Is ‘poverty’ the ultimate Indian idol?

When all my girlfriends, their boyfriends and the rest of the world were discovering Sherlock and framing glowing, date-dazzling conversations around Benedict Cumberbatch in their heads, I was religiously watching something called the Big Switch. It was a show on UTV Bindaas  where an amply tattooed, amply muscled and a scanty T-shirt clad Rohit Shetty, was teaching spoilt, rich Indian kids how to live without baap ka paisa – their father’s money.

In a rather poignant episode, one poor little rich girl flicks one strand of neatly blow-dried hair off her bronzed forehead, wipes what presumably is a tear in the left eye with one perilously talon-ed finger and swallows a little coral lipstick as a very KJo boy-drools-in-class music plays in the background.

She has just discovered the bai.

“I never respected domestic helps. I never realised how much work they do. (chokes) But now… (louder choke) I know how difficult their life is and I am so lucky,” she says. More Louis Vuittoned, Jimmy Chooed women gather around her and give her ‘that guy’s a jerk’ hug.

Screen-grab from KBC 6 promo on YouTube.

Just a few frames prior to this spectacular Miss India moment, girl in question had been shown serving two glasses of water, sweeping what looked like two square feet of the floor in a spa and beaming dazedly at the camera. Who knew a broom could be stuff great epiphanies are made of?

Obviously, I didn’t. I have seen my mother sweep floors before Pujas, it’s the first thing I brought when I moved into a new house and the first thing I, and a lot of others turn to, after a weekend house party.

Hate Oprah now.

Poverty porn is not just something Danny Boyle baited the Oscars with. It’s not just something that Oprah or other such exotic-hunters fly down business class to throw at an Anil Kapoor-wary West. It’s primarily something the Indian television business has thrived on for very long.

Be it teary-eyed, honey-voiced singers who live in rain-sodden little houses or sprightly hip hop dancers who work in garages, the Indian Idols and the Dance India Dances, love being the fairy god dad to all of them. It's not enough if you can sing or dance. You have to tear-jerk as well.

Only, we don’t bat an eyelid when Amitabh Bachchan sits in a purple, straight-out-of Star Wars set in a designer suit, and broods as young men say how they left school because their father couldn’t afford hundred rupees a year as school fee. And the wiry, scruffy, dazed old man in question trembles and blinks back tears as the whole country watches.

Or a quaint in a dowdy salwar and bindis girl sits in the hot seat with a wan smile and says how her father left her, how her mother worked as a domestic help and how dreadfully, incorrigibly, helplessly poor they are. So much so, that XYZ show on TV is their last shot at a ‘proper’ life.

If they ‘win’ a few lakhs, digital drum rolls, fifty close shots of the mother wiping tears with a synthetic saree pallu and a star-host hug greets them. If they don’t, they get the same. Only the sad-song siren replaces drum roll.

Oprah, in her idiom, might just go ‘awww’. We, on the other hand, will sit back with the coffee, spend a long sigh on how heart-wrenchingly poor we are and go to bed feeling heroic and tragic.

Poverty is Indian television’s Malaika Arora – item girl, eye-ball grabber and surefire recipe to success.

And that’s exactly why, a singing talent hunt on a national channel, gets a ten year old to recount her life as an auto-driver’s daughter. Cameras follow the father as he stiffly does his puja on cue, dons a frayed uniform and solicits passengers on the street. If you know your cities well, you have probably known auto drivers as bullies. But if he is an Indian TV star, he is probably just poor!

Also read Avirook Sen on KBC.

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