Racist slurs against Shilpa snowball into major row
Prasun Sonwalkar, IANS
Racist slurs against Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty on a popular British reality TV show have snowballed into a major row, with the British and Indian governments, as also feminist icon Germaine Greer, expressing outrage over the remarks.
With conflict and controversy known to drive ratings, television strategists could not have dreamt up a better script for the "Celebrity Big Brother" reality show. Bookmakers have made Shilpa the favourite to win, while thousands of Asians and non-Asians who never watched the show now tune in every night to see what the uproar is all about.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown quickly condemned the remarks.
"Racism should be opposed in all its forms," Blair said in the House of Commons after Indian origin MP Keith Vaz raised the issue during the Prime Minister's Question Time in parliament.
Also, Dominic Grieve, the Labour Party spokesman on Community Cohesion, slammed the comments and signed the Early Day Motion (EDM) tabled by Vaz.
"It is quite wrong that the programme should tolerate racist abuse and behaviour from participants and I believe it is an issue that should be addressed immediately. I am very happy to sign Keith Vaz's EDM," Grieve said.
Brown, currently visiting India, too condemned the remarks, saying Britain wished to be seen as a "country of tolerance".
Noting that there had been nearly 10,000 complaints from viewers about the remarks against Shilpa, Brown said in Bangalore: "I want Britain to be seen round the world as a country of fairness and a country of tolerance."
Brown said he opposed "any behaviour that would detract from the view of Britain...that we want to be a nation of fairness and tolerance".
In New Delhi, Information and Broadcasting Minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi and Minister of State for External Affairs Anand Sharma took umbrage over the much-publicised remarks against Shilpa, even as the external affairs ministry hoped Britain would take appropriate action.
"India has taken up the matter with the British government through the British High Commission in New Delhi for addressing it in accordance with British laws," an external affairs ministry spokesman said.
According to Dasmunsi, the Indian government was not accountable over the issue but was nonetheless concerned.
"The Indian government is not accountable on the Shilpa Shetty issue as it is an arrangement with an individual, but the government is committed against racism," he maintained.
"We are seized of the matter and we are looking into all the aspects. We will take appropriate action as required," Sharma said, adding: "Racism has no place in civilian society. The world knows that India has throughout firmly rejected all forms of discrimination and racism."
"Celebrity Big Brother" has a group of celebrities cooped up together, with no access to the outside world - no TV, no newspapers and no phones. But viewers are complaining that Shilpa has had to suffer racist remarks from other participants.
On the BBC Asian Network, presenter Anita Rani has launched a 'Save Shilpa' campaign: "Let's do it. Let's unite and save the Bollywood princess. We have to get the real Asian network working in full force and spread the word..."
The network said it had received more calls and e-mails on the issue than any other recent topic.
Greer penned a characteristically mocking piece for The Guardian, defending Shilpa and ridiculing Britons for the way Asians are treated in this country.
Greer wrote: "That is not surprising. This is a racist country; to the vast majority of couch potatoes out there, Shilpa is a 'Paki bird'... Separation breeds division, as we are always told when the subject is religious schools in Ulster, but there is almost no inter-penetration of English and Indian cultures in Britain."
Greer says that not many seem to have understood that Shilpa is "a very good actress. Everyone hates her because she wants them to. She also knows that if she infuriates people enough, their innate racism will spew forth.
"Endemol (the show's producers) must be over the moon because racism has raised its ugly head. Every time someone sends in a complaint to Ofcom about racism in the Big Brother house, the profile of the show is raised and Shilpa earns a bit more of her huge fee.
"Shilpa's enjoying herself. Ladbroke's are quoting her 10/3 favourite, Greer maintained.
Meanwhile, the show appears set to overtake "Jerry Springer, The Opera" as the most-complained show in television regulator Ofcom's history. The Shilpa show on "Big Brother" has already provoked nearly 8,000 complaints while Channel 4, on which the show is being broadcast, has also received thousands of complaints.
Vaz's EDM in the House of Commons read: "This house views with concern the comments made about 'Big Brother' contestant Shilpa Shetty by other housemates; believes that 'Big Brother' has a role to play in preventing racist behaviour in the 'Big Brother' house; regrets that these comments have been made; and calls on the programme to take urgent action to remind housemates that racist behaviour is unacceptable."
Noted actress Meera Syal told the BBC Asian Network: "I certainly wouldn't have taken as much as Shilpa has taken. There is a very thin line between what is entertainment and a vile spectacle and I think we are in that area now.
"What this treatment of Shilpa has done is remind a lot of Asian people in Britain of the type of uncomfortable treatment they've received themselves over the years."