Growing up with Roadies (almost)

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After eight years, Roadies is a totally different beast from the simple adventure show it once was. Is its current avatar ‘badass’ or just bad, asks Nishita Jha

ARITE OF passage has three phases. Separation, transition and reincorporation — being absorbed into the familiar; with a newly acquired status. A rite of passage, a journey that causes us to travel inwards, is a thing of pride. The Australian aborigines had walkabouts. The Japanese had bushido. Other rites were less ritualised but not necessarily less profound — losing your virginity, your first trip away from home, and now — your first appearance on reality TV. For the young people auditioning for Roadies, India’s longest running reality show, becoming a Roadie has become that rite of passage that feeds the 21st century need to be recognised, to become ‘somebody’. On air since 2003, the show completed its eighth season with a TRP of 3.25/5 last month.

The show took seed when Hero Honda launched the Karizma in India, and asked MTV for a concept that would embed the bike into the urban cool psyche. MTV’s international show Road Rules, where a group of youngsters travelled to locations in an RV with clues to guide them, had run for four seasons in 1995, but Hero Honda had something different in mind. “They wanted fashionable young people riding across the country on bikes,” recalls the show’s creator Raghu Ram. The other concept that was proposed was a group of ‘Do-Gooders’ who would ride across villages, making cricket pitches, football fields and collecting signature campaigns. “It was not an idea. Who would watch that?” laughs Ram.

Power trio: Raghu Ram, Rannvijay Singha and Rajiv Lakshman in Rio de Janeiro Brazil
Power trio: Raghu Ram, Rannvijay Singha and Rajiv Lakshman in Rio de Janeiro Brazil

The format of the show has been mirrored across adventure- based reality shows. A group of young people is required to survive without cell phones, away from comfort zones, on a limited budget and no space for fussiness. The Roadies were different from contestants on other shows because they travelled while performing tasks, earning their money, bikes and, most importantly, respect. Given the voyeuristic nature of reality TV, the story that kept us riveted was the story of the Roadies themselves, with the silent meta-narrative of the ‘Roadies spirit’. The characters whose selection we scrutinised along with Raghu, we judged not just on the basis of tasks, but also their friendships, dignity, defeat and attractiveness. Even the synchronised chemistry of Raghu Ram and Rajiv Lakshman spawned a cult of imitation mean-judges across channels — UTV Bindass Dadagiri was designed to test how much humiliation and bullying a contestant could take (Its first season had contestants cover their faces with cow shit while they were abused by the hosts). The other aspect of Roadiesthat no show could ape was its range of tasks — one day, the contestants would clean villagers’ homes to earn their food, or rappel down a steep cliff; on the next, they would be tripping on hallucinogenic drinks in South Africa, looking for a neon ‘totem’ on the heads of chanting tribals. In the last season, the task that made us wince was a group of boys getting Brazilian waxes.

In its first two seasons, Roadies was more a test of survival and social skills than competition. The kids did not already know what it was like to be on television, there was a fresh-faced enthusiasm to them. Although the show had not evolved into the slick, unpredictable format that we now know, their fights were silly, their eliminations from the show always civil. Tony and Ignoor from Season 1 may not have seen eye to eye, but never came to actual blows. A new contestant was introduced after every elimination in Season 2, but the Roadies tried to help them acclimatise. These were people we could be.

Who dares wins: Unlike previous seasons, the aggression in Roadies is now more in-your-face
Who dares wins: Unlike previous seasons, the aggression in Roadies is now more in-your-face

By the third season, a competition and the idea of an ultimate ‘Roadie’ had emerged. The Roadies spirit, now a way of ‘being’, was embodied in part by the show’s host and the winner of the first season, army kid Rannvijay Singh Singha and, in part, by the show’s crew, who shadowed the kids, testing tasks before they tried them on others. When Parul Shahi, a Northeastern from Delhi, became the first girl to win, there was a genuine reason to celebrate. The spirit we applauded was of an adventurer, a teamplayer, someone who never gave up against the odds. In its fourth season, Roadies’ auditions and behind-the-scenes footage began viralling, becoming as popular as the show itself. Raghu Ram, his twin Rajiv Lakshman and Rannvijay were now larger-than- life characters, their aura amplified by the wannabes that marched through audition rooms. “It is problematic yet interesting that our personalities, particularly mine, has become its own animal on the show. People now react to Roadies as a point of view,” muses Ram.

There are moments when you feel bad for the young person at the receiving end of that point of view, because it is easy for a well-travelled and well-read adult to pick apart the faux cocky teenager sitting in front of him, to poke him till his confidence shatters. Like the cruel tutelage of Pai Mei, their aggression is meant to test how people react under pressure. Lakshman stresses on the fact that they are merely selecting candidates for a reality show (people who will react to situations in interesting and unpredictable ways) and not giving out character-approval certificates; but for plenty of young people, the cultlike following of Roadies means the judges’ approval is exactly that. A stamp of much-needed approval.

We know perverts and misogynists roam among us. But those 15 seconds on a Roadies audition show us the creatures that lurk within

The form, group discussions and personal interviews test candidates, looking for the Roadies spirit. Questions focus on morality, identity, biases and sex with a smattering of general knowledge. “You might disagree with my views. But, at least, we’re getting kids to talk about what goes on around them. Where else is that happening?” demands Ram. True. But more often than not, the important message is lost in countless censor beeps and the thrill of seeing someone you don’t agree with being heckled on national television. We don’t YouTube episodes because ‘Raghu made so much sense’; we look for the uncensored version of the Chandigarh audition because we know a guy gets slapped for saying outrageous things. Add to this the rare task that involves nudity and the moral brigade has reason to cry foul (only adding to the show’s badass appeal). On the shrink-out-of-a-nightmare personality he has cultivated on-screen, Ram says, “I have to bang in my message loud and clear. I could explain things kindly, but no one would get it. They are already conditioned in the way that they think and it’s very dangerous.” So a girl, who moved from Kuwait to Chandigarh and professes she can’t ‘gel’ with her new infra-dig surroundings, is told that she is ‘schizophrenic’, another boy is abused for writing that if not given permission to marry his girlfriend, he will take her to a hotel, use and forget her. After eight seasons, we know misogynists, perverts and young people with alarming ideals and a frightening lack of knowledge roam freely among us. They look just like us, but those 15 seconds on a Roadies audition show us the creatures that lurk within. A rare few, usually the ones who make the cut, show us a spark of that much-fetishised spirit. They are the ones who audition year after year, travel across the country to hang out all day at selection centres.

It’s no surprise that with the changing landscape of reality television, the show and its message of the Roadies spirit has ‘mutated’. Increasingly, contestants just want to be famous, not actually undertake a personal journey. These people will scream, abuse, humiliate themselves and others as long as they can become the most talked-about people on the show (because we do talk about them). Often, ex-Roadies use the show as a platform to skate across reality shows like Splitsvilla, Emotional Atyachaar and Khatron Ke Khiladi.

THE WINNERS of past seasons — Rannvijay Singha, Ayushmaan Khurana and Parul Shahi— emerged as heroes because there was a likeability about them that went beyond their ability to hog screen time. The shy and determined Anthony Yeh won Season 4, but the real story was of the fiery Gurbani Judge, who was bullied by her teammates mercilessly, screamed that she “needed my fucking shrink” and then emerged as a much-tattooed and happier VJ, Bani J. With the next season, a new kind of fame-hungry youth was upon us. Bitchy was cool. Being abusive meant you had attitude. Vote-outs were now about eliminating the most promising contender. Season 5 winner Ashutosh was the underdog because he worked at a dhaba in Saharanpur, but his was no tale of inspiration. He refused to do certain tasks and won at the cost of slapping a female contestant. On subsequent seasons, the judges admitted that Ashutosh lacked the Roadies spirit. Then why did he win the show? “The tonality of the show has changed. But the truth is it’s hard to find real people anymore. People come to us with a rehearsed idea of what they are going to be like on the show,” says Singha. In the last season, there were terrific performers who proved their mettle. Anchal Khurana was not one of them. Ram was right — antagonists like Avtar, Dev and Rene who relied on ugly histrionics were eliminated. Yet, the stars — Pooja, Anamika, Suchit and Mohit — who performed tasks brilliantly and refused to soil their reputations, lost to Khurana, an Average Joe who returned to the show on a wild-card entry. Ram says the finale saw the vote swing in Anchal’s favour not because people wanted her to win, but because they did not want Mohit to win.

The twins weaving this story are clear about the fact that they are not in the business of constructing moral fables. Roadies, even with its wider canvas, darker characters and cinematic colours, is a reflection of the way they see the world, “mostly bad, with a little bit of good”. But in the following seasons, if fluff trumps spirit once again, and the truly deserving do not win, will Roadies ever return to the show it once was? More importantly, will we?

Nishita Jha is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
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