To appear on the show, you have to phone a number — which lakhs of people have done. If you make it to the first stage, you are interviewed by the producers in one of several cities. Tapes of the best auditions go to Bombay where a long list is compiled. A jury looks at the long list and selects candidates for a shortlist. Some of these people make it on to the show.
When I was asked by Siddhartha Basu and Star TV’s boss Uday Shankar to be part of the jury I agreed not only because both men are old friends (both produced shows I anchored during the 1990s), but because I thought it would give me an opportunity to view a cross-section of middle India — even if it is only on tape.
Before each schedule, the jury, consisting of Siddhartha, ad filmmaker Prahlad Kakkar, myself and senior executives from Star and Synergy (Siddhartha’s company) meet in a Bombay hotel. We examine over 180 application forms and watch the same number of auditions.
So far, we’ve chosen the contestants for two schedules and I’ve seen close to 400 auditions from all over the country. It’s been exhausting. It’s been fun. But most of all, it has given me an insight into the hopes and aspirations of people from all over the country, from virtually every level of the TV-viewing middle classes. We’ve seen bankers, Infosys programmers and airline pilots. And we’ve seen ticket collectors, dhaba-owners and middle-aged housewives from small towns.
Obviously, this is not a representative sample. But here are some of the things I learnt about the mood of middle India while participating in this process.
Religion: For some reason, the first question on the application form asks contestants to state their religion. I found that all religious minorities (Christians, Sikhs, Muslims etc) gave straightforward answers. But a surprisingly large number of Hindus took exception. On many forms, people wrote things like “humanist” or “agnostic”. It was almost as though they resented being asked.
Not that there was any objection to God himself. The form asked people to describe themselves. One of the most common descriptions was “God-fearing” used in a positive sense. On the other hand, when contestants were asked what they would do with the Rs. 5 crore if they won, some said they would give it to charity, but nobody mentioned a religious charity, a temple, a mosque or whatever.
Indian secularism also seems alive and well among the middle class. There were many Muslim applicants and, without exception, all of those whose auditions I saw were unselfconscious and proud of their Muslim identities. Many women in burkhas turned up to sing. So did many men in skullcaps and beards.
They referred to their Islamic identities in their auditions (“Hai Allah!” etc) in a matter-of-fact way and acted as though it made no difference — which, of course, it should not. At a time when there are fears about the communalisation of the middle class, it was encouraging to see Indian secularism in action.
As interesting for me was the column where contestants were asked to list their close friends. Many Hindus listed Muslims and, oddly enough, Muslims tended to list mainly Hindus.
Communication: Nearly everyone under 30 had an e-mail id. It intrigued me that even those who looked as though they could not afford their own computers clearly had access to the Net, either at work or through Internet cafes. So Internet penetration is deeper than we may realise.
Most surprising: everybody had a mobile phone. Not only did they have their own phones but they listed numbers for parents, friends, teachers and relatives. This was as true of people from small Orissa villages as it was of those who lived in Bombay. Mobile telephony seems to have achieved total penetration at all levels, all over the country.
Dance: Do you think of India as a nation of dancers? I certainly didn’t. But after viewing these auditions, I have changed my mind. Bear in mind that these were people who had never faced a camera before and were in a roomful of strangers. But the moment they were asked about a hobby, they all offered to dance. A few did classical steps that they had been taught at school. But the rest were the spiritual children of Farah Khan, ready to whirl and twirl like accomplished movie dancers.
Many offered to sing and nearly all were terrible and tuneless. We may be a nation of dancers but we sure as hell can’t hold a tune.
Language: Television has achieved what decades of government policy could not. Hindi is now truly a national language. It surprised me how high the standard of Hindi was. There were regional variations (the Assamese could not get the soft ‘d’ and ‘t’ sounds; the Bengalis had a poor sense of gender; and the Andhra-ites mispronounced many words) but, overall, everybody seemed fluent in Hindi.
The Gujaratis shocked me. For years, every Gujarati of note (from Gandhiji to Morarji Desai) spoke a strange Gujarati-Hindi. Now, they all sound like Narendra Modi and many filled in their forms in shuddh Hindi. Perhaps it is the BJP influence, but Gujarat is now a charter member of the cow belt.
Standards of English, on the other hand, were dodgy. It could be that many of the younger people were first-generation English speakers, but a horrifyingly large number could not frame a grammatically correct sentence and nobody knew how to spell even the simplest words.
Plus, there were made-up usages. A word that turned up again and again was ‘proudy’. As far as I could tell, this just meant proud (“they are thinking I am proudy”) but it cropped up in application forms from all over India. Also misused was “sporty” which did not mean athletic but meant ‘sporting’ as in “he is a good sport”.
If we are going to boast about our prowess in the English language as one of our strengths in the global economy, then — judging by these auditions — we are in deep trouble. Actually, given the size of our population, it is the English language that is in more trouble.
Mood: This will come as no surprise but the mood of the middle class was cheerful and optimistic. Everybody looked forward to the future. There were few complaints of any kind in the interviews — nobody even bitched about politicians. People dreamt of buying their own homes. The unlikeliest contestants had ambitions of acquiring Ferraris. Nearly all of them were well-dressed. Even the tapori boys who came in jeans and T-shirts managed to look prosperous.
Asked about risks, nearly all said they were risk-averse though some (Gujaratis mainly) pointed to their stock market investments as evidence of courage. (A gallantry award in Ahmedabad is probably called a Param Veer Bonus Issue.)
The Future: Would a Jerry Springer-type show work here? I think we are getting there. Viewing the audition tapes I was struck by the large number of obviously gay contestants; by the number of people who were ready to talk about broken marriages and custody battles; and by the fact that more and more people will do and say anything to appear on television. Indians have lost their old self-consciousness about TV. It is no longer a novel presence in our living rooms. It is an integral part of our lives.
I’ve got one more schedule’s worth of auditions to view. But the ones I’ve seen have left me feeling optimistic and hopeful about India. At our first jury meeting, Uday Shankar — fresh from having finally seen off the challenge to Star Plus from Zee — told me that he had high hopes for the new show because he thought that it captured the cheerful, happy-go-lucky mood of the new India. We are now more willing to laugh at ourselves and we are hungrier for the exhilaration of the adventure of life.
Having seen the second lot of auditions and the first episode of Paanchvi Pass, I think Uday has been proved right.