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Sex, violence and incest on TV. In India?

Reality TV sweeps the subcontinent. Not everyone is thrilled about it.

Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty reacts after winning Celebrity Big Brother Jan. 28, 2007 in London. Shetty went on to become the host of the Indian reality TV show Bigg Boss. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

BANGALORE — She is a middle-class, middle-aged Indian woman with a 16-year marriage and two children. The sari-clad Smita Mathai appears wholesome and proper.

But then she confesses that she has contemplated killing her husband. And that she loves her mother-in-law more than her mother. And that she would sleep with a man other than her husband.

This could not be happening in India. But it is.

Read about other sex scandals in India.

The riveting confessional was on India’s controversial new reality television program "Sach ka Saamna" (Confronting the Truth), a take-off on the American show "The Moment of Truth."

In a seemingly puritanical country where deep sexual cravings, childhood secrets and inner jealousies are carefully hidden away in the closet, the public airing of average Indians’ darkest, dirtiest secrets is titillating some and infuriating others. Street protests and court cases have ensued.

Members of the Indian parliament objected to the show, saying “obscene questions about a person’s bedroom life” were an assault on Indian culture. STAR TV, the Rupert Murdoch-owned cable channel for whom the show has handed a ratings boost, has been served a government notice.

No matter. To the voyeuristic delight of its huge television-watching audiences, India’s entertainment channels are showing a glut of localized Western reality shows.

STAR’s rivals are airing "Iss Jungle Se Mujhe Bachao," a take-off on “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here," where cameras follow scantily-clad female contestants showering in the wild open.

In another show — "Rakhi Ka Swayamvar" (Rakhi’s Search for a Husband) — the dare-all, bare-all Bollywood star Rakhi Sawant plays the coy bachelorette choosing from 16 ardent male suitors. Audiences have filled the show’s Facebook page with advice on who makes the best choice.

“The participants are willing adults who know what they are doing so who are the politicians to stop them?” asks Bangalore college student Nitin Jain, an ardent watcher of reality shows.

Cutthroat competition is spurring entertainment channels to outdo each other in boldness of the content. In a sharp break with tradition, some reality shows have contestants whose speech is peppered with expletives.

"Sach ka Saamna" uncovers deeply embarrassing secrets from C-grade celebrities and regular Indians like Mathai in front of their family and friends. Truthful answers, as determined by a polygraph, give participants a chance to win 10 million rupees ($210,000).

In its first few episodes, the show has trained the television spotlight on controversial subjects such as adultery, infidelity and incest which are taboo in most parts of India.

“Have you ever asked a woman to abort your child?” one contestant was asked, another, “Have you slept with someone younger than your daughter?” and a third, "Have you had sex with a female relative?"

 

Producers of reality shows say the programs are a television milestone and serve to rip open Indian hypocrisy.

“'Sach ka Saamna' explores the real lives of real people,” says Keertan Adyanthaya, executive vice president and general manager of STAR India. The show attempts to get willing contestants to shed their masks and display their integrity and strength of character, he says.

Indian audiences have certainly embraced global television trends. The Indian versions of hit shows such as "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and "Big Brother" have turned out to be huge, multi-season hits.

Ratings of hyped-up reality shows have soared. The first episode of "Sach ka Saamna," for instance, got STAR its highest opening for a non-fiction show. Thirty million Indians tuned in.

Still, that begs the question critics say: Should television channels continue to air unregulated content to the remotest Indian villages? In many rural, single-television homes audiences are not so discerning as to vote with their remotes.

But India is going through a transition and things are changing rapidly, says Shailaja Bajpai, a television writer with the Indian Express newspaper. “Talking openly about controversial topics is something whose time has come,” she says.

Other GlobalPost stories about naughty India:

Meet India's first porn star

An interview with the secret creator of Savita Bhabhi

Video: Clicking the "naughty eyes"

From the network that brought you MTV: Child marriage

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/india/090728/sex-violence-and-incest-tv-india