. If they can be on TV, so can she. Of this she is certain.

***

Splitsvilla is India’s most popular youth-based show. It is a reality show, filmed over a month in exotic locations such as plush villas in Jim Corbett National Park, Phuket, Kerala, and Dubai. Though the format has changed over the past six seasons, MTV has settled on a nine-girl, nine-boy set-up since Season 5.

The girls and boys compete to win the show in a series of tasks designed with sexual and sexist undertones, aimed at evoking extreme reactions from contestants and audience alike. Love, self-preservation, treachery, betrayal, and the promise of sex are the ideas the show’s creators experiment with in a controlled environment under the gaze of cameras that never stop. There’s incentive for the participants to be manipulative and hurl expletives.

At the end of it, one survivor each from both the sexes is crowned king and queen and given a cash award for their endurance. Fame—usually of the short-lived variety—is the biggest trade-off for the contestants. It is the reason they come on the show and do what they have to. Like climbing a steep wall, wrestling in the mud, carrying a girl slung upside down on their shoulders, dressing scantily, and painting their bodies to resemble animals.

It’s all worth it.

***

What does one need to be on reality TV?
The contestant needs to be hot and stunning.

What will ensure a person gets high ratings?
Ratings depend on how hot and stunning the person is.

Which candidates get furthest in the game?
The hot and stunning ones.

What ensures producers focus on a contestant?
How hot and stunning they look on camera.

Hot and stunning: the words are Splitsvilla’s answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Those are also the words I hear most from reality TV talent scout and casting agent Anil Sharma’s mouth. Even his Facebook page explicitly calls on “hot and stunning” boys and girls to send in their best pictures for Splitsvilla.
Sharma has a reputation in the reality TV industry. He is “Anil MTV”, though he has no affiliation with the channel. Anil has already launched many Splitsvillians. He creates a new Gmail address every season but Season 5 was different; it was his most successful. Minutes after he posted a flyer on Facebook with an email address, his Blackberry started buzzing. The emails came in droves. Blackberry Messenger requests started pouring in. Friend requests on Facebook reached the 500 mark. The Facebook page AKS Model Management, his company, had 5,000 likes and the comments kept coming in. The response stunned him, he recalls. He had to create another Gmail id.

Sharma has a pool of hundreds of beautiful faces. All sorts of people emailed, from Mumbai to Delhi, Bihar to Assam. They ranged from “very hot” to “not so stunning”. His inbox was full. Some emails were outrageous, a handful of which he says were “beyond X-rated”.

Desperados looking to rob the stagecoach of fame.

“The power of reality TV is such that everyone believes they’ve got what it takes,” he says. Even Sharma wanted to be a reality TV star. MTV’s Roadies had him fired up. The contestants were just like him, he recalls. He never auditioned, though. Instead he started hunting for young people across Delhi. He wanted to get into the business of making stars.

Splitsvilla happened by chance. He got a phone call from a company called Colosceum in 2009, the producers of the show. Colosceum produces other shows such as Roadies and MasterChef India. He was roped in for this one. Their only criterion for contestants was that they be “hot and stunning”.

Those were still early days and Anil started casting from Season 2. Every year the Colosceum producers would call him. Casting would start soon after. He’d have a list of 10 people; he didn’t want any of the nonsense—the “time waste”—of Season 4. MTV operates on a closed audition policy, he explains. Not everyone can audition to be on the show but Season 4 was their first open audition. “It was like a jungle,” he recalls. Coordinators have learnt their lesson and now they shortlist the top candidates.

This time he’s made a list of the best. The more contestants he got on the show, the greater his name would be in the industry. More often than not, they are Bollywood hopefuls: small-time models with towering ambitions. He is their kingmaker.

He remembers a phone call, late one night. “Anil MTV?” a girl asked.

“Who is it? Don’t you know the time?” he barked.

Her name was Vaishali. She was 21 and wanted to be a model. She was calling because of the flyer Sharma posted on his company’s Facebook page. Before she emailed her pictures, she had questions.

“What if I don’t get selected? What happens to the pictures?” she asked.

“I keep them in the database,” he told her. Now he says, “What sort of attitude does she have? She should believe she’ll get selected. That’s how stars think. She is a star, isn’t she?”

Anil Sharma wants to be famous too. He wants to be remembered.

“I want them to say Anil Sharma found these stars.”

***

Reality television killed the music video channel. In 2007, MTV and Channel V, previously pure play music channels, started shifting from music to non-music content, initiating a move towards youth-based channels. They were chasing more revenue. Fifteen- to 34-year-olds constitute 42 per cent of all television viewing.

Then UTV Bindass happened, a channel with sole focus on youth entertainment. Then came the onslaught of reality shows such as UTV’s Big Switch and Super Stud. Most recently, Channel V has announced that it will no longer be airing Bollywood music, marking the most radical departure in the industry. Instead its focus will remain on fictional content such as The Buddy Project and Friends Forever.

Sharma has a pool of hundreds of beautiful faces. All sorts of people emailed, from Mumbai to Delhi, Bihar to Assam. They ranged from ‘very hot’ to ‘not so stunning’. Some emails were outrageous, a handful of which he says were ‘beyond X-rated’.

This change can largely be credited to a shift in what youth consume. The long-running saas-bahu soaps seem out of sync with Internet-savvy youth. Non-fiction shows, previously in the form of antakshari and quiz shows, have thus paved the way for more urbane reality shows.

In a study of how families consumed content, media research company TAM looked at the migration between Sony and Star Plus at a time when Sony was broadcasting Indian Idol while Star Plus continued to show Hindi content. The study found that there was a migration from Sony to Star Plus when there was a break in programming. However, there was a migration of viewers from Star Plus to Sony even when there wasn’t a break on Star Plus, indicating the draw of reality-based game shows.

Many programmes have been copied from international formats, Indian Idol included. I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here became Iss Jungle se Mujhe Bachao. India’s Got Talent is adapted from Britain’s Got Talent and Rakhi ka Swayamvar was a spin on The Bachelorette. The hugely popular Bigg Boss is a direct copy of Big Brother, a Dutch import, and Kaun Banega Crorepati copies the format of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Sach Ka Saamna aped The Moment of Truth, which began as a Colombian format.

This was followed by Indian takes on foreign concepts. Shows like Splitsvilla, Emotional Atyachar, Date Trap, and Axe Ur Ex allow viewers to live vicariously through contestants, catering to a lust for intrusion. Splitsvilla along with Truth, Love and Cash make love a profitable enterprise and act as stepping stones to potential Bollywood projects.
The key to high ratings is a liberal attitude towards love and relationships combined with jaw-dropping stunts. The combination creates reality TV gold.


Sharma wanted to speak to Rishabh Sinha from the minute he saw him sitting on the stairs, smoking. “He had all the indicators of a star,” he says. Perhaps it was his manner: there is something rehearsed, structured in Rishabh’s laidback attitude. He is always aware of himself. Maybe it was the clothes: a red-and-white checked shirt, a silver skater chain dangling from his baggy jeans, and scruffy brown leather boots with shoelaces undone. “This boy was special.”

Rishabh wasn’t there to audition; he was accompanying a friend who had been shortlisted. As Sharma fretted over getting him an audition, Ishita Puri, an MTV producer, came out for a nicotine fix and she and Rishabh started chatting.

“You will audition, won’t you?” she asked.

“If you can get me to skip this queue,” he replied.

Soon Sharma was out with a registration form. “I got this feeling when I saw him,” he says as he recounts the events that took place in Delhi’s Malviya Nagar.

Rishabh was one of the two contestants who came to Splitsvilla without any prior modelling experience. He was a nobody from Gurgaon, a recent graduate from the Ansal School of Management. He worked as a real estate agent and had a car. He says, “There wasn’t much going on in my life. Only a fool would say no to being on TV.”

But Rishabh didn’t make the first cut. The production house was wary; they likened him to a loose cannon. But Sharma recalls fighting in his corner, promising MTV that he’d get Rishabh up to scratch. He even moved to Rishabh’s mother’s house in Delhi to oversee his transformation. They began working on his body in earnest: Rishabh would go to the gym twice a day. The possibility of performance enhancing supplements wasn’t tossed out. Mental dedication was the key, and so Rishabh’s mobile was switched off and all social obligations suspended. The regimen ruled.

Then MTV called, informing him that he’d been chosen. In the phone call, Ishita asked him if he’d be willing to grow his hair and wear it long. He agreed and so began the styling of Rishabh Sinha.


Last year, Sandy from Jamshedpur grew his hair out too. Rishabh had inspired him. He even learnt a few words that Rishabh had said.

When I asked him how Rishabh was, he says, “Kick ass.”

But others are slower to respond. His girlfriend never wears clothes like the girls on Splitsvilla. Every time he mentions Subuhi Joshi (from Season 6), she gets angry. Splitsvilla isn’t for people like us, she says, but for Sandy, Splitsvilla is the life he dreams of living. He watches it for the tasks, and has started frequenting the gym. He also watches it to see the girls’ legs. Everyone in his circle loves the show.

He’s even seen it with his parents a few times. His mother always comments on dresses the girls wear.

Sandy would give anything to live in Mumbai. He’s always dreamed about Bollywood, and Splitsvilla is a chance to get to that world; it’s the next best thing.

But he’s afraid he won’t be as stylish as the people on the show; the type of clothes they wear are not available in Jamshedpur. And when they are, they are just too expensive.

On Friendship Day on August 5, Sandy and his friends tried to live a more modern life. Someone had set up a bar though it didn’t serve alcohol. There was a DJ spinning tunes. But a fight broke out and the police had to come in and end the whole affair.

He can’t even date in public. Last year on Valentine’s Day, he tried to go to a park with a girl but the police prevented boys and girls from entering together.

“I dream of those candle-lit dates they have on Splitsvilla,” he says. He wants the freedom of the show. He wants the freedom to romance.

“Imagine dancing like Rupa (from Season 5),” he says. “When will that happen here?”

***
Season 5, Episode 2, Task 1:

Rupa the “tigress” flips her hair. She glides across the dance floor and gets down on all fours in her beige two-piece. Her midriff is painted shades of gold and brown. She has brown paint on her face. She seductively makes her way to the King, Vroon Sharma.

Vroon is prompted to say, “Meri to susu nikal gayi. (I peed my pants.)” The music picks up tempo, and Rupa is now gyrating against the King’s leg since his vote matters, since she doesn’t want to go home. The camera moves to the other male contestants.

Paras Chhabra, in a cream shirt, is smiling from cheek to cheek.

Nikhil Chinapa, the host, is in hysterics, waving his hands wildly. Perhaps he knows that this is television gold.

Junglee, junglee ban gayi thi woh,” says Vroon. (“She had become a wild animal.”)

Someone yells, “Rupa, you’re killing it.” Everyone applauds.

Rupa is safe from elimination.

Rupa Khurana is tall, lanky, and a four-time reality TV star. She walks into the DLF Emporio mall in Delhi wearing a black chiffon toga dress and chunky black heels. Her eyeliner is black and heavy; she always applies her make-up herself. Her wrists are hidden behind chains of black and silver beads, and her long nails are painted black. People watch her as she takes a seat at a corner table in Starbucks.

“I’m modelling myself on Kim Kardashian,” she says. It doesn’t matter to her that the American reality TV star has been mocked across the globe.

In true Kardashian style, she has older brother Varun accompany her. He often plays the role of manager: answering calls, keeping strangers away, and styling her. The dress she’s wearing is from Zara in Kathmandu. Varun bought it for her. Rupa isn’t shy about admitting that she had done Splitsvilla and other shows for “name and fame”. She loves the limelight and she loves being looked at, she says with a laugh.

There wasn’t any doubt that Rupa would be perfect for the show. She’s a reality TV veteran. Before she auditioned for Splitsvilla, Rupa had been on three other reality shows, including the controversial second season of Swayamvar, where she was one of the contestants who competed to marry Rahul Mahajan, son of former union minister and BJP leader Pramod Mahajan. Once the show was over, it was revealed that Rahul had been arrested for drug possession, and the woman he eventually married on the show left him four months later on charges of domestic violence.

Rupa is also a pageant star and has done countless print ads. She knew reality TV was for her when she was 18, when she first watched Splitsvilla.

Rupa went to great lengths to get ready. “MTV is watched by millions; I didn’t want to get anything wrong,” she says. First there was the matter of wardrobe. She had received a check-list from the production house and needed gowns and bikinis, stilettoes and curling tongs. So Rupa and Varun hit the stores. Her brother went in the capacity of personal stylist.

“Isn’t it a bit unreal for MTV to suggest a clothing list for reality TV?” I ask.

“They want hot people. That’s how they get TRPs,” she says.

Rupa had four suitcases with her on the show, which included 15 gowns and over 18 pairs of shoes. She spent Rs. 1.25 lakh on clothes for the show. Over coffee, Varun explains how he’d done much of the shopping for her. Often it seemed as though he was the brains behind the enterprise. It was he who was working behind the scenes, crafting an image that would appeal to thousands across the country.

Varun too would have liked to be a star, he says. When people approach them in malls and restaurants and ask Varun to take a picture, there is a moment of “envy”, he says. “If I can’t make it on TV, I will make sure she can live it for the both of us.”

So Rupa followed Varun to the malls in Saket and the markets in Lajpat Nagar. “It paid off, people liked my dressing,” she says.

Rupa’s Facebook friend requests shot up after the show. With adoration came scorn. Haters accused her of being “cheap” because she showed too much skin in the seductive tiger dance.

“I only care what my parents and brother think,” she says.

It’s not like all of this came easily to her. Rupa was just another teenager who watched Splitsvilla and wondered if she could “rock the bikini”. It was her dream to break free from the shackles. Anyway the shows from the West had already liberated so many people. Old customs were slowly wearing away, she explains.

Many vicious attacks came after she eliminated Rishabh and Nitin in the dumping ground. I’ve watched (and enjoyed) all of Season 5 and was surprised when Rupa eliminated two of her closest friends on the show and picked Paras instead. From the first episode, two camps had formed on the show and Rupa, along with the two she eliminated, were together while Paras was in an opposite camp.

Groupism allows contestants to form bonds with those they can trust, and those who will ensure victory. In the many conversations I’ve had with contestants from Season 5, I was told that Rupa’s decision had been influenced by the producers of the show.

The producers are the contestant’s shadows. They never leave and they seldom speak. They follow closely and are ever-present: over the shoulders of the cameramen, taking notes, scribbling in their pads. These notes are then expanded in the Diary Room, where contestants have a one-on-one with the producers.

The Diary Room allows contestants to vent. It also allows producers to get into the minds of contestants and understand the dynamics of the house. The producers sit opposite the contestant at a table with a camera over the producers’ shoulders, and ask questions to gauge the mood and to develop the storyline.

Bytes from the Diary Room are then aired on the show to provide context. During the course of the show, hundreds of hours of footage is collected and is owned by Colosceum. The contestants have no rights to this material.

The audience, of course, never gets to see the producers, let alone hear them speak. Rules are such that producers and contestants seldom, if ever, communicate. However as Queen, Rupa lived in a house separate from the other contestants and had plenty of opportunity to listen to producers. Like queens in the real world, she didn’t have any contact with her subjects; she never got to hear their views.

“Did they make you kick Nitin and Rishabh out? Is it scripted?” I ask.

“No but they feed you with information. You can’t go against the production house,” she says.

“Did they tell you who to vote for?”

She replies, “No. They pushed me towards picking someone I wouldn’t have otherwise. They told me I would look better with Paras. They made it seem like it was my decision, though. They’re very good at that.”

She admits to being somewhat brainwashed by the producers. It makes sense to her now. Picking Paras must have pushed the ratings up tremendously. This was what the show was about: mind games and ratings.

In the last episode, Paras eliminated Rupa. She not only lost the competition but also her individual right to make decisions.


The debate on reality TV has rested on whether the shows are scripted or not. I caught up with Sagar More, creative director at Colosceum, the production house for Season 6 of Splitsvilla. We spoke about the process by which the shows come into being.

Colosceum begins developing ideas for the show months in advance, well before Anil Sharma and other coordinators are informed of the need for contestants. The production teams research the destination where shooting will take place, and seek cultural markers. Where do the youth meet? What do they do?

They then come up with ideas for the tasks. None of the tasks are accidents. The same applies to the show’s Bajate Raho sessions. They are planned to push forth a plot line

***

Bajate raho ka feel hi aisa kuch hai, kai jab aap udhar pahuch te ho, kisi na kisi ki kuch bajti hai. (These sessions are a free-for-all. Someone always gets screwed.)
—Tasneem Doctor, a contestant from Season 5, Splitsvilla

Season 5, Episode 5, Bajate Raho Session:

The contestants walk in single file. Nikhil Chinapa is seated in the centre in a pale blue and white Hawaiian shirt. “Welcome to Fiama Di Wills MTV Splitsvilla,” he says. Fiama Di Wills is the title sponsor of the show. Its products are placed all over the house.

He rubs his hands together, getting ready for another tense session where the girls and boys will vote out the least likely contender for King and Queen.

Swati votes out Saif, prompting him to say, “She can’t spell anyone else’s name, so she wrote mine.”

The ugliness starts picking up tempo.

Vidushi votes out Nikhil because she can’t see the “aggression” in him, because “he’s too polite.” Splitsvilla thrives on anger, tantrums, and swearing. Losing it on TV means higher ratings.

Then it’s the boys’ turn. Saif votes out Swati. “Just look at her, she’s unfit to be a Queen,” he says. Her face falls. Ali and Nikhil follow suit. Swati is fighting back tears. “If you’re sweet in the house, you’re weak,” she says.

“We plan every minute of the show,” says Sagar More, the creative director. Every morning contestants read a scroll that provides an introduction to the day. It’s never planned on the spot. Producers analyse the psychology of the person: whether the person is aggressive or if he or she has been hurt. They then follow them in real time. Ninety per cent of the time, the contestants do not shock More. “But reality can sometimes change,” he says.

“Is it scripted?” I asked.

The cameras are always on, they cause the contestants to act erratically. These are micro experiments. These contestants are like lab rats. We give them one small morsel of cheese, one peanut, and see how they behave.

“We believe in a creating a show where there are opportunities. We never tell them what to say. We create a template with twists and turns months in advance. We create a world of alternatives, anticipating how people will respond. Everything is planned, the question is who falls for it,” he says.

“Must they behave differently in the house?”

“The cameras are always on, they cause the contestants to act erratically. These are micro experiments. Contestants are like lab rats. We give them one small morsel of cheese, one peanut, and see how they behave,” he says.

There are many hidden messages in the show too, he says, like how to love your country, and how to treat women.
Does he think the power they have is dangerous?

“Yes.”


Rehan’s family left Mumbai for Sangli when he was young. He doesn’t have many memories of Mumbai but he can imagine the place. He reckons all people in the metros act like the Splitsvillians do. His friends and he have tried to imbibe the ways of the show: in dress, speech and attitude.

“Just chill, dude,” he says.

Rehan dreams of being on Splitsvilla but he knows his mother won’t like it. There’s too much bad language, she says. The girls are also without culture. She doesn’t want him getting all these “Western ideas” in his head. So, he often has to watch the show on YouTube at Sai Cyber Net cafe. Most of his friends are “big time addicts” of the show.

The show has taught him a lot about girls as well. He knows he wants to be with a woman who looks voluptuous and dresses in body-hugging clothes like Subuhi (Seasons 5 and 6). After watching the show he knows what a “crush” means. He’s also been out on dates. Only three or four, though.

When I ask if he would like it if his girlfriend dressed like Subuhi, he laughs.

“Girls like Subuhi are one step ahead of the boys,” he says.


Deborah Polycarp is never seen on the show, but she is omnipresent on set and in production. Many people spoken to for this story credited her as the driver of the show.

Deborah is the show’s creative director and project head; she has been with MTV for 11 years. She’s been involved with Splitsvilla since Season 2. It is she who does the location, creative and execution check.

When I mention the immense impact the show has on youth, she is shocked. “A lot of us are so busy making shows,” she says, “that we forget the larger phenomenon out there. The social implications get buried under the rubble of creating a hit show.”

She says she always knew the reach MTV and Splitsvilla had. It was popular from Season 1. They did have to introduce new twists and turns such as the number of male contestants in Season 1 to a new format in Season 4. The format they followed in Seasons 5 and 6 proved to be the most successful, with nine boys and nine girls, and one King and Queen. “We try to give the audience what they find entertaining. We may not always get it right,” she says with a laugh.

Our conversation moves towards George Orwell and Big Brother, and the surrender of privacy on the show. As someone who is always on set, she explains how the show is simply about survival, and that it does affect the contestants. “It’s is very trying on them. They are always active.” From the very start, they play their politics. In the tasks, they may not necessarily vote out the weakest but the best, because this is how they can ensure their survival.

When I ask her how they measure success with ratings, she is quick to dismiss ratings as the only indicator. However, she says, “Splitsvilla is currently the highest rated show in the youth genre. The latest rating was 98 TVT (Television Viewership in Thousands).”

As the show has progressed, the number of hits on YouTube has steadily increased with each season. A digital audience tunes in from all over the country and consumes the content online. “We need to look at how we assess shows given the new breed of people who have grown up on a diet of the Internet.”

We discuss how the show is cast from an existing pool of people, and how not everybody was able to audition. She says that there was a challenge on the Internet called Splitsvilla Battleground, the digital leg of the Splitsvilla main show where the winner of online competitions would gain direct entry into Splitsvilla. Viewer votes would play a role
in deciding who would go on to the next round.

“This gives opportunity to anyone in any nook and corner to be a part of Splitsvilla,” says Deborah.

However, most of the contestants I spoke with came from the glamour world. “They are models and actors, though struggling,” I say.

“But their faces are not easily recognisable,” she says.

“Many have won other reality TV shows, like Rupa and Nitin,” I say.

“There are so many faces that come and go in these reality shows and none of them leaves a mark.”

Anyway, she asks, what sort of person would be willing to live their life, have a romance, carry out all these adventures in front of the TV camera? “These people have aspirations. They want to get known.”


Vroon remade himself for fame. His name, Varun, had to be junked. It was just too common, too every-man. So he changed it to Vroon. This would give him an edge, the X-factor, to succeed in the world of glamour. Anyway, “oo” was auspicious for him. His guruji had told him so.

Vroon had always been destined for this world; he was just so good-looking.

After graduating from Chitkara College of Pharmacy, Varun, as he was then, joined a pharmaceutical company. His days were spent speaking to doctors about new drugs and molecules. In an interview with Pfizer, the bespectacled executive asked him why he was wasting his time. “Why do you want to work, when you can be a model?” he asked. Go to Bollywood, he recalls him saying.

In the small modelling world in Chandigarh, Vroon got a few assignments. He made a name for himself, did a few catalogue shoots, and walked the ramp. The camera had always taken to him and encouraged by the work, he hit the gym. He also got into Value Creation, an offshoot of Buddhism, and began chanting. That’s when more doors opened and he came across the reality TV world.

Zoom TV was looking for India’s International Face in 2010. Vroon auditioned. Out of 2,500 entries, he was the only male applicant to be selected. Zoom even flew him out to Mumbai, and that’s when he first came face to face with the Bollywood fraternity. He didn’t make the cut but the glamour bug bit him.

“I had to get in somehow, despite all the stories about the struggles,” he says.

Suddenly life in Chandigarh seemed sedentary. The lack of exposure “suffocated him”, and the easiest exit seemed through the reality TV scene. Desperate to get noticed, he auditioned for Splitsvilla. He recalls charming the judges.

“What do you look at first in a girl,” the interviewer asked.

He pulled a funny face. “Depends on if they’re coming or going,” he said.

Vroon was told that they would call him but months passed. Tired of waiting, he decided to try it alone. His father was working in HR in the Department of Space. His mother worked in a private IT company. His parents were open-minded about his move to Mumbai.

Nothing had prepared him for the lines of rejections though.

For seven months he struggled. He lived as a paying guest in Andheri East. The rent was Rs. 7,000 per month. He would travel from East to West every day, spending much-needed money on rickshaw fare. He went to all sorts of auditions: from an IPL promo to an advertisement for Clinic All Clear.

He never got selected. There was too much competition; the Mumbai boys were just so well-groomed. “I thought dude, there’s a lot of work to do. In Chandigarh, I thought I was the deal,” he says.

The last straw was when he got an ad for Bournvita. He was paid Rs. 3,000 to be dressed as Superman. When he was wearing the trademark red underwear, he wondered where it had gone wrong.

Dejected, Vroon left for Chandigarh. “I would have never looked back at Bollywood but then Splitsvilla called.”

At the time of writing, Vroon has returned to Chandigarh again from Mumbai after Splitsvilla. He was in town training for a pharmaceutical company. He didn’t give acting or modelling another thought.


In his 1947 critique on mass culture, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno saw the transformation of culture into a commodity thereby creating the culture industry. Traditional forms of art were liquidated and mass media was born. Adorno claimed that mass art was a mere commodity with a price tag, devoid of aesthetic value. It was designed with the intention of manipulating consumers through pre-digested formulas. Art, therefore, was not a response to creativity; it did not add to knowledge nor did it seek truth.

One can only imagine how he would respond to reality television.

Fast-forward to January 6, 1973. Anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote an essay on a Public Broadcasting System show called An American Family. The show chronicled the lives of the Louds, an ordinary American family going about their mundane lives.

The Louds were not famous, nor were they unique. They had a camera follow them around for seven months and in the eighth month they became celebrities as the world’s first reality TV family. The show’s format—seven months of footage was condensed into 12 one-hour episodes—created, in Mead’s opinion, a “new art form”; an innovation “as significant as the invention of drama or the novel”.

This new “art form” didn’t realise its true potential until the debut of MTV’s The Real World, where young teens from across America were placed in a modern and often colourful house under the constant, watchful eye of the camera.

The show saw these new housemates form new relationships, and seek jobs in new cities and new environments. The audience lapped up their new experiences. In 2000, the great onslaught of reality TV hit the screen. Big Brother was launched by Endemol, a Dutch company. Then came shows like Survivor. Both were essentially game shows with weekly eliminations under constant surveillance. In many ways, these shows were anthropological experiments; the production team in Big Brother always includes anthropologists.

From An American Family to Kaun Banega Crorepati, reality TV has diversified. Shows now depict spoilt brats having birthdays that are bigger than most marriages on VH1’s Sweet 16. There’s Laguna Beach where “normal” people live out their high-flying lives, to Paris Hilton’s search for a best friend in Paris Hilton’s My New BFF on MTV.


A young boy comes running up the gully. There are others behind him. They stop at Nitin’s car.

“Who is she?” one asks.

Nitin explains I’m a reporter.

The young boy grabs my hand and says, “Nitin bhaiyya famous hogaye na?” (“Nitin bhaiya has become famous, no?”)
I nod yes.

Others chime in. In this East Delhi alley in Khajoori, Nitin is a star.

His electric blue T-shirt and anti-fit jeans look out of place here. He’s tall and well-built. The only boy he’s friends with on the street, the one he tutors in English, tries to be more like him.

Here, Nitin was always special. But the path to stardom was dotted with trials. First he had to withstand his mother and her wrath when he announced that he wanted to be a reality TV star. “Are there no respectable professions left?” she asked. His father S. P Singh wanted him to become an engineer or a police officer. Nitin, though, had other dreams.

On top of the television, on which his mother watched her son win UTV Bindass’s Dadagiri and almost win Splitsvilla (he was eliminated in the penultimate episode), is a golden trophy. Nitin won that as Mr Meerut. By the bed is a frame with a black-and-white head shot from Nitin’s portfolio. There’s also a stuffed tiger that a fan from Haryana gave him.

“I was never great at studies,” he recalls. Perhaps it was because his family moved so much. His father was in the army and “the postings were always erratic”. When they moved from Pathankot to East Delhi, Nitin fell in with the wrong crowd. He whiled away time racing expensive cars and getting up to no good. His friends had their fathers’ money but all Nitin’s father could provide was a roof over their heads. Nitin would have to work.

The noise of children playing in the gully disturbs S. P. Singh. Nitin’s mother Kamlesh pushes a glass of Fanta into my hand. They recall Nitin’s appalling journey in search of a job.

First he was a peon at a bearings company but that job didn’t stick. “My Thakur blood didn’t allow me to carry on with that,” he says. He then interviewed with a call centre in Noida to sell ICICI life insurance. However, he then came across Pepsi’s search for the top 20 most photogenic faces in 2008. They flew him to Mumbai and that’s when he “became fascinated with this crazy city”.

By then, Nitin had failed his second year of college. Luckily for him, he met coordinator Ashu Taneja who informed him about auditions for UTV Bindass’s Dadagiri. Nitin reached promptly at 12.30 p.m. but wasn’t seen until 8.30 p.m. When he was finally called in, he let it rip. He pounded his fists on a table and abused the past contestants and producers. He swore at them, for picking weak contestants. “How could you make someone wait so long,” he yelled.

He played it well. UTV Bindass wanted him for his aggression. “Aggression brings good ratings,” they said. He got a phone call the night before his second attempt to clear his second year papers, informing him that he’d have to be on set in the morning. Nitin’s father wanted him to sit for his exams but the appeal of being on TV was too big. “I chose to be a star instead,” he says.

Dadagiri did him well. Nitin won the season and won Rs. 10 lakh. He bought a Hero Honda Hulk and rented an apartment in south Delhi to establish himself in the Delhi modelling world.

The amount of time afforded by being on a reality show and breaking into the industry is small. Most contestants who attempt to move from reality TV to other television projects fail, but Nitin got lucky and was selected for Season 4 of Splitsvilla, which would be shot in Dubai. Passport issues grounded him but he was cast again for Season 5 after a Skype interview with Deborah Polycarp.

Kamlesh tugs on her salmon pink sari. She would like to speak, she says. Splitsvilla wasn’t the type of show she would have liked to see her son on. She never watches it with him. She’s too embarrassed. What sort of women dance with no clothes on? What sort of mother allows a girl to do that? Who would marry such girls? And the boys, she exclaims. Why do they use such language? Why do they fight so much?

Nitin explains how the show gave him the freedom he always craved. He had always lived at home and been doted on by his mother. In Splitsvilla, he had to make it on his own. He had the freedom to make decisions for himself despite being constantly watched by 20 members of the production crew.

Nitin, his family, and I walk around the neighbourhood. Two plots of land lie empty next to Nitin’s house, cluttered with piles of rubbish. One day the rubbish will be replaced by construction material, his father says. When they first arrived, the area was just grassland. “It changed in front of my eyes.” A lady pumps water out of the ground. Kamlesh is quick to point that the family has installed pipes in their house. “We’re not backward,” she says.

“I bet nobody thought someone from this type of area, where no one speaks a world of English, would end up on TV, let alone MTV,” Nitin says.


It was like being on The Truman Show,” Rishabh Sinha says. But what the hell, he’s famous now.

I met Rishabh at the Taj. He’s on leave from shooting a movie. The camera guy, Vikas Joshi, is with him. A few beers later, his co-star, an 18-year-old, swishes in with a Kashmiri ex-journalist-turned-actor. They talk about the power of the limelight, how they live for the camera. How each shot, each take matters. Much of the conversation centres on Rishabh. In the end, he pays the bill.

“Do you always pay?” I ask.

“Yes,” he responds.

“Why?”

“You won’t understand this world. I’m famous now. I have to keep up an image,” he says.

The other day he went to Lap in Delhi, the VIP club owned by Arjun Rampal. Before, he would have to stand in a queue for hours and dole out cash at the door. Now, Rishabh gets called to the front. The doorman knows him and many times he can get in for free. Once, Arjun wanted a picture with Rishabh because of Qabool Hai, Zee TV’s soap opera where Rishabh played one of the male protagonists. That’s the first gig he got when he came to Mumbai to try his luck after Splitsvilla.

Many people in the industry don’t take reality stars seriously, though, he says. Too much of a short cut, perhaps. He once went to a film audition his coordinator had told him about. Rishabh sat in the waiting room for hours. There was no absence of good-looking hopefuls. When his turn finally came, he was laughed at.

“You think you can act?” he was asked. Others laughed too.

Rishabh had no presence, no depth in his voice. Despite the cameras of the reality TV following him everywhere, they hadn’t prepared him for real acting. This needed skill.

“Come after you’ve got some experience,” he was told.

Now he’s in Film City, shooting a movie called Kaanchi. Rishabh is the only one from Season 5 of Splitsvilla who’s crossed over into making a film. Others, like Paras, had projects which have now been stalled.

But none of this was planned. Not Splitsvilla. Not the serial. Not the movie. Some people are just lucky.

Not many though. Just a few.