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Living for the other half: Slum specials on reality TV

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This article examines the transvaluation of urban poverty in neo-liberal India through a reading of Endemol’s reality television show The Big Switch (Season One, UTV Bindass, 2009). Formatted as Survivor for Indian D-list celebrities and Extreme Makeover for Mumbai’s slum dwellers, who were then teamed together in a simulated slum, the show promised to make one out of ten ‘slumdogs’ a millionaire. Paying attention to the quick fix that reality television provides to the shortage of living space, I frame my critique of the Switch House within what A. Appadurai calls Mumbai’s Great Housing Dream and what Michel Foucault has defined as heterotopia. I propose that The Big Switch (Hitesh Bhatia, 2009), as it stages the fantasy of millionairedom and celebrityhood for all, becomes a symptom of the antagonisms between global corporate formalism and the informal street economy at the heart of the illegal slum city. I situate the television text within the larger history of the Indian television industry, as well as the current turn towards ‘slum culture’ in global reality-based television programming, especially through shows like Famous, Rich, and In the Slums (Joyce Trozzo, 2011) and Slumdog Secret Millionaire (Rod Williams, 2010). Building on the media urbanism theory of Ravi Sundaram, I also suggest that a material analysis of the TV set in the slum is important in articulating the specificities of slum citizenship and spectatorship. I argue that slum tourism (and its visual capture in photography, cinema and television) is not only an archive of the ephemeral kinetic city but of an illegal yet necessary dwelling in constant threat of demolition, whose moment of exhibition to the world cannot be separated from the moment of its destruction by that world.
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Keywords: celebrity; citizenship; heterotopia; media urbanism; reality tv; slum; television set

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Brown University

Publication date: 2012-04-01

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  • Studies in South Asian Film and Media (SAFM) is the most promising new journal in the field. This peer-reviewed publication is committed to looking at the media and cinemas of the Indian subcontinent in their social, political, economic, historical, and increasingly globalized and diasporic contexts. The journal will evaluate these topics in relation to class, caste, gender, race, sexuality, and ideology.
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