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Monday, September 17, 2007

Indian Idol 3 - A City Turns Loony

The assembly elections in the state are quite a few months away, but from the look of the narrow and winding roads of Shillong it seems that canvassing is on in full swing. And all the parties are rooting for the same candidate.

On entering the city a huge hoarding sponsored by the state Youth Congress Chief asks you to vote. Further down into the city, the BJP has also put up banners appealing you to vote for the very same contestant - Amit Paul.

Many television viewers are by now quite familiar with the name. Amit Paul is the Shillong lad who has made it to the final two in one of the numerous TV musical talent shows - called Indian Idol. And for the hill state of Meghalaya and its sleepy cosmopolitan capital Shillong it seems to be the best thing to happen since January 21, 1972 - when the state of Meghalaya was carved out of Assam.

For a city with its soul soaked in music the zeal expressed in support of a local lad coming to the verge of getting a ticket to the 'big league' might not seem surprising. But the feverish excitement over a TV show is something that someone like me finds tough to comprehend.

People from other cities from where boys and girls have been contenders for the big promises of the talent shows might have been witness to similar phenomenon. I also had, last year, when Debojit Saha from south Assam had gone to the SaReGaMaPa contest on Zee TV (he was the eventual winner but not necessarily not the most talented of the lot) and I happened to be on a visit to that part of the country.

Amit Paul is already an icon in Shillong. Almost everyone is talking about him all the time. From the barber to the taxi driver, the point of discussion is Amit. Giant screens have been put up all over the city so that people can watch 'their boy' in action. MLAs and MDCs (Member of District Council) are falling over one another to sponsor free PCOs from where the public can punch in their votes for Amit.

Rallies in support of Amit are a daily affair and the crowd at the one when Amit came visiting home is said to be the largest that the city had ever witnessed. The last time Shillong saw people turning out on the roads voluntarily in huge numbers was when the body of Kargil martyr Captain K Clifford Nongrum was brought home.

Amit t-shirts line shop windows and his posters are best sellers (though some organisations have urged them to be distributed for free). Wherever you look in the city you cannot possibly miss one face with a slight stubble looking at you from all directions.

The swanky touch-screen mobile phones are no longer the latest show-off here, it is the number of votes that one has cast for Amit. An elderly gentleman who occupied the seat next to me in a local taxi (taxis in Shillong usually ply on a sharing basis) said that he voted 500 times. Others have reportedly sent over a thousand votes for their home-bred contestant. And the voting continues throughout the night.

To have a first-hand look I walked through the semi-deserted streets to one of the free PCOs at around midnight to discover a huge crowd there. People of all ages, pre-pubescent girls and elderly grandmothers all queuing up in a pleasant September night to vote for Amit. Occasionally some slogan shouting in support of Amit breaks the silence of the night.

For a city which is used to shutters downing a couple of hours after dusk (the sun sets early in the east) these energetic midnight ventures by the young and the old is indeed welcome.

What else is also welcome is that in a communally divided and sensitive society like Shillong's the success of Amit Paul has brought about an unprecedented sense of togetherness.

Amit Paul is Bengali, his family owns a renowned clothing outlet in the centre of the city - Shankar Brastalaya - and at the forefront of the campaign in support of Amit are the Khasis (both communities - Khasis and Bengalis - over the last few decades haven't shared the best of relations). Now both, along with the numerous other communities who inhabit Shillong are making a collective effort towards realising the recently realised dream of a city-bred Indian Idol.

But then there is also a dark side to this tale. Amit's competitor for the title of Indian Idol is Prashant Tamang, hailing from Darjeeling, and sceptics believe that Shillong's Nepali community (a sizeable one) is voting for Prashant, while according to them the loyalties of of all the people of Shillong should be with the city and not the tongue one speaks in.

In case Prashant betters Amit in the vote count there are apprehensions of disturbances in Shillong, which has fortunately been quite peaceful (communally) for the last few years.

To add to all the confusion are rumors of free SMS services being provided by mobile operators leading to many people sending as many SMSes as possible. Apart from the freebie seekers there are many deep pockets abound distributing free pre-paid cards to anyone willing to punch in the SMSes in Amit's favour.

Amidst all the brouhaha it is obvious that there would be a few who can see though this maniacal euphoria (thankfully there are). These few realise that the producers of the show are merely triggering the upheaval of regional emotions and filling their (and the mobile operators') coffers and are also aware of the real value of such talent hunts at a time where every channel boasts of one, if not more such shows. They also try to recall the previous winners of such shows and the oblivion where most of them have disappeared into and also the process of multiple public voting which turns a so-called democratic exercise into a farce.

A local columnist Patricia Mukhim is believed to have ignited the fire for Amit through her columns in the local newspapers. Then socio-cultural organisations took over and even the government couldn't resist from staying behind. The Meghalaya government has declared Amit Paul the 'Brand Ambassador of the State of Meghalaya for Peace, Communal Harmony and Excellence' (see the adjacent image of a copy of the letter from the Chief Secretary) and even the Governor signed his fan book.

With many of Shillong's lasses already publicly expressing the desire to marry him, Amit might just face another problem of plenty. A Sikkim-based businessman has announced a Rs One crore funding for voting in favour of Prashant. There are also rumors of the government employees of Sikkim contributing a day's salary to the kitty for Prashant.

May the best man win, but they seldom do in the farce that these talent hunts are.

Special addition: [September 19, 2007] In fear of excommunication by fellow Shillongites and the possibility of being denied entry into the city in the future for daring to question the concept of TV talent shows at a time when Amit Paul has made it to the finals of Indian Idol 3, here's an attempt towards pacifying the die-hard fans of Shillong's latest singing sensation - some childhood and teenage photographs of him (Don't ask me whether I voted for him or not).

[Click on images for a larger view]

Teenaged Amit

Baby Amit with his grandmother

Boy Amit with his sister

Youthful Amit singing at a Shillong hotel

Amit's childhood photos courtesy: Eastern Panorama


dwaipayan said...

midnight crowd at shillong?????

anyway i think he's a better candidate...

tasneem said...

Does anybody think of the damage these talent hunt events will cause to the social fabric of the country. This blatant racism, regionalism and favoritism does not give any "talent" to India as has been seen in the past. It promotes hatred of the "others" and mediocrity. It provides a platform to the contestants that are few in number but damage it causes affects a much larger population. Jugdes are totally unprofessional with Bhappi Lahiri walking out because his favorite "Mauli" got voted can one trust the judgement of such biased judges. His action shows that he considers his other disciple "Sumedha" to be no good because that was the only choice left. The whole concept of "public voting" is a farce...if jugdes can be partisan, how can we expect a highly emotionally charged population most of whom do not have any knowledge about the intricacies of music, to judge the qualities of a singer. If I had any say, If I was a believer of censorship, I would have recommended it to be scarapped.They are divisive in their framework....the only winners being a few contestants and telephone companies but the cost to "bhai chara"is too much. It is extremely non professional with personal "love" stories are discussed. It could be made entetaining without turning it into a non professional event

Soumyadip said...

Dwaipayan Not only at midnight, they remain till dawn. Surprising, but true.

Tasneem I agree with you on your observation on these 'talent' shows. Though I might not agree on the censorship part, it is a pity that the audience fall for their gimmicks.

tasneem said...

Soumya I did say "If I was a believer of censorship"..and I am not. I dont want it to be censored. I very strongly believe in "survival of the fittest" and I believe that if its bad for the society, society will sooner or later reject it. Only programs that society wants will survive. Unfortunately it seems this is what society wants. I do have the choice of not watching any program but I also have the choice of having an opinion and have the freedom to express it. If people like you and me express our discontent more, others might notice too and perhaps that could be the turning point. I am not asking for its ban, I only expressed my observations

zedzded said...

Thank you so much for the nice article and fantastic pictures!!!

LoneLyStaR said...

hey...Thanks a LOT for the pictures and the article...I took your whole article and the pictures into my web-site of AMIT PAUL...hope u don't mind. please feel free to check the web-site...

Anonymous said...

Amit is superb !! He is the best.

Soumyadip said...

Tasneem If only there were more people who thought like us. For now we are hopelessly outnumbered.

Zedzed Thank you too for dropping in.

Lonelystar Of course I don't. The contents of this blog can be freely shared with the right attribution.

Anonymous Between the two of them, he is.

educatedunemployed said...

heartening to know people think beyond what they are allowed to see. Enjoyed Tasneem's comments to your post.