Hot and Bothered

Under the sun with the aspiring stars of MTV’s Splitsvilla

01 August 2013
Host Sherlyn Chopra at the entrance to the set of the MTV reality show Splitsvilla’s sixth season.

BY THE TIME SUMMER ARRIVED, so had the madness. The one abattoir run by the city of Thiruvananthapuram, for which 25 animals were fated each day, had its slaughter license revoked for not cleaning up their remains. In its absence, just about anyone with a table and a cleaver stepped up to fulfill demand. One new butcher tenderised live animals with an iron rod. For months no one could tell from where, exactly, their meat had come, and whether it was clean or contaminated or if the animals were at peace or traumatised when they went, but officials claimed they had no moral authority and did nothing. Elsewhere, on the city’s main streets, and a thousand miles from his home, posters of Narendra Modi’s face were plastered on walls, reminders of his recent visit to the city. In the midst of all this, the boys and girls of MTV’s acerbic and befuddling show Splitsvilla arrived at the start of April, unpacked the neatly creased selves they reserved for hot cameras, and dug in for a month of insincere boorishness.

Layers of luck determined their standing and stay, but on the set they resembled cousins of a kind, dressed as if for casting agents—net tops and acrylic bras for the ladies, painted-on T-shirts and pink jeans for the gents—and swearing as if their lives depended on it. And in a way, their lives did depend on it: if you could make it here, you could make it on TV, and then on more TV, and then maybe even into the movies. Filmi dreams have a way of deflating, of course, but more TV would be stardom enough for most.

Splitsvilla was in its sixth season. As in the previous five, the first premise of the reality show was to strip away all the characteristics of a normal life. Contestants lived in cramped isolation in two villas at the back end of Estuary Island, a resort with moody power at an inlet to the sea. To arrive there one wound down baked narrow roads and brown paths that squeezed into the unsuspecting breathing space between houses. Then, improbably, there was a burst of beauty: coconut palms, some lush, some senile, sprung from the backwaters on either side. But only a burst. In the clearing ahead, beyond which were the villas, carpenters hammered and sawed piles of wood meant for the show. They planted cheap flags down the banks of a creek, and painted coconuts pink and blue and green. To recreate life, apparently you had to first vandalise it.

All through Splitsvilla’s existence, the basic rules of competition haven’t really changed. The show is derived from the template for elimination-style reality programmes established by Survivor and Big Brother—with an added element of “romance” thrown in. In each season, a number of young men and women complete a series of pointless but physically demanding tasks; the winners become that episode’s “king” and “queen”, ensuring they will avoid elimination and remain in the race to be crowned the eventual champions. Couples are formed and dissolved, and fates hinge on a single vote. You can call it monarchy by democracy. Bonds make and snap every episode, and the reverberations are felt down the season. Rabid fights are commonplace. Blow-ups are not discouraged, which leads inevitably to tabloid-friendly pseudo-controversies like the one that broke out in 2009, when the network aired an ethnic slur directed by one contestant at another.

This season had begun well. Eight boys, all alpha in spirit, if not to the letter, were told their first task was to strip to their waist and preen on a sandbar. They were advised to be impressive, because eight girls watching them on telescopes from a few hundred metres away would rate them. They were then given roses to distribute to their favourites among the girls, who were told to hang around in a swimming pool. They chose mates based on a quick conversation in the pool. Almost immediately Splitsvilla’s unpredictable impositions (one “challenge” mandated that the boy with the least impressive biceps would be relegated to a “dumping ground”) led to tears and threats of violence.

By the time I turned up on the set at the end of April, on the second-to-last day of the shoot, the show’s 16 participants wished it would end. They had each auditioned for their role a season ago, and they had wanted it, but some of them now looked as if they had had enough. The last thing they saw at night was each other. They woke up to each other. They bumped into each other on stairs, in narrow doorways, in the reflection of dressing mirrors. They spoke to no one but each other. Five couples had been eliminated from the show, but they had to remain until the filming was completed; they bided their time by tripping up the plans of former rivals. In just a few weeks, the proximity had chafed their patience and consideration, leaving raw antagonism and ambition and a heightened awareness of the cameras’ gaze, so they knew when to perform. The nine roving cameras accepted whatever reality the kids conceded.

SPLITSVILLA’S PECULIAR MIX OF ANGER, arbitrary competition and situational humor has made it one of MTV’s most valuable properties. It now has its own season—a period of three months during which it is the channel’s main focus—which begins when the network’s original hit reality franchise, Roadies, ends its own annual run; the hope is that Splitsvilla will hold the audiences already hooked to its predecessor.

The 16 contestants of Splitsvilla lived in isolation in two villas at the back end of a resort in Thiruvananthapuram.

Some days before my visit to the Splitsvilla shoot at Thiruvananthapuram, I interviewed Aditya Swamy, MTV’s vice-president, in his tiny glass-walled office at Viacom18, situated in Vile Parle, a Mumbai suburb that smells of baking biscuits. Cars and trucks dragged themselves by on the highway below, but Swamy’s room overlooked nothing so unpleasant. The view from his cabin was of young employees and hesitant prospects awaiting their turn to be tested: at one end of MTV’s large and colourful office was the room where they auditioned actors. The web team, which maintained constant dialogue in any number of ways with the network’s fans, cloistered at the other end. (As if to remind the world of their youth, one web staffer recently used the company’s Twitter account to wish John Lennon a happy birthday and “a joyous year ahead.” Afterwards, MTV leveraged the gaffe as a way to “drive engagement” by asking followers if the employee should be sacked; the overwhelming response, Swamy said with satisfaction, was to let it slide.)

Two doors down from Swamy’s office, I was led to a room filled with merchandise from MTV’s recent brand tie-ups. Sandeep Dahiya, the gregarious senior vice-president of products—who has the appearance of a man who knows where to get the best grass in town—handed me a single MTV condom and offered to get some lingerie as well. The room was stocked with the results of the company’s successful push, led by Dahiya, to tie up licensing arrangements with a directory’s worth of consumer product companies, which now included 60 different products, across more than 50 categories.

Swamy, who is a little over 40, said he was the oldest employee in the company, a fact that successfully conveyed its intended message—to show how young this place really was. During our interview, it was easy to see he had mastered the art of easy banter with visiting journalists, and he slipped quickly into a well-oiled routine; Margerie, his head of communications, smiled blankly as he related an anecdote I remembered from an interview he had given someone else. “We’re the channel that parents warn their children about,” Swamy told me. It was a good canned line, if a little predictable for an enterprise that sells rebellion as a commodity. But it came back to me later with a harder edge when I remembered that three Splitsvilla contestants had alleged that producers solicited sexual favors from contestants during the show’s second season. The show’s producers denied it, and one of the winners called the allegations the work of “publicity-hungry losers.”

Youth may be naturally rebellious, but MTV’s opposition to conformity is decidedly studied. Little is left to chance. The network taps into a vast and active viewer base built over the years, Swamy told me: “A ten-million strong Facebook community talks to us on a realtime basis.” The most impressive aspect of the channel’s operations, in fact, is its zeal for empirical surveys of its demographic: MTV dispatches diaries to a thousand people across the country, which they fill up with notes on what they’ve been watching on television and at cinemas, what they’re reading, what they’ve experienced. But the research isn’t always active. One of the channel’s most effective research tools lingers in the background: Swamy told me that MTV parks a stationary camera in college canteens for a month at a time, quietly recording the proceedings. The findings are then dissected by MTV’s internal “Insights Studio”. The network puts out an annual report on the mood of India’s youth; last year’s edition included the studio’s insight that “anything that entertains and engages these young minds and keeps them engaged repeatedly will hold their attention.”

BACK ON THE SET, everything revolved around Deborah Polycarp, the show’s creative director, who had a smile like summer but a stare like ice. Orders were shrouded in suggestions. The people around her supplied answers before she asked questions. They ran to her to discuss everything, and at some point, the show’s director willed himself to find a solution without troubling her—a fact she noticed. Irritation came over her quickly and quietly. When I admitted I hadn’t watched Splitsvilla—which she had been involved with since its inception—she paused and continued talking, but spent the rest of the day referring to me, the only journalist on the set, as “press”. My questions became “press inquiries”.

She was in her outdoor production wardrobe of a cap, a T-shirt, and harem pants, and knew where the cables lay (which was everywhere). She neatly stepped over them as we walked and talked. “The theme’s ‘hot and spicy’,” she said when I asked why the channel had chosen the resort for the shoot. “Spices,” she reasoned. “We wanted to keep it raw.” A while later she joined the show’s director, and the director of photography in the shade of a tree. “Why do you want to dilute the aggression?” one of them asked. Then someone said, “Rakeshji, king and queen aa gaye hain?” Rakesh said they had arrived.

I watched the royals from a distance. No one is less pampered than the actors on reality shows. They stood under an open tent behind a production meeting area behind the set the cameras focused on. The king kept moving his left arm up and down with the support of his right arm. He winced, and told a producer about his pain. The queen, dressed in a short beige dress, was a model from Bangalore. She disliked it when people pretended they knew her. The king wore an orange muscle tee and sunglasses. It was late in the morning. They wilted in the heat, but like royals, they didn’t sweat. At the base of a tree close by was a stack of large cue cards. One said of a contestant, “Nitin: wannabe classy, all talk, no cock.”

Just then, Sherlyn Chopra, the show’s host, walked past. She looked just as she had been advertised on the Times of India website, in whose sidebars she had so often served as clickbait, although her tininess was surprising. Photographed endlessly, the model-actress had evolved into an altogether new creature whose instinct was not survival, but to be remorselessly photogenic. She welcomed surveillance. Normal people move awkwardly between positions. But Chopra’s motor coordination is such that a hand movement that looks wayward at first glance will instantly be balanced by the movement of another body part, so that a simple gesture like reaching out to call someone unfolds as a series of poses.

The show’s promotional material consisted of Chopra in a bikini on a beach. After the shoot ended a day later, she would jet off to the festival at Cannes to promote her latest movie, Kamasutra 3D. (Going by the hit count for the YouTube trailer alone, there was considerable demand.)

Polycarp hung back, but kept an eye on Chopra. A string clasped the host’s black bikini top. Her silver skirt was brief. She walked to a covered wood pavilion where cameramen had been sitting around waiting for the shoot to begin. A young helper nervously adjusted the microphone transmitter placed on her lower back. Two local women hauling sacks of trash on their backs glanced at Chopra as they walked by, murmured something, and smiled. Then two male labourers walked by, stared at her, and went on their way. Chopra dispatched a unit member with an order to “get all the clothes.” He returned a few minutes later with all the clothes: a sheer black poncho that someone slipped over Chopra’s head and onto her shoulders.

Then one of the contestants, a packet of muscle named Gaurav, turned up in a white full-sleeved shirt and pink pants. His blow-dried hair sat up in a puff. We were in the final stages of the show. There were three couples in contention that morning, and by the evening, one pair would be eliminated. Chopra took her mark, the finalists took theirs, and she waited. Polycarp and the producers sat in the production control room they’d built in a pavilion on the other side of the pool. There were 11 tiny screens. One of them offered a view of Chopra from the side, which, given the geometry of her bikini, distinctly failed to meet India’s stringent broadcasting regulations. “Rishi, Sherlyn ka exposure thoda kam kar,” someone said over the talkback. Rishi the cameraman nudged his camera upward, so the frame captured her face and shoulders, nothing more.

Chopra asked, “Do I say Splitvillians or Splitsvillians?”

The director wasn’t sure. “Splitvillians. Splitsvillians. Splitvillians? Say Splitsvillians.”

Chopra tossed the script. “Welcome to Splitsvilla, aaj main uski pant utaarne waali hoon.”

The producers paused, and repeated, “Pant utaarne waali hoon?”

“It’s humour!” she replied.

There was a tear in the screen behind Chopra. The director was aware that Polycarp was watching him do his work, and he voiced his unhappiness loudly. “Fluffy, behenchod peeche se gaadi-waadi jaa rahi hai, aunty-wanty jaa rahi hai!” He sat back down and exhaled. “Bas behenchod airplane jaana baaki hai.” Fluffy ran behind the screen to fix it. “Is his real name Fluffy?” a producer asked. The director grinned proudly and said, “No, I gave him the name.”

Prabhjot, a contestant from Canada, whose weak command of Hindi caused the producers of Splitsvilla much consternation.

That day’s shoot had its share of little problems. Prabhjot, a contestant from Canada, preferred to speak in English. MTV, whose primary audience lives in Punjab and Haryana, needed him to speak Hindi so that viewers at home didn’t flip to another channel. “Why is he speaking in English?” the producers asked each other every few minutes. Prabhjot was one of two contestants who didn’t speak Hindi well, and obliterated it whenever he tried. So he sat back and spoke in whatever language he felt like. The producers had witnessed this for a month, and it puzzled them as much now as it had a month ago.

I asked Polycarp how people were picked for the show, and why there were so many people from the north. “We never cast that way. I would love to cast a South Indian, but there’s the case of language. We’ve got a couple of boys who are foreign return, and they speak in English,” she said. “One of the duskier boys is from Goa. We had something called Splitsvilla Battleground, which he won. He happens to be North Indian, but he looks South Indian.” Then she added, “It’s great if they’re good looking with a good voice.”

As the conversations continued and the cameras rolled, words grew harsher. The crew tensed, and the producers leaned forward, alert. Then it happened: Gaurav, the pink-denimed contestant, shot up from his seat beside the queen and swore at Prabhjot in chaste Punjabi. He turned words with three syllables into four; the extra syllable became a vehicle for his disgust. He launched into an inspired run of abuse that he made up on the fly. “Why’s he obsessed with chootiya?” a producer asked no one in particular. A mad fight erupted. The production unit focused and kept telling the cameramen what to do. They lived for this. Even Polycarp, who had slumped in one corner of the pavilion, leaned forward tautly. Chopra stood still as the contestants battled, rushing forward, retreating, rushing forward, retreating. She suppressed a laugh. At that moment she was the most reserved person on set.

Then they broke for lunch, but there was no lunch around. The sun melted the shade, and there was no electricity either. Hot, and with nothing happening, the girls and boys of Splitsvilla sank in chairs and relaxed on armrests outside their villas.

Gaurav’s partner, Subuhi, the one in the evening dress, sat on the same chair as him and wiped his sweat while the cameras filmed them. A month ago they didn’t even know each other. “Khana,” said the queen from Bangalore, whose name was Priyanka. She was hungry. “Khana.” She was addressing Charan, a producer on the show, like he didn’t understand the word. Charan, constrained by the edict prohibiting communication between the crew and the contestants, uneasily signaled that it would take a minute, muttered an obscenity, and walked away with a grim smile. The cameras were turned off, and the boys and girls were briefly transformed. They swore and fooled around, and laughed at what television made them do for attention. “Chee, be-izzati kar di,” Subuhi said, laughing. “Fuck you, I’m over you,” another said, imitating a typical breakup, and giggled madly. For just a moment, you could see them.

That evening, the girls returned in hot pants. Net tops. Nawab, a compact and muscled gym instructor with an unplaceable accent, was dressed in black track pants, cream boots, and a red full-sleeved shirt. These were the clothes of a thousand aspirants in a thousand unseen portfolios. They were marched down a rubbly path to a little creek behind the resort. On either side of the water, Splitsvilla flags fluttered. Matters had come to a head on the show earlier that day, and now there would be a contest. Splitsvilla was fueled by the idea of machismo: you had to brutalise everyone with your mind, your words, and your strength. They lined up at the edge of the creek. Locals collected on a nearby bridge to gawk. Families out on a quiet evening boat ride floated by in puzzled silence.

Beneath a tall platform that shook under the weight of a cameraman, Polycarp told me about past contestants. “It’s very romantic,” she said. A strong wind chopped at the water, the trees above us swayed and she tightly held on to her cap. “We had one couple get married.” But most contestants break up after the show and do their thing. (The MTV Insights Studio knows all about this curious phenomenon: “This is the move-on generation... They live from moment to moment, engaging, watching, talking, following—there isn’t much room for crying, pausing, break-ups, boredom or negativity.”)

Suspicions separated us. Polycarp had been antsy about my presence on the set, and I found her control stifling. She rushed to remind me that I shouldn’t speak with contestants unless she was around. She strongly encouraged me, in her order-as-suggestion tone, to come with her on a boat ride to a distant sandbar where workers were constructing a set. It also happened to be far away from the show’s participants. When I asked her a question about what the show’s couples did, she misinterpreted it and replied, far too quickly, “We don’t encourage hanky-panky between contestants, as such.”

The competition at the creek was called Tug of Love. MTV fixture Nikhil Chinapa, a presenter and DJ, was hosting this part. The rules were simple but the game was challenging. Two couples perched on a single raft had to pull on ropes looped around trees on either side of the creek. Falling off would lead to a disqualification.

The crew was nervous about the setting sun. It would be dark in minutes, and they absolutely had to finish this round before it went down. Gaurav and Prabhjot—evidently natural enemies—kept tugging at their ends of the rope for ten minutes before Gaurav got antsy and used his behind to try and push the other couple off the raft. That did it. Their focus turned inward, and everybody on the raft decided not to pull and survive, but to push the other team off. The crew tensed. Eventually Gaurav lost his balance and plunged into the water. Drenched, he protested: “He pushed!” Chinapa stood still with a smile. In round two, there was more bottom-rubbing aggression. But Gaurav grew too enthusiastic, and the raft tilted under his feet, sending him and Subuhi into the water. He waded to shore.

There were long red welts on Prabhjot’s forearms. “No pain no gain, right?” he said. He told me that after the show ended he would return to Mumbai and join the crew of a film production beginning in July. Then he staggered off as Polycarp turned up to inquire about what I was doing.

A month after the shoot ended, a website devoted to Subuhi appeared online, at One of the four stories published there confirmed that “Subuhi and Gaurav are dating.” Some besotted fans, it said, now called the barely known participants “Gauruhi”.

Nawab, a former Splitsvilla contestant who is currently studying acting in Mumbai at the Barry John Acting Studio.

When I called Prabhjot in July, his roommate in Mumbai, Nawab—the gym instructor—said Prabhjot was focusing on acting classes, but there was no movie. Nawab was learning to act at the Barry John Acting Studio, and figuring out how to improve his spoken Hindi. He was on the verge of signing a two-film deal, he told me, “but it’s a rumor right now.” The show had ensured that folks everywhere recognised him. Some of them called up to tell him he had personality, and they could help him chisel it. I asked what the other Splitsvillians were doing. “They’re doing shows and acting like celebrities.”

Rahul Bhatia  is a reporter. He has worked for The Caravan, Mint and ESPN Cricinfo

Keywords: Mumbai television reality show Kerala MTV Splitsvilla Sherlyn Chopra