Kids’ reality shows: Former child artistes Sunidhi Chauhan, Shekhar Ravjiani join debate
From Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Lil Champs to The Voice, Sabse Bada Kalakaar to Junior Masterchef India and Super Dancer, reality shows featuring children are a common feature on Indian television.
Last week, filmmaker Shoojit Sircar, known for films like Piku, Pink and Madras Café, tweeted that authorities should ban reality television shows for children. The tweet got close to 12,000 likes and was retweeted over 7,000 times, reigniting a long-standing debate. Other voices joined the debate, including filmmaker Amol Gupte, who worked with child artistes in Taare Zameen Par, and protested against the long working hours and exploitative conditions.
Reality shows are sold as platforms to discover and showcase the latent talent of children. Parents and children from differing socio-economic backgrounds are attracted to the idea of a dream launchpad. In India, the success stories of singers Sunidhi Chauhan and Shreya Ghoshal, who were discovered as child artistes on reality shows, are the benchmarks that every parent with a talented child aspires towards.
Sunidhi was 13 when she won India’s first singing reality show on Doordarshan, Meri Aawaz Suno. “The year was 1996 and it was pure competition,” reminisces Sunidhi. But her opinion of today’s reality shows is decisive: children are “exposed to so much, so soon”.
“I would never want my children to go through this,” says Sunidhi, who has judged contestants on leading singing shows like Indian Idol and The Voice. “I don’t think it’s required for any reality show to make children do things that only older people would do. They don’t need to mature ahead of their age,” she says.
In the name of showcasing talent, ‘cuteness’ becomes a saleable factor, blurring the line between precocious and inappropriate. For Shekhar Ravjiani, one half of the music composer duo Vishal-Shekar, and a judge on Indian Idol Junior Season one (2013) and The Voice India Kids (2016), singing show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa back in 1997 was his first break. While he doesn’t advocate an all-out ban, there are concerns.
“Some shows encourage children to dress and behave like adults and that to me is jarring,” says Shekhar. “It takes away their purity, simplicity and most importantly their innocence and makes them aware of things that don’t matter at all.”
Behind the scenes
Reality shows featuring children have been around for a long time, but the pressures involved have changed. When Sunidhi participated in Meri Awaz Suno more than two decades ago, there was no system of vote-and-SMS from the audience. She was judged by legends such as Lata Mangeshkar, Bhupen Hazarika and Manna Dey, and the winners were chosen based on their performances alone. While a reality show was always a full-scale production, on-stage theatrics and appearances were kept to a minimum.
“There were no back stories shared with the viewers, it was all about the quality of singing,” says Sunidhi. “Their singing will tell their stories, if they are good.”
Back in the 1990s, popular dance show Boogie Woogie and the singing competition Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, both of which started as contests for adults, were introduced in an all-new avatar targeting children. “The idea then was to showcase young and obscure talent,” notes a 2008 article in Mint, “nothing was promised or bequeathed, except the vague idea that once seen, someone, somewhere would maybe sign them on for a minor playback singing role in a movie.”
For Shekhar, his reality show stint meant recognition of his talent. “In an era where being a musician wasn’t considered to be a credible career choice, my talent was given the importance that made my family and others sit up and notice,” he says.
The focus has shifted. Children on reality shows are not just ‘discovered’ or polished, but are groomed to become versatile artistes who can perform onstage and enthral millions. Meghna Prem, a TV programming and content strategist with an experience of over 20 years in the entertainment industry, says, “Teenage kids are expected to diet to look a certain way, dress a certain way. Because unlike yesteryears, today when you are selecting a reality star, s/he can’t just be a great singer and not be good looking.”
When ambition meets pressure
Aruna Broota, a Delhi-based psychologist has counselled several professional child actors and child atheletes. According to her, the pressures faced by children on reality shows are no different, perhaps worse. Not only are the participants too young to worry about discovering their ambitions, but are often under pressure from fame-thirsty parents trying to live their dreams vicariously.
“The child’s ‘ambitions’ are artificially hyped, because it’s mostly an adult who takes the decision for them,” says Broota. “S/He might have that S-Factor, or the special ability factor, be it in singing, dancing or acting. But when one starts expecting a lot from one’s s-factor in terms of competition, it distorts the personality development of the child.” At an age when all they should be worried about is playing, studying and having fun, children are entangled in a web of competition and stress.
This is not the first time that a discussion on the need to regulate child participation in reality shows has come up. In 2011, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) drew up new guidelines to prevent exploitation of children participating in TV shows and advertisements.
Over five years have elapsed since the report was released, yet the realities on the ground paint a different, disturbing picture. Under the NCPCR guidelines, no child should be made to deliver lines or enact scenes that are inappropriate for his or her age. Yet, children dancing on raunchy numbers or belting out romantic songs is mined for applause and laughs.
A web of competition and stress
Reality television immediately catapults children to popularity. Suddenly every parent wants his/her child to become like them. Neighbours are extra doting. They are now their teachers’ favourite student, no longer tied to the compulsions of attendance in school. Cameras click wherever they go. They get to rub shoulders with their idols from the industry. They are famous, and everyone knows them. But what happens once the show ends?
“In reality shows, kids are complimented so much that they get used to it,” says Chauhan. “When a participant is told s/he sang better than the original, the kid thinks s/he has arrived. And when they face any criticism or are eliminated, their ego and confidence come crashing down. Self-doubt sets in. And I think it’s too early for them to feel any of these emotions.”
Children find it difficult to cope with the lull once their 15 minutes of fame are over. “Either they get into depression, or develop different kinds of behaviour pathologies,” says Broota. “Just to grab attention and have that sense of power, some take to lying and self-harm. Alienation in schools from their peers is yet another outcome of this limelight.”
Meghna recounts instances when participants of reality shows talked to her about how they feel their equations with friends changed. “She was my best friend, but now she isn’t talking to me anymore”, she remembers one of the participants confiding.
The race for TRP means high drama on stage. Cameras zoom into tight close ups of parents crying when their kids are eliminated. What message does that send out to the child? “You have let us down,’ says Broota. A child, who would otherwise have been indifferent and taken the judges’ decision with a smile, is filled with guilt because s/he can see the disappointment on his parents’ face.
Show runners ensure that TRPs are not valued over children’s mental and emotional well-being – running a reality show for kids is after all, no child’s play. But Shekhar believes that parents’ shoulder the responsibility of knowing what they are putting their child through. “They should judge the environment where they are sending their kids and ensure that their child is able to withstand the long working hours that these shoots sometimes entail,” he says.