I’ve always had a soft spot for building entertainment programmes. This goes back to my childhood in Mumbai, where all the talent of the apartment block converged onto a makeshift stage during the Ganpati season. There were off-key raga renditions; spoofs where the script changed minutes before the curtain came up and the mandatory Bharatanatyam piece. It would all wind up with some delectable eats and mean giggling about the flop acts. In sum, good clean fun that was an enduring feature of Indian middle-class life.
Or, so I thought—until I recently attended my first building entertainment show in Delhi, in the booming suburb of Noida. This was after a few years of staying out of the country, during which time I seem to have missed out on the insidious changes rippling through Middle India.
The air was filled with bonhomie and the smell of hot samosas wafting from the caterer’s tent. There was an invocation, a keyboard recital by a pair of pre-teens and some homespun mimicry. I smiled wistfully and looked forward to the familiar flow of events that would make for a happy, non-threatening evening.
The compere announced that the next item was a dance by little Diksha. The lights on stage dimmed into two laser beams. Artificial fog whooshed around a tiny, darkened silhouette, posing with her back to the audience. The first notes of the song boomed through the speakers and six-year-old Diksha swirled to show us her shimmering off-shoulder mini frock, glittering eye make-up and pouting crimson lips.
“Ae mera dil pyaar ka deewana…” was the song chosen from the new Don. It’s a song of seduction, where the heroine is desperate to distract Don until the police arrive, and decides that stripping beats conversation. Little Diksha had obviously replayed the DVD dozens of times to accurately capture the heroine’s every wiggle. She thrust out her six-year-old chest, narrowed her eyes like a seasoned sex kitten, writhed vigorously on the floor and managed to get the spirit of the song spot on.
I stared with a sense of something being not quite right. Watching the child do a lusty number on stage reminded me depressingly of a documentary on pre-pubescent bar dancers. Poverty had forced them to grow up prematurely and adopt the gestures of adults they saw in the movies. But, why must girls of well-fed Delhi families do the same?
The answer was evident when I later chatted with the mothers around me. They had been watching young Diksha’s act spellbound, and I had assumed it was because they were as astonished as I was. But it wasn’t shock that had left them agape. It was sheer appreciation and admiration. “How confident she is, no?” said Mrs Khanna.
“Kitna achha kiya na...bilkul Kareena Kapoor jaise!” gasped Mamma Gupta.
A mother of Diksha’s classmate couldn’t contain her envy. “I don’t know how to make my daughter dance on stage...she’s too shy. I’ve even enrolled her in modern dancing classes!” she mumbled.
Since then, I’ve observed several mothers in Delhi who play DVDs of popular numbers and applaud as their daughters jiggle their bodies unnaturally. I don’t quite recall my mother’s contemporaries egging their girls to do a masterly imitation of Parveen Babi. So, this eagerness to morph little angels into “items” seems to be an offshoot of our talent-show obsessed times.
Sexing up little girls sends signals to the child that the parent’s priority is to ready her for the mating game—if it’s okay to shimmy like Kareena or Bipasha aunty, then it’s okay to quickly move on to other adult stuff as well. So, when little Diksha turns 10 and wants to go on a date, her mother ought not to be righteously indignant. After all, it was mommy who fast-forwarded her childhood.
As for me, I’ll just reset my expectations before the next variety entertainment show.
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