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Talent hunt shows too stressful for kids

Jan 29, 2010

Child-centric talent hunts and reality shows are causing competitive stress among young children, writes Smita Deodhar. A national legislation to protect child artists from exploitation and excessive parental ambitions is the need of the hour, she argues.

Mumbai: Soon after Viacom 18 Media announced the auditions for 'Chak Dhoom Dhoom', a dance contest for children aged 5-14, websites carrying the announcement were swamped with frantic inquiries from children as young as nine years of age, all similar in tone to the ones reproduced above.

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The degree of excitement generated by the announcement is not surprising-reality shows for children are extremely popular with viewers and participants alike. Every child who can shake a leg, carry a tune or tell a joke seems to be making a beeline for television these days.

However, the attitude of the little children is startling. Kasber Augustine of Kasber's Dance Academy, Mumbai, has been teaching dance to children and young adults for 25 years. The students of this institution have performed in hit Bollywood films like 'Kuch Kuch Hota Hai' and 'Ashoka', and have won more than 26 awards in TV talent hunts like 'Boogie Woogie'. Augustine has seen the competition fever building up over the years.

“Most parents want their children to learn dance for personal development. But they are not averse to their kids participating in talent hunts just for the fun of it, as an extension of the hobby,” observes Augustine. He does encounter some excessively ambitious parents and kids, though, who expect the academy to groom the child into a talent show winner. Augustine disapproves of such attitudes, but says the TV shows have their charm.

Taking part in reality shows has become an accepted part of the training of a talented child. It was Chimay Kale's music teacher who encouraged him to audition for 'Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Little Champs' on Zee Marathi, in 2007. “He had just been learning for a couple of months,” says Madhuri Kale his mother, Mumbai homemaker. “We were thrilled when he cleared the auditions.”

Although eliminated early in the contest, Chinmay, now 14, 'had a ball', and gained a great deal from interacting with professional singers during the training sessions. “I learnt how to hold the microphone, sing to orchestral accompaniment and present myself on stage,” he said. The grooming helped him win many singing contests later.

According to Chinmay, the contestants shared a great camaraderie on the sets.
“Though everybody wanted to win, the atmosphere was not unhealthy. The kids were quite cool if they got criticised or eliminated.” But he was amazed by some overwrought parents. “One gentleman began cursing the judges loudly when his daughter got adverse comments.” According to him, such ungracious parents are in dire need of psychiatric counselling.

Child-centric talent hunts have often been blamed for causing competitive stress in young children and their parents too. But reputed Pune-based psychiatrist, Dr Bharat Sarode, offers a different perspective. “Fierce competitiveness, unhealthy as it is, is a part of a wider phenomenon pervading our society. It arises from a real or perceived lack of opportunities. Children are scrambling for 'success' everywhere-in academics, sports and hobby classes. Talent shows can hardly be singled out for blame.”

Precisely what the producers and organisers of these shows said. In fact, they argue that televised contests create opportunities to showcase the abundant talent that exists across the country. All contestants get to be on television and outstanding talent gets much more than generous prizes-a big break in showbiz, recording contracts, modeling and anchoring offers, live performances. The rewards are breathtaking.

Celebrities Shreya Ghosal and Sunidhi Chauhan, child prodigies discovered through the shows 'Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Challenge' (Zee TV) and 'Meri Awaaz Suno'  (Doordarshan) respectively, went on to earn their laurels in playback singing. Aishwarya Majumdar, the 14-year-old winner of Amul Star Voice of India 'Chotte Ustaad' (2008, Star Plus), has reportedly signed lucrative singing contracts and is set to tread the same path. Saloni Daini, only seven when she won the 'Chote Miyan' comedy show, has a huge fan following. Apeksha Porwal, the teenage winner of MTV Scooty Teen Diva International 2009, represented the country at the Miss Teen International contest in Chicago the same year.

But Augustine sounds a note of warning here. For every child who makes it, there are scores of winners who just fade back into obscurity once the spotlights are off. Success may be shortlived. “Children begin to overestimate their talent and develop unrealistic expectations. It is safer to pursue a conventional education to fall back on,” he advised.

Even so, it is difficult to prevent the hyped success stories from becoming inspiration, sometimes with disastrous consequences. So intense was 11-year-old Neha Sawant's desire to make it on TV that she committed suicide on January 4, 2010, when she was, allegedly, disallowed by her parents to participate in the dance show 'Boogie Woogie'. The incident renewed public debate on child-centric talent shows and their negative impact on children.

Apart from competitive trauma, other aspects of the shows raise the hackles of child welfare groups, such as children imitating adult-like sexuality and vulgar gyrations with the consent of the parents on dance shows; insensitive remarks by judges; physically tiring shooting schedules; contracts that are possibly exploitative; and academic setbacks.

Talented dancer Pooja Naik, 17, chose to keep away from talent hunts after a single foray six years ago because of the time factor-she had had to wait outside the audition venue from 8 am to 5 pm for the dance show 'Kya Masti Kya Dhoom'. Pooja, an excellent student, wants to be a Chemical Engineer. “My studies would have been affected," she shrugs. She does intend to audition, though, for the reality show 'Dance India Dance' once her board exams are over.

In response to increasing calls for regulation of children's reality shows, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights is working in tandem with the Union labour ministry to institute some reforms in the sector.

Proposals under consideration include restricting the number of hours and days that the children can be allowed to shoot, adjusting shooting schedules to fit in with schooling; a minimum age of 16 years for participants; specifying the working conditions; having a psychiatrist on call on the sets to counsel the children. There is also a proposal to put the talent shows under the purview of the Child Labour Act.

But regulations or no regulations, talent hunts are here to stay - by popular demand.

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