Used to the electronic, portable possession of music, we return to the awe of primitive people only when we see real people open their mouths and sing. It is this awe for universal but still mysterious abilities like singing or dancing that once powered talent shows in early, unsophisticated television. New television in India and abroad juiced up talent shows such as Zee’s Sa Re Ga Ma by adding a ‘reality’ component to them. While we once looked at a sweet-looking girl with a sultry voice and wondered who she was, now we are told that we can decide her fate. We meet her family, bad moods, boyfriend and gods. We are encouraged to decide whether she is a better person than the other girl who could win. We can send our judgement to a cellphone number and we believe the SMSes will change her fate.
It is assumed that audiences will be bored if shows are not whipped to a fever pitch. Sa Re Ga Ma was once a genteel music contest from which singers such as Shreya Ghosal emerged. The added Pa to its name came with a big shot of reality show. Star’s Amul Star Voice of India, a popular show, created the profitable Chote Ustad for child singers. Viewers got highly involved preferring either fashionable Aishwarya or the saintlyseeming Anwesha. (For those who were not interested in this rivalry the script offered a situation in which black-wrist-bandwearing child contestants protested against the producers for allowing the entry of a new singer.) The newest spin of the show, Mummy Ke Superstars, pitches the mothers of child performers against each other. You can hear the children trotting out tired, glib commentary on their mothers’ performances and personalities.
What is Vishal Dadlani, who is still part of a band called Pentagram, actually thinking while he watches these mothers? He did say in the first episode that if he had asked his mother to do what the participants’ mothers did, he would have been beaten.
These talent shows feed our other prehensile desire: our longing for a narrative. Audiences have always imagined the off-stage lives of performers but television now feeds us readymade narratives, bilious or sacharine as the programme’s leanings may be. The shows encourage us to hate or love the people who seem to be in charge: the judges. How does it matter that a movie-less starlet is judging a music show? Or that an action star is a celebrity judge in a dance show just to promote his movie releasing next week?
Our violent feelings about the judges’ decisions is a major reason why we watch the new-format talent shows. The judges’ ability or knowledge is never as relevant as their personalities. Some people will hate Paula Abdul’s kindness as much as others hate Simon Cowell. (This is so well-understood that the American Idol franchise tries to replicate this combination of personality in other countries as well.) The rare exception is Malayalam channel Asianet’s super hit show Idea Star Singer which makes unselfconsciously pedantic detours as celebrated composers make participants go over bits in which they performed less than perfectly.
The word talent, before it took on the meaning of divinely granted ability, literally meant a bag of gold. In televisionland we once again return to that meaning. Channels in India and abroad are still scrambling for new spheres in which talent shows can be created. We should have guessed that one day million dollar franchises could be built by watching people cook (Iron Chef) or make clothes (Project Runway). Hence Colors’ new variety show turned contest India’s Got Talent
The mile-long queues for auditions (child magicians, comedians, girl bands, acrobats, all are welcome) seems to validate that oft-repeated bewildering phrase: “These days everyone is so talented.” Though the shows offer lakhs to the winners, it is clear that it is the chance to rise above our one-billion fierce anonymity which is more important. They would agree with Nicole Kidman’s character in the 1995 black comedy To Die For, who believed, “You’re a nobody if you’re not on television.” So we have the ridiculous situation where we find it easy to believe that the ULFA actually threatened violence to telecom companies if an Assamese contestant did not win Indian Idol.
One evening a regional channel showed a bunch of giggling children standing by a sunny river side. A skinny, long-limbed little girl ignored the chubby, excitable television anchor as she prepared to leap from a high tree branch into a large inflatable rubber ring floating in the water. The crowds gasped as she leaped and a moment later emerged smiling, dark and wet as a seal. How did she feel, the anchor asked. The little girl continued to smile silently. The show moved to the next daring feat. It was a rare moment when television allowed reality to claim its share of awe.