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Even as reality shows on Indian television channels showcase the talent of gifted children, what do they tell children about Winning?
By Amrita Rajan
The great reality show juggernaut that established Zee TV as a ratings superstar in the Wild West days of 1990s cable television was Antakshari. Based on a popular parlour game usually played by children, it featured adult contestants, a live band, and a host who was palpably passionate about music. Five years after it aired its last episode, however, things are very different – now children on Indian TV channels take part in reality show competitions originally designed for adults, with lackluster celebrity judges who often bring nothing to the table other than their ego.
Indian television discovered the power of cute child actors when Balika Vadhu – the story of a child bride who must balance her dreams of a bright, independent future with her untimely marriage in a conservative, rural society – became an unlikely ratings phenomenon. In the years since, the number of fiction programs featuring little children has increased exponentially: Aap ki Antara (Zee), Uttaran (Colors), and Phulwa (Colors) all adapted the Balika Vadhu formula of marrying an ostensibly social message with extremely familiar melodrama to tremendous profit. Even historical epics like Jhansi ki Rani (Zee), Chandragupta Maurya (Imagine), and Veer Sivaji (Colors) begin with the lead characters as brave children who live startlingly adult lives. No normal childhood for these kids, not when they have to grow up into national icons. These children are martial arts experts, waging war and playing politics, exhibiting a strong sense of patriotic duty, completely dedicated to serving the mother nation.
Personally, I find the whole trend to be more than a little creepy; a negation of humanity in our leaders. Sure the Ramayana and the Mahabharata had extensive tales of the characters as children, but they weren’t righteous robots. They were kids having adventures on a grand scale unlike the child actors of Indian TV who’re engaged in grim battles with fate and occupying powers. But the ratings do not lie: India loves it when little kids battle it out.
…the Ramayana and the Mahabharatahad extensive tales of the characters as children, but they weren’t righteous robots.
Not just on fiction programs, but especially on reality shows. Every Indian language that boasts a television channel has kids performing their little hearts out. They sing old Bollywood standards composed decades before their parents were born – and I wonder if they even understand what they’re singing about. They dance to the latest chartbuster – and I cringe as they ape the thumkas and jhatkas of their favorite star.
But it’s not just the spectacle that puts me off. No, contrarian as it sounds, what bothers me is what these shows actually get right: When these shows are at their best, they feature some gifted children who’ve truly struggled against tremendous odds to make it on to the national stage. And they clearly do take pride in what they do and put in long hours of practice. The sheer amount of physical, emotional and mental effort is visible.
And it’s the knowledge that these children probably work harder than most adults I know, juggling huge amounts of stress and pressure as they compete for reasons they’re too young to completely comprehend, that I find difficult to digest. I’m sure they love what they do and really enjoy being in the spotlight. But what does fame and a recording contract really mean to a 10-year-old? These kids are seeking approval from authority figures, from parents to judges to audience members, and I can only imagine how they feel when they’re voted out.
Competition is such an integral part of childhood. From sibling rivalry to running races with your friends and getting good grades to being popular, the socialization of children is often focused around the importance of winning. We might tell children that it’s the effort that counts, not the result, but kids are smart enough to evaluate and figure it out for themselves – he who comes first, gets the life-changing multi-lakh contract that makes their parents happy; he who comes second, gets a perfunctory pat on the back. Having it play out on national television only underscores the message.
Earnest little kids trying to copy the adults they admire are frequently adorable, no doubt, but the flip side of that equation is that they’re absolutely heartbreaking when they fail. Some of them, you can actually watch crumble mentally on stage as they realize they forgot a specific instruction or missed a note or otherwise messed up. And of course, this is the emotional core of competing on reality television – pain is the magical sweet spot that keeps the audience at home interested week after week.
We might tell children that it’s the effort that counts, not the result, but kids are smart enough to evaluate and figure it out for themselves…
Once upon a time, you had shows like the Javed Jaffrey-hosted Boogie Woogie. And it remains, till date, in my memory as one of the best examples of its kind because it never felt exploitative. You got the feeling that the judges were actively rooting for the contestants, child or adult, to have fun and express themselves. The point wasn’t to make money, it was to be the best you could be. When kids came on the show, the hosts treated them like the children they were instead of embryonic stars-in-the-making. But these days they won’t even let you on Kaun Banega Crorepati without an affecting sob story.
October sees the launch of a new show called Haar Jeet (Imagine). It’s the story of child actors who’re relentlessly overworked by their greedy parents. I wonder where they got that idea.
Amrita Rajan is a writer. She's interested in what you have to say.
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