Category Archives: Pop goes the culture

Star Voice of India – update

As usual, the sideshow of the judges threatened to overwhelm the singing show put on by the contestants. Alka Yagnik, the sole female judge, was persuaded to return after leaving the show in a huff a few weeks ago. The first 15 minutes of the program were nauseatingly devoted to her comeback, with every single one of the show participants and organizers putting in their 2 bits about how much they missed her( I was surprised they didn’t let the audience in on the act too!). Since I record the shows and watch them later, this is a real bummer because invariably, the show goes over time and the crucial final minutes are usually cut off.

I have to wonder,  is this kind of drama just natural to the Indian psyche or is it crafted carefully by the producers? We have similar judge fracas in American Idol here, but the repartee is mercifully kept short and there is a level of professionalism in the interactions.  Somehow, the behaviour of the judges in VOI is so crass that even with the missing minutes, I am glad I watch the recorded show and can fast forward to the actual singing. If the group dynamics of the judges is stage managed by the producers, my respect for the Indian audience has hit a low. Or maybe the quality of singing is so high that people tune in in spite of the off-stage theatrics.

The voting mechanism is also strange. I am glad I can vote online from the US and my votes count but when the voting starts and when it finishes seems to be really fluid.  I just vote on Saturdays, hoping I’m doing the right thing.

As for the singing itself, thankfully this week there was a return to melody, with the participants singing composer Pritam’s songs.I almost gave up on the show after last week’s episode with Govinda. No one denies his comedic talents but the songs he has been associated with have been so bad( sarkaye leo khatiya, anyone?) that the poor singers had a hard time showcasing their talent.

My picks for the ultimate winners are Harshit, Irfan or Toshi. The girls just don’t stand a chance.

Why Star Voice of India makes me (home)sick

Zee has Sa Re Ga Ma, Sony has Indian Idol. Can Star TV be far behind? In a bid to cash in on the popularity of music reality shows, the channel introduced Star Voice of India a few weeks ago , closely patterned after the other successful shows.

The dilemma producer Gajendra Singh found himself in was how to separate the show from the herd while still retaining all the elements that made the previous shows work. As with the others, there are several preliminary auditions where the singers are culled by judges. Ultimately a top 12 is voted on by the general public.

Seems pretty straightforward. But, as they say, the devil is in the details. And here is where VOI is so quintessentially Indian.

First, the show has 5 judges instead of the usual 3, named the ‘Panch Parmeshwar’ by some wag behind the scenes. While most sane people would try as far as possible to distance themselves from such a pompous appellation, the judges themselves are apparently dead serious about it.

In mythological style, divine battles ensue every week. Tantrums are thrown, walkouts are staged. Mind you, these are the judges we’re talking about.The men also make up with hugs and kisses, something that can happen among heterosexuals only in amchi India. The sole female judge, very unsubtly, scores the girls very poorly and reserves her nastiest comments for them.

The format is completely fluid, apparently being made up as they go along. This can sometimes lead to awkward situations where the judges pause mid-routine and ask,” Uh, ab hum kya kare?” After one contestant accompanied the performance of a particularly sexy number with coordinating body movements, one of the leering middle aged judges decreed that everyone else must ‘perform’ too; with the result that somehow a show to find a playback singer has morphed into Indian Idol Too.

At the end of the judges’ selections, instead of the ‘Bemisal Baarah’ there were 14 singers left, to everyone’s consternation(including the participants). A mad scramble happened to figure out whether to eliminate 2 more singers or find a rhyme for ‘Chaudah’.

Somehow everything got sorted out and now the audience voting rounds have begun. In true Indian fashion, the voting numbers are announced before the singers have performed and after their video biography is shown, pointedly revealing their place of origin. This is probably to ensure that there is no discrimination against tone-deaf people who may not be able to judge the singers by their merits.

Among all this chaos are the singers themselves, humble, hopeful and highly talented. They take the judges in their stride and criticism with aplomb. The talent pool is so deep that any of the guys or gals eliminated in the first round of auditions by the judges could out sing this year’s American Idol winner( which is why the Sanjaya Malakars of the world drive me crazy). The ‘Bemisal Baarah'( yes, they couldn’t find the rhyme after all) are truly outstanding. Only one winner is assured a playback contract but I imagine that the established artistes of the Hindi movie industry must be quaking in their Batas by now.

Which is why I still watch VOI and will continue to watch despite the fact I cannot vote in it. As for the crazy judges and the corny jokes and the gushing suck-ups, it’s all one big dose of Bharatiyana. When I can’t take it anymore, I’ll just fast forward.

(Star Voice of India is available through Direct TV’s Hindi Direct service.)

God as a plot device

‘Saving Grace’ is a new show on TNT where a foul- mouthed, morally challenged police detective tries to get her act together with the help of a tobacco-chewing redneck angel. I watched the debut episode yesterday. The show is very well written and entertaining and Holly Hunter, who specializes in angst-ridden characters, gives an excellent performance as Grace Hanadarko. Then why did I feel so uncomfortable?

God as a plot device is very familiar to Indians, brought up on a steady diet of Manmohan Desai movies. In fact, his blockbuster should have been named Amar, Akbar, Anthony and Allah, given how much prominence the deity has in the movie. Remember Nirupa Roy’s blindness being cured by the levitating flame?

But somehow, in India, we know how to take our religion with a liberal pinch of salt. We regularly visit temples and pray copiously but maintain a healthy dose of skepticism about whether our prayers are going to be answered. Our concept of Hell is rather vague; after all, as the Amar Chitra Katha comics informed us, poor Yama was just a sad neglected child of Surya. The notion of the duty here and consequences for negligence in the afterlife is completely open to interpretation, there being a singular dearth of scripture that lays down the rules in black and white.

So when a laser beam comes out of Santoshi Ma’s palm to smite the unbeliever or deliver a faithless husband back to his long-suffering wife, we throw coins at the screen, applaud vigorously and even, moved by emotion, undertake fasts for nine consecutive Tuesdays(or is it Friday?). Miracles on screen are fun to watch and extricate many a hero from crushing logic, but we certainly are not expected to believe that they really happen. We Indians are, ultimately, practical about religion – believing that God can be your personal genie and deliver you from your troubles is rather like a lottery – you play it just in case, but don’t get too upset if you don’t win. In a country of a billion people, it would be surprising if He/She had the time to zoom in.

Maybe it is the light-hearted way I’ve approached religion that makes me squirm when I see the almighty on screen in the US. They just take it too seriously. The angel admonishes Grace “Enough with the drinkin’, whorin’ and cussin’, coz you’re going straight to Hell if you don’t shape up quickly.” The crucifix is prominently displayed, the bible is treated reverently and the angel, for all his redneck ways, is rather like a stern elementary school teacher. “If there is a God,” asks Grace quite intelligently, “Then why is there hunger, disease, death..” “If I gave you the answers,” answers the smug angel,”where is the room for faith?” If that isn’t a cop-out, I don’t know what it is.

Thanks, but I’ll stick with my polytheistic, joyful, irreverent religion where the gods don’t presume to have all the answers(and not share). And if a stray plot appearance on TV reminds me to pray, I’ll just send a mental SMS to my favorite one.

R u there, Gd?