What happens when the lights go out and the season ends?
For the winners of reality TV shows, there are prizes and contracts. For the rest, there’s often just dead silence where, hours earlier, there were crowds cheering, glamorous costumes, and panels of celebrity judges saying that you had what it takes.
“As soon as I came in second, my life changed back,” says Navneet Rastogi, 33, a caterer from Varanasi, describing his MasterChef India experience from 2013. “I had no money, no offers, and no confidence either. After all, if you’re not the winner, you’re a loser. And that’s how I felt.”
Some describe it as being back at square one; others say it’s worse, because they’ve quit jobs and spent precious savings on things like costumes and classes. As they make it through round after round, they’ve also bought into the fairytale fantasy.
“What’s strange is that I didn’t go in expecting much,” says Cecille Lee Rodrigues, 34, a mother and homemaker from Goa who came in second on Dance India Dance Super Moms in 2013. “I just loved reality shows and wanted to be one of those people living the fairytale dream. But my expectations just grew and grew as I kept getting compliments from celebrity judges. And now I still wait for my big Bollywood offer.”
The reality show helped me get the attention of several celebrities and got me compliments for my rapping skills, says Parry G, 24, a musician from Jammu who came in second on India’s Got Talent, 2015. “But after the show ended, I realised it’s important not to expect too much. You have to eventually make your own way. It is highly unlikely that offers will start pouring in and you will not become a star overnight.”
Even today’s reality show winners only get a headstart. Gone are the days of Abhijeet Sawant, who became a household name and launched a successful career as a musician and playback singer after winning the first edition of Indian Idol in 2005.
“Back then there were only two or three such shows. Now, the TV screens are flooded with reality shows and this makes it difficult for even the runners up and winners to make an impression,” says trade analyst Amod Mehra. “The number of shows will continue to increase and we will likely see more participants per show, and more drama. But they run on TRPs and are now meant mainly as entertainment, so they can bring you to centrestage, but that does not mean you will end up with a career.”
Rastogi, for instance, is back at his catering business, where no one cares about MasterChef or plating. Rodrigues is back in Panaji. She now runs a zumba class and judges local talent shows.
SCREEN TEST: Life after Centrestage
‘The real challenge begins after the show’
Pragya Patra, 25, from Orissa, made it to the Top 7 of The Voice India in 2015.
“First it was Top 20, then it was Top 10, then Top 7. I was sure that my Bollywood dream would come true after I had made it so far. After all, millions of people were watching the show and seeing me perform solo, and all I wanted was to make it as a playback singer,” she says.
Patra quit a job as advertising executive at Google India to participate in the reality show.
“It was a big investment,” she says. “But the show was a roller-coaster ride! The set, the lighting, the cameras and singing facing the celebrities, everything gave me goosebumps. Even weeks after my elimination, the feelings remained.”
While she was on the show, offers for marketing and advertising jobs poured in, she adds, but she refused them all because she was sure she would make some kind of career in singing.
Instead, as soon as she was eliminated, she found herself alone.
For the next four months, she persisted. “I spent all my savings — about Rs 1 lakh — on accommodation and approaching artist managers. I borrowed money from my parents and from other relatives,” she says.
From living it up in a five-star hotel, she moved into a tiny shared flat she could barely afford.
“I was depressed,” Patra says. “I couldn’t afford to stay but I couldn’t go back to the life I used to have.”
Desperate, she once again approached Shaan, one of the judges on the show.
who has since then got me gigs at parties and cafés through
His wife, Radhika Mukherjee, an entrepreneur, had just launched an e-platform called Happydemic, to help former reality shows contestants find work.
Through this platform, Patra now gets gigs at parties and cafés.
‘We had expected to dance at award shows, in films’
Beat Breakers, a team of nine dancers aged 9 to 25 from underprivileged families in West Bengal dropped out of school and college, and the older ones quit their jobs as domestic help when they were picked for the Top 10 on reality show India’s Got Talent Season 5 in 2014.
“The journey got us breathless — five-star hotels, meeting celebrities, boarding a flight for the first time,” says Sujay Mondal, now 11. “I still miss those experiences.”
They also pooled their savings and money from their parents to arrange for a special high-protein diet and gym memberships so they could bulk up and perfect their acrobatic dance routines.
“We got so many hundreds of thousands of audience votes each week,” says a wistful Mithun Saha, choreographer for the team.
When they ended the season in fourth place, they were disappointed to have not won, but hopeful about what would come next.
“We expected to be approached to perform at events across the country. We thought we would be included in Bollywood tours and invited to dance at award shows,” says Saha. “After all, we were famous nationally.”
The phones never rang, though. “We couldn’t stay in the city on our own so immediately left for Kolkata and started performing on stage there,” says Saha.
The dancers are now back home and have resumed their studies and jobs.
“We do small community shows around Kolkata and north India awaiting the desired recognition and finance.”
‘I thought I would be living a fairytale’
For Cecille Lee Rodrigues, 34, from Goa, just getting onto the show Dance India Dance in 2013 felt like a dream come true.
“I had always admired the reality shows and imagined it as a fairytale for those in it,” says the first runner-up on Dance India Dance Supermoms Season 1. “I wanted to take such a journey myself.”
When one of her favourite shows, Dance India Dance, announced a special edition for moms, she decided to prepare and audition.
“I trained with a dance group for two months before the show. Then I made it past the auditions and was chosen for the Top 20,” she recalls.
Suddenly, the homemaker from Panaji was a TV sensation, with fans on Facebook and Twitter.
As she made it through round after round and twirled her way into the finals, she felt like her fairytale dream had come true.
“When Vidya Balan called me the face of modern mother, all the hours I had put in grooming and rehearsing seemed worthwhile,” she says.
Then the show ended. She had come in second. “And I realised none of it had really meant anything.”
There would be no smooth ride into a career as a choreographer for Bollywood films.
What she had thought of as her struggle — the endless rehearsals and the stress of each elimination — seemed like so much pixie dust.
“The real struggle began after the show,” she says. “I had left my two-year old son back home, left the comfort of my hometown, to participate in the show. I spent months away from family. And I waited two months after the show ended, sure that I would at least get an offer from a small-time regional film. Those offers never came.”
She returned to Goa, and started a zumba class. “I judge school dance competitions and dance at corporate events in Goa,” she says. “What’s strange is that I didn’t go in expecting much. I just wanted to live my reality TV dream. But my expectations just grew and grew as I kept getting compliments from celebrity judges. These were people from the industry, and they were telling me I had real talent. It’s not a fairytale after all. But I still wait for my big Bollywood offer while enjoying life in my hometown.”
‘I felt like my world had fallen apart’
Bhawna Bartwal, 25, started pursuing her interest in acting through natikas in her hometown of Roorkee, Uttarakhand. “I saved the money earned through acting in Ramleela and dancing for local music videos to buy make-up and clothes for the show,” she says.
Bartwal came in second on Season 5 of India’s Best Cinestars Ki Khoj in 2014. “Several acts of mine in the show involved spontaneity and garnered lots of applause. The journey was magical,” she says. “I imagined it as a getaway from trying to prove myself in small stage dramas back home. Here I was at centrestage and people thought I was worthy of big roles in Bollywood.”
The world fell apart for Bartwal as soon as the show ended.
“I gave at least nine auditions every day to even get petty roles in TV shows,” she says. “I thought the producers and casting directors will consider me a good actress since I came second in an acting reality show, that wasn’t the case.”
‘Nobody cares that I was a reality star’
When Navneet Rastogi made it past the audition rounds of MasterChef India in 2013, his life changed overnight.
“Everyone was talking about how talented I am. Celebrity chefs were describing my dishes as creations,” says the 33-year-old caterer from Varanasi. “My family even got a proposal for marriage from a beautiful young woman in my hometown near Varanasi, whom I married soon after the season ended.”
As soon as he came in second, his life changed back.
“Once I made it into the Top 2, I was sure that even if I didn’t win and get the big cash prize and book deal, I would at least get a job at a five-star hotel in Mumbai,” Rastogi says. “But I got no offers. Not even one.”
Instead, when he approached people for help, he was advised to hire a public relations officer.
“I didn’t have the money to do that and I didn’t have the confidence either,” he says. “After all, if you’re not the winner, you’re a loser. And that’s how I felt.”
So Rastogi returned to Varanasi and reopened his catering business. “I take up wedding contracts and supervise while the cooks prepare the food,” he says. “It’s like the show never happened. Life is back to mundane after the journey filled with glamour. Nobody here cares that I was a reality star. Nor are my MasterChef garnishing skills put to any use. Life is not any worse, but it isn’t any better after almost winning the show.”