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Rude Food: Dishing it out on TV

If Foodistan is a hit like MasterChef India, it may serve notice to other television channels that food shows are the light programming of the 21st century, writes Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: Jan 07, 2012 15:49 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

If Foodistan is a hit like MasterChef India, it may serve notice to other television channels that food shows are the light programming of the 21st century.

I don’t know if you saw the final of MasterChef India (Season 2) but I certainly missed it. Nevertheless, I was pleased to see that Shipra Khanna, the pretty, single mother from Shimla whose heartwarming back story was shamelessly milked in the first episode, won. She seemed like a nice girl and something about her suggested to me that she was a winner right from her very first appearance.

I am not sure what the ratings say but my hunch is that this season of MasterChef India has had more of an impact than the first one because they have downplayed the Bollywood content (i.e. no Akshay Kumar as host) and increased the emphasis on food.

MasterChef is now a global phenomenon. I used to watch the British version with Chef John Torode (and a fat guy called, I think, Greg Wallace or something like that) which was a civilised, well-mannered affair.

Then the Americans got in on the act and went big-budget with the foul-mouthed Gordon Ramsay as host (it’s just concluded on Star World in India) and the show changed its essential character. But then American shows tend to be more in-your-face.

It’s huge! Foodistan, which goes on the air on January 23, is the most expensive food show any English-language Indian TV channel has ever made

Though the British version (and its spin off Celebrity MasterChef) remains my favourite, I’ve been intrigued by MasterChef Australia which I had never heard of till it became such a huge hit in India. The Aussie version has the big budgets and gloss of the US avatar but it lacks the aggression embodied by Gordon Ramsay and the other US hosts.

Oddly enough, I think the lack of hostility and abuse is one reason why the Australian version has so many fans in India. We see reality shows/talent contests as ways of empowering people and are not pleased when judges humiliate contestants.

That is one reason why the numerous Pop Idol/X Factor spin-offs and rip-offs in India rarely feature judges who are as rude as Simon Cowell. We prefer a more well-mannered approach and like our judges to be encouraging rather than offensive.

I wasn’t able to catch many episodes of MasterChef India but Ruchira Hoon, an ex-colleague of mine at the HT and an avid amateur cook, was one of the contestants.

I asked Ruchira what she thought of the experience and she said she enjoyed it. She liked the judges who, she said, mixed readily with the contestants and were easy and affable. (I liked the judges too and Vikas Khanna, as a Michelin-starred chef from New York, doesn’t really need the success but he worked hard at downplaying his own stature anyway. I thought Kunal Kapoor was the real star. He has a great future in TV should he want it.)

As for the cooking experience itself, Ruchira said it was genuine and intense. What you saw on TV was pretty much what happened on the set. If she had any criticisms it was restricted to the demands that the television medium places on all cooking shows.

For instance, when MasterChef’s producers filmed the contestants’ back stories, they were consciously looking for tales of woe and hardship. It was almost as though they wanted MasterChef India to be like the last season of KBC a show that takes somebody who has had a rough life and elevates him or her to great success.

Vikas Khanna (left), one of the judges in MasterChef India 2 worked hard at downplaying his own stature. I thought Kunal Kapoor (right) was the real star

Ruchira thought some of the cooking dramas (when somebody’s food caught fire etc.) had an element of theatricality about them. And she wasn’t sure she could comment on the fairness of the judging because contestants did not actually taste each others’ food. So they had to go by what the judges said because they had no way of knowing which dish was genuinely the best.

If, as some people have suggested, the judges tended to like the food of those contestants who made for better television, then Ruchira explained, she had no way of confirming this.

I can understand why Ruchira feels the way she does because cooking shows can be hell to pull off in the studio. I don’t know what the exact budget of MasterChef India was but even though the show clearly lacked the visual sophistication of the foreign versions, it certainly looked massive and large scale and that alone can cost a lot of money. (I am told that each episode cost over R1 crore but this is only an unofficial estimate.)

One of the advantages with Hindi TV in this country is that channels can afford these vast budgets because of the millions of viewers such shows attract.

You would expect a version of MasterChef to be on an English language channel in India (say Star World which has had much success with the foreign versions) because then, you can appeal to a more sophisticated audience (at least in culinary terms) but the truth is that the big money is in Hindi TV. And that dictates the tone that the Indian MasterChef and any other food show must follow.

NDTV Good Times is betting that even English language TV can afford to take risks with food shows. Foodistan, which goes on the air on January 23, is easily the most expensive food show any English-language TV channel has ever made. It is also – by a long way the most expensive show of any kind that NDTV Good Times has ever made. (My guess is that it is the most expensive English-language TV programme ever made in India.)

The idea is to move away from empowering enthusiastic amateurs and to focus on a battle between top professional chefs. (In that sense, it is more Top Chef or Iron Chef than MasterChef.) Plus the show has the irresistible power of an India-Pakistan conflict. So you can see why Good Times felt confident enough to gamble crores on the show.

Also, it is produced by Siddhartha Basu, my very first producer (A Question of Answers in a prehistoric era when Star Plus ran English shows!), who knows how to make any show look like a million bucks on the screen witness KBC and the other shows he has produced. So Foodistan is easily the best-looking food show ever made on Indian TV. (Better looking than MasterChef India certainly.)

My role in Foodistan is relatively modest. It is an hour-long show and the chefs are the real stars. I am just one of the three judges (one Indian, one Pakistani and one representing the country that split India into two and created Pakistan) but we have the tough job of telling top chefs who have been cooking all their lives why we don’t like their food.

As was probably inevitable, the chefs didn’t really think much of us or of our opinions. NDTV Good Times shot various reality segments with the contestants that the judges were not allowed to see. But I gather that a lot of time went into dissing our judgments and telling the cameras what ignorant morons we really were. (Not the sort of thing that happens on MasterChef where the amateurs are always in awe of the judges.)

I won’t give away too much of what happens in the show because I don’t want to spoil your fun. The whole series is already shot so I know who wins but all of us, judges and chefs, have signed confidentiality agreements.

But I can tell you how frayed tempers got on the set. One of the less illustrious Indian chefs harangued the producers early in the competition because he thought the rules were unfair. (They weren’t. He just wasn’t very good.)

One Pakistani chef walked out halfway through because he felt that we did not fully appreciate the true flavours of Pakistan. (I won’t tell you who he is but as the show develops you will be able to tell which one of the chefs is most likely to storm off.)

Another Pakistani chef won over the entire unit by singing Hindi film songs while he was cooking. One well-known and high-powered Indian chef cracked under pressure in the kitchen and more or less spontaneously combusted on camera.

But that’s all you’ll get out of me. I’m certainly not going to tell you whether an Indian or a Pakistani won the high-pressure final. All I can say is that there was no match-fixing. (Or spot fixing for that matter.)

But if Foodistan is a hit (and of course I pray it will be a success because otherwise there will be no increments at NDTV Good Times for three years, given how much they have spent on the show), then it may serve notice to other channels along with the success of MasterChef India that food shows are the light programming of the 21st century.

From HT Brunch, January 8
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First Published: Jan 06, 2012 15:39 IST