By Chitra Padmanabhan
Until a few days ago, "Dhoom Macha Le Dhoom" was one of many dance contests aired on every television channel, paying obeisance to reality shows as the mantra to TRP nirvana.
Such shows have a standard recipe: one portion melodrama; one portion meanness on the part of some judges; and one portion machismo - egging on a hunger to win at all costs, driven by the smell of money and instant success.
As an ad puts it, everybody's invited - contestants who can sing, contestants who can't sing but have attitude, as well as over-ambitious parents who goad their children to perform before the double barrelled gun of judges and janata.
Contestants who wilt in harsh formats designed by adults are whiners - so what if they are nine or 12 or 14 years old? They have to grow up some time. But even they create recall for such contests, making them reality shows in every sense of the term.
"Dhoom..." too became a bona fide reality show when it snaked out of the studio to the hospital recently. For, 16-year-old Kolkata girl Shinjini Sengupta, eliminated from the show in May, had to be admitted to the NIMHANS Hospital in Bangalore in a depressive state allegedly caused by the judges' sharp comments on her last performance. She had lost her power of speech and use of limbs.
In the ensuing storm of recriminations aimed either at the TV channel, the makers of the programme or the parents (for reportedly having hidden their daughter's medical history), more people would have watched the show, hoping to catch some action real time.
After every outrage, the show goes on; it literally thrives. Take the "Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Li'l Champs 2007" contest. Loria Doshi's father announced on air that he had had thousands of votes cast for his daughter so how could she have lost the round? Sans any remorse for his act, Doshi's anger was aimed at the organisers for not having explained that only one vote per computer was registered as valid! What lesson must Loria have learnt that day?
Remember when 12-year-old Smita Nandi's father suffered a heart attack on hearing that his daughter had been eliminated from the show? A website quoted him as saying, "....But I guess that's our destiny." Destiny is a big word.
Will Smita ever be free of the guilt of having triggered her father's illness? Did any of these parents ever consider telling their children to participate to the best of their abilities and enjoy their performance?
Maybe not, considering the windfall a win can bring. Li'l Champ 2006 at 14, Sanchita Bhattacharya is full-time into a punishing routine of playback assignments and shows, 'managed' by a father who bid adieu to his job, say reports. College, friends and a normal life are not for Sanchita any more -- shouldn't mollycoddle them too much.
More importantly, what will Shinjini, Loria or Smita make of their talent now -- holding promise and yet seeming so inadequate? Many such contestants can be seen on the treadmill routine of one reality show after the other. They get a sponsored 'makeover' which comprises the synthetic glamour of an adult clothes horse-cum-blow-dried-assembly-line look. Let's not even bring up evolution of their individual talent here. What do these marketing gimmicks do to their psyche?
Ironically, the aggression vented on the psyches of young contestants has little to do with spotting 'original' talent. If at all these contests showcase anything, it is the hunt for clones - forcing the child to become an adult before her time and stunting her originality for the joys of becoming an adult imitation.
An adolescent girl shakes her non-existent bosom to the sexualised choreography of a Bollywood number before indulgent adults. A youngster strains to achieve the eros or pathos of an adult singer without a thought for a voice that is still developing, to adult approval. Clones do well in society, so any amount of aggressive 'competition' is acceptable.
Turning a child's talent for any artistic pursuit - dance, music or drawing - into an aggressive weapon is the worst legacy a society can bequeath to its young. Well-known Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman put it beautifully when he spoke of the binding, life-affirming role of art and literature in society. "What art, what literature does: children who dance together find it difficult to slaughter one another in the streets."
Not everybody can live in woolly-headed idealism. What better way than a reality show for those ready to tackle the real world?
(Chitra Padmanabhan is a journalist based in Delhi. She can be reached at email@example.com )