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Is grooming to become a reality show contestant overkill or necessity?

Nishil Sharma, a 21-year-old professional freestyle dancer, came to Mumbai from Indore this April to follow his dream of becoming the country’s next big dancing star. Though the auditions of the reality show he hopes to participate in -- Dance India Dance -- will be held in end-September, Sharma flew down six months earlier to enroll at Dance Pe Lo Chance, a three-month training programme at the Terence Lewis Academy. The programme, which costs Rs 75,000 is geared specifically for reality show aspirants. The battle lines are truly drawn well before even the auditions for such shows begin -- leave alone the actual competition, where talent, screen presence, the ability to impress judges all go hand in hand in creating new stars. With big money and lucrative deals -- not to mention fame -- in the offing, participants are leaving no stone unturned in their quest for reality show glory.


Illustration/ Amit Bandre

A class act
“I am learning many dance forms, such as contemporary, Hip hop, semi classical, Latin ballroom basics, aerial acts, salsa and jazz. Our trainers also work on us individually, helping us with our expression, posture, and how to look like a dancer. It feels the competition is on even before the auditions. We are all here to learn, and treat each other like family. But at the end of the day, each of us is here to prove himself/herself. It is a good training ground for any show we enter,” says Sharma.


Students take part in a strength and flex gymnastics session at the Terence Lewis Academy in Andheri. Pic/Nimesh Dave

While reality shows are cashing in on sob stories, struggles and the ‘common man’ quotient, classes to train such contestants are springing up all over the country. And Sharma is not the only one to attend such classes. “One needs to be a versatile dancer to be on a reality show. Also, dance is only 50 per cent of the requirement, the other 50 per cent depends on your personality and how you can hold the attention of your audience and judges,” says Terence Lewis, a celebrity dancer and choreographer. The first batch of his programme had 20 students in April, but has jumped to 75 now. Their ages range from 15 to 35.

Of course, the programme is for professional dancers who want to learn other dance forms, apart from those in their areas of expertise, Lewis hastens to add.As a judge on Dance India Dance from the first season, Lewis ‘grooms’ the students for reality shows. “This training makes sense for people who are serious about the show and take a year or two off just to participate in them. We have also included mental training sessions as how to face rejections, handle competition stress and deal with difficult people because competition is fierce and it often brings out the ugly side of many people and if you do not guard yourself against it, the whole process could shatter you,” adds Lewis.

No child’s play
Lewis is aware of the negatives, and calls reality shows double-edged swords. “I chose dancing as a career out of passion for the art form. Today, parents are pushing their children to perform out of greed for fame. Some dancers see the reality show platform as a shortcut to their big break on television or in films. Even if a participant fails to impress but is seen on national television, with famous people commenting on his performance, he becomes a hero in his hometown. Showbiz is all about entertainment and, sadly, reality show formats thrive on it. For many people, ‘TV pe ana hi bahut hai’,” explains Lewis, who gives no guarantee on the selection process. “This course is an eye opener, as many students realise that they do not know much when they see how high the standards are,” he adds. 

Be real
Anu Malik, singer and a judge on singing reality show Indian Idol, says, “What is a reality show? It is being who you are. If you are getting groomed for it, it ceases to be the ‘reality’. Reality shows are big, and can only get bigger now. They are competitive and one has to win against all odds. If an aspirant is getting coached for it, it is likely that he/she may be psyched out about how dangerous it is, and in the process, lose some of his/her natural sheen. As a judge, I don’t look for perfection, I look for someone who has his own style.”

How it works
At the two-year-old Indian Television Academy (ITA), Shashi Ranjan, chief managing director introduced a four-month long course especially for reality show aspirants last year. “We saw students wanting to specifically learn the nuances of reality shows, apart from the regular acting, singing and dancing training. Television channels have created this niche platform, just like a serial, commercial or movie, to showcase one’s talent,” says Ranjan, explaining that aspirants have to go through a series of counselling and interview sessions to determine how serious they are about the field. “Reality shows check your technical expertise --the glamour is only for the audience. We prepare students on all fronts --voice modulation, confidence building, presence of mind and psychological approach. Ultimately, how they perform on the day of the audition matters,” says Ranjan. Anil Wanvari, founder and CEO of indiantelevision.com, says coaching for reality shows can work in some cases. “So many aspirants want to make it big in reality shows. Many of them come to Mumbai from different parts of the country; some are unpolished in their presentations. Whether such specific training classes can help them or not depends on the course curriculum they offer. It would be helpful if these classes are able to brush up the basics, add touches of finesse and give an insight into the politics that goes behind bringing out a reality show.”

Megabucks, high pressure
In India, around 20 lakh people, some not even in their teens yet, give auditions for music reality shows alone, according to an industry insider. Add another 30 lakh for dance and acting-centric shows and you have a number that is mind-boggling. More critically, they are increasingly being pushed, coaxed and encouraged by their parents, siblings and friends to go for that one moment of fame and glory. One of the first reality shows was Meri Awaz Suno in 1996, followed by Sa Re Ga Ma Pa in 2005, but India has come a long way since then, with almost every TV channel hosting multiple reality shows. In 2000, Kaun Banega Crorepati made millions of Indians eye the Rs 1 crore jackpot, while dance, acting and singing shows such as Indian Idol, Dance India Dance and India’s Got Talent also upped the prize money in leaps and bounds. Many also joined the audition lines just to meet their favourite judges and, of course, gain their 15 minutes of fame. The show format can have an adverse effect on vulnerable people. In 2010, an 11-year-old girl from Dombivli, Neha, trained for Boogie Woogie and was selected in the auditions. But, she had to drop the show mid way due to her parents’ refusal. Depressed, she hung herself. In 2008, there were cases reported such as the mysterious death of a participant from a Bengali television channel, another 21-year-old participant had consumed poison after she failed to clear the programme’s auditions. “Parents, too, should be a little free with their kids, and not pressurise them to perform and win. On reality shows for kids, it is parents who have to take the responsibility of ensuring the child is comfortable,” according to Malik. “If the child is in distress, parents should know when to pull them out,” he adds. 

Expert speak
Is all this pressure to win just a TV talent show, affecting young people? “We are living in an era of classes,” says Yusuf Matcheswala, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist and counsellor. “Recently, we have seen the rise of parenting classes, wedding-related classes and classes for anything and everything. We live in a professional world. Film producer and director Mahesh Bhatt once told me, that when he wanted to be a director, he assisted in a few movies and then started off on his own. Today we have a list of film institutes where people learn the trade in theory. The reality show format is an extension of the entertainment industry --acting, modelling, singing and dancing. It just had to be commercialised sooner or later. If the classes are teaching students the tricks of the trade and giving them a heads up of what to expect, then it’s a good move as participants would go in with a fair idea of the pressure and demands of the show formats,” he says, adding that reality shows can have an adverse psychological effect on participants who might take the rejections and judge’s comments too seriously.

Confessions of an ex-contestant
I took part in a dance reality show last year, where I made it to the top 10. The experience while watching a reality show, and being a contestant on a show is poles apart. It looks very glamourous and fun on television, but in reality, it is very tough. One needs to be a diplomat to survive and succeed. The rehearsal halls are very dirty, and we were all made to sleep in that one hall. They wouldn’t give us food on time, and they woke us up at insane hours for rehearsals, usually between 1 am and 7 am, in spite of being up all day when the television crew would come to shoot. In recent years, I have trained a few students for auditions and I make it a point to tell them the truth. It is cut-throat competition, mentally you have to be really strong. If they don’t like you, they won’t provide you with your choreography punctually. So I think it is important for a participant to know what lies on the other side, where the grass is never green. It gets tougher as you go up the levels. If participants are taking training before auditions, it is helpful, as usually, you are familiar to once dance form, but for a reality show, you need to be able to execute any kind of choreography.
As told to Phorum Dalal, on condition of anonymity

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