It is 10pm and well past Jay Thakkar’s bedtime. But the nine-year-old, though a little cranky from sitting idle for some hours, has little intention of leaving. He practises his dance steps, whirling about in the dust and muggy night heat, looking at his mother Jyoti, perched on a plastic chair nearby. She nods approvingly, and tells him to rest. The wait might get longer. Clutched in her hands is a crumpled newspaper, the purpose behind this night-time stake-out.
Conceived by Naved Jaffri, Jaaved’s brother, and Ravi Behl, their friend, the show has spawned a mini industry of reality dance and singing shows for kids, and provided a many-branched conduit for funnelling fame-hungry youngsters and their star-struck parents to the Hindi film industry. If they are lucky, some will go on to become backup dancers, singers and choreographers, becoming one of the countless no-name faces that pedal furiously in the background, keeping the great machine that is India’s entertainment industry operational.
A miniscule percentage will even achieve stardom, that elusive dream epitomized by playback singers such as Shreya Ghosal and Sunidhi Chauhan, arguably two of reality television’s greatest success stories.
For the large majority, however, these shows—Sa Re Ga Ma Pa L’il Champs, Star Voice of India Chote Ustad, Chak de Bachche, and dozens of others—are a chance to achieve those fleeting 15 minutes in the spotlight; to rub shoulders with their heroes for those few tantalizing moments; to hover, albeit briefly, in the same plane of stardom and wealth. Could there be a more seductive way of earning a living? Dressing up, singing, prancing around on stage to the adoring, fanatical applause of millions?
This is what Jay and his mother wish for. Because having already been eliminated from a special Boogie Woogie episode featuring child stars, Jay is back, not as a participant, but as a hopeful entrant to the world of big-time fame. He has already been in a few TV serials, and featured in ads for Britannia and Mother Dairy. His one appearance on the show was enough to bag him an ad for candy company Perfetti Van Melle.
“I want to be like Jaavedji, an actor and a dancer,” he says, smiling toothily.
His mother, a housewife from the Mumbai suburb of Mulund ferries Jay from practice to audition to shoot. She is visibly and vocally proud as she presses into my hands a studio shot of her son. “Write his name as J-a-i,” she instructs. Ever since the newspapers spelt his name incorrectly with an ‘i’, it’s been bringing them luck, she wants me to know.
As even casual television viewers know, reality shows, especially those featuring children, are nothing new. Boogie Woogie and Sa Re Ga Ma Pa have been on air since the early 1990s, and were targeted at adults before they were spun off into junior championships. The idea then was to showcase young and obscure talent; nothing was promised or bequeathed, except the vague idea that once seen, someone, somewhere would maybe sign them on for a minor playback singing role in a movie. The judges were eminent and established artistes such as Lata Mangeshkar and Zakir Hussain, who took their roles very seriously. They were there to guide, steer, and though there were winners, there were very rarely “stars”.
Somewhere along the way, one man sniffed in this scenario a ratings gold mine. Long before the format even caught on in the US, and many many years before American Idol, Gajendrra Siingh —the creator of Antakshari, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, Voice of India, and Chak de Bachche—realized the intrinsic and long-standing allure of giving ordinary boys and girls the chance to attain the ultimate Bollywood dream: Put them on stage, wrangle celebrity judges with star appeal and, most importantly, give the audience the illusion that they have the power to propel into celebrity the next superstar, and you have the makings of riveting television.
From the inaugural episode of Antakshari, the first reality singing show on television, Siingh, an unassuming man from Azamgarh, UP, became something of an Indian Professor Higgins, a transforming and transformative personality, whose shy presence on the sets belies the wide-ranging influence of his genius (in an interview, he once claimed that the American Idol format was copied from his shows).
A self-confessed workaholic, Siingh, now head of his own production company Saibaba Telefilms Pvt. Ltd, works 16 hours a day, seven days a week, producing three shows for 9X, Sony and NDTV Imagine. “In the gaon (village), they have no bijli (electricity), no water, nothing. You visualize your dream day and night, talking and thinking about your dream only,” says Siingh, who battled with his parents to pursue a career in entertainment.
Having made it on his own terms, he sees nothing wrong in children discovering and pursuing their passion from a young age. “Had it not been for these shows, where would you have heard them?” he demands. It’s only when pushed about the recent decision of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) to investigate child stars and reality shows that Siingh, until now placid and almost apologetically polite, gets visibly irritated. “If you want to persevere in your career, what’s wrong with that? If you want to identify your passion, you should go jogging, swimming, painting. It’s just that (reality shows) have been exposed to the media, to the world. And you make a fuss about it. I think the country should be proud of it.”
If the numbers are any reflection, then the country most likely is. When Siingh announced that he was casting for Chak de Bachche, an all-talent variety show featuring kids aged 8 to 12, he was inundated with more than 150,000 audition tapes; Boogie Woogie also gets about 4,000 tapes a month. Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, the show where Ghosal was discovered, remains one of the highest rated shows in the Hindi GEC, or general entertainment category. Its 2008 finale drew more than 105 million votes, while another 23 million tuned in to watch Aishwarya Majumdar and Anwesha Dattagupta belt it out on the Star Voice of India Chote Ustad finale earlier this year.
At that level, everything, including failure, is magnified to horrific proportions. Reality television is built on the premise that not everyone can win, and those who don’t make for riveting television. Criticize somebody, especially a child, and you can almost hear the sofa creak as viewers inch closer to the screen.
In recent years, as these shows have multiplied and proliferated on almost every regional channel, the media has pounced on the seedy underbelly of reality television, publishing innumerable stories of child contestants falling into depression, running away, and in one recent and drastic case, reportedly becoming mute and paralysed after receiving what was deemed unduly harsh criticism on air (in fact, no medical test could conclusively link the criticism as cause of the teenager, Shinjini Sengupta’s condition, but that did little to prevent rampant speculation in the media).
Any number of psychologists, therapists, doctors and child organizations have rushed in to condemn these shows; as with any industry that grooms its stars young, its adverse effects on adulthood are well documented and widely known. Minnu Bhonsle, a psychotherapist from Mumbai, has counselled several professional child actors and athletes as adults. According to her, the pressures faced by children on reality shows are no different, and perhaps even worse. “Because of satellite TV, the agony has increased for kids who do not have the mechanism to cope with the expectations resting on them. Only a very small percentage has the grit to go through all that and remain sane,” she says.
Though Siingh himself denies making the children cry deliberately in order to garner high television ratings, his shows have not been without their share of controversy. For instance, this March, 10-year-old Sonia Sharma, a chubby-faced girl from Kurukshetra, Haryana, broke down after being eliminated from the Chote Ustad top 5. The spectacle was heart wrenching, even for the panel of judges, which included Ghosal. Another judge, music director Pritam Chakraborty, stalked off the set, while Ghosal, and several members of the audience, including Sonia’s mother, looked openly distressed (Sonia later said that her mother’s heart condition worsened after the elimination).
Dressed as a child-bride, tears pouring down her face and crying in the unabashed, gulping way that only children can, Sonia made for a curiously riveting, and repulsive, spectacle. “Subconsciously, elimination means failure. As a kid, what problems get into your subconscious, you never know,” says Chakraborty, who has long pushed for getting rid of eliminations.
The judges, for their part, tread a razor-thin line in exhorting young talent and inflating them beyond their years or deflating in one fell swoop lifelong ambition. “People who come from small towns do not know the real situation on television,” says Ghosal, 24, whose performance in Sa Re Ga Ma Pa at 16 attracted the attention of director Sanjay Leela Bhansali—he used her as the playback voice for Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in Devdas (2002). “We explain to the contestants that it’s not the end, but it’s not the beginning either. This is not the only medium by which you can become a singer.” Back when she was a contestant, Ghosal admits, it was only about the quality of singing. “There were no promises of becoming superstars.”
Superstardom, however, is what these shows peddle. Even on a small scale, the first contestant eliminated has a chance to wring from his 15 minutes of fame a year of “appearances” in villages and tier-II cities.
On that neon-lit stage, they are on the same level as the Bollywood stars and directors who judge them, and even if they bomb, or trip, or forget the words, they are remembered. That in itself is enough to catapult the careers of dozens who go on to be production assistants, choreographers, back-up dancers, hosts and even serial contestants, who jump from audition to audition, refusing to accept defeat.
Chote Ustad host Abhas Joshi, 18, was eliminated as a participant of the adult version of Star Voice of India in 2007, but was later roped in to host the junior championship.
And at Boogie Woogie, young contestants who have passed through the show have returned to hold more permanent jobs as choreographers and back-up dancers. “I enjoy seeing the kids perform,” Jaaved says of this dichotomy. “And feeling maybe I’m a zariya—a conduit, a catalyst for somebody to achieve something. So, from that perspective, they deserve this platform, and this boy and girl, who probably would have danced in front of 50 people in some gaon, have got some 50 million people watching them. And, those 10 or 15 minutes make a good deal of difference in their lives.”
On a bigger scale, the children reap rich benefits: fame certainly, but, more significantly, a shot at catapulting a potential career, one perhaps floundering from inadequate guidance, funds or opportunity. Take, for instance, the Chote Ustad runner-up, 14-year-old Anwesha from Kolkata who, after missing school for six months, lost by an undisclosed number of votes to Aishwarya. But, as her father Kushal Dattagupta puts it: “The kind of recognition and publicity she has got is something great.”
Even as runner-up, Anwesha received about Rs9 lakh in prize money from sponsors, and a two-year contract with Saibaba Telefilms Pvt. Ltd to perform in two to three shows a month, in India and across the world. She has also been signed on to do the playback for a movie (I’m 24, starring Neha Dhupia), and sing the title track of Siingh’s other show, Waar Parivaar, with singer Shaan. “I am famous now,” Anwesha says sweetly, when interviewed on the phone. “It is a fact.”
Nowhere is the hunger to be seen, to be famous, if only in some village in rural India, more evident than on Siingh’s latest show, Chak de Bachche. Here, on the Mumbai set, dozens prep for the gruelling 12-hour shoot that happens once a week. The children are split into two groups, the Metro Rockers and Desi Dhuranders. The idea is that big-city and small-town kids will fight it out for a Rs5 lakh scholarship and an all-expenses paid trip to Disneyland. The children, it soon becomes clear, really really want this. They know about actors Hrithik Roshan and Shah Rukh Khan and singer Michael Jackson (who inexplicably remains a favourite among everyone polled), but they also knew about Raven and Hannah Montana, two of Disney’s biggest tween stars in the US (little wonder then that Disney India has launched Hannah Montana Presence: The Big Pop Star Dream, a non-televised competition that will trawl cities for the next child sensation).
In the suburban Mumbai apartment where the contestants and the one parent they are allowed to bring stay, people flit in and out of the kitchen; the TV in the living room is tuned to an episode of Chak de Bachche. Rudraksh Agarwal, a precocious 11-year-old from Jaipur, is a veteran of these shows, having already tried out, unsuccessfully, for Chote Ustad and L’il Champs.
On Chak de, he and his partner, Nidhi Gusain, a long-haired, confident 11-year-old from Delhi, have fast become favourites with the audience and judges. Together, they feel, they have a very good shot at winning. “We work very hard so we don’t get out, and if we get out, it’s just inspiration to work harder,” Rudraksh says. Adding quickly, “But that won’t happen because we work very hard.”
What happens to these children after the shows end is the million-dollar question that many want answered. The NCPCR, for one, has said it will consider demanding that all kids who participate get a certificate of some kind that can maybe benefit them once they leave. Most of the contestants interviewed for this story said they would return home, to their studies, and probably keep trying. Only one said he would drop out of school.
Often, the parents seemed the most wary, and most eager to return to their regular lives. “Sometimes I feel like she’s working too hard,” says Nidhi’s mother, Maya. Nidhi, however, has other plans. “This is a competition. So you can’t give up because you’re tired,” she says, before prancing off to resume practice. Tomorrow is another day, another shot at making it big, and she has little intention of quitting.
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Today one of the industry’s most in-demand playback singers, she was noticed at age 16 in ‘Sa Re Ga Ma Pa’ by film-maker Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Despite having started at a young age, Ghosal, a judge on ‘Chote Ustad’, has few regrets. “Today, I have a much stronger mental capability, and an understanding of people and life,” she says.
Along with Ghosal, Chauhan, 24, is a sought- after playback singer, having done movies such as ‘Chameli’ (2003) and ‘Dhoom’ (2004). At 12, she won ‘Meri Awaz Suno,’ a televised singing competition that she says wasn’t a reality show. “It was absolutely a pure competition.” Though she has guest-judged an episode of ‘Star Voice of India’, Chauhan has turned down offers to accept a more permanent place on the judging panel.
At 10, she managed to make it to the semi-finals of ‘Sa Re Ga Ma L’il Champs’. After winning ‘Chote Ustad’ this year, Majmudar, 14, was signed on to do the playback in ‘Hari Puttar’ and as part of her contract with Saibaba Telefilms Pvt. Ltd, will travel the country and world for solo shows.