Sensitivity or Sensationalism? The trend of physically disabled contestants on talent shows

Sunday, 26 January 2014 - 9:05am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
After Hrs explores the trend of physically disabled contestants on talent shows...

She twirled in her short green skirt, sported a winning smile and her eyes sparkled as she danced to Chikani Chameli... on one leg! Not surprisingly, Shubhreet Kaur got a standing ovation from Karan Johar, Malaika Arora Khan and Kirron Kher in India’s Got Talent 5. Salman Khan was so impressed that he posted her picture and tweeted ‘hats off kamaal hai’…

The legless wonder Vinod Thakur along with his wife Raksha is among the finalists of Nach Baliye 6 competing with popular TV actors like Gurmeet Choudhary-Debina and Rithvik Dhanjani-Asha Negi. In his journey to the top, Vinod has turned out stunning performances doing everything from acrobatics to aerial acts!

Kamlesh Patel, who is completely paralysed in the legs, overwhelmed Mithun Chakraborty when he effortlessly danced on his hands to I Am A Disco Dancer in Dance India Dance season one...

If not for the small-screen and its wonders, we may have never got to know of these unusually talented and gifted people. But are we doing them a favour or disservice? Is it fair to judge them along with regular contestants? Are the marks given for performance or out of sympathy? Read on...

The ideal platform?
The credit of bringing these physically challenged, but exceptionally talented people, into the limelight goes to the channels who gave them a platform to perform. Whether it’s Prerna Agarwal, the visually impaired 12-year-old singer who wowed everyone with her flawless rendition of Saiyan Beimaan (Guide) in Indian Idol last year or Diwakar Sharma the runner-up of Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Li’l Champs, disabilities haven’t come in the way of the participants who are competing on the same platform as the able bodies. “While choosing, we cannot ignore any one who possesses extraordinary talent and also sets an example, an inspiration to the viewers,” says Ajay Balwankar, programming head, Zee. “Television,” adds Gaurav Seth, VP, marketing, SET, “can provide an intimate entry point into the lives of people who are otherwise misunderstood or underestimated.

It’s our duty to encourage such talent on a big platform like talent shows and serials.”

Should they be judged on the same platform?
“Absolutely,” says Balwankar adding, “While we can applaud the fact that they chose to be in a competition where everyone else is able-bodied, their performance will always be fairly judged, just like the others. Sympathising with them will not be fair.” Ashish Gholwalkar, senior-vice president, programming, non-fiction, Star Plus, avers, “When the participants agree to come on a neutral platform like Nach Baliye and have no fear of competing with the rest then we don’t see why we should be judging differently.” Viewers, though have a mixed reaction. Aparna Patil, an avid follower of reality shows feels that pitting them against each other is unfair both to the physically challenged as well as able-bodied participants, while Richa Rao says it depends on how good he/she is as a performer.     

Equal opportunities
For Kamlesh, who hails from Ahmedabad, auditions for Dance India Dance being conducted in his city was a Godsent opportunity to showcase his skills. “I have the ability so I didn’t think twice about going despite knowing that I would be competing against physically fit people. I felt fight honi chahiye,” he says. Kamlesh was selected and invited to Mumbai but after the second round, was eliminated. He was later called back to perform in the finale as an inspiration to others.

Ask Vinod how he feels about being on the same stage as not only normal people but also popular TV celebrities and he vehemently says, “I am here because of my efforts and hard work and I wouldn’t like it any other way. As a child I have gone to a normal school and I was never dependent on anybody to pack my bags. I was one of the most mischievous kids and have played everything from cricket to football!” In fact, he cites the example of a normal boy, Aryan, dancing like a handicapped one in Boogie Woogie. “It’s great that a normal person is doing the act of a handicapped. If he can do that why can’t we show our talent on the same platform,” he questions.

Sympathy votes?
While the move to bring disabled and able-bodied under the same umbrella is being applauded, there are a few niggles about the real motive behind it. Is the channel trying to shore up its ratings by playing on emotions or is it a genuine attempt to bring them under the spotlight? “It’s the talent and content that is liked by the audience,” insists Ashish while Ajay maintains that they are selected only on the basis of their talent and stand a chance to get eliminated if their acts are not extraordinary, just like the others. Ravi Behl, co-producer and judge on Boogie Woogie is clear that he would have a physically challenged person on the show only if he/she deserves to be, not just for the sake of raising the emotional quotient. However, Kamlesh derides the channels saying, “There’s no sensitivity. They want to sell the property.”

Winning hearts
While the jury is still out on that, the fact is physically challenged contestants are winning hearts with their grit, determination and spirit.  Forget cashing in on their disability, they are reluctant to even speak about it. “Many times we have seen normal participants from economically weak families milking on their background to get votes, unlike the physically challenged who only concentrate on their skills and refuse to take the sympathy route,” says Varsha Kulkarni, who tunes into reality shows regularly.

Like Karan had said to Shubhreet, who lost a leg in an accident, “All the problems that we have in our life are nothing compared to what you have faced. We get depressed over minor problems and don’t have the strength to fight. I am feeling small in front of you… It’s a life-altering moment for me… I bow down.” That would sum up the sentiments of millions of Indians, we are sure!

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