Blind date with stardom: Can India accept a disabled rockstar?
The arc lights make no difference to Jugpreet Bajwa, a darling of the judges and jury on a dog-eats-dog singing talent hunt. But can India accept a disabled rockstar?
There’s little that sets Jugpreet Bajwa apart from his co-contestants on Sa Re Ga Ma Pa 2016, a hugely popular singing reality show currently on air on Zee TV. In fact, there’s little to tell him apart from the judges, too.
Like him, Sajid Ali, one half of composer duo, Sajid-Wajid, wears dark glasses indoors. As does Punjabi pop master, Mika Singh.
A member of the audience gets backstage on the sets of ongoing music reality show, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, to take a picture of contestant Jugpreet Bajwa on Thursday. Pic/Nimesh Dave
Except, Bajwa, 21, is blind. He lost his vision at 5 months to cancer and misdiagnosis. He left his home in Vancouver, Canada, to fly to Delhi for the audition to the show which saw almost 50,000 aspirants line up this year for a chance to get famous.
On a Thursday afternoon, he’s in the make-up room on set in a sand leather jacket. He is listening to Tadap Tadap from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam on his phone, that he will be called in any time to perform before four judges, including composer Pritam and Wajid, besides a 30-member jury.
Jugpreet Bajwa, a visually impaired contestant on reality talent show, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, is led on stage by brother Manpreet. Pics/Nimesh Dave
He must do better than Jyotica Tangri, a performance powerhouse from Jalandhar, who has an edge of experience since she also made it to The Voice India, another music talent show, last year.
Jugpreet gets his make-up done (above) and chats with contestant Jyotica Tangri on set
When we meet him that same morning at the Zee Bungalow in Goregaon East, 10 minutes from Film City where the show is being shot, he is composed and ready to share his story.
A second generation Indian-Canadian, Bajwa left Vancouver 10 months ago to head to Mumbai and make it in Bollywood. He is the son of a real estate professional originally from Delhi. His mother used to work as a nurse in Mumbai. His brother Manpreet, 28, who is accompanying him on this trip, chose to practise medicine inspired by Bajwa’s disability.
Mentor Sajid Ali
At 12, Bajwa knew he was different. “My schoolmates in Canada would say, ‘this one won’t do anything. What can he do?’ Indians tend to treat blindness as a sin or punishment,” he says. But luckily, he found music. “The first time I sang on stage for Canada Day… it was Mere Sapnon Ki Rani for the mayor. It was an emotional moment for my parents. And it made my mates see me as more than just ‘the blind kid’.”
Early on, he declared to his parents, that he’d only travel by local transport. “It’s what made me independent and street smart.” Manpreet, who sits in the audience for all shows, admits, “I am just here for the moral support and so that my parents feel assured. Otherwise, Jugpreet can do everything on his own.”
On set, he is hardly awkward, although he had a production assistant or co-contestant lead him on and off stage. That he is a favourite among the top 10 only adds to his nerve. In the last performance, he scored a 98% with a jury that includes lyricists, Hindustani classical vocalists and playback singers.
But, can he emerge winner?
Mentor Sajid Ali calls him the “perfect singer”. He agrees that Indians are an emotional lot, which means he will continue to rake in audience votes. “After all, don’t we say, ‘music ki duniya kaan se hai, aankhon se nahin’? I have promised to offer him a song in my next movie, and he is already world famous thanks to this show. I won’t be surprised if he wins.”
Bajwa is certainly in it for winning. But he remains unfazed by competition. He knows when he’s done a gaffe, and he’s determined to correct it the next time. “There are days when I come back and say, ‘what did I just do?’ I want to improve that. So it’s basically about winning hearts and fans. Even if I don’t win, I will have gathered fans for life, right?”
He could have. His confidence and positivity are his strengths. As he goes his script drafted to woo actor Aishwarya Rai, who is a guest on the next episode, Manpreet says his brother is synonymous with a sunny outlook. “Now that you ask if he’s irritated by patronising people or fears being treated with kid gloves because of his disability, I think it’s a good question. I should ask him. When he walks into a room, people turn to look at him, and not in a sorry way.”
His voice, the judges say, is playback ready. But music is now no longer about the singing. The world waits for a performer.
A strong challenger from Saharanpur, Rupali Jagga, goes nowhere without make-up, sings with oomph and is now known for her riveting performance, often characterised by a shimmy she does even when striking the toughest notes.
The importance of being a performer, not just a singer, is being drilled into Bajwa’s co-contestant from Lakhimpur, Sachin Kumar Valmiki. Of humble upbringing, he’s had it rough. Smiling doesn’t come easy to him, let alone being a livewire on stage. The mentors have made it clear — he could lose out if he doesn’t step up the stage attraction although on most days, he is a flawless singer. Bajwa rarely uses the length and breath of the stage like the others. He sways sweetly, his left hand’s fingers clicking, but he’s far from a rockstar. The antics are missing, except for anecdotes about girlfriends back home. “There are girls who have been sending me voice recordings of love songs on Facebook almost every day. The numbers are growing,” he gloats. His style is basic, unlike the others who are high on bling. He has no say in what he wears. It’s the channel’s stylists’ call. “We point out if something is too tight or the colour is too much,” says Manpreet, “I make him feel the fabric and the grooves in the pattern before he gets into his clothes so that he is comfortable with what he is wearing.”
Is his disability then, ironically, his ace?
Indian reality TV, including a popular quiz show, is often more about sob stories than talent. A member of the ZEE creative team, on condition of anonymity, says, “The creative team doesn’t portray Jugpreet as a sob story. In fact, he is the happiest contestant. We speak of his flirting, girlfriends back in Canada, and a big circle of friends. It’s is not an emotional trick. It’s about him being a fabulous singer.” Zee TV’s business head, Pradeep Hejmadi, agrees. “Jagpreet’s journey goes to prove that no impairment can shadow genuine talent. He has been among our top-rated contestants from the start.”
Singer Pratichee Mohapatra, who once won a singing talent show to become part of India’s first girl band, Viva, says that talent is most important as “image” can only take you that far. “But it is true that everyone loves a underdog. And we tend to support them. I don’t think a channel strategises like that but it just happens to be the case.”
The challenges we list, Bajwa discusses with a limp hand. He can’t ‘see’ a standing ovation or the scores that flash on neon screens behind the jury. “I can hear them. I know when people are moving to stand up. I can tell it’s a standing ovation, especially because it has happened a couple of times now,” he laughs. He speaks excitedly about a recent rendition of a song from the movie, Brothers, that everyone loved, enough to offer him a nazarana or token. “I can feel the love, so it’s all okay. There are almost 30 jury members, and you have to impress everyone. That’s what I try and do with my singing. It’s a huge accomplishment to get a big score. But, I do it again and again.”
What about feeling left out? Last week, while his colleagues played a game of Dumb Charades, he sat around. “If it’s a situation like that, he still sits around, and all contestants make him feel a part of it. They say, ‘Jugpreet, this is what we are doing now’,” says Manpreet. Kushal Paul, a droopy eyed Kolkata boy, who is also one of Bajwa’s friends, says he regards him as his toughest challenger.
“Every time he goes on stage, we are struck by his voice. What’s there to stop him from winning?”
Bajwa will move to Mumbai, regardless. He speaks of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. Can he be the sightless singing wonder this side of the world is waiting for? If TRPs relent.
Here are some more candid shots of Jugpreet...
The dark horse before him
Delhi-based Diwakar Sharma was a favourite on Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Li’L Champs 2006. Also visually impaired, Sharma, 12 then, won the first runner prize.
“It made me popular all over the world. People still remember me,” he says. In fact, he was also at this year’s show as participant. “He did well for the first few weeks — got the highest marks and standing ovations — but then suddenly, we were told he didn’t make the cut after top 25.” says his father Sunil Sharma. Today, at 22, Sharma is pursuing an honours degree in music from Delhi University and performs at corporate and charity shows. He’s hardly perturbed about not making it this year. He says, “TV isn’t that hot anymore. I am planning a YouTube channel. That’s where the real action is!”