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From margin to mainstream
Reality TV in India is changing people and perceptions, breaking barriers, and cutting through hierarchies of class, caste, and culture. It is suddenly the other great leveller.
New York dazzles everyone. Now imagine a poor dalit labourer from the boondocks of an already backward district in Orissa getting a chance to live his Big Apple dream - even if it is for a week. Keep in mind that he is polio-stricken, which has reduced him to being what many would call physically handicapped. How far removed is he - by geography, class, caste and fate - from opportunities that the real India provides a wealthy, upper caste, English-speaking boy in south Delhi? Twice? Thrice? Five times? It is beyond any formula in mathematics to calculate the distance large parts and innumerable people of the country are from a chance at being famous or successful that 'mainstream' India throws up.
The two differently-abled members of the Prince Dance Group, a motley crowd of bedraggled performers from Berhampur, would have blinked in wonderment even at the sights of Bhubaneswar, at its city life, its cars and hotels. But after a string of successful shows across India and some of its glitzy metros, they may now just be heading to America for acts planned in a clutch of its major cultural centres. This miracle has been possible for these daily-wagers because they were the champions last year of India's Got Talent.
That's where the importance of talent-based reality shows in a country like India, much more than perhaps in the West, lies - ravaged, beaten, and hemmed in as it is by an un-negotiable barbed-wire mesh of inequities, both inherited and thrust upon.
By far the biggest revolution in India's entertainment business, reality TV has for the first time provided a genuine chance for the country's talented but marginalised minorities to take a shot at being at least a tentative part of the mainstream. Often, it has been a window for many through which a sliver of hope has streamed in, helping them make sense of - and estimate the worth of - their prodigious talent in an abject world. Without it, they would have found it almost impossible to cut through the unsaid, unwritten conspiracy of exclusivity - and exploitation - that Indian showbiz is.
This year's edition of India's Got Talent, for instance, had Toko Teji, an amazing drummer boy from Arunachal Pradesh, a state that gets a little space in the nation's consciousness only when China makes fresh claims over it, or when there is talk of an incursion. Then there was the Shillong Chambers Choir Group. You need to listen to them to believe what they have brought with them all the way from the land of the Khasis. Yes, there exists such a tribe in India. And there are people with names like Toko Teji and Reuben Mashangva and Phuninding and Khriesatuonuo who can give India's best a nice, scary run for their money if they are given a platform to showcase their gift, to compete as equals. Incidentally, while the Shillong Chambers Choir Group won the contest, Toko came second.
An earlier episode of Indian Idol once showed a singer from Assam return home for a short break after he had made it to the top rounds. The camera followed him as he made his way back to his village to tumultuous welcome. The trip involved taking a bus, a boat ride and a long walk into the interiors where people lead anonymous, disregarded, and ignored lives as the rest of India whizzed past and raved about its progress in acronyms that are mistaken for growth as a tiny group understands it - GDP, PCI, HDI, even CWG.
In the quagmire that some of their lives are, the good ones among reality shows come as a straw that helps contestants trudge the treacherous road that has language, culture, and often, physiognomy as insurmountable barriers. In Indian Idol, Zee Saregamapa, Dance India Dance and a host of other genuine programmes, it is not surprising to find sons and daughters of people living in jhuggis challenging those who've come from Boston and Montreal, the children of housemaids sharing stage with those whose parents come to drop them off in a Mercedes Benz, the descendants of great music gharanas facing off with those whose parents have pawned their only bits of jewellery to get home a guitar for the first time ever in the history of their family.
Of course, there are the reality shows that live off the miseries of people or have them behaving like depraved delinquents. But, sometimes, the light shines on them too. A couple of loonies from a show that prizes being nasty and mean, and despicable even, as they ride across dirt paths have made it big now, splashing their bitchiness around on bigger canvasses.
Reality TV in India has added, and is constantly adding, to the talent pool. It's doing its bit towards integration - a man of Chinese descent is acting in Hindi movies and there are now singers, dancers, and performance artists from Karbi Anglong, Chamba, Palamu, Darjeeling, Bolangir in circulation - and has introduced to a large audience the people and places that popped up only in detailed maps, geography textbooks and Google searches. Go, Toko.
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