Little teary-eyed children between the ages of 8 to 12 narrating how they come from homes where they are the sole breadwinners and would rather join the army than be chefs, or how their father’s body caught fire, or how they help their mother make 100 dabbas a day – all interspersed with copious crying. Presided over by three men in velvet and suede jackets who look at the children unblinkingly and keep prodding them about their tragic lives till they shed a tear or ten. Welcome to Amul Junior Masterchef Swaad Ka Ustaad - the most horrific spectacle on Indian television I have had the misfortune of watching. And I've watched Nach Baliye with Rahul Mahajan and Rakhi Ka Swayamvar, so my threshold is very low.
Swaad Ka Ustaad is a spinoff on the highly successful and very well-made Junior Masterchef series. Now what was lovely about Junior Masterchef Australia – which had been telecast in India last year - was how happy the entire show was. The spirit of competition was kept to a minimum, the children were stupendously talented and the entire series had an air of celebration about it.
But hey, this is India where drama, pathos and tragedy mark every reality show. So why should children be spared? The Indian version has three judges – who go by their first names like Hindi film villains of yore - Chef Jolly, Chef Vikas and Chef Kunal. If the children have been handpicked to be desi versions of the little matchstick girl, these three have been handpicked to remind one of deviant Willy Wonkas. If I was a parent, I would be most concerned about letting my children near three grown men who giggled, convulsed and gesticulated so ridiculously.
Just so you know how things work in the land of reality shows, contestants have to fill in forms which are scanned by the production team. From these forms, candidates are selected, these candidates are then shortlisted depending on interviews during which clearly someone handpicks the most tragic tales of despair and devastation which they think make for great voyeuristic TV. Before the judges meet anyone, they are briefed about the pick of the litter and these “high entertainment” contestants are featured for longer than others.
So the stories of woe are no surprise to any of the judges. The first contestant I saw was a young girl who was repeatedly asked by the judges about her home, until she shared sad details about how her house was too small for her large family and how her father struggled to send her to school and how he got burnt in an accident. The judges egged her on, fully knowing what was coming, until she shed the requisite number of tears. Then there was Saarthak, a 12-yr-old boy who was made to relate how he, his brother and his mother live together and that he cooks but would rather join the National Defence Academy. Chef Vikas then walked up to him and repeated the boy’s entire story once more to the other judges while keeping a death grip on the boy’s shoulders, till he cried.
Meanwhile when another child enacted how he’s the school bully, is rude to other children and considers himself to be “dabangg”, his horrible behaviour was applauded and referred to as endearing.
Even if the judges didn't have the requisite IQ or EQ to shut up and mollify the children, or change the subject when the child is close to tears, why did the producers and director of the show feel it necessary to broadcast and highlight footage of children crying? Are eyeballs and TRPs really that important, that you’re willing to emotionally exploit a child and milk the tear-jerker moment to its voyeuristic max?
And just to display the level to which the perception of the makers of these programmes is skewed, I had the privilege of a Twitter exchange with the senior VP of Sony – which has just begun Junior Indian Idol. She tweeted me thinking I was referring to the children on her show. Her defence was that those children weren't crying alone, even their mothers had been crying – so it was somehow justified to keep the cameras trained on them.
I’m all for reality TV. Just so I can see to what heights grown men and women will go to appear on TV. But those people making spectacles of themselves are adults. It’s bad enough that we have programmes which show children dressed provocatively and dancing precociously to sexy Hindi film songs – with full blessings of their parents and celebrities. Now we have to make children relive death and deprivation and weep buckets for TRPs? The censor board instead of spending their time beeping out the word “mosque” in Homeland and “boob” in Big Bang Theory, should set down some rules of what is allowed and what isn't when it comes to programmes about children.
I’d strongly suggest you don’t watch it, but if you must - Amul Junior Masterchef Swad Ka Ustad is telecast at 9pm on Saturdays and Sundays on Star Plus.
Disclaimer: Firstpost is a part of the Network18 group which owns TV channels that compete with Star Plus.