Contestant Qazi Touqeer sums up Indian television’s latest collection of island mates when he says: “Everyone’s a character. It’s unlikely anyone will get bored here.” Touqeer, who won a television reality show in 2005, is the only face you might recognize on India’s biggest reality show, Sarkaar Ki Duniya, which airs weekdays at 10pm on the new GEC (general entertainment channel) Real.
Lost: (clockwise from top left) The show airs weekdays at 10pm on Real; Touqeer won Fame Gurukul in 2005; Mughal is television’s new bad boy.
Then again, the show’s executive producers, brothers Nikhil and Niret Alva, know the power of a fresh face—they’ve already swung four seasons of Indian Idol, and have a reality resumé that would make Big Boss envious. Besides, all those I-know-her-from-someplace starlets and failed politicians leave us cold anyway.
In this Survivormeets Monopoly format, 18 regular Indians are confined on an island off Karwar on the Konkan coast where they must work the land and live simply (no shampoo, fans, microwave ovens or ketchup). They appoint a new leader every week, perform various tasks to earn fake money to stay in the game (and to eventually win a Rs1 crore prize). They also dig wells, cook their own food (with no spices, only salt), bathe in the Kali river and milk buffaloes.
It’s the most ambitious reality show to hit Indian television
“The stage is an entire island— not just a set—spread over 13 acres,” says Nikhil Alva. The 250-300 crew working on the show relocated to Karwar for six months. The island had no electricity, so three boats were welded together to transport generators. Because the makers of the show were determined they would leave the island exactly the way they found it, they built a waste-water treatment plant and a sewage treatment plant. Nearly 30 cameras record the action non-stop. Remote cameras whir in the house where the contestants stay, and news cameras track them around the island. The hundreds of hours of daily footage is processed and edited on the island itself before tapes are sent to Delhi. “It’s a massive logistical exercise,” says Alva.
The 18 contestants, picked after several rounds of screening, are an eclectic mix of people, from an ex-army captain and a Mr Singh 2008 contest winner to a Gujarati trader with an odd last name and a transgender bar girl who needs 80 smokes a day.
“We used the personal network we had built through our reality show experience, tapped social networking sites such as Facebook and Orkut and looked for interesting characters from different regions who had the ability to take off for five-six months,” says Alva.
By the end of Week 1, 24-year-old Ali Wassim Raja Mughal, a fitness trainer from Jammu, has already established himself as television’s?new?bad boy. Mughal picks a fight with almost everyone on the show (except 28-year-old Bengali beauty Koneenica Banerjee). Youngistan, it is clear, does not know how to resolve its differences amicably through discussion.
“Get lost you beep beep,” Shweta Rawat, a 23-year-old voice-over artist from Dehradun, tells Mughal after their nth fight over nothing. Several words in the fights on this show are beeped out (20-year-old Neera Goswami’s Haryanvi-Hindi rants are hilarious and liberally peppered with beeps), so it’s often difficult to keep track of what exactly everyone’s squabbling about. Sounds just like the state of public debate in modern India, doesn’t it?
Even the first impression of Touqeer as a peace-loving dreamer who sings to the girls, himself and, once, to a buffalo is quickly shattered when he picks a fight with Sanjeev Gupta, a Page 3 reporter. “I’m a manly person. You are a gay,” Touqeer yells.
And Gupta, the less said about him the better. As a journalist, the bitchy, plotting, always feigning illness, lazy beep Gupta makes me cringe. In the show’s first leg, there’s barely a peep from Jagdish Italia, the wealthy Surat-based businessman with two children, but something tells you he’s just lying low.
At first viewing, Youngistan is colour-obsessed, homophobic and sexist (all the men refuse to work in the kitchen). In fact, the one person everyone seems to like is eliminated in Week 1, leaving you wondering what comes next. “It’s interesting to see what happens to them over a period of time. There are alliances, backstabbing, viciousness, working together to combat difficult situations. And as the numbers start reducing over a period of time, they reach a different level of strategy in pulling down other contestants they believe are strong,” says Alva.
Sarkaar Ki Duniya is the showpiece of Real, the joint venture between Alva Brothers Entertainment and Turner International.
This show is only the latest example of how the late-night slot, one traditionally controlled by housewives who watched saas-bahu soaps, is changing (see related story below). In the past year, new GEC entrant Colors managed to snag male viewers with Khatron ke Khiladi, a reality show hosted by actor Akshay Kumar and featuring 13 models.
Alva’s hoping that couples will watch this new show together. “Only 15-20% of the overall television viewing universe watches GEC at any given time. ‘Could we create programming that works for them?’ was what we asked ourselves,” he says.
On Sarkaar Ki Duniya, contestants must pick a different leader every week to assign them tasks and decide their remuneration. Intentionally or unintentionally, the show provides great insight into the way we choose our leaders and how they can let us down. “Who controls the actions of the leader we appoint?” Rawat wants to know when the islanders find out that their first leader has ended the week as the richest contestant. It’s a question we’ve been asking for a while now.