BRITAIN: Shilpa Shetty racism row escalates

Television channel denies that Indian actress was called "Paki" on the British reality show

Times of India
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

By Rashmee Roshan Lall

London --- The controversy over alleged racism towards Shilpa Shetty by fellow-contestants of a British reality TV show escalated on Wednesday with Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Indian government weighing in, albeit with cautious platitudes and a further 10,000 complaints flooding into the television regulatory authority and Channel 4.

The total number of complaints now stands at 16,400, making Shetty's ordeal the most complained-about television show in history.

Angry members of the 1.3-million strong British Indian community told this paper they were mobilizing furiously to keep up the pressure on the authorities to take action over the "degrading and demeaning" behaviour towards Shetty just because "she's Indian, young, beautiful, successful and well-educated".

While a passionate internet campaign to "save Shilpa" gathered pace, cynical TV pundits said the Bollywood star's unexpected first-name recognition in Britain may actually pay her huge celebrity dividends once her ordeal ends.

Though C4 largely remained mum about the issue, it backed away from its previous belittling description of Shetty's bullying at the hands of three other women contestants as "girlie rivalry".

The channel continues to insist Shetty was not called a "Paki" by one of the male contestants.

Police in the English county of Hertfordshire, locale of the Big Brother house, confirmed they are to investigate e mails sent to Channel 4 containing threats against Celebrity Big Brother housemates. Police also confirmed receipt of a complaint about racist behaviour in the house.

Pressure was mounting on C4 to "do something" about the programme, which has two weeks still to run, with the show's sponsor Carphone Warehouse reconsidering its three-million-pound largesse on issues of taste and decency.

In an unprecedented development for a show that is consistently seen to be as successful as it is shallow and sexually-degraded, bookmakers said on Wednesday that they had cut the odds of Celebrity Big Brother not lasting its scheduled run from 20/1 to 5/2.

British television channels added an interview with Sunanda, Shetty's mother, in their wall-to-wall coverage of the story. Sunanda, who said Shetty had agreed not to do "any lip-to-lip kissing with male or females on the show...to cook or eat beef", added that her daughter was "secure inside".

Meanwhile, in a sign of spiralling interest across two continents in the shenanigans of Shetty's Big Brother housemates, Goan-origin Labour MP asked Blair in parliament to condemn the outright "racism and xenophobia" on the show. Vaz also pointedly asked Blair to remind broadcasters such as C4 of their duty not "to publish any such prejudices" to millions.

Blair responded by admitting he had not seen the programme in question but unreservedly condemned racism in any form.

British establishment interest in Shetty's woes came as hundreds of South Asians here started to speak out in sympathy for the actress, with the additional biting rider that her racial harassment was a harrowing reminder of the situation they faced in the UK.

Speaking for many British Indians, actress, comedian and writer Meera Syal lambasted C4's "bland" response to days of racially-charged bullying of Shetty. Syal said the show had slipped into "vile spectacle" and "there is a very thin line between what is entertainment and a vile spectacle and I think we are in that area now." She said, "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. This is bullying."

She added, "I certainly wouldn't have taken as much as Shilpa has taken. I'm just wondering if on their (C4's) last series (of Big Brother), for example, the Tourette's sufferer had been called a 'spaz' (or a spastic) on a regular basis, whether they would have let that continue".

Vaz, whose Leicester East constituency has a heavy concentration of East African Indians, admitted he had been moved to employ political dark arts such as parliamentary early day motions because his appalled constituents had set up a clamour. Vaz's motion 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."

In a clear indication tensions within the Big Brother house were running as high as outside, one of Shetty's chief tormentors and fellow contestants branded the actress "pathetic, fake and a liar" in a ridiculously petty row over stock cubes.

As pressure built up on the programme, a spokesman for bookmakers William Hill said Channel 4 could easily pull the programme "for any number of reasons, and despite the fact that Big Brother is one of their success stories, we will not be offering such generous odds in the future."