Why Munawar Faruqui's Evolution Into a Reality Star Makes Perfect Sense
In a way, Faruiqui’s popularity was readily available, awaiting its “moment” to make its journey from the real world to reality TV.
Last Sunday, after over six hours of airtime, the finale episode of BigBoss season 17 finally announced its winner. Munawar Faruqui – comedian, rapper, and winner of Lock Upp 2022 (another reality show on the OTT platform ALTBalaji) – added yet another feat to his newfound reality TV career.
However, unlike with previous winners of the flagship reality show, the public reception of the winner this time was tinged with a sense of ambivalence, if not outright displeasure.
This is in large part due to how Faruqui rose to fame: The comedian turned reality TV star has made headlines since his imprisonment in 2021 when he was accused of making satirical commentary about Hindu deities, sparking a controversy of communal fervour.
Cut to now: the overwhelming buzz over Faruqui’s win, telecast on India’s biggest media platform with several million viewers, has turned into a national event of sorts. So much so that Faruqui’s life story secured its place on primetime segments of major news channels. The anchors had a burning question for the Indian voters at large: Why him? And more importantly, how?
Perhaps Faruqui's legacy as a reality TV star, with his origins in comedy and a stint in jail, does bear scrutiny. Why, despite being the locus of majoritarian anxiety in the past, has he succeeded in winning not one but two reality shows? Is it that he leveraged his notoriety to his advantage instead of letting it undermine him?
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The outpouring of a mixture of support and condemnation for Faruqui witnessed in viral videos doing the rounds online, hints at an unusual, unprecedented outcome – largely due to his unexpected brand of stardom. Take the fact that the right-wing journalist Sudhir Chaudhary, expressed disbelief, declared on his show Black & White how Faruiqui has been “raised to the status of a god.” Just two years prior, however, the same anchor had remarked, “Gone are the days of Padma Shri, the era of FIR has begun. A line has finally been drawn making clear our rights. This change is a message that the days of people saying anything in the name of freedom of expression are gone in our country," championing Faruqui’s arrest.
As Laura Grindstaff, a sociologist at UC Davis, writes, “Culturally speaking, [reality TV] is consistent with the seepage of performance demands into everyday life and a preponderance of social and psychic spaces for externalizing the self — for watching others ‘play themselves’ and being watched in turn.” In other words, reality TV is a diorama of our culture, reflecting our socio-psychological values, largely dictated by social media which calls to action our orchestrated personalities for the consumption and liking of others. “These conditions of possibility are built on familiar cultural scripts and on highly structured situations which, in turn, allows guests to ‘self-serve’ themselves to their performances” Grindstaff adds.
According to Grindstaff, this self-service television allows “acquiring celebrity cafeteria-style” as it allows regular, ordinary people to become celebrities without needing extensive training or talent, as these performances are heavily influenced by cultural stereotypes and pre-decided templates. In other words, it is a form of "readymade" or "pre-made" television,” explains Grindstaff.
Faruqui, thus, knowingly stepped into an opportune space that made him vulnerable to caricaturing, based on what audiences already knew of his identity and his past; but ultimately sidestepped the stereotyping when he was directly confronted by them. In a way, Faruiqui’s popularity was readily available, awaiting its “moment” to make its journey from the real world to reality TV.
In the larger scheme of things, Faruqui’s trajectory from Dongri to BigBoss looks universal and linear. It is the oft-charted path of an underdog born into a family with limited means, who pulled himself up by the bootstraps and earned a name for himself. Except that it wasn't quite as straightforward. After his arrest in 2021, Faruqui spent over a month behind bars embroiled in a legal battle under hate speech laws, while internet trolls sent death threats and Islamophobic slurs his way. As the news of his incarceration grabbed national and international attention, actor and Emmy Award-winning comedian Vir Das, along with many other comedians from the South Asian diaspora, made statements in solidarity. This was bolstered when, in November 2021, Faruqui solemnly announced his “retirement” from comedy, citing the cancellation of twelve shows within two months spurred by threats from right-wing groups.
As Faruqui’s online followers and supporters mourned his retreat, he cemented his reputation in the image of a “fallen hero” within subcultures of public memory. And reality TV allowed him to reclaim the space he had lost -- and arguably, reclaim it among the very demographic which championed his downfall. For those against him, he represented scandal, intrigue, and the ripe possibility of going through the public wringer of humiliation again. For those rooting for him, he was the prodigal son returning. After his comeback in 2022 through his debut on the OTT reality show “Lock Upp,” hosted by actress Kangana Ranaut, he reclaimed his popularity by winning the show against all odds, beating the “King of Reality Shows” Prince Narula in the process. Leveraging his renewed popularity, Faruqui segued into the world of music, collaborating on the hit song “Todh” with co-contestant Prince.
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With multiple rap songs under his belt, Faruqui then entered the BigBoss house last year, with the prospect of solidifying his status as a household name. Soon enough, as is the nature of reality shows, he was embroiled in mud-slinging drama: Ayesha Khan, Faruqui’s former partner, entered the house and brought accusations of infidelity with multiple women; he was readily labeled a “womanizer” in language coloured with Islamophobic euphemisms.
The branding of Faruqui as the “bad guy” stirred up scandal and intrigue -- it was bait for audiences who share the same preconceived notions about him. But instead of denying the allegations, as many anticipated, Faruqui gracefully owned up to his gaffes and placed them within the realm of regular relationship fallouts, rejecting the underlying hits to his identity. It quickly set the tone, appealing to the modern sensibilities of our generation, and cemented him as the unlikely “anti-hero" -- a flawed, morally grey character just like anyone else, but with an unspoken past.
“Heroes, irrespective of their locations, have come to symbolize the nature of public morality associated with their territory. This morality concerning audiences’ perception of right and wrong accounts for public empathy with the hero and an aversion towards the villain. Thus, heroes are perceived to contribute towards maintaining hegemonic social order” explains sociologist Dr Sanchari Basu. While “Generally occurring at the time of instability, anti-hero narratives release the societal pressure endured by individuals on account of tradition while ensuring monetary gains for the media conglomerates”, she writes. Faruqui’s anti-hero who sustains a thousand cuts presents an alternative to the stereotypical Bollywood hero’s masculinity, one that is, firstly, Muslim and, secondly, modern. Both of which make his popularity and relatability harder to digest to his critics but acquire greater longevity as a result.
“Muslims have been cast simultaneously as ‘at risk’ of radicalization and as a threat to enlightenment values, freedom, and democracy. Young Muslim men, in particular, have been portrayed as potential ‘home-grown’ terrorists, criminal thugs, and misogynistic oppressors and as a problem that must be solved. The ‘question of Muslim identity’ and more specifically, Muslim masculinities, political loyalty and action have become the central pivot around which debate has focused,” writes Professor Joshua M. Roose, a political sociologist. The irreverent, self-aware charm of Munawar Faruqui then humanizes the culturally villainised figure of a Muslim man from Dongri, a neighborhood in Mumbai synonymous with gangsters (as Sudhir Chaudhary promptly rehashed).
Faruqui’s stardom, then, is one based on subversive acts and challenging culturally ingrained stereotypes projected upon his Muslim identity. His genuine friendships with other contestants in the BigBoss house, and his non-confrontational approach, preferring dialogue over duel, capture a commitment to self-determination. Moreover, his willingness to be vulnerable, coupled with easy self-awareness and emotional regulation made for a convincing case of likeability. Meanwhile, standing out in stark contrast to the belligerent hypermasculinity his co-contestants frequently displayed, he refused to be pigeonholed.
Faruqui’s stardom, then, does not merely stand on the controversies that launched him to fame but also on the careful choices he made on his way up. On Sunday, Munawar Faruqui emerged as an icon, offering the hope of an India that has not made up its mind about him just yet.
Naina is a sociology graduate of the Delhi School of Economics. She presently works as a writer focusing on queer theory, culture, media semantics, and women's health.