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Shilpa ShettyShilpa Shetty episode causes furore in Britain
18th Jan 2007  10.01 IST
By Agencies  

The alleged bullying and racist abuse of Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty on a popular UK reality TV show has sparked off a controversy in Britain.

The issue has snow-balled into such a controversy that Prime Minister Tony Blair has said that racism should be opposed in all its forms when the issue was raised in British Parliament.

Labour MP Keith Vaz, who tabled an early day motion in the House of Commons on the issue Tuesday, asked Blair on Wednesday whether broadcasters should take care not to allow such material to go on air.

"I have not seen the particular programme in question and cannot comment on it," Blair said adding that "we should oppose racism in all its forms."

One of the sponsors of Channel 4's most popular show "Celebrity Big Brother", in which Shilpa and nine other stars are participants, threatened to pull out as the issue figured in the House of Commons.

British mobile phone retailer Carphone Warehouse said it was reviewing its sponsorship of Big Brother and did not rule out abandoning the arrangement. Chief executive Charles Dunstone said the company was "talking to Channel 4. The sponsorship is constantly under review. Clearly, we are against racism."

Meanwhile, some of Shilpa's fellow housemates have received email threats. Hertfordshire police said "two emails have been received by the TV studios that contain unspecified threats against a number of the housemates. Police are currently looking into the emails."

NRI actress and women's rights activist Meera Syal led an unprecedented wave of criticism against the attacks on 31-year-old Shilpa, who was reduced to tears after allegedly being taunted about her skin colour, accent and cooking.

UK's official media watchdog Ofcom said tapes of the incidents would be scoured and complaints carefully investigated.

Shilpa, one of the nine celebrities taking part in the reality show, is being targeted by some housemates because she is Indian, according to complaints received by Ofcom.

The contestants have been locked up in a house since January 2 and are being filmed on how well they handle the frictions of daily life and get their fellow housemates' votes of confidence.

"There is a very thin line between what is entertainment and a vile spectacle and I think we are in that area now. What this treatment of Shilpa has done is remind a lot of Asian people in Britain of the type of uncomfortable treatment they've received themselves over the years," Syal said.

Ofcom, the media watchdog, said that it had received 6,600 complaints, the highest since the BBC screened Jerry Springer - The Opera. It said that it will investigate whether the programme has breached broadcasting rules forbidding discriminatory language or treatment.

Carphone Warehouse has been sponsoring the show since 2004. It pays an estimated three million pounds a year for Big Brother and Celebrity Big Brother.

Vaz Tuesday tabled a Commons motion calling on channel 4 to take "urgent action to remind housemates that racist behaviour is unacceptable."

He said "I have been contacted by constituents who have expressed concern that apparently racist comments have passed without any response. We should not tolerate this on a programme that is watched by millions of people."

Viewers believe that Shilpa is being victimized on the reality show. She has allegedly been called a "dog" and contestants have complained about her touching their food.

Pop singer Jo O'Meara allegedly said Indians were thin because they were always ill as a result of undercooking food. Shilpa's accent has been mocked and she was asked if she lived in a shack. Channel 4 received 2,000 e-mails and calls.

The Indian government Wednesday said it has taken note of the alleged racist attacks on Shilpa on a popular UK reality TV show and would take appropriate action as needed.

"We are seized of the matter. We are looking into all the aspects. We will take appropriate action as required," Minister of State for External Affairs Anand Sharma told reporters in New Delhi.

"The world knows that India has throughout firmly rejected all forms of discrimination and racism," he said.

In a show of support from fans, Shilpa has risen to second favourite to win the Celebrity Big Brother title behind comedy actress Cleo Rocos.

Shilpa's mother had heard about the situation from friends in Britain and was "upset".

India asked the British government to take action as per the country's laws.

The British government also condemned the racist attack but left it to the independent broadcasting regulator Ofcom to look into the matter.

"We have taken up the matter with UK through the British High Commission (in London) and asked them to take action according to their own laws," External Affairs Ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna said while responding to questions over the issue.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Priyaranjan Dasmunsi "appealed" to the actress to "give factual position" to the Indian government representatives in London so that appropriate response to the issue can be firmed up.

However, he pointed out that the actress was in the show as part of a private programme and not as a representative of the Government or industry.

Leading Bollywood personalities Wednesday said the incident was unfair and reflected a "deep-rooted malaise in society".

"The mask has finally come off from what otherwise is seen to be an evolved society. Those who dismiss this as aberrant behaviour are wrong. It reflects a deeper malaise in society and should be addressed," producer-director Mahesh Bhatt said.

When asked what advice he would give Shilpa, Bhatt said, "She should treat this as a game and move on. Anybody who has made it on her own in Bollywood is made of much sterner stuff. She is a tough girl and will get through it."

Director Ashok Pandit had a different take on the whole issue, saying the actress should walk out of the show instead of facing such humiliation.

"Racism is something that Indians have had to face for a long time and Shilpa should not take this kind of humiliation against the entire country. What is she sitting there and crying about? She should walk out of the show," Pandit said.

Director Tanuja Chandra felt the public anger following the incident was a good thing, but participants who allegedly made racist comments against Shilpa should not be overtly criticised.

"Participants on 'Celebrity Big Brother' are real people and real people are prejudiced. However, if there is a rally against racism because of this issue it would be the best service that a reality show has performed," Chandra said.

Shilpa Shetty
Mahesh Bhatt
Tanuja Chandra

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