Lock a bunch of celebrities together in a house under constant television scrutiny and force them to compete for popularity and conflict is bound to ensue. But the amount of venom that has been spouted against Indian Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty has outraged viewers of the British TV reality show "Celebrity Big Brother" and is now causing tension between the UK and India.
Indian newspapers featured the story on their front pages for a second day Thursday, while TV news channels ran clips of Shetty, who has a devoted following in India, in tears. Admirers of the 31-year-old actress burned effigies in protest. India has asked the UK to check whether discrimination laws had been broken in the bullying.
British Chancellor Gordon Brown, visiting India with the aim of improving UK-India relations, condemned the actress's treatment. "I want Britain to be seen as a country of fairness and tolerance," said Brown, who is widely seen as a successor to Prime Minister Tony Blair. "Anything detracting from this, I condemn."
In the UK's House of Commons, Tony Blair also condemned racism in response to a question from Keith Vaz, a Labour party member of parliament of Indian origin. Blair admitted he had not actually seen the program, however.
However the Hindustan Times argued in an editorial that racism was a problem in India as well as in the UK. "Discrimination on the basis of color is ingrained in the psyche of most Indians," it wrote, citing the caste system as an example of institutionalized racism.
The British television station Channel 4, which broadcasts the show, and TV regulator Ofcom have received more than 21,000 complaints about how Shetty is being treated -- the most ever received about a British TV show.
In the show "Big Brother," a group of people is locked in a "house" -- a purpose-built complex of rooms and a garden -- and are voted off one by one by viewers until one person, the winner, remains. The contestants are filmed by hidden cameras, and the footage can be watched on the Internet, with highlights broadcast on TV each evening.
The celebrity version of the show is widely regarded as a way for minor celebrities to publicize themselves or revive their flagging careers. Among the celebrities who have participated in the current series are veteran film director Ken Russell, American singer Leo Sayer and singer Jermaine Jackson, the brother of Michael Jackson. Previous contestants have included feminist author Germaine Greer, and British musicians Goldie and Bez, who won the 2005 series.
Shetty has been repeatedly reduced to tears during the current series by a clique of fellow contestants, led by Jade Goody. Goody qualified to be a contestant on "Celebrity Big Brother" by virtue of her celebrity status achieved during an earlier series of the non-celebrity "Big Brother." Ironically, Goody herself was abused over her weight and lack of education while a contestant in the earlier series.
"You might be some princess in f***ing Neverland but I don't give a s**t," Goody shouted at Shetty in an argument over stock cubes for cooking. "You're a liar and a fake."
Another contestant, pop musician Jo O'Meara, said Indians were thin because they undercooked their food. O'Meara refused to eat chicken cooked by Shetty, commenting that Shetty's cooking was responsible for her "getting the s**ts."
Contestant Jackiey Budden -- the mother of Jade Goody -- referred to Shetty as "the Indian" after not being able to pronounce Shetty's name correctly. Another contestant, glamor model Danielle Lloyd, said "They eat with their hands in India, don't they? Or is that China? You don't know where those hands have been." Lloyd later commented that Shetty should "f*** off home."
Contestant Jack Tweed also called Shetty a "f***ing ****", with the second word bleeped out. This was widely reported to have been "Paki" -- a British term of abuse for people from the Indian sub-continent. However this was later denied by the producers, who stated that the word used was in fact "c**t".
Shetty has now said on the program that her treatment is racially motivated. During a discussion with housemate Cleo Rocos, who disagreed that the abuse was racially-motivated, Shetty said: "It is, I'm telling you." Before the series began, Shetty had said that she had "zero expectations," adding that "The only thing I really hope to keep is my self-respect and my dignity."
Channel 4 has played down the accusations, explaining the conflict in terms of "a cultural and class clash" between Shetty and her abusers and denying that there had been "overt racial abuse." Ironically the contestants themselves are unaware of the fuss which the series has caused, as they are not allowed access to the media while in the Big Brother "house."
The ill wind of the row appears, however, to be blowing certain people some good. The TV show's ratings have gone up as a result of the controversy and Shetty is now predicted to win the contest.