When Sa Re Ga Ma Pa and Boogie Woogie had debuted on Indian television in 1995 and 1996, they instantly became a huge success. The two were among the first few Indian reality shows that paved the way for so many other talent hunt-based competitions would take shape on the small screen. The reason why these two reality shows then clicked with the viewers so much was their authenticity and unique format with the main focus on the quality of talent and performance of their participants.
The genre exploded as a phenomenon in the early 2000s with the nationwide success of series such as Indian Idol, Bigg Boss, and Dance India Dance. After all, who can forget the night the first-ever Indian Idol was announced on TV? While many were pinning their hopes on Amit Sana, others were rooting for Abhijeet Sawant, who was eventually declared the winner of the first season. Soon umpteen reality shows took over television. But unfortunately, it’s just got messier since. Even though the power of reality television is undeniable at this point, it’s also become an object of severe, wide-ranging criticism over the years. Among the most serious complaints are the allegations that unnecessary drama and love angles have become central to a reality show’s plotline.
A few years ago, actress Sanya Malhotra, who is also a professional dancer, had revealed that she couldn’t make it to the top 10 of Dance India Dance because she didn’t have any dramatic personal story to share with the audience. Speaking about the show’s selection process, Sanya had said, “I was selected in the top 100 but didn’t go any further because you need to have a sad story to attract audiences’ sympathy. A few of the contestants lied that their parents aren’t allowing them to dance but the irony was that their parents came to drop them."
Most recently, Indian Idol season 12 found itself in hot water for portraying its contestants in contrived situations to get more eyeballs on its episodes. The show has become more about “fake" love tracks and sob stories of its contestants than actual singing, according to Indian Idol season 1 winner Abhijeet, who recently took a dig at the singing reality show for focusing more on the drama rather than singing talent of its participants. This came after Indian Idol 12 host Aditya Narayan accepted that a love story shown on the show between Pawandeep Rajan and Arunita Kanjilal was “fake", and in a way replicated a similar manufactured relationship between him and Neha Kakkar in a previous season.
Giving his own example, Abhijeet further said there was a time he forgot the lyrics of a song while performing on Indian Idol 1 and gave up midway, but the judges were kind enough to give him another chance without making much fuss about it. “But I can tell you with confidence that had it happened today, it would have been served to the audience with full dramatic effects of thunder and shock." Abhijeet, however, added that the viewers are equally responsible for this growing trend in reality shows.
“These days, the makers are more interested in whether the participant can polish shoes or how poor he is, rather than his talent. But the viewers are also responsible. Hindi language public is always hunting for more spice."
On the other hand, Aditya Narayan defended the format of reality shows by saying that their appeal constitutes an extension of fictional drama, and therefore, is driven by a lit bit of “masala". He told an online portal, “Last season, with what happened between Neha and me, people got offended as if they were our relatives. ‘How can you do this?’ I say, ‘Hello, we are putting on a show.’ When you watch a TV show and the lead actor and actress are in a romantic relationship, you are aware that as soon as you say cut, they will go back to their real-life partners. Why don’t you get angry at them?". During Indian Idol 11, Aditya and Neha pretended that they were going to tie the knot, only for it to be revealed as a publicity stunt.
The singer went on to add that from the statistics he received, the latest season of Indian Idol has been the most successful in the past decade and it wouldn’t have been possible without the audience’s love and support. “We are not denying that it’s fake (Pawandeep-Arunita love story) but the audience enjoys it and so do we."
Another popular reality show which is often accused of being peddling “fake" love stories and drama is Bigg Boss. Time and again, several unconfirmed reports have emerged online suggesting that BB contestants often get paid handsome amounts of money to reveal their personal life on the show in order to generate maximum TRP ratings. In an old interview, ex-Bigg Boss contestant Rahul Bhatt, who is the son of filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, had claimed that the marriage between former contestants Sara Khan and Ali Merchant on Bigg Boss 4 was nothing but “nonsense, completely fake and utterly staged". He even claimed that it was “staged for TRPs." “I was detached from all the drama. It was all very unreal for me. I was boring because I was neither romancing nor fighting," he had said.
Interestingly, despite being dubbed as “fake" and “scripted" time after time, these reality shows continue to rule the TRP rating chart which is a clear indication that a large section of the audience does enjoy this kind of content and is comfortable with the fact that what they are watching on a reality show may not be completely real. Here’s a fact: Indian Idol season 12 and Super Dance Chapter 4 are currently the fourth most-watched shows on Indian television, according to the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India data.