'Biggest Losers' win on India's reality TV hit

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The Independent Online

In a country where up to 300 million people live below the poverty line it may be surprising to discover that a reality television show encouraging contestants to lose weight is gripping Indian television audiences.

Biggest Loser Jeetega, literally Biggest Loser Wins, has become one of the most popular programs on Indian television, attracting more than 15 million viewers since it first started airing two weeks ago.

The show runs along similar lines to the various "reality"-billed weight-loss programs that more commonly fill the airwaves of industrialised nations.

Sixteen contestants embark on a strict regime to lose weight and the winner will be paid 100,000 rupees (£1,250), a veritable fortune to most Indians, for every kilogram they lose. Each week the contestant deemed to be showing the least commitment to battling the bulge is voted off by their fellow teammates.

Suneil Shetty, a popular actor who, even by the standards of muscle-obsessed Bollywood, is known to be a bit of a fitness freak, is hosting the show. A square-jawed giant of a man, he has taken more than a year off filming to concentrate on the show - no mean feat in a country where popular actors often churn out more than 25 films a year to be able to afford the luxurious Mumbai pads favoured by Bollywood's elite.

The success of the show illustrates just how much of an issue obesity has become to Indians in recent years. Impressive economic growth year on year has resulted in an explosion in the country's middle classes who can now afford to eat at the expensive Western-style junk food outlets that have sprung up across the major cities.

Boomtowns such as Mumbai and Bangalore have scenes of incredible urban contrasts where emaciated beggars sit patiently outside a restaurant of the latest Western food chain as enormously overweight rich patrons file past.

But the growing numbers of obese Indians is threatening to engulf the country in a major health crisis. India now has the dubious distinction of being home to the world's largest population of diabetics, with somewhere in the region of 30 million sufferers. The costs of treating so many people are a major concern to the government.

Yet, despite its economic clout and the increasing availability of fatty foods in urban areas, many of India's rural poor remain woefully under-nourished. This week it emerged that as many as 570 people may have died from starvation in the state of West Bengal after they were forced out of work following the closure of 16 tea estates.

The findings, which emerged from a Supreme Court investigation, caused a major embarrassment for the government and outrage among many Indians who had hoped the days of localised famines were gone.

But the popularity of a television show such as Biggest Loser Jeetega shows how India's urban middle class are now looking to reduce their expanding waistlines. As the number of fast food outlets has increased, so too has the amount of weight loss clinics, fitness videos and magazine articles extolling the virtues of dieting and the myriad ways to shift excess weight.

According to the show's producers, finding contestants willing to go through a weight loss boot camp was surprisingly easy. "Convincing them was the easiest thing," said Kalyan Sundaram, head of programming at the television network behind the show. "In India, people are now conscious of what they wear, how they look, what they weigh."