The sight of Raghu Ram shouting ‘chutiya’ at men cowering between their towering biceps has aged like an average Bengali’s digestive system; most parts acidic and some parts tired.
If you are somehow unfamiliar with Roadies, it is — over 16 seemingly endless seasons — the reality television counterpart of Hauz Khas village on a Saturday night. There’s incessant bro-ing, bhai-ing and babe-ing. And like a man who has had the misfortune of crossing a car with a Haryana number plate, you are also treated to an entire vocabulary of words that combine mothers, sisters and genitals. There’s also some dangling off ropes, walking over hot coals, and eating garbage; which again, is a clever euphemism of the lives of women who live and drink anywhere within a 100 kilometre radius of the Yamuna.
The Amit Shah of this dystopia — to a generation which doesn’t have to google Aftab Shivdasani and is still kind of confused about what ‘AF’ means — was Raghu Ram. Raghu’s primary job in the show was to dismantle men auditioning for Roadies as if they were crispy-skinned samosas. While some of these men appeared less evolved than say even a brinjal, others were just regular, starstruck young men.
It was in equal parts terrifying and fascinating to watch Raghu shower expletives on them, circle them like an Uber which just won’t come to your pick-up point, shout at them, and call them worthless, untalented nincompoops whose lives amount to nothing.
Some times, some of these men and women, would then break down on TV. I’d watch with wide-eyed fascination as they left the ‘interrogation room’, sniffling and furiously wiping their tears, as a soft spoken anchor patted their backs and said ‘best of luck’ for the selections. My mortified mother, who once watched a couple of episodes of the sixth season with me, reminded me of the time I accidentally dipped four fingers in boiling oil while frying luchi.
“If you do something like that on purpose, it doesn’t make you strong. It makes you stupid!” she exclaimed, as distraught contestants filed out of the audition room and told the anchor in shaky voices that that experience will only make them ‘stronger’.
The Roadies’ definition of masculinity and perseverance was as meaningful as Piyush Goyal’s opinion on Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee. But like the latter, it still resonated with people and bots.
I watched a few episodes of the last season of Roadies that was aired this year and things looked pretty similar and involved young boys and girls ready to bite each other’s heads off. The new twist was to not make just the millennials look like they need to have their phones taken away, pocket money frozen and threatened they’ll be banned from using words like ‘FML’ unless they started behaving like adults with brains. There are ‘mentors’ like Nikhil Chinapa and Neha Dhupia, who are also required to fake squabble on behalf of these kids. In his defence, Chinapa’s tortured face did remind me of Abhishek Bachchan frozen on the stage as the Ambani kids frolicked all around him at that wedding.
Ever since I decided to learn and read actively about mental health — I battled crippling anxiety for years and it was only diagnosed years later thanks to my ignorance about mental illness — I’ve wondered how being on these shows affect these people.
When Raghu and his brother Rajeev, who also worked on the show, quit in 2014, a report quoted him as saying, he’d ‘hate’ to be a part of the show again. He claimed that he did not want to be typecast as a ‘loud, obnoxious, on-air personality’. He also added that his value lay in the fact that they had created the longest running reality show on Indian television, but that did not mean they couldn’t create something completely different.
Which brings us to Skulls & Roses, a reality show streaming on Amazon’s Prime Video.
Conceptualised by and starring Raghu and Rajeev, Skulls & Roses is a mash-up of Splitsvilla and Roadies and you’re right to reach for that Disprin at the mere sound of it.
If you’ve forgotten Splitsvilla, it was that show where people believed to be Roadies-rejects were required to call each other names. The emotional trajectory of contestants on Splitsvilla usually follows the course of messages in the ‘others’ inbox of a woman’s Facebook account — they start with a heart emoji and end with a middle finger emoji.
This has been faithfully replicated on Skulls and Roses.
The show opens with the voice of Raghu Ram asking “What happens when you get beaches and castles together?”
While the normal, non-seditious and patriotic answer would be ‘Antilla’, the voiceover moves to the next question without waiting for an answer. “What happens when you bring hot young girls, and young, willing boys together,” the voiceover asks. You’d think the answer is either ‘Lokhandwala’ or if you are charming like me, ‘that is not even a question’. But you are soon bombarded with visuals of young men and women either cuddling or screeching like a mixer-grinder.
After the first shot of the swimsuit-clad women contestants walking in slow motion, the camera quickly moves in to close ups of their bodies as the girls take off their cover-ups: close abs shots, close boob shots and repeated, slo-motion close-ups of sarongs and t-shirts coming off. There are also sequences of headless torsos fondling each other, especially shots of a man fondling a woman’s boobs.
One half of the show involves proving the contestants are ready to be cast for Raaz 43: they can scream, they speak gibberish and they are absolutely comfortable with nonsense.
Obviously reluctant men and women are put in awkward situations — like making fake orgasm sounds on a microphone, painting each other with their hands, making Kamasutra positions etc. The other half, involves showing their #fitnessfreak creds by climbing stuff, running through fire, or wrestling each other in a slithery oil-soaked ring.
In the first few ‘romantic’ tasks, both men and women expressed how deeply uncomfortable they are, considering they had not known each other very long and getting that close physically was awkward. In the very first episode, a woman called Angel complains that her partner Sahil for a ‘chemistry’ photoshoot was being unable to perform well. The man in question had a valid problem — he barely knew the girl he said and it was odd for him to get intimate with her in public like that. Angel, irritated with the man’s reluctance, decides to kiss him on his mouth, without a warning. Basically she sexually harasses him in front of a whole television crew, violates the man’s right to consent and neither the crew shooting the show, nor Amazon finds a problem with this.
In another episode, men and women are required to slap paint on each other’s bodies. In one post task AV, one contestant giggles and says how the man she was painting on apparently said: ‘Mat kar, mat kar, erection aa rahi hai’. If an erection had its own Sooraj Barjatya film, I am sure this would be the title track.
The uncomfortable disregard for consent aside, the show is an exhausting showcase for everyday conversation in North India. If the ruling party even considered a ‘one nation, one gaali’ campaign, I’m pretty sure ‘chutiya’ would win hands down. Everyone calls everyone a chutiya on Skulls and Roses.
You’re probably thinking you’d watch Housefull 4 for your annual reminder that humans suck, save yourself the money and watch this instead. Fat shaming, slut shaming, harassment, shouting, it is as if the show picked out the most infuriating people they could find and threw them together.
Sahil, the only man on the show without six-pack abs, got called the following names throughout the show: ’yeh mota kya kar lega’, ‘mendhak’, ’gada dhari bheem’, ’walking potato’ and was mocked by every contestant on the show. I couldn’t choose what was more traumatising:o realise that eventually these humans will leave the sets of Skulls& Roses and will be out walking amongst innocent civilians, or to try to unsee repeated close-ups of a man dabbing colour on a girl’s side boob.
Skulls and Roses seems to suggest that you may have the empathy of a door knob, but as long as you can flail your arms wildly and string two insults together, you’re a survivor. In which case, they can hold the next audition on a Arnab Goswami debate, maybe?
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.