KBC vs Shark Tank India: Is public insult our newest form of social interaction?

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#abuse, Ashneer Grover, #Humiliation, #MasterChef, #reality TV, Shark Tank India, Kaun Banega Crorepati

From passively watching ‘Shark Tank India’ or ‘MasterChef US’, we inevitably go on to expressing that same kind of aggression in our social media posts or even on the streets. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)

A former colleague at a magazine where we worked in the1990s, would herald the beginning of each work day with the words, “Let the insultiad begin”. Those words signalled the beginning of a day-long exchange of stinging jibes and withering comments, not an uncommon sight in a hypercompetitive newsroom. The daily slanderfest rarely got serious or even offensive and mostly ended in an orgy of feeding.

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It is fascinating to see how that perverted, though harmless, form of merriment has become the preferred mode of social intercourse, given pride of place on public platforms. We are served regular exhibitions of it by activities ranging from a former skipper’s antics on the cricket field to the weekly abuse-fest on a show for the sharks.

Indeed, the show Shark Tank India, embodies the spirit perfectly. A set of men and women proceed to take apart wannabe entrepreneurs, subjecting them to slights and slurs that under normal circumstances would have invited physical censure. If the original ABC Television Network show has seen liberal use of expletives as well as contestants, and in some cases the sharks too, storming off the sets, the Indian version drips with sarcasm and sneering. The investors’ measure of an innovative idea appears to be whether the innovators can withstand the withering rebuke and remain standing.

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It isn’t the first show to turn humiliation of its participants into a television spectacle. MasterChef, that televised culinary competition, reduced food to a weapon and the kitchen into an Indo-Pak conflict zone. In that monstrous show, chefs like Gordon Ramsay played the kind of ogres that a Ramsay Brothers horror show would have been proud of. Jessie Glenn, a contestant in the US version talking about her experience with Salon magazine described the show as, “An experiment in power and submission and subversion over which I had no control.”

No one who’s gorged on his grandmother’s lovingly prepared dal-chawal could visualize food being cooked in such a pressure cooker environment with the contestants often being reduced to nervous wrecks. It’s a narrative repeated by Hollywood movies like Burnt with Bradley Cooper playing the raving and ranting superchef who terrorizes his wards in pursuit of some elusive manna.

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Contrast the toxicity and hostility of these shows with the geniality of Kaun Banega Crorepati, that epitome of civility and pleasant watching where superstar Amitabh Bachchan has for years made viewers feel they have been invited into his home for a comfort meal of vada pav and where the contestants are made to feel they, and not Bachchan, are the special ones. Bachchan’s genuine and visible disappointment when someone fluffs an easy question or gets her tactics wrong, contrasts sharply with Shark Tank’s sneering and derisive laughter when an entrepreneur stumbles in explaining his idea.

But the fact is Shark Tank is popular and budding entrepreneurs are making a beeline for it. MasterChef too is one of the most successful reality shows in the world running into several seasons with countries across the world having their own versions of it.

Also read: 18% Shark Tank India contestants are ‘coupleprenuers’, says judge Anupam Mittal

Why do people willingly subject themselves to potential humiliation and derision? Since much of the anger on these shows is actually scripted rather than real, it is clearly what viewers want to watch. Unfortunately, from passive watching to expressing that same kind of aggression in their social media posts or even on the streets is but an inevitable progression. To call watching a judge pull down a participant in a show by heaping insults on her, a cathartic experience may be a bit unfair. But certainly it can be inspirational for some. After all, Ashneer Grover the acerbic judge on Shark Tank and Grover the irate customer abusing a bank employee on the phone are the same person. Indeed, one may be just an extension of the other.

Research has shown that peoples’ attitudes and behaviours are deeply influenced by the media they consume. The violent verbal slugfests on such shows act as a cue for viewers who then seek to replicate these in real or virtual life.

“It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings,” wrote a certain M.K. Gandhi. No wonder he is out of favour in these toxic times.

Also read: Shark Tank India judge’s 5 winning lessons for startups and entrepreneurs

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