India's little idols humiliated in their quest for fame
A craze for reality shows is subjecting children to criticism and humiliation, writes Amrit Dhillon
Her performance was mediocre and disappointing, one of the judges said. Tears welled up in 16-year-old Shinjini Sengupta's eyes and her face struggled to retain her composure. Millions of Indians watched mesmerised as the girl, who moments earlier had been confident, smiling and radiant, was humiliated.
Later at her Calcutta home, in a mysterious attack of paralysis, she stopped moving and talking, and was unable to recognise her parents.
Shinjini is the latest casualty of the Indian craze for singing and dancing reality television shows. She had to be treated by neurologists in Bangalore for a fortnight last month before she regained some semblance of the girl before her humiliation on TV. Now back home, her parents refuse to let her speak to the media for fear of exposing their daughter to further public attention.
'The doctors were not able to confirm exactly what caused the paralysis, but we are convinced that it was the judge's harsh words in front of millions of viewers. It shattered something deep inside her,' her father, Dhruv Sengupta, said.
Middle-class Indian families used to be obsessed with melodramatic family soap operas, but since the launch of the local version of American Idol, they have been besotted with a much more riveting drama.
They now watch every emotion flickering on young children's open and innocent faces as they wait to hear whether they will be eliminated by a panel of celebrity judges or whether their fantasy of becoming a Bollywood chorus line dancer or a playback singer will be realised.
A playback singer prerecords the songs on soundtracks and the actors lip synch the songs in the films. The finale earlier this year of Sa Re Ga Ma Pa drew almost 105 million text votes. 'Viewers love the feeling that they have the power to catapult someone into superstardom. They identify with the contestants. Indians are very emotional and they become very involved,' media critic Pallavi Ghosh said.
Another 25 million tuned in to watch two young girls slug it out on the Star Voice of India earlier this year. 'For small-town families, it's a shot at fame and money. They pressure their children - some are just six years old - to perform and have no idea of how distressing it is nor how harmful it can be for a child to be criticised in public or called a failure,' Mumbai child psychiatrist Hema Bhansal says.
Gajendra Singh a veteran reality show producer, was flooded with more than 150,000 audition tapes when he announced that he was casting for his Chak de Bachche show. The producers of Boogie Woogie receive about 4,000 tapes a month.
Accustomed to pushing their children to perform well at school, many middle-class parents appear to have little idea about the fragility of a child's mental state.
Recently, an auto-rickshaw driver's 10-year-old son sang on a talent show. Since the producers love to tease out the maximum emotion for 'compelling' television, they harped on about the boy's poverty - talking about how he and his brother shared the same three pairs of trousers and how his teacher, out of charity, pays for his textbooks.
'It was meant to move the audience, but I could see the boy was embarrassed. Not only was he eventually eliminated, they also destroyed his self-esteem with the pity,' teacher Abha Fernandes said.
Child psychologists are alarmed at children having to cope with the pressure to perform and public criticism. Producers often urge judges to be withering in their comments so that audiences sympathise with the child's distress.
The trend baffles Dr Bhansal. 'Traditionally, Indian mothers are notorious for pampering and babying their sons right into adulthood. That effectively prolonged their childhood. Now they've gone to the opposite extreme - depriving children of their childhood.'
Newspapers have reported cases of children running away from home after being rejected by judges, or falling into depression. If parental ignorance is not responsible, it is a hunger for overnight fame. Or greed for the substantial prize money. Or maybe all three.
A newspaper investigation last year into the Little Champs show revealed that a parent had hired people to sit in the audience and paid more than 50,000 rupees (HK$9,100) to get them to vote for his son.
Defenders of reality shows argue that they fling open a window on the world to children whose talent would otherwise go unnoticed in small-town India. 'Without the opportunity we offer them, these kids could probably go on performing in front of 50 people at the local community centre or village hall forever,' Singh said.
Over the years, some children have achieved their dreams after being signed up by Bollywood directors as playback singers.
Aishwarya Majumdar was 10 when she made it to the semi-finals of Sa Re Ga Ma Li'll Champs and 11 when she won in Chote Ustad. Now 14, she has signed to be a playback singer and will perform across India and overseas after signing a contract with a production company.
A handful of other children have also found film careers. Even those who fail to get into Bollywood can often feed off their 15 minutes of fame for a year or so by performing in villages and small towns. The money too, even for the runners-up, is handsome - as much as 900,000 rupees.
But as criticism mounts, some producers have refused to take on children below the age of 12 and advised judges not to be too negative or harsh in their remarks.
Producer Nikhil Alva, who launched the trend-setting Indian Idol, said the elimination process would now be played down to spare children's feelings.
But the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, appalled by Shinjini's misfortune, has demanded an explanation from the show's producers and her parents. 'We want to find out who was responsible, the producers or the parents, for pushing her to the brink. Someone has to keep an eye on the children's welfare,' a commission member said.
This will be a difficult question to establish. What comes first? The craving of parents for instant fame or the hunger of reality show producers for high ratings?
Show winner Aishwarya blames the parents. 'I've seen what goes on behind the scenes and most of the time it's the parents who pressure their kids rather than anyone else,' she said.
The commission is now formulating guidelines for the treatment of children in reality shows.