The business of faking dreams

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The glitter of reality shows and the feel-good factor of promoting talent from across the nation masks a purely commercial vision for the future of our arts and culture, says Rajeev Sethi

Playing with fire Television must not take over the creative space
Photo: AFP

LAST WEEK, the season for unexplored talent exploded once again, exposing Bharat to India. Over the past 40 years, I have worked in katchi bastees (slums) inhabited by traditional puppeteers, acrobats, balladeers, jugglers and khel-tamashawalas whose talent is as tenacious as it remains vulnerable. Grouped together as India’s first co-operative of itinerant performers — Bhule Bisre Kalakar — the festivals of India in the last century aired their aspirations to a world stuck in the time warp of exotic maharajas and emaciated kids with bloated bellies.

A few years ago, we were approached by the organisers of India’s Got Talent to send video clips of ‘acts’ as background material for one of the many reality television programmes, bludgeoning their way into the drawing rooms of a dazed middle India. Doused already in a flood of soaps, the seams burst. Variety entertainment formats were borrowed heavily from Western shows. Competitive episodic build-up with dramatised eliminations kept people glued to the couch. These programmes, however, struck an emotional chord and were deliciously indigenised as well as stage-managed by media-savvy whizkids. Each act was repackaged as a performance unlike anything that the Department of Culture could ever think of slotting into a file.

Nothing before on television quite matched the excitement, especially amidst the young kids growing up in suffocated chawls and remote villages who came in their droves to audition. With stars in their eyes, they wanted to be put up to be counted amidst millions struggling with hopelessness.

The ubiquitous, never-say-die talent, homegrown in every mohalla and street corner came with spontaneous confidence and yes, also innocent expectations. Taken for granted and at best indulged in neighbourhood Ramlilas disappearing fast from urban ghettos, television would now help them leapfrog to fame. Suddenly seeking to be discovered as a gem in the dust, polished to catch a glint of spotlight, groups formed overnight, spaces for rehearsals were found by miracle, make-up and costumes improvised, and parents were induced to talk of that ‘one chance’ that could change their lives. Little fame and fortune for even a moment — any old how and any which way, makes talent do things that have often nothing to do with family occupations or traditional skills —‘kartab’ after ‘kartab’ are being created… break through a tunnel of tubelights on a motorcycle, pick up weights with eyelids, eat glass and blades, choreographic PT’s etc. etc. Adding to this explosion of ‘jugaad’ and this hold-all bag of entertainment are over-the-top scenarios and sets, glib anchors, mentors ready to do or die and, of course, gushing judges from a class of celebrities best at whining, squealing, crying and applauding.

Audience participation and competitive suspense is ensured through SMS voting, filling the coffers of phone companies. Channels compete to find new formulae to guarantee fixed eyeballs and soaring TRPs. Star appearances become de-rigour as the synergies between the small and big screen become seamless. Myopic corporates that have paid lip service to CSR pitch in with social responsibility that shows up in the balancesheet as well as on Page 3. Magnanimous with their support, even established artists, insecure with the disappearance of live audiences, have realised the value of being electronically visible. Voila! Welcome the age of new market driven culture.

Alas, so much is also lost in the process of reinventing acts put out by impatient producers raised on film fanfare. India’s talent show up as individual circus acts, but no one asks why circuses are dying. There are street acrobats, but no one knows how thousands of Bajania, Domboru, Bansrani, Kabutari Nats (all castes of traditional gymnasts) eke out a living, dodging an archaic Bombay Prevention of Begging Act that forbids street yoga as “acts of pretence to solicit alms”.

An occasional token finalist from the incredibly talented rural community of traditional musicians, like the Langa or Manganiyars from the deserts of the Thar, comes to public notice. One of them refuses to take off his turban… good … but no one is better informed about the role of the Mirasis, the keepers of our heritage (Miras) in sustaining most of our classical forms at some cost to their upwardly mobile aspirations. Most finalists have to acquire that final yardstick of being good at Bollywood music as the ultimate ticket to become India’s idol — but what the heck? At least the base of the pyramid gets a‘dekho’.

So while I am a great fan of perfection brought to the limelight by some hunarmands: a sweet as honey choir from Northeast; sand painters reinventing handmade animation from Odisha; amazing choreographers breathless from high density neighbourhoods, stitching together huge imaginations with dollops of energy… but surely India/Bharat has more! It feels good to cheer the differently-abled dancing the Mahabharata on wheelchairs. Seeing kids acquire the confidence of facing arch lights and audiences makes one happy. Nevertheless, I feel sorry to see children pretend to be adults or see such a powerful medium of infotainment be reduced to the level of chewing gum or sipping tea. Pandering ignorantly to vicarious titillation, it’s foolish to reduce fine cultural expression and historical context to a near miss. To be subsumed by imitation is like sinking and revelling in mediocrity. One is against the homogenisation of all that is truly diverse, very tactical and hugely participative.

Mass production cannot replace what is “produced” by the masses. The creative space — whether that of individuals or communities — cannot be shrunk any further or be taken over by sticking to the telly.

The fault lies not with the raw talent but with those sitting in judgement preening like peacocks in the name of showbiz

The fault lies not with the raw talent eager to reach out but with those empowered to sit in judgement preening like peacocks in the name of showbiz. These publicity-seeking Twitterati are too taken up with their own public histrionics and over-the-top persona, belying their ignorance with incredulous interface. One must remain deeply suspicious of the public opinion polls as well. These too are arranged, sometimes by resourceful contenders themselves and often by organisers motivated by the prospect of more profit and only profit. The gullibility of an ever-growing audience — losing all their precious leisure to brittle ‘timepass’ in the name of slicing a bit of ‘reality’ into the humdrum of their real lives — is astonishing.

IN THE opening episode of India’s Got Talent last week, a little girl of five — no doubt from a traditional family of acrobats, such as those seen holding a ‘majma’ on the beaches of Juhu or Chowpatty or in nondescript street corners of small towns only a decade ago, barely washed and awake, was brought into a studio to walk the tightrope. Dazed in the stupor of arch lights, she was asked by a well-tucked memsahib judge, famous for item numbers in Bollywood, “Tum mujhe hug dogi?” the little acrobat does not answer, perhaps only knowing the word hug as in ‘hugg’ (to shit).

Sethi is one of India’s leading designers and chairman of The Asian Heritage Foundation

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