An exodus of young Indians leaves home every year in search of the bright lights of reality shows. But what happens to them after you switch off? Gaurav Jain tracks their stories
LUCKNOW AT 10pm in January feels like the end of the universe – dark, fog-bitten, still, with the odd rickshaw creaking past. A capacity crowd has packed into an auditorium to celebrate Mayawati’s birthday. The delicately double-chinned Dear Leader is not present herself, but that doesn’t slow the officials’ hectic praise or the folk dancers’ proclamations that she’ll ascend to be “Bharat’s PM”. Sitting demurely in a corner is a 28-year-old woman, dressed in a glamorous sequined white chikan kurta, whom all of Lucknow knows — Poonam Yadav is the one true celebrity roped in for the event, and the crowd is getting testy for her. Eventually, Poonam’s turn comes and, ascending the stage, she launches into a practiced concert of favourite Bollywood standards.
Poonam is just one among lakhs of young people streaming out of every corner of India — from cramped metropolitan chawls and forgotten northeastern hamlets, from grimy mining settlements and burgeoning B-towns, from despairing Srinagar and the deadends of Dhanbad. Drawing them like a psychotropic magnet is not Bollywood, but a newer merchant trading in the old dream: Reality TV. With its tantalising offer — as Sonam Kapoor’s character Bittu puts it so memorably in Dilli 6 — “to become somebody from nobody”. These young people no longer have to act or rely on the whimsy of directors and producers. The dream now trades on raw ability. To sing, to dance, to laugh. Stardom has been democratised and it seems all of India is lining up at the booth.
Since Kaun Banega Crorepati first sprang onto our consciousness, dozens of talent-based reality shows have mushroomed in India. Dance India Dance. Indian Idol. The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. India’s Got Talent. Each of these shows hold auditions in over 10 cities, descending like divine carrots from the sky, and thousands of young people throng to them. Each show then has addon competitions (for kids, for kids and mothers, for couples). And each show has clones. Mumbai is just the dizzy centre: every show has regional replicas going in Gujarati and Bengali and Marathi. Imagine the gargantuan spread, and you get a real measure of the energy field.
There is huge money to be made out of this subculture one could call Talent TV. Money that is trading on that most profound resource: the human desire for recognition. The young see reality shows as a way of escaping their small horizons: the shows pick them for precisely that reason. This narrative arc — the desire for escape and the potential for escape — makes for great viewing. It is little wonder then that reality shows have become the biggest phenomenon in Indian television after the saas-bahu serials. They are cheaper to programme than full-scale soaps and hang their success on massive audience participation, which can run into crores of SMSes for the bigger shows. (Channels, in fact, often make more money from these shows from telephone company tie-ups than from advertising.) The market is so fecund, desperate producers running out of ideas have begun to throw up amalgamate contests, where winners from past shows compete against each other. Or more ludicrously, the young are asked to prove themselves as the most passionate fan of some superstar, or in the case of Star TV’s latest show, Mahayatra, as the most loving and dutiful child — a la Shravan Kumar, the epic character who carried his blind parents in a basket to pilgrimage points across India.
3 lakh is what an average TV show winner can earn for a live performance. Abhijeet Sawant is said to earn Rs 4.5 lakh per performance
The ideas may be drying, but not the well of longing. To become somebody.
So what of these young people themselves, cannon fodder in TRP wars? What becomes of them when the arc lights go out? A select few, showing the same pluck that got them on air, stay on in Mumbai and turn their transitory fame into a revenue model — performing around the country in big venues and even abroad. Talent TV, in fact, has birthed a secondary market which never existed in India before, with B-level celebrities performing live at events of every hue, corporate, governmental and political, and at festivals and weddings. A much larger number though just have to walk the reverse arc back to anonymity, returning home to its dissatisfactions and now even narrower horizons. You may have forgotten their names but they have not forgotten their attempt to get out.
Poonam Yadav is of a third kind. A finalist at the Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Challenge 2007, she has come home to Lucknow for good but still powders herself with the memory of Mumbai stardust. This allows her a modicum of success on the live performance circuit and she has retained some characteristics of the celebrity. A dislike for punctuality, an ability to pretend other people are invisible, fussing at the room temperature. But for most parts, she is a wary young woman, sullen, and almost fed up with the drama of her own story. Poonam’s celebrity, in fact, has been both golden and notorious.
Her life seemed scripted for Reality TV. Daughter of a maidservant, Poonam grew up in deep poverty in Lucknow’s Sadar Bazar area. Her father died while she was in the womb. But here, in the kaccha house that let the rain in every year, Poonam has now built a narrow but opulent mansion from her earnings. She earns Rs 2 lakh a show now; she earned Rs 800 before television happened to her. She has travelled to Hong Kong and Singapore for performances. An odd remnant from her earlier life sits before her mother: instead of an electric heater, a tasela burning coal and wood is on the floor. Poonam cares so little for attention at this stage that she has stayed in the comfort of dowdy at-home clothes and oiled hair when the photographer arrives. She can dress up for the stage, sure, turn on her star power. But the press can take their lumps.
Music was always her passion and she got herself intermittent music tutors, sustaining herself financially with various odd jobs at a PCO and nursing home. She’d also begun to perform at local jagrans. “I used to look at my harmonium and cry,” she says. “I think if I hadn’t got into Sa Re Ga Ma Pawhen I did, I’d be in an asylum by now.” Reality TV as deliverance. The audition as messiah.
It is difficult to imagine the impact of Talent TV juggernauts hitting mofussil India. Lakhs audition for the bigger shows like Dance India Dance; thousands turn up for smaller ones like MTV Roadies. Often you can register for an audition with just an SMS. To cash in on these maniacal events, talent agencies like Two Tulips have spread octopus feelers deep into the crevices of most of India’s small towns. Their local coordinators keep tabs on talent emerging in schools, colleges, festivals, neighbourhood clubs. They know that only talent will not do: their pick must have a saleable life story.
Even though it’s held in the heart of Delhi, the press event for Star Plus’ Mahayatra show captures some of the bustle and razor-edge anticipation these events evoke. The mood quadruples as it radiates further out from the metros. It is a brisk winter morning at South Delhi’s Birla Mandir. PR executives welcome the cro – wds at the temple entrance. The contest is on: who will prove to be the ideal, modern- day Shravan Kumar? Who will prove their love for their parents by taking them to the four dhams of Hinduism? Inside, contestants just out of their teens declare in tutored tones why it’s important for them to embark on these sacred journeys. Only one girl who’s recently finished high school admits she’s here because she just wants to travel. The questionnaire asks things like “How’d you express your love for your parents?” and “What’s the most you’ve done for them?” The parents seem far more sincere than the kids, and seem happy to be spending some time with them. Afterwards, a yagn a is conducted. Then, with the unfazed logic of spectacle, the contestants race with one another on this freezing day — on slabs of ice.
Through one such audition, Poonam pole-vaulted herself out of anonymity into the arena. Once there, the introverted Poonam jostled her way through to fourth place. Post-show (with contestants still in dizzy freefall, coming to terms with the extreme emotions of elimination or victory), it’s common practice for channels to sign two-year contracts with contestants and organize live shows for them. (Sony reportedly takes 20 percent of the proceeds; Zee reportedly takes 50. Industry sources say that, on average, the winner of a Talent TV show can command anywhere from Rs 2.5 to 3 lakh per performance, while the second and third runners-up take between Rs 1 to 2 lakh each. The top 10 finalists of a hit season are assured at least Rs 1 lakh per performance while the top bracket of a flop season can still command around Rs 50,000. Someone like the first Indian Idol winner, Abhijeet Sawant, is now said to charge around Rs 4.5 lakh per live show.)
But to make this money, celebrityhood must first be manufactured. Poonam came home to Lucknow the first time to a grand welcome, organised by Zee. She landed at 1am to find 10,000 people waiting at the airport and her neighbourhood. A band was playing; security protected her from choreographed mobs. Her stardom was birthed by Caesarean.
When her mandatory stint in Mumbai was done, Poonam took up a job with the Railways as a booking clerk in Lucknow — something Laloo Prasad Yadav had publicly promised her while she was on the show. Then last year in March, she tried to kill herself. Newspapers reported rumours of her being pregnant and an aborted affair with music director Ismail Darbar — which both deny vehemently. “He and his wife were like parents to me. No one wants to publish what I have to say. Those rumours are all anyone wants to hear, but I’m ready to take medical tests,” says an angry Poonam. But scandal was not her only travail. She returned to find everyone she had grown up with was jealous of her success. “Even people who taught me music. People just want you to look backward for a second and trip.” Everyone in Lucknow now knows her and this more than anything else tires her.
2 lakh is the number of people across India who audition for a season of Indian Idol. 5,000 turn up for a dance show on a Malayalam channel
But the excesses of celebrity are not exactly the burden everyone who auditions for Talent TV suffers from. There is also thwarted desire, disillusion, emotional limbo. And, of course, that damaging walk back to anonymity. Take the stories of Neha Sawant, Raju Hela and Chotu Lohar.
Barely a month and a half ago, on January 2, 2010, 11-year-old Neha Sawant of Mumbai hanged herself. A dance enthusiast, she had contested in the reality show Boogie Woogie and was reportedly upset with her parents’ decision to stop her dance classes and stage performances. Her parents deny any connection between her death and her dancing career.
Raju Hela, 29, was a sweeper in Kolkata’s posh St James School. John Bergis, a school manager, heard him singing in the hallway and encouraged Raju to audition for Indian Idol. As Raju bantered about how such contests were only for the rich, Bergis SMSed his entry and he was registered. At the elimination round on the show, Sonu Nigam gifted him and other contestants a ring each, and announced that Sony channel would finance Raju’s future musical training. After the show, Raju says he spent months chasing the channel; finally Nigam’s office sent him to train with music director Suresh Wadkar. Raju was asked for fees when he didn’t even have money for the commute. He ended up getting a menial job at Wadkar’s studio — cleaning the very classroom he was supposed to be studying in. Eventually, he quit. Wadkar says Raju came to him seeking work and denies Sonu Nigam ever recommended Raju for training.
Five years of struggle in Mumbai have taken their toll. Raju rarely smiles. “It hurts me that after all the love I got from across the country, these people forgot me in one moment. I was just used. Whenever I’d call, they’d evade me saying they’re in London,” says he. Today he strains to pay Rs 600 rent for his room in a Juhu chawl and has taken many loans to make ends meet. He recently took a singing job at a dance bar nearby where he gets paid Rs 100 for the days he performs. Though stretched almost to starvation, Raju cannot make himself return home as long as he strides the donkey of failure. “Sometimes I think it would’ve been better if I’d never made it to Indian Idol,” says he.
Despite his story, 21-year-old Chotu Lohar is more jaunty, and because of this, his story speaks of the unimaginable empowerments and freedoms Talent TV has unleashed in India. Empowerments beyond money, beyond conventional fame.
There was a time when Lohar hardly saw the light of day — literally. Working in the dank darkness of the Gorumahisani coal mine in Orissa, he used to earn Rs 35 a day. Music on the radio channel Vividh Bharati was his only solace. Then one day, the sight of Hrithik Roshan and Prabhudeva dancing on screen “cast a magic spell”, the irrepressible Lohar recalls.
Neither 12-hour power cuts nor his father, a bulldozer driver, could deter him. Hypnotised by the possibilities, Lohar quit the mine and struggled to enter the local dance scene. “We never knew Chotu could actually dance, so when he won third prize at a local dance competition in Gorumahisani, we were amazed,” says Tara, his shy elder sister, who lives near Jadugoda. Then the miracle of Dance Jharkhand Dance caught up with him.
‘The shows get innocent small-town folks and exploit them,’ says indian idol Abhijeet Sawant
Hans Raj, who runs a dance club in Jamshedpur, spotted him at the contest and urged him to audition for Dance India Dance (DID). Selected from 2,000 contenders in Bhubaneswar last October, DID air-dropped Lohar onto the nation’s dance floor. A few weeks later, he was spewed out, eliminated in the Kolkata leg. But the ride had yielded its pay-offs. Lohar was irretrievably altered. His friends, Debu and Sunil, take disarming pride in the fact that people recognise Chotu today on the roads back home. “Once we were on our way back from Ghatshila and had stopped at a dhaba for a snack. Suddenly a chap at the dhaba saw Chotu and asked him to do his ‘cap-act’,” Debu chuckles with relish .
Lohar’s cap is local legend. In his new avatar, he sports the global uniform of prêt à porter cool: sunglasses, checked shirt, embroidered jeans. And his trademark cap. During his stint with DID, his ability to move this cap without using his hands caught the audience’s imagination, even more than his footwork. Neighbourhood children in Namtola, where Lohar now lives, routinely run after him shouting excitedly, “Topi kaise hilaya? Khopdi free hai!” “How do you move your cap?” — that was the question the judges had posed to Lohar. Dish television beamed his spontaneous answer beneath the arc light across the dark hinterland into the dim-lit interiors: “My head is free.”
Lohar may be back in the mining colonies, gritty, potent with dead-ends, but something has been unlocked within him — and those around. Today his father is willing to believe that a career in dancing might lead the family out of penury; his uncle’s four daughters take dance lessons from him, and Lohar is learning salsa and readying himself to audition at a dance academy being opened by master choreographer Saroj Khan in Jamshedpur. “I never thought I’d perform before Saroj Khan,” says Lohar. “Earlier all this seemed like a dream. Now I realise it’s possible to translate a dream into reality.” Lohar never wants to go back to Gorumahisani and has become choosy about where he performs. “I can’t take part in just any dance show now. I am a known face. I have to be selective, even if my earnings actually go down because of this.” Just the birth of this self-worth could count for a success story.
2,000 is the number of people Chotu Lohar beat at the Bhubaneswar auditions to get to the Kolkata leg of Dance India Dance
LAST WEEK on Valentine’s Day, 27- year-old heartthrob Meiyang Chang, son of a dentist in Dhanbad, took his girlfriend out for an expensive dinner in Mumbai. Though nervous about the bill, he felt happy he could afford such things. Silver-tongued, articulate, intelligent, this third-generation Chinese immigrant could well be the poster boy of Indian Talent TV success — of what is possible if things go right.
After Indian Idol, Meiyang signed with Sony BMG along with three other fellowfinalists to form the boy band F4, and they cut an album Tu To Na Aayi. He returned the next season to co-host Indian Idol, and expects to be invited again next season. The posters are out for an upcoming Yash Raj film Badmaash Company, where he’s acted alongside Shahid Kapoor.
Every evening Meiyang pumps iron at an Andheri gym. He’s a photographer and blogs long, considered posts on everything from rural living to Mumbai traffic to alcohol. Dhanbad could never have contained his ambition. Perhaps it’s because he’s Anglophone, perhaps because he’s never known desperation, fame sits lightly on him. He has gelled hair, fashionable glasses and the right rips in his jeans — all that’s necessary for a youth icon. He’s relaxed about doing his duty by his stardom and lets his charm carry him through the world. A dentist in Dhanbad can earn a lakh per month, he says, but there wouldn’t be much to spend it on.
If one were doing a controlled experiment on what can happen to reality show contestants, one would look at two others — also from Dhanbad — who like Meiyang were finalists in Indian Idol: Abhishek Kumar and Puja Chatterjee. This troika, all from the same small town, has had three distinct post-show trajectories.
500 crore is Reality TV’s share of the Rs 7,000 crore Indian television ad revenue
Meiyang came fifth but went on to be the considerable success he is. Puja came sixth and Abhishek eighth. Soon after the show, Puja moved back to Dhanbad, from where she often travels to give live shows. The 21-year-old says, “I’ve been singing for the last 16 years. I know this is what I have to do.” Since Bollywood isn’t knocking yet, she sings playback for Bengali movies and takes it as an experience that will cycle her back to Mumbai eventually.
Abhishek joined Meiyang on the F4 boy band circuit but disillusioned with the uncertainty of the struggler’s life, he recently quit and took up a software programming job in Mumbai. He continues to do shows on weekends, but has no regrets about leaving the chase for the golden ring. Abhishek is scornful of peers who keep hopping from one reality show to another. “You can’t live in reality television forever. At some point you have to live in reality,” says he.
CHOTU LOHAR in embroidered jeans; Meiyang with a tear in his. Part of the irony of Talent TV is the centrifuge between what aspirants desire and the shows allow. Most young people seeking the escape velocity of Talent TV want to slough off their provinciality — let them become the global citizen, benchpressed by American pop culture. But while Bollywood makes aspirants play the generic Hindustani, and increasingly, the globalised urban NRI, Indian Talent TV is predicated on making candidates amplify their localness —sorry, your joota cannot be Japani here. Regional identity is the all-purpose hangar; into this contestants can chopper in their individual neuroses. It is on region that viewers back home vote — out of a blur of identification, encouragement, and perhaps some schadenfreude. It’s ironic, then, that most participants are furiously trying to fly away from their past.
Sociologist Shiv Vishvanathan comments, “Contestants create parochial loyalties. It’s like parents watching their kids play tennis. The kid may be quite calm while playing the game, but the parents will be frantic just watching it.”
But parochial frenzy is exactly what the producers of Talent TV are counting on. Ask Sumedha Karmahe — the lissome beauty in the red dress on the cover of this issue. Some years ago India watched a group of B-town girls being fabricated on live television into quintessential American teenagers. The pop band Viva! was short-lived, but that transformation is exactly what Sumedha was longing for.
The daughter of an accountant mother and sports teacher father in Chhattisgarh’s Rajnandgaon — a town famous for its temple, now infamous for its Maoist trouble — Sumedha came fifth in Sa Re Ga Ma Pa 2007. She now lives in Mumbai where she is a successful playback singer. Her sister — archetypal urban teenager tapping on an iMac — and mother Sarla have moved in with her. Sumedha — impeccable in her all-day gloss — does many live shows and a few reality shows. She is training her voice and considering hiring a manager for the next climb in her ladder: to become a pop star. This is the exact life she always wanted.
Back on the show, Sumedha had been corralled into being “Chhattisgarh kiBarbie doll”. That played a big part in her becoming a finalist, yet home is not an option anymore for her. While the show was still on air, she had been flown back to Chattisgarh by the channel for her “profile shot” — to acquaint audiences with her local flavour. To her shock, her welcome wagon was organised by local politicians who wanted a bite of the publicity. She was put in a security motorcade, cars ahead and behind. It was organised much like an election rally and there she was, she says, also asking the public for SMS votes.
She has been back to Rajnandgaon only once after that on what she calls a “silent visit”. “If I refuse to go for someone’s lunch, people accuse me of having changed. I haven’t, they have.” Even her mother Sarla, now used to Mumbai’s noise, is startled by quiet Rajnandgaon and now prefers the busier capital, Raipur.
Sumedha remembers her months sequestered in the show’s bungalow along with other contestants as a time of sleeplessness. Two days of 20-hour shoots in a week; one day for song selection and two days promoting the show. Then one day you blink and the show has ended. The twilight zone was over, the whole country suddenly seemed to know her. “You never see the change coming,” she says.
But it is a truism of Talent TV that it leverages different things for different people. Take Qazi Touqueer, a 24-year-old Kashmiri, who wears his long hair like a character trait, tossing it in ways that make young women scream. Qazi does not want to lose his identity — he wants a tool to accentuate it. “I dream of the day when romantic movies will be shot in Kashmir again. I’ll act in them and for once a Kashmiri will play himself,” says he.
‘You can’t live in reality television. You have to live in reality,’ says Abhishek Kumar
Qazi learnt early as a child in Srinagar to duck every time he heard gunshots. He remembers bullet marks on his house, marches for azadi and elaborate goodbyes before he left for school every day, uncertain if he would return. Qazi was 19 when he saw his first film on a big screen because Srinagar’s cinema halls have been shut for two decades. He was hooked and announced he was going to be a star. Everyone he knew dissuaded him. Qazi was undeterred — perhaps because his fantasy was a refuge from the grim reality outside the mirrored room where he practiced becoming a hero. “To think of going to Bombay from Srinagar was to think of going to the moon. No, the sun,” says he.
Watching Fame Gurukul was sheer epiphany. “This is it!” he thought. His mother was aghast because Qazi could not sing. But Qazi instinctively knew that talent was no longer mandatory for fame. The musk lay elsewhere — in an intangible complex of poignant back-stories, identity, and vibe. “I told my mother I had the X factor. I knew what the audience wanted,” he stresses. True enough, despite weak performances, skeptical judges and uncooperative colleagues, India finally voted him to win. Today Talent TV shows have begun holding auditions in Srinagar. Qazi now owns an apartment and two cars. But the Srinagar auditions are the real badge of pride.
His Mumbai home is covered in Kashmiri bric-a-brac. You could be in a tourist houseboat. As he bides his time, turning down lucrative television serials, waiting for the original dream to fructify, most evenings Qazi potters about in a tiny garden outside his house. Ask him what he misses most about home. “Beauty” he answers quietly. And everything unsaid pulses for a moment. Mumbai may be the living dream; but Kashmir fails to dim.
GLITTERBUGGING IS difficult business and its stories of success and failure, dreams withheld and dreams accomplished, stretch endlessly. Ishmeet who died. Gwalior’s Shini Kalvint who lost. Howrah’s Sanchita Bhattacharya who won at 14. Deepali from Patna now a Bhojpuri star. And Prashant Tamang, the constable from Darjeeling, who triggered a riot.
Whatever the score, Talent TV is an emotional tightrope, where sometimes the desperation can weigh too heavily and break the finest balance. You might be terrified but you better not wheedle. You might be anxious but you better not sweat. You might be hungry but you better be nice. Sometimes these youngsters have trained for years and sometimes they’re trying a fluke shot, but invariably they have to deal with a rapacious world they’ve suddenly been thrust into.
Talent TV’s poster boy Abhijeet Sawant sums up the lunar landscape. “These shows can be dangerous. The organisers get innocent seedha saadha small-town folks and put them in situations they’ve never dealt with. The whole thing becomes a natak. They do end up exploiting the common man.” Sandeep Acharya, from Bikaner and an Indian Idol 2 winner, says he never wants to return to the reality format: “I see people taking part again and again. You have to just take your change and run. That’s all.”
Javed Jaffrey, comedian and judge, says, “Everyone thinks this is an instant shortcut to riches. Parents dress their kids in tarty outfits and too much make-up, and make them dance to grown-up, seductive songs.” Wadkar agrees, “Contestants get desperate, their parents get desperate. They get anxious to hang out with big people, and want the dazzle and autograph hunters. They think anybody can get up and become Kishore Kumar. They forget it took 40 years to become Kishore.”
But none of these stories or caveats catch the whole picture. The creative gene unleashed. The sea of young people in Mumbai, mostly in and around Andheri, who came expressly to live off their talent – but now find themselves living off their wits to avoid the city’s legendary squeeze. The key thing is, they can never be nobody to themselves again.
Perhaps Flaubert was right, after all – talent is a long patience. Some grow maddened waiting for their own big lucky strike as they stay put on the TV show carousal. Some remain giddy, goosebumped, gutsy. They are here in Mumbai. And they are out there, back in that always-unexpected place — home.
(With inputs from Rishi Majumder in Kolkata; Vishnupriya Sengupta in Namtola; Aastha Atray Banan and Pragya Tiwari in Mumbai; Samrat Chakrabarti and Trisha Gupta in Delhi)