The Escape Artistes

Lucknow at 10 pm in January feels like the end of the universe – dark, fog-bitten, still, with the odd rickshaw creaking past. A capacity crowd has packed into an auditorium to celebrate Mayawati’s birthday. The delicately double-chinned Dear Leader is not present herself, but that doesn’t slow the officials’ hectic praise or the folk dancers’ proclamations that she’ll ascend to be “Bharat’s PM”. Sitting demurely in a corner is a 28-year-old woman, dressed in a glamorous sequined white chikan kurta, whom all of Lucknow knows — Poonam Yadav is the one true celebrity roped in for the event, and the crowd is getting testy for her. Eventually, Poonam’s turn comes and, ascending the stage, she launches into a practiced concert of favourite Bollywood standards.
Poonam is just one among lakhs of young people streaming out of every corner of India — from cramped metropolitan chawls and forgotten northeastern hamlets, from grimy mining settlements and burgeoning B-towns, from despairing Srinagar and the deadends of Dhanbad. Drawing them like a psychotropic magnet is not Bollywood, but a newer merchant trading in the old dream: Reality TV. With its tantalising offer — as Sonam Kapoor’s character Bittu puts it so memorably in Dilli 6 — “to become somebody from nobody”. These young people no longer have to act or rely on the whimsy of directors and producers. The dream now trades on raw ability. To sing, to dance, to laugh. Stardom has been democratised and it seems all of India is lining up at the booth.
Since Kaun Banega Crorepati first sprang onto our consciousness, dozens of talent-based reality shows have mushroomed in India. Dance India Dance. Indian Idol. The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. India’s Got Talent. Each of these shows hold auditions in over 10 cities, descending like divine carrots from the sky, and thousands of young people throng to them. Each show then has addon competitions (for kids, for kids and mothers, for couples). And each show has clones. Mumbai is just the dizzy centre: every show has regional replicas going in Gujarati and Bengali and Marathi. Imagine the gargantuan spread, and you get a real measure of the energy field.
3 lakh is what an average TV show winner can earn for a live performance. Abhijeet Sawant is said to earn Rs 4.5 lakh per performance
There is huge money to be made out of this subculture one could call Talent TV. Money that is trading on that most profound resource: the human desire for recognition. The young see reality shows as a way of escaping their small horizons: the shows pick them for precisely that reason. This narrative arc — the desire for escape and the potential for escape — makes for great viewing. It is little wonder then that reality shows have become the biggest phenomenon in Indian television after the saas-bahu serials. They are cheaper to programme than full-scale soaps and hang their success on massive audience participation, which can run into crores of SMSes for the bigger shows. (Channels, in fact, often make more money from these shows from telephone company tie-ups than from advertising.) The market is so fecund, desperate producers running out of ideas have begun to throw up amalgamate contests, where winners from past shows compete against each other. Or more ludicrously, the young are asked to prove themselves as the most passionate fan of some superstar, or in the case of Star TV’s latest show, Mahayatra, as the most loving and dutiful child — a la Shravan Kumar, the epic character who carried his blind parents in a basket to pilgrimage points across India.
The ideas may be drying, but not the well of longing. To become somebody.
So what of these young people themselves, cannon fodder in TRP wars? What becomes of them when the arc lights go out? A select few, showing the same pluck that got them on air, stay on in Mumbai and turn their transitory fame into a revenue model — performing around the country in big venues and even abroad. Talent TV, in fact, has birthed a secondary market which never existed in India before, with B-level celebrities performing live at events of every hue, corporate, governmental and political, and at festivals and weddings. A much larger number though just have to walk the reverse arc back to anonymity, returning home to its dissatisfactions and now even narrower horizons. You may have forgotten their names but they have not forgotten their attempt to get out.
Poonam Yadav is of a third kind. A finalist at the Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Challenge 2007, she has come home to Lucknow for good but still powders herself with the memory of Mumbai stardust. This allows her a modicum of success on the live performance circuit and she has retained some characteristics of the celebrity. A dislike for punctuality, an ability to pretend other people are invisible, fussing at the room temperature. But for most parts, she is a wary young woman, sullen, and almost fed up with the drama of her own story. Poonam’s celebrity, in fact, has been both golden and notorious.
Her life seemed scripted for Reality TV. Daughter of a maidservant, Poonam grew up in deep poverty in Lucknow’s Sadar Bazar area. Her father died while she was in the womb. But here, in the kaccha house that let the rain in every year, Poonam has now built a narrow but opulent mansion from her earnings. She earns Rs 2 lakh a show now; she earned Rs 800 before television happened to her. She has travelled to Hong Kong and Singapore for performances. An odd remnant from her earlier life sits before her mother: instead of an electric heater, a tasela burning coal and wood is on the floor. Poonam cares so little for attention at this stage that she has stayed in the comfort of dowdy at-home clothes and oiled hair when the photographer arrives. She can dress up for the stage, sure, turn on her star power. But the press can take their lumps.
Music was always her passion and she got herself intermittent music tutors, sustaining herself financially with various odd jobs at a PCO and nursing home. She’d also begun to perform at local jagrans. “I used to look at my harmonium and cry,” she says. “I think if I hadn’t got into Sa Re Ga Ma Pa when I did, I’d be in an asylum by now.” Reality TV as deliverance. The audition as messiah.
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