A chance for forgotten art?

Last Friday was my first exposure to the glitz and glamour of Bollywood. I was told that Press conferences in Mumbai are an altogether different experience, in part due to the fact that most are made all the more colourful because of the celebrity quotient.

So when I had the opportunity to accompany the news crew of the organisation I’m interning with, for the launch of X Factor India, I wanted to see whether it would be anything extraordinary.

From the choice of the venue, which happened to be the Taj Lands End Hotel, and the elaborate sets to launch the show, you could gather that no expense was spared to unveil the famous singing competition.

As Indian events normally begin a liberal hour later than the actual time, it was little surprise that we had to wait for an hour and half for the launch.

However, what you would expect to be a long and boring wait was as interesting as the show.

The promise of good food and antics of fellow journalists was enough to keep us entertained.

Unlike the Press conferences I had attended in Bahrain, where there was always an air of formality and quiet activity, Mumbai’s journalists turned up for the event as they would for a musical gig!

Attired in bright shawls and berets, they gathered in the ballroom and broke into an impromptu singing and dance competition. We didn’t realise that when our crew dropped off their business cards, they would be entered into a lottery.

Not only were the lucky ones awarded prizes given away by the celebrity judges, but were also asked to sing in front of the audience.

The quirkiness of the show didn’t end there.

The judging panel, which includes famous playback singer Sonu Nigam, award-winning director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and upcoming playback singer Shreya Ghoshal, were individually ushered onto the stage with an entourage of dancing cherubs and maidens.

The pageantry of the launch and the showmanship of the leading personalities was like nothing I had seen before. When Bollywood goes to put on show, they really go all the way.

We also got a taste of industry gossip, as journalists seemed more interested in knowing about rivalries and feuds rather than what prospects the show that calls itself “the world’s biggest singing competition” had in what is an already saturated Indian television market.

Though I normally can’t tolerate TV for more than 30 minutes, I made it a point to catch the show every night to observe how the stars were on screen and if the show was any good.

After having watched around five episodes, my initial reservations about it disappeared.

Yes, it is an almost carbon copy of the original UK version, but there are subtle differences, mainly to suit the cultural nuances of India.

The judges are gentler, walk onto the stage to hug or lift contestants off the stage when they are particularly moved or repelled by a performance.

The reverence and hero-worship that surrounds movie personalities is all too evident when contestants walk on stage, visibly overwhelmed.

There are genuinely moving moments too.

There was a rickshaw driver who wanted to win so he could educate his wife to become a teacher and a blind father who sang accompanied by his little son who moved the judges to tears.

I think the triumph of the underdog and people making fools of themselves is a common running theme of most singing contests.

However, for someone like me who had seen little of Indian folk traditions, it was interesting to see Rajasthani folk singers and the Sufi art form of qaw’wali singing alongside Bollywood tracks and rap music.

If this ambitious programme, which seeks to nudge its way into a crowded Indian TV business, gives a platform to these often forgotten art forms, it’s a great way to begin.

l Ms Gnana is a former Bahrain resident now studying in Mumbai.

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