HOW THE SUCCESS OF NORTHEASTERN REALITY TELEVISION STARS HAS BEEN AN UNLIKELY CATALYST IN BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER.
In late 2007, I became aware for the first time that reality television was having a direct effect on my life. I was then living in Mumbai, and would receive frequent phone calls from my parents and sister in Shillong in the Northeast, 2 100 kilometres away. The usual topic of those conversations revolved around my sister’s latest existential crisis, and the many crises of my life imagined by my parents. Then, suddenly, my mother stopped talking to me about my marriage, preferring instead to end her lectures with entreaties that I should vote by text message for a boy back home named Amit Paul who was a finalist in the reality television showIndian Idol. This worried me more than any of her attempts to marry me off to strangers. I decided it was time to go home and investigate what was going on.
Signs that things were not normal began to appear as soon as our taxi entered Shillong. There were posters of Amit peering out everywhere – in little shops selling betel leaf and cigarettes, clothing stores, and even at the poky local gambling places where people bet on daily archery contests held in the old Polo Grounds. There were rallies of people in cars and on bikes shouting “vote for Amit Paul” like it was election time. A song he’d sung on the show played everywhere like an anthem. “Nasha ye pyaar ka nasha hai,” it went. (“This intoxication is the intoxication of love.”) It seemed as though the entire population of 260 000 had fallen collectively into some kind of crazed teenage crush.
It made no sense to me.
I grew up in Shillong during the 1980s and early 1990s. My house was near the state assembly. There was graffiti on the assembly wall that I would pass every day on my way to school. It said, “Khasi by blood, Indian by accident,” and was signed by the Khasi Students Union (KSU), a powerful and militant organisation. I remember riots every year between ethnic Khasis, who are the original inhabitants of the area, and the dkhars, or outsiders. Anyone not tribal was a dkhar. Bengalis and Nepalis were “foreigners,” and therefore, not welcome. An ethnic Khasi insurgency against the Indian state that began in the 1990s had wound down, but not entirely. And here was Amit, a Bengali boy, being cheered for victory in a show called Indian Idol!
Something similar had happened in Assam two years earlier. A Bengali boy named Debojit Saha had made it to the finals of a reality television music show called SaReGaMaPa. His victory had done something no politician had managed: to unite the Bengali and Assamese speaking populations of Assam for a common cause, which was to ensure Debojit’s victory in the show.
That time, Debojit had won. What would happen now?
The state government was pulling out all the stops to ensure Amit’s victory. I read on the front page of The Shillong Times that the Chief Minister was holding a meeting with the Chief Secretary – who heads the bureaucracy in any Indian state – and the Director General of Police, among others, to discuss the matter. On a visit to the Chief Secretary’s house I found Amit Paul was the topic of conversation. The top officials in the state were, as they say, “seized of the matter.”
I also heard from various people that the first and biggest supporter of Amit was a young minister in the state government named Paul Lyngdoh. This amazed me. Some years earlier, Lyngdoh used to be the feared chief of the KSU. He was the man who inspired Khasi boys to shut the town down in violent protests against ethnic outsiders like Amit. Amit’s uncle told me that their house in a locality with a large Khasi population around it had been burnt down during one of the riots sparked off by the KSU. They had been forced to relocate to a safer neighbourhood, which meant a ghetto where there were few or no Khasis. That was how the town was organised at that time: into ghettos along ethnic lines.
Lyngdoh, who was then minister for urban development, is an interesting man. He’s barely five feet tall and round faced. He has mixed Chinese and Khasi ancestry, which made his position as leader of a movement against “foreigners” rather curious. He used to be surrounded by a phalanx of supporters who were typically tough young local boys in leather jackets. When I went to meet him in his office in a newly built complex at the heart of the town in a place called Police Bazaar, he greeted my friend, photographer Ritesh Uttamchandani, and me with a cold politeness. Yes, he was supporting Amit. Yes, he had led the movement against outsiders. But those times were over, he said. The local people had won control over jobs and resources. The battle had ended. There was no longer any insecurity. The support now was for Amit as a Shillong boy, a boy from the Northeast, who was bringing laurels to the town.
He didn’t say it, but it was clear that here the struggle against India was also over. The accidental Indians had made their peace with destiny.
Amit’s rival and the eventual victor in the final rounds for the Indian Idol title was someone much like him, another boy from the periphery of national identity and imagination: Prashant Tamang, a Nepali speaker from Darjeeling. Both were people who just wanted the world to know they existed. For many supporters of Prashant, it was also about how Nepali speakers are perceived. Many such supporters told me that they wanted to show India that beyond the stereotype of the Gorkha as soldier, or guard, they were a cultured and talented people.
“No one knew about Shillong outside. Now they do,” my friend Bernadette Khongwir Lyngdoh, who was then canvassing support for Amit, had said. My sister had much the same reaction. Conversations with strangers in shared local taxis led to the same point: this was really about recognition in other parts of India. It was about people who had probably never seen their town on national television wanting to be noticed – and perhaps accepted – by their country, for once. It was to matter, for once. Even if it was only on a television reality show.
The makers of these shows were quick to spot the market. A number of success stories from Northeast India followed. The most memorable was Sourabhee Debbarma, a pretty singer from Tripura who won Indian Idolin 2009. Each reality star was voted to success by SMS votes from people in the region. Governments made arrangements to support these “elections.” Free phones would be set up each time, paid for by donations and grants from businessmen and politicians. People would line up enthusiastically to vote. The phone service providers and TV show organisers would laugh all the way to the bank.
The most recent examples of reality television show success stories from the region have been the Shillong Chamber Choir and Toko Teji, a drummer from Arunachal Pradesh, who were both finalists in India’s Got Talent. The usual routine of crazy campaigns to support this local talent happened again, but at least in Shillong, fatigue is setting in.
Bernadette, who used to harangue me to send SMS votes in support of Amit, is noticeably less enthusiastic now. She did support the Shillong Chamber Choir, but is starting to get a little tired. “It’s good to recognise talent, and good the government took the initiative to promote it, since there are so few opportunities here. But organising felicitation ceremonies for the winners when the government has a fund crunch? It cost at least Rs 50 lakh! At that time school teachers were not being paid arrears,” she says.
Now, her position is: “We appreciate talent, but when you overdo the whole thing, it gets stale. The government could have done something more enduring with the money.”
I ask her again why people in the town and region are so excited about reality television. Bernadette’s explanation this time is very simple. “Because there’s nothing better to do!”
People have all the time in the world, she says. “By six or seven pm the day’s work is done. Then what? TV is [the] only entertainment,” she says. There is no multiplex cinema in Shillong, until date, although one is now coming up. The options for eating out are limited. There isn’t much of a nightlife. Had there been more to do, people would watch less television, she says.
It’s less about recognition now. As Paul Lyngdoh might have said, that battle is mostly over. There is a sense now that the country and the world know Shillong. People still voted for the Shillong choir because, as Bernadette says, they are “local local”: ethnic Khasi boys and girls, for the first time, unlike earlier stars from the region. That was true also of Teji, the Arunachali boy, whose ethnic roots lie in the state.
I believe the idea of India in the popular imagination too has been expanded by these reality shows. It has shown to people of far flung corners of the subcontinent that there are many kinds of Indians, and some of them look quite different from the stereotype. There have been Indian Idols with Asian features – a new thing for a country used to seeing brown faces and turbans as Indian. There is growing acceptance at a mass level that citizenship and ethnicity are different things.
Of course, all these ethnic struggles aren’t yet over, and may never be. The Khasis made peace with India, and rallied around their “own” to be Indian Idol. I wonder when or if I will ever see an Indian Idol from Nagaland, or Manipur… or Kashmir.
Byline: Samrat Choudhury
Photographs: R. Uttamchandani