She shot to fame as the adorable Gangubai even before she turned 8 last year. But as Saloni Daini's success graph as the youngest comic on Indian television went up, so did her troubles at school. With reality shows demanding her time and hence telling on her academic life, the little wonder and her parents faced a hard time from school authorities.
That phase lasted just until the family shifted cities and schools. Now there is no stopping the firebrand comic who mimics everyone from politicians to actors and of course Gangubai, the Maharashtrian character that made her famous in Chhote Mian, Bade Mian and Comedy Circus.
Like other schools across the country, Saloni's school in Pune was against her appearing on reality shows. Her mother, Sayogita, says their shift to Mumbai and a new school changed things for good. "Her principal is in touch with me and she's supportive of Saloni's talent. She's getting so much support that her talent has become an asset that helps with her learning."
At times, this class three student of Mumbai's Thakur Vidyamandir reads and learns by heart — scripts than run into twelve pages. Despite a year-long stint in reality TV, Saloni continues to score over 97 per cent. Says Sayogita: "When she learns and retains such long scripts, her grasp on her course material like poems also grows stronger. She finds study material easy. I have to keep finding things for her to keep her from getting bored. Sometimes she even picks up her elder sister's class eight books and reads them."
Such participants aren't different from child actors, but like the very nature of reality TV, their dejection, success or hero worship is all too fast, instant and on national television. The medium itself is now brimming with junior versions of talent shows for which students seem to be compromising on their academic lives.
While the debate — on whether or not this dizzying reality of talent shows — goes on, the trend is garnering audiences and participants in droves. More than 1.85 lakh students aged between three years and 15 years auditioned for popular children's reality shows this year. And another 10 lakh sent their entries for these dance/music shows.
As the numbers increase in favour of children's reality shows, educational institutions are beginning to acknowledge the trend. Schools are helping reality show participants get back quicker to what they had left behind: the real world.
If Saloni's case is anything to go by, cooperation of school authorities is working for the benefit of these child stars. Take Piyush Bhagat's case for instance.
Most kids who make it to the finals have their gratitude reserved for their gurus, judges or parents. However, one of the first people Bhagat, 13, thanked was his principal. He was one of the top five in the final of Chak Dhoom Dhoom (a reality dance show for kids) on Colors. A few words of encouragement from his principal in Jammu ensured that he gave his best shot in the show. "Without her support, it wouldn't have been possible," he says.
The 'locking and popping' star had to miss four crucial months of school — to be on the show. He is itching to go back and flaunt his dance moves to the world, but is also determined to keep up with studies.
"I come from a CBSE school. Had my principal not salvaged the situation, missing my final semester exams would have set me back by a year. She spoke with the local educational board to help me get another set of dates to appear for my finals," says this class seven student of Jodhamal Public School, Jammu.
In fact, this very reason makes Bhagat feel even more responsible towards his studies. He says he doesn't want to falter now. "I definitely want to go back, but at no cost can I let my studies suffer. More so now, because everyone from my teachers to classmates is trying to help me," he says.
Even though schools are beginning to support this new 'extra-curricular activity', they are doing so with no less caution. Principals across the board agree to disagree with this new trend. But as Lata Vaidyanathan, Principal Modern School, Barakhamba, says, "It's about moving ahead with the times."
Vaidyanathan feels children have to face competition at every stage of their growing up years. The question is, just how early is too early?
"I don't advocate the trend but I won't withdraw support either," says the academic.
"What we ensure is that parents take complete onus of their decision. The child shouldn't lose interest in studies. Child artistes have been around forever and after all makers of such shows aren't fools. Talent and visibility are two very important factors today. So, if we can support a good sportsperson from school, why not a good singer, too?"
A helping hand
Support from schools could take the form of postponement of tests, extra time to prepare, special leave, counselling if required, as well as facilitation of extra time from teachers.
Sometimes, it's the unofficial counselling that matters the most. This was the case with 11-year-old Vibhor Parashar, a student of Darbari Lal DAV School, Pitampura. "Along with the parents, the school also plays an important role. Vibhor was away for nearly six months from the school, and we were worried about his lack of preparation for the class seven exams. He had made the school proud with his talent. I didn't want him to be held back. So, we worked with him to ensure that he got through on his own merit," says principal Anita Wadhera.
Wadhera too has mixed feelings about children participating in reality shows. It has to be a two-way street, she says.
"The situation does get tough, especially for younger children. Vibhor was in his own world when he got back, but he recovered soon, thankfully. Schools will back up talented children but the children, too, must be prepared to work twice as hard."
Sukanya Gupta, 17, from the same school featured in the top 20 list of the same show. Wadhera mentions that this scholarship student's academic record remained unaffected throughout.
"She is a very good example for others to follow. Following your talent is not wrong, but forgetting to maintain a balance between that and academics is."
The flip side
Schools across the nation are divided over policies on allowing their students to participate in reality shows. Particularly after a young Mumbai student committed suicide in January this year after allegedly being admonished by judges on a dance show.
Some principals aver any activity that goes beyond sports, studies or fine arts is not good for a young, impressionable mind. Ameeta Mulla Wattal of Springdales, Pusa Road, is one of them. Wattal says talent will remain till after a student finishes school, but innocence and time to learn may not.
"We've had two singers who made their mark in the music industry who studied in this school. Both Akriti Kakkar and Harshdeep Kaur were good students. They finished their school and then followed their passion for singing, and are doing well there too."
Wattal says, the problem is two-fold. "These children are likely to never get back to their normal school life. I call this creative labour. Imagine 3 to 14 year olds roaming around under the arclights in an adult world. Whatever negativity they see in that glam world, they bring it back to the classroom. I can make concessions for talk shows on TV, workshops and practice sessions. I can't do that for reality show junkies."
Parental Guidance advised
Just like examinations where it's the parents who are more stressed out than their children, in reality shows, too, the buck stops with them. Saloni's mother Sayogita, who also happens to be a clinical psychologist, couldn't agree more.
"From what I've seen at most shows, it's the attitude of the parents that makes the difference ultimately. Parents can act as shock absorbers for their kids, talk to them and make them understand. But most of them have a bad habit of comparing one child to another."
Her suggestion to most parents: they should truly assess their child's talent and not push them from one show to another if the child is not up to it. On the other hand, in matters related to academics vis-à-vis shows, they should know when to pull the plug. "I know that my daughter can manage these shoots till she moves to middle school. Once she's done with her education, she's free to follow her interests."
Childhood is generally a period where the young ones are without a care in the world and follow their heart.
For reality show participants, it's a different story. If pressure from peers, parents and teachers wasn't enough, they now also have to learn to keep everyone happy. As Bhagat says: "Thoda struggle toh karna hee padega, (I'll have to struggle a bit), but everyone has done so much for me that I'll feel bad if I let any of them down."
Popular kids' shows
50,000 children auditioned for Dance India Dance Li'l Masters
50,000 children auditioned for Chak Dhoom Dhoom Chhote Dancers Badi Jung
35,000 children auditioned for Boogie Woogie
50,000 children auditioned for Chhote Ustad