Sohini Paul loves the Indian reality television show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa. The schoolgirl gets so caught up in the American Idol-style series that she even persuades her Chinese classmates to vote for her favourite contestant. Last month, 12-year-old Sohini earned a chance to take part in the mayhem of Indian reality TV when, on a whim, her parents entered her in the Hong Kong trials for another show, Star Voice of India. To everyone's surprise she won and will fly to Mumbai to perform on the show at the end of the month, along with winners of trials held in Bangkok, Dubai and Singapore. 'I've always loved to sing and dreamed of entering a competition like this but they were never organised in Hong Kong before,' she says. Talent shows emerged on Indian TV in the mid-90s and quickly captured the country's imagination, with their formula for instant celebrity. They became so popular that their ratings surpassed those of leading soap operas. Since the shows were also big hits with Indian communities abroad, broadcasters began to fly in finalists for performances in Hong Kong, usually to auditoriums packed with Indian expatriates. Star TV staged a show with the finalists from Star Voice of India over the Lunar New Year that drew such an enthusiastic response it decided to hold a contest here too, says Rajesh Chopra, events director at Goldfish Entertainment, which co-ordinated the show. 'They later decided to expand the competition to other cities, but it all started in Hong Kong,' he says. The Hong Kong auditions attracted 125 people, including a few Indians working on the mainland. The talent varied considerably, but there were no scary Simon Cowells among the judges. Made up of prominent members of Hong Kong's Indian community, most gave nervous performers a second chance before whittling the field down to 12 finalists. As might be expected, many contestants harbour hopes of being catapulted into show business. Although winners of the overseas rounds will only perform on a special episode of the Indian show, Chopra says the exposure could bring other opportunities. 'A music director sitting in the audience might like your voice and make you an offer. Or the director might decide to bring [overseas contestants] in as a wild card and they could go on to win,' he says. 'This is the age of reality shows. You could get picked up on a show like this. Many prominent Indian playback singers [who sing the songs in Bollywood movies] today only started singing a few years ago.' Such prospects drew Nepalese bodyguard Kamal Rai, who grew up in Calcutta listening to Bollywood tunes and began singing at community events there. The 36-year-old was the first person to sign up for the Star Voice contest in Hong Kong and the first to audition. 'I've been singing at Nepalese community events, but I've always wanted to perform for an Indian audience and this is my chance,' he says. Long working hours forced him to make a few adjustments to practise for the contest. 'I made my room soundproof and used to practise at night. But it meant that I had to practise in a lower scale than I normally would so as not to wake the neighbours.' Rai, who placed third in the Hong Kong contest, says: 'If the opportunity to make it as a singer comes along, I'll give up my job here to pursue it.' Failing that, he hopes his Cantonese-speaking children might break into the Canto-pop scene. Nilanjan Chaudhuri, the manager of a leather goods export company in Hangzhou, was among the mainland-based contestants. 'My friends in Hong Kong urged me to sign up and I almost missed the first audition due to Typhoon Nuri,' says Chaudhuri. The 38-year-old, who won second place, grew up in a musical family. His father, Purnima, is a well-known singer of thumri, a genre of semi-classical Indian music. Chaudhuri began learning to play the tabla as a boy and has mastered eight other percussion instruments. Yet he says: 'I only realised I could sing when I was in college and started performing at community gatherings in India.' After moving to Hong Kong in 1992, he found few opportunities to accompany singers on the tabla, so he started to sing more. But Chaudhuri confesses that the pressure of competition affected his performance, despite his experience singing at community gatherings in India and Hong Kong. 'I almost didn't make it to the next round and had to sing in a tie-breaker,' he says. Chaudhuri prefers the mellifluous tunes of 70s playback singer Kishore Kumar to today's R&B-influenced Bollywood music. 'If I sing anything else, I feel like I'm not singing from the heart,' he says. 'The Bollywood music of today is too westernised, although the lyrics are in Hindi.' He flew to Calcutta in March to record an EP of Kumar cover songs and the contest has lifted his hopes of becoming a star. 'I want to cut an album with original scores,' he says. 'I'll probably go to Mumbai next year to meet some music labels' Ironically, it was Chaudhuri who urged his friends, the Pauls, to enter their daughter Sohini for the Star Voice contest. Sohini, who was taught largely by her mother, Abanty, a school teacher, until she started formal singing lessons six months ago, says: 'Mum helped me choose songs that I liked but which also had a classical element that would show off my voice.' Given the field of experienced participants, her parents just thought it would be a fun experience for their daughter. 'We told her to just enjoy herself, although when she got through to the second round we knew she had a chance,' says Abanty. An untimely sore throat just days before the competition threatened Sohini's prospects, but a strict regime of 36 hours' complete silence and doses of ginger and honey helped her recover her voice. When the day came, the schoolgirl came into her own, dressed in an embroidered maroon traditional blouse and skirt that she had chosen days in advance. 'The lights were so bright that I forgot there were other people around,' she says. 'Mum was more nervous than me, I think.' The Pauls were surprised to see their somewhat reticent daughter get into the groove with a few dance moves, bringing the 1,000-strong audience to their feet with a song from a recent Bollywood hit, Guru. Although Sohini now puts in an hour's singing practice every day in preparation for her Mumbai debut, she's more excited at the possibility of meeting her favourite Bollywood stars than appearing on TV or becoming a celebrity. 'I don't like attention. Maybe it would be different if I was in India,' she says. 'The one thing I want to do in Mumbai is see Shah Rukh Khan's house.' And while other contestants are eyeing musical careers, Sohini has set her sights on becoming a doctor, at least for now. 'Singing is a very unstable position,' she says. 'Singers keep coming and going. And I'm only 12, my voice might change when I grow up.'