Someone forgot to turn down the heat. When the lid blew off last month, with 16-year-old Shinjini Sengupta’s paralysis after an alleged public rebuke in a reality show at Kolkata, it showed us a side of show-time, we hadn’t seen. It also held up a mirror to ourselves: Parents pushing children to perform. Six-year-olds prancing about in grown-up attire. Producers, hiring — we are told — psychologists as counsellors to uncork a child’s ‘evil genie’!
A well-known Mumbai-based psychologist who had once served as counsellor on a reality show, says on condition of anonymity: “I was asked to uncover a child’s hidden negative personality traits so that they could be played up. You don’t want to see a good child on stage; you want to see his wickedness, because it’s the drama that raises TRPs (Television Rating Points). Fifty per cent of what you see on the show is scripted reality.”
Reality TV is a monster that is running without controls. It conforms to no set of known morality. “Talent hunts, game shows, reality shows — everything about them is about winning and losing. It’s all instant — name, fame, game and what’s worse is that the prize is big money,” says Abdul Mabood, director of Delhi-based Snehi, an organisation that works for community mental health. “After KBC, earning in thousands and lakhs wasn’t good enough anymore,” adds Anjali Chhabria, a psychologist.
Experts feel that unprincipled success can have psychological consequences, as it has proved in Shinjini’s case. The doctors treating her say that when an ambitious child is humiliated in front of millions, s/he can suffer trauma. The subconscious distress experienced by the child, can manifest as a physical ailment in a few weeks or even a few years after the incident. “You’re labelled a loser. Imagine the emotional volatility it causes in a young mind. Judges run down the child in an instant,” says Mabood.
THE PARENT TRAP
“I know of an eight-year old who didn’t take her maths exam because she had a ramp show the next day,” says Raghu Ram, the brain behind reality shows Roadies and Splitsvilla. Ambitious parents and acidic judges — who will judge them? The mother of 14-year-old Delhi-based Ridhi Walia told us she let her daughter miss her evening tuition to let us speak to her. Ridhi, who ended up in the final ten, says with frequent prompting by her mother in the background: “Star Plus had sent audition forms to our school. I stood out first among all students from 35 schools and represented Delhi this January in Star Voice of India. I remember crying a lot when I didn’t win. In the finals though, I controlled my emotions on stage.” Her parents, though disappointed, had the perfect remedy. Why worry, they said, when she could always participate again.
“At least 50 kids and their parents come to me every week saying they want to become singers, dancers, actors,” says Sidhant, who runs BKT Academy in Shahdra. His academy offers one-year courses but nearly all parents ask him if it can be wrapped up in three months.
While identity was defined through family name in the 60s and 70s, and in the 80s through education, the 2000s are about the talent ‘hunt’. Parents who couldn’t achieve their dreams in their time, want to realise them through their children. “The talent hunt craze has nothing to do with the middle class. I see well-off parents standing for hours in audition queues with their children,” says Chabbria.
But Ram also feels that there is no conflict of interest in such programming. “I’m good at manipulating emotions. I can make people feel sad, shocked, angry, happy... We’re here to entertain and do something different creatively. Where is the contradiction?” he asks.
Suleiman Merchant, composer and a judge on the new show Chak De Bachche, argues about the advantages of having a million for an audience: “Television is an exalted medium today. Would you ever get an opportunity like this earlier? But as far as judging is concerned, no one should be rude. I agree it can affect a child rather negatively.” Celebrities are becoming ‘professional judges’ observes music composer, Ehsaan Noorani. “The money they get is good. Even their bitchiness is scripted.”
Reality TV is honing competition into a fine art. While the film Chak De India harped on the nationalistic spirit, reality show Chak De Bachche has drawn on regionalism, pitting rural kids against their metro counterparts. Indian Idol had also encouraged people to vote for contestants from their states. “Not just contestants, it’s making audiences compete with each other,” says Sidhant.
So what do contestants who cannot cope, do? Their scars remain, as they would with Shinjini, who’s making slow progress after losing use of her speech and limbs. (The I&B ministry has plans to hold meetings with representatives from the television industry to discuss reality shows.) “Every facial expression — whether you’re winning or losing — is up for grabs. Imagine the pressure on the child. I think it’s high time we grew up and stopped gambling away the physical, emotional and mental health of our children,” cautions Mabood. Listen to him. There might be monsters out there. As a producer says himself: “We are the bad guys.”