The man with the glycerine bottle stood on the sidelines, lost in the dazzling sets of the dance contest show. In the thick of the drama of hope and despair, tears would be a good touch.
But there was laughter too, on demand. And cheers. And jeers. And groans. And catcalls. After all, 14 cameras were watching.
At the heart of the mesmerising reality TV contests that have India in a spell, are hired audiences from across Mumbai, from the slums to middle-class suburbs; young men and women, mothers and uncles. Their tears and laughter — and how much they can move you in your living rooms — can make or break multi-crore shows.
They are the men and women who suddenly get up to dance at singing and dance contests. They shout “No! No! No!” when a contestant is booted out. And they cry at the emotional moments, aided by the glycerine- on-call.
Most of them are consummate professionals at clapping, laughing or booing. “Being part of an audience is what they do for a living,” says Neetu Kothari (31), one of the many ‘audience coordinators’ who fill the viewers’ galleries in reality shows across channels. “If you look carefully, you’ll find the same people in different shows. This is often their only source of income,” she explains.
In the TV world, they’re called, simply, ‘members’. They’re usually paid Rs 350 to 400 for a day’s shoot which can last anywhere between eight to 12 hours at a stretch.
Pappu Lekhraj (40), who has been in the casting and audience coordinating business for 25 years now, says this job is as good as it gets for many of them. “They’re paid on a daily basis, given free food and water, and sometimes even get to watch celebrities for free. They’re happy enough with the Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000 they can collect every month from this job,” says Lekhraj.
He reveals that, very often, close-ups of the audience clapping and cheering are shot separately and then edited to fit into the flow of the programme.
“Taali!” a portly crowd handler shouted, ordering the audience to clap. They did. It was a rehearsal. They’d been clapping all day. If they didn't, they could be evicted. And lose a day’s earnings.
“When will we get some food?” the voice of a youth from a suburban slum cried out in the background.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” complained another. His mother screamed a whisper: “I’m not going to bring you next time!” she threatened.
During a shoot, the audience is handled by five to six people from the channel, along with assistants to the audience coordinators. They instruct the audiences when to laugh, clap or gasp; and look after their needs.
While food and water are always provided, audience members may have to arrange for their own conveyance. “Sometimes, when it gets too late, they sleep on the sets until the local trains start plying early in the morning,” reveals Kothari.
They came to the huge studio early in the morning, taking the train and the bus. To avoid any continuity glitches, they had to sit fixed in the same place all day, on long wooden benches where an HT reporter also sat, and got nearly evicted for not being animated and excited enough.
The crew members strutted around in fancy black uniforms, holding walkie-talkies, ordering silence, moving cameras, sending word to the anchors to finish their lunch quickly.
Placards were ready — the coordinator for the show had already decided who the audience would back as the favourite. There would also be a moment when a girl from the audience would suddenly scamper onstage and try and reach out to him. It was all in the script. It had all been worked out.
One young man decided he had had enough and walked across to chat with his friend in a lower row. He smashed his head into a camera crane, and apparently bled a little. Handkerchiefs were fished out. He whimpered back to his place to more whispered screams from his mother, a fierce woman.
Kothari, who supplies audiences for shows like Dance India Dance, India’s Got Talent and Sa re ga ma pa says most production houses want youngsters and middle-aged housewives.
However, Lehkraj, who is in the in-house coordinator for shows like Sach ka Saamna, Tere Mere Beach Mein and upcoming shows like Perfect Bride and Bigg Boss Season 3, says there are specific audience requirements according to the demand of the show’s script.
For instance, he had to audition and select 10 pairs of twins for Farah Khan’s interview with Yusuf and Irfan Pathan on Tere Mere Beach Mein, since one pair would be called on stage to interact with Khan and the cricketers. Now, he has to find “fat people and fat people who lost weight” for an upcoming episode with weight-watchers Karan Johar and Sonam Kapoor.
Lekhraj, who has an extensive database of groups from large residential societies, remarks, “I get advance bookings from people who want to attend Sach Ka Saamna and Tere Mere Beach Mein. People love to hear about other people’s lives and meet celebrities.”
Back at the studio, the crowd manager began to scream at an elderly lady who wasn’t shaking her hands a lot, or clapping, or cheering: “You aren’t clapping! I shall throw you out! You aren't going to get a single rupee!”
Profuse apologies followed. The elderly lady was the anchor’s mother.