In the eastern Indian city of Patna protesters are burning an effigy that is said to resemble the organisers of Channel 4’s reality TV show, Celebrity Big Brother. It looks very much to me like a standard, two plank wooden frame, cloaked in a burning white salwar kameez. Now, I’ve met John de Mol, co-founder of Endemol, the production company behind the Big Brother franchise, and he is definitely a jeans/sports jacket kind of guy.

Some four thousand miles west and Patna’s favourite Bollywood actress, Shilpa Shetty, sits under the surveillance of de Mol’s creation – the Big Brother house – caught by the lens of 36 surveillance cameras and the attention of the world’s media.

Shetty, 31, is the unwitting subject of a racism row. Her treatment by fellow housemates has generated a record 30,000 viewer complaints and has sparked a national debate on bullying, class and race.

Whether you think her tormentors are racist or not, Shetty has been on the receiving end of some sort of sinister bigotry. And its origins, whether in cultural ignorance, jealousy or arrogance, is a story that needs to be talked about: it is the story of racism in this country.

The name calling, the back stabbing, the bitching, is not unusual in a television show of this nature. But it has become a vehicle for an issue that is as uncomfortable to discuss as the show is to watch.

Does Big Brother reflect society? And if so, are we a racist nation?

Shetty’s biggest opponent in the Big Brother house is former contestant Jade Goody, who left series three in 2002, nominated by the public, denounced by the British tabloid press and met with a crowd of booing protesters. Since, she has returned to television, relauched her career and amassed a not inconsiderable fortune.

It’s interesting, as a subplot to this series of Big Brother, that we may be witnessing a turning of the tide against the post-Heat notion of celebrity; that we are fed up with what is being celebrated; that it is no longer intelligence, artistry and achievement.

It is predicted that Jade will be the next contestant to leave the Big Brother house. When she does I suspect she will be met with another booing crowd, and that we may see another burning effigy.

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