The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Reality bites

Arijit Singh didn't know that one vote, against a fellow contestant, would turn his whole world against him. Worse, he didn't know that his medical problem of 'opposite valvation in the heart' would act up soon after. He felt breathless. He collapsed. Doctors rushed on to the Sony sets'

Arijit is not the only one who's taken the Fame Gurukul tagline Iske liye kuch bhi karega too seriously. If the Murshidabad boy couldn't handle the heat on camera, Calcutta contestant Rooprekha Bannerjee ' the only other from the eastern region ' had her family physician visiting her on the Mumbai sets to take care of her recurring 'nerve problem'.

Reality television has got under the skin of the TV audience ' with Fame Gurukul the 'most voted' show on the small screen ' but do we have the nerve to live it out' The cracks are starting to show in contestants under the constant glare of cameras and with hardly a breather from the pressure-cooker situation.

'It's been maddening,' Arijit tells Metro from the sets of Fame Gurukul. 'Concerts, recordings, interviews, training sessions'. I hardly get to sleep. Aar parchhi na. Then you have these 20 cameras and you know that your every action is being recorded. Once I burst out on camera that I want to just run away... I really want to go back (home).'

Gurukul headmistress Ila Arun has little time for student tantrums: 'I wouldn't like to say it myself, but I have heard people saying this is all done by the contestants to seek attention. How much is true is very much doubtful'

Even if the stories of strife are true, the rulers of the reality show are not really worried. 'Like in stardom, stress is an essential part,' says Tarun Katial, executive vice-president of Sony. 'It is essential that these kids learn to handle pressure. If they go on to become champions, they have to face more such problems in the world outside.'

For city girl Rooprekha, visibly nervous on the Andheri sets of the show, 'today's pain, tomorrow's gain' is of little consolation. 'I know that it's going to get far worse once we step out into the competitive world. But having been a nervy person, it's not easy to handle this' It's not just about performing well' What you see is not everything.'

So does the channel actually 'create' situations for good television and TRPs' 'We haven't done anything,' laughs Katial. 'We are just following the rules and regulations of the original format (Fame Gurukul, like Indian Idol, [V] Popstars and Kaun Banega Crorepati, is a licensed version of an international show). All these twists and turns happen because of the contestants. You can't fudge it or manipulate it. That's the best thing about reality television ' it's unpredictable and it's real.'


City-based psychologist Amar Bhargava feels the reality television served up isn't really about the reality we know. 'The concept of reality television can be summed up as an extension of Schadenfreude, a German word used to describe people's delight and entertainment at the failings and problems of others.'

The pop version on the small screen offers a carefully constructed and sophisticated illusion of a gladiator-like reality based on the miserable lows of failure and the ecstatic highs of success.

But why would so many contestants ' the Fame Gurukul Calcutta auditions, in the wake of the Indian Idol craze, had to be called off as Science City was overrun by just too many aspirants on the morning of May 6 ' be willing to put so much on the line'

The answers range from cash to craze. 'Back home, I have loads of financial problems to take care of,' says Arijit, the son of an LIC agent. 'I have to keep going for the Fame crown as I have given my parents so much hope.'

If the carrot of a crore is enough to make the stick on the way bearable, the shooting-star popularity of Indian Idol Abhijeet Sawant and Popstar Aasma has further raised the expectation bar of reality TV being a ticket to the good life.

'Even parents these days push children into this competitive environment,' says Anita Kaul Basu, TV producer and a director of Synergy Communications, behind Kaun Banega Crorepati. 'What they don't realise is more than the destination, it is this journey on television that matters a lot more to the young minds.'

Being on TV for weeks is a huge high. Says Krishnendu Bose, Indian producer for the Emmy-winning reality show The Amazing Race: 'For Americans, more than the money it is the whole experience that counts. Also for Indians, with most of these contestants coming from small towns, the idea of being on national television is a big attraction.'

At least for now, reality shows can only grow bigger. And after sur and taal, blood and sweat beckon on TV. Says Rohit Bhandari, vice president, sales and marketing, AXN: 'As one of the fastest-growing TV markets in the world, India will be served up reality shows that test physical and mental stamina' The idea is to make the contestants undergo a first in their lives. Also, they should have fun along the way and the medical help at hand ensures that they do not get injured as a parting gift!'

First up, Sony's desi version of Fear Factor, the record-breaking reality show on NBC, with each episode doling out Rs 10 lakh and the final winner grabbing Rs 1 crore. But before that, Indian Idol returns for another innings.

'The popularity of these shows will depend a lot on the kind of marketing that goes behind it and the way the show is built up,' says Bhandari.

With hype and hoopla surrounding each show, and the TV watcher keen to turn warrior, reality TV is set to push the limits of endurance. So, hang in there.

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