Poverty Tourism in India may be passé these days, what with droves of high-rollers flying in their private jets to invade our palace hotels and luxury resorts, but hard-luck stories have found fertile ground elsewhere: on Indian television shows. No matter which channel you turn to or which programme you watch, the song remains the same: the participants vie with one another to tell viewers just how badly off they are, and how this stint on TV has the potential to change their lives for the better.
On Masterchef India, we have already met two ‘single mothers’ who are living away from their children – cue quivering chins and discreet tears followed by brave smiles – and hope to reunite with them if they do well on this show. No, I can’t work out either how these two events are related but the ladies bring up their domestic troubles whenever the opportunity presents itself and the judges look suitably sympathetic. Does this make the food they cook taste any better? No clue. Should their sad lives make a difference to their scores when the results are tabulated? Of course not. And yet these ‘personal problems’ crop up ever so often.
Meanwhile Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) has recast itself as a show for India’s Less Fortunate. The catchline of the show says it all: ‘Koi bhi aadmi chhota nahin hota.’ The promise is clear: this is the show that ‘aam aadmi ko khaas bana deta hai.’ In keeping with the theme, participants roll on to tell their stories of woe to the greatest superstar of them all, Amitabh Bachchan, and confess how they are looking to transform their lives by a big win. This one hopes to pay off his debts with the prize money; the other wants to buy a house for his parents. This one wants to complete her studies; the other wants to send his kids abroad to study. So far, so heart-breaking.
Take the lucky chap from a small Bihar village who won the R5 crore pay-off (and was promptly – if somewhat predictably – nicknamed Slumdog Millionaire). Sushil Kumar grew up in a mud house with a leaking roof, didn’t even own a TV set and had to watch the earlier seasons of KBC at a neighbour’s house. A government clerk, he taught at a local institute to supplement his income while he studied to crack the civil services exam so that he could fulfil his dream of becoming an IAS officer. But now, with the KBC prize money, he could buy a new house for his family, give enough money to his brothers to set up businesses of their own, and sit and home to prepare for the civil services exam rather than working two jobs.
Kumar’s was the typical rags-to-riches story that makes the stuff of television TRPs these days, an arc that goes effortlessly from deep deprivation to fame and money, taking in a teary TV appearance along the way. Clearly, to make it in reality television – or game shows, for that matter – these days, your reality has to be more gritty than glossy.
And by allowing the participants to tell their stories, these shows tap into our love of the underdog. The back stories also help to humanise the participants on these shows, to make them flesh-and-blood creatures that we care about. And that makes it easier to evoke sympathy and a certain fellow-feeling (otherwise just how badly would we react to somebody else walking away with a Rs 5 crore prize while we lolled about on our sofas?) for the participants of these shows. The subliminal message is clear: if they can transform their lives, maybe we are in with a chance as well.
Small wonder then that the format of using hard-luck stories as a magnet has been adopted by reality shows across the board. India’s Got Talent could just as well have been titled India’s Got All Teary as the sob stories piled on. The winners of the first season, the Prince dance troupe from Orissa, were sold as the underdogs of the competition, impoverished performers from one of the more impoverished states of the Indian Union. This, despite the fact that they were so talented that they would have won on sheer merit. And yet, their back-story was told and re-told... and then told yet again for good measure.
There is no mistaking the message: television can change lives; it can make fortunes; it can transform destinies. It can take a poor man who lives in a mud hut in a Bihar village and turn him into a crorepati. It can unearth unknown talents in the depths of rural India and make them national superstars.
In other words, reality television has the potential to change your reality. There’s just one caveat: don’t bother to apply if you are middle-class and middle-income. Unless you have a hard luck story to tell – and sell – you simply don’t stand a chance.
Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami
From HT Brunch, November 6
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