In the promotional spots of Masterchef India, the local spin-off of UK’s popular Masterchef series, contestants vying for a spot on the show’s cook-offs weep, quarrel with the show’s presenters and try hard to convince audiences that they want to be Masterchef more than anything else in the world. It seems like an odd strategy for a show that will not rely on audience voting to select its eventual winners, but then perhaps it has become the norm for television programming to be advertised through heartfelt appeals. The show aims to strike a chord with the markets Star Plus, the channel on which it will air, want to capture.
On the sets, the Masterchef format lends itself to drama. Even making rumali rotis becomes exciting when it happens to be a do-or-die elimination challenge. The pressure and the scope for mistakes lends it the kind of mental and emotional appeal one associates with the more aggressive physical reality shows.
Sizzling: (top) Kumar in a promotional video for Masterchef India; and Masterchef hopefuls line up for one of the show’s early cook-offs.
Which is why, perhaps, the show’s chief presenter happens to be actor Akshay Kumar, a man who looks like he has never consumed an unnecessary calorie in his life. Unlike the meticulous, sometimes nasty criticism judges in Masterchef‘s international versions are famous for, Kumar’s modus operandi is good-natured bullying, leaving the food professionals on the judging panel to provide critique. During the rumali roti challenge, he looms over the worktops of nervous contestants. “Your edges are thick. Why are your edges thick?” he booms. “None of you have spun your roti in the air. It will never, I repeat never, achieve the consistency you want unless you spin your roti in the air!” Faces shrink. A young woman dissolves into tears. Kumar’s attitude immediately shifts to gruffly consoling, which delights her, and ends the segment on a pleasing note. Cooking, it turns out, is not so different from scooping live insects from a cage on Khatron ke Khiladi.
It is conceivable, that the producers could have found a more unlikely contestant for the show than Ankit Vishwakarma, but that would surely have taken some work. The 18-year-old from Bhopal became an ice-cream chef three-and-a-half years ago because, as he puts it, “I liked eating ice cream, kept asking mummy to make me some, and she kept refusing.” Something about his handmade desserts must have pleased the judges: Today, alongside experts who improvise their signature dishes and self-professed masters of multiple cuisines, Vishwakarma has made it to the finals of India’s first food reality show. His parents and brother were shocked when he was picked. “But I guess they didn’t want to demotivate me,” he says.
Vishwakarma was one among the thousands who turned up at the Masterchef screening rounds in Mumbai, Delhi, Lucknow, Indore, Ahmedabad and Jaipur, casseroles in hand, hopeful of earning a spot on a show that claims it will celebrate “great people who make great food”. In the bigger and more diverse stream of contestants on the European versions of the show, Vishwakarma might not have looked out of place, but he is an anomaly here among stalwarts who have been running their kitchens at home or work for years. His competitors are mostly in their 30s and 40s, and their age and experience give on-camera declarations of wanting to be the next Masterchef a real edge.
“Adapting the international format to reflect Indian tastes was a big challenge,” says Ajit Andhare, founder and CEO of Colosceum, the firm which is producing Masterchef India for Star Plus. “The way the food challenges play out on the international versions may have become exotic or elitist here, irrelevant to an Indian audience.”
According to Andhare, there is a structural difference in the way we view food “as meals, and not as single dishes”, which demands a modification in format for the Indian version, as compared to the European and Australian versions of the show. The diversity of Indian cuisine appears to have posed a problem too. In spite of its name, Masterchef India is hardly a pan-India competition. No auditions were conducted in cities in the south and east—a “practical decision”, Andhare says, based at least partly on considerations of reach and ratings.
But viewers can look forward to innovation within the cuisines the contestants will represent, says Ajay Chopra, a chef at the Goa Marriott Resort, Miramar, and one of the show’s three judges. “We have to represent classic Indian cuisine, but we’re also taking it out of the curry bowls, which is an accusation you hear a lot about the way Indian food is presented. We do introduce progressive Indian cuisine into the show’s format, but we adapt them to more advanced challenges.”
Its cultural framework is not very different from Star Plus’ other prime-time programming, soap operas that reach out to rural and suburban north India. For most viewers Masterchef India will represent a significant departure in the food programming they do see. “It also represents something different from reality show formats that people are already familiar with,” says Sejal Shah, head of southern and western operations for media investment firm VivaKi Exchange. “If the content carries the show beyond the buzz generated by Akshay, it should attract the most significant segment of any target group for television—women.”
For years, Indian cable television depended on the “cookery show” format—half-hour, three-recipes-an-episode shows anchored by celebrity chefs that encouraged little or no viewer interaction. Recent developments in lifestyle programming have seen food as an element in travel or luxury-related shows, in which presenters discover cuisines by region, or obtain access to unique kitchens and chefs. Contrary to this vein of celebrating the rarefied, Masterchef India’s promos advertise it as a reality show in which ordinary people, especially women—who make up over 60% of the viewers—can make a winning proposition of an everyday activity.
“It’s changed my perception of amateur chefs,” says Kunal Kapoor, chef at Gurgaon’s The Leela Kempinski, and a judge on the show. Kumar himself is meant to bridge this negotiation between expertise and amateurism. “He is something of a working-class hero,” Andhare says. “And he brings his own understanding of food to the show.”
Kumar’s past in the food industry—he spent some time operating a food stall in Bangkok—may be unorthodox, but his contestants love him. “I wanted to make Akshay kadhi-chawal, and I’m just waiting for the chance,” says Kanak Kathuria, a 29-year-old finalist and Punjabi/Italian cuisine expert.
Unlike the contestants on Masterchef Australia, whose second season is currently on air in India on Star’s English language channel Star World, the Indian competitors display little interest in becoming part of the food industry—that is, if anyone thinks of their appearance on the TV show as a stepping stone to owning a restaurant, cooking at the world’s finest kitchens, or earning themselves a spot at legendary hotel kitchens. Vishwakarma isn’t even sure if this is what he wants to do for the rest of his life. “A chef, not a chef, I don’t know about that,” he says. “I just want to be the Masterchef.”
Masterchef India airs from today on Star Plus at 9pm, and will air on Saturdays and Sundays.