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.