On Saturday, Sachin Tendulkar shared three screenshots of his TV screen with his Facebook followers: He was watching the first episode of season 9 of Indian Idol where a contestant, Thupten Tsering of Arunachal Pradesh, made it to next round of the reality show.
“This guy is special. He is amazingly positive despite his challenges. Truly inspiring... More power to you,” he wrote on his post which got about 4,37,000 likes in two days. Now you may imagine that Thupten, an amputee who lost both his arms as a child, made it to the next round because of his singing prowess but you will be wrong.
As soon as Thupten walked into the audition room, judge Sonu Nigam couldn’t resist asking him about his arms. A more respectable way around it would have been to politely ask him to sing and judge him only on his talent. If Sonu was indeed interested in his story, he could have asked him about it off camera and in a far less public setting.
But that wouldn’t have allowed the channel to cash in on Thupten’s tragedy. As he began his story, the background music too turned sombre. He was then made to prove to unbelieving judges how he could write without the use of his hands. To tie it all up in an ugly little bow, he was rewarded with a ticket to the next round.
I am no one to comment on his singing capabilities but the three judges - Sonu, Anu Malik and Farah Khan -- agreed that Thupten was indeed not as good a singer as the ones who had come before him but he was still given a chance in the competition because he ‘would not have been right not to’.
Now, I do not disagree that Thupten is a strong person. He has been through more than a lot of people can even imagine and earned himself a respectable life. But what good is a sympathy vote in such a situation? A nudge this small can at most pull him through a couple of rounds but soon, singing is going to matter more than anything else and all this would have been for nothing. Agreed, that some people need an extra push in life, more than the rest of us but would that not have been unfair on someone who can sing just like him but with a story not as tragic? Maybe that ‘someone’ would simply be made into a butt of jokes by the judges like so many are and asked to leave.
Another contestant from the same episode was a young man of 23 from Kashmir. Before his audition, a montage was shown of him in his home town. He talked about the restlessness in the state and the producers knew just the perfect way to show it. In one particulary atrocious scene from the montage, he is standing in the foreground with a hill behind him. As he looks away from the camera and a voice-over tells of the troubles in the valley, you see a fake, CGI explosion on the hill. The cringeworthy sight is accentuated with even more cringeworthy music.
Again, nowhere do we negate that the lives of many are hanging in the balance in Jammu and Kashmir but to reduce it to cheap special effects and desperate attempts towards getting the viewers to well up is far from appreciable.
Cashing in on tragedies and emotions isn’t their only tactic here. Indian Idol is still bullying contestants, still letting mediocre singer cross over to next stages only to increase the number of contestants and therefore, the number of episodes and, like all of internet, on nostalgia. The three judges may have come back after 12 years to the show but little has changed.
It is still more manipulative than any reality show has any right to be.
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