India repackages TV's 'Idol' talent show, without the pop

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The Independent Online

At first glance, the audition queue snaking its way into Delhi's National Stadium looked the same as it would anywhere in the world. Nervous teenagers clung to their friends, family and registration forms. But the songs that filled the hot midday air were uniquely Indian. Monika Bhattacharya, 21, eschewed the usual Britney, Kylie or J-Lo for a lilting Hindi love song, her eyes screwed shut in fierce concentration.

At first glance, the audition queue snaking its way into Delhi's National Stadium looked the same as it would anywhere in the world. Nervous teenagers clung to their friends, family and registration forms. But the songs that filled the hot midday air were uniquely Indian. Monika Bhattacharya, 21, eschewed the usual Britney, Kylie or J-Lo for a lilting Hindi love song, her eyes screwed shut in fierce concentration.

The youngsters were queuing in their thousands for fame along a very British route: the Pop Idol television franchise. Only this isn't Britain and there is no Pop in this Idol.

Indian teenagers dream of Bollywood and the silver screen instead of topping the singles chart. In Bombay, the city where 800 films are churned out every year, even MTV is dominated by song and dance clips from the cinema. These hits are sung by invisible "playback" artists and mimed by actors.

"There's a lack of pop culture in India," said Tarun Katial, the executive vice-president of programming at Sony's Indian television operation, which will broadcast Indian Idol tomorrow evening. "There's never been an Elton John. There isn't a Spice Girls or a Backstreet Boys. When bands do appear they're not iconic. Pop culture is still Bollywood." Judging the contest are three celebrity figures of the Indian film industry.

The judges started their search last month from among the 30,000 hopefuls for their Indian Idol - someone between 16 and 30 with a soundtrack voice and a stage presence.

The winner will be awarded a recording contract and a 10m Indian rupee (£125,000) deal with Sony.

In truth, the show is more screen idol than Pop Idol. Ms Bhattacharya, in the audition queue, sang a pop song from the film Tumsa Nahi Dekha (I Haven't Seen Anyone Like You) which is about a rich man who falls in love with a dancing girl.

Many Indian filmstars have been groomed through the dynastic route, but the expectant faces waiting their turn inside the Delhi stadium were the sons and daughters of lower-middle-class Indians. For some, the radio is their only access to music. A young road sweeper was picked for the next round during auditions in Calcutta.

"The show's never been anywhere as diverse as India. One minute we have someone coming along who doesn't have a TV set and whose family will have to go elsewhere to watch. The next, a very rich girl who's been sent to classical lessons since she was three," said Dug James, a production executive with experience in Asian television markets.

Anxiously waiting for his turn, contestant 1905 was wearing a long, collarless Indian shirt and brown leather sandals.

A few seats away, 01454 was adjusting her off-the-shoulder top while chewing gum. One hopeful brought along a classical Indian instrument, while in the row behind a boy in tight jeans strummed a guitar. Quietly singing playback hits while waiting for her turn in Delhi was Sonika Misha, 17. She made the six-hour journey from her home in Agra with her father who was waiting outside.

Near by, Shrunkhala Shrivastava, 22, made a 17-hour train journey from her state in central India to the capital. She is blind and her older brother accompanied her. "I'm here to try my best. That's all I can do." Before the judges, under the bright lights of the Idol standard-issue navy and turquoise set, she did better than No 14804 before her. His emotional rendition was tolerated for only 10 seconds by a judge.

"You're the best singer I've heard so far in Delhi," Ms Shrivastava wastold by Farah Khan, the film director who choreographed the musical Bombay Dreams and the film Vanity Fair. "That song needed to be sung with a smile, so you did it perfectly," said Sonu Nigam, a judge and one of India's most popular playback singers. Ms Shrivastava burst into tears. "Thank you sir," she said as she was guided back to her brother.

Such is the respect for the judges that some have tried, as is traditional, to crouch and touch their feet. In Calcutta, one rejected young man threatened to jump from the seventh floor unless the judges chose him. To their horror, one boy told the judges he was going to perform a Bengali "rape". He meant rap.

Ms Khan said none of the judges intend to play the "Mr Nasty" role perfected by judge Simon Cowell in the show's British and American versions. "Being really, really nasty doesn't work in India. It's a hospitable culture. People will be humiliated just by being rejected.

"We're not looking for 18-year-old nymphets who can squeeze into corsets," Ms Khan said. "We're genuinely searching for new talent. But you never know who the country will choose. Knowing India, it's likely to be the girl next door."

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