Nine-year-old Nityashree jumps down from the brightly lit stage; dodging light stands double her size as she greets technicians and choreographers, on the sets of Zee Tamil's flagship show - Junior Super stars. Dressed in a bright green saree, she giggles as one of them pull at her false braid and it is hard to imagine that just seconds back, this young contestant had enacted the role of a ruthless woman who mercilessly beat up her house help’s child for wanting to study.
The fifteen minute play ended with Nityashree's character having a change of heart and preaching that everyone, irrespective of their socio-economic background deserves an education.
These short plays with a social message and even comedy, is the formula that Zee Tamil has adopted for the second time, to compete with its rival Star Vijay. The race for second best rated TV channel in Tamil Nadu, is a fierce competition and every week is a fresh challenge. If you are wondering who occupies the top spot, it is Sun TV with a lead of close to 1000 rating points. Junior Super Stars, which has made a comeback with this second season, is the programme that Zee TV believes catapulted it to the second spot on the TRP chart in 2016. Two weeks after the first season was launched, says a member of the marketing team, the channel surpassed Vijay TV in its weekly rating.
"The show currently has 22 children who have been selected after auditions and it began on May 13," says Praveen, the Director of the programme. The show has completed three weeks so far and airs between 7pm and 8.30pm on the weekends. The current set of judges include Tamil cinema veteran Bhagyaraj, actor and YSRCC MLA Roja and television host Archana.
In the first season, which had 62 episodes, the directorial team and writers came up with close to 200 scripts. Several of these scripts focused on comedy but plays with a social message, they soon realised, were what drew audiences to the show.
"You could say that this is our USP," explains the director. “What we have realised is that people get really absorbed, when children tell a message. We have so far covered education, dowry, fat-shaming and several other topics. Last year, we became the show with the most sponsors on the channel," he says, proudly.
A feat not surprising if one were to look at the BARC data, for the period the show was on air. From week 32 to 51 of 2016 when the show was being rolled, Zee Tamil had inched its way up to second position amongst channels that produced original content. It clocked 2,43,783 impressions while Vijay TV stood at 2,00,294 impressions. Why attribute the success to the show? Well, numbers from just four weeks before the first season show that Vijay TV had a comfortable lead of 1,94,190 impressions to Zee TV's 1,69, 894 impressions.
"There is a huge responsibility on our shoulders now after the show's success last time," says Director Bhagyaraj. "This season has seen even more talent than the last and the grasping power of these children is phenomenal," he adds.
A group called the 'Thirai pattarai' has been hired by the channel to train the children for their roles. Once the scripts are ready, they have three days to prepare the children. The first two days are spent understanding and memorising the dialogues, while the third day is used to decide body language and stage placement. Each script usually has up to 22 pages of dialogues.
"The children in this season are more confident than in the first," says Archana. "We are using the children to also send out important message for society. As a judge, I constantly scour social media for both feedback and new ideas," she adds.
The challenges ahead
With that statement, Archana has also hit upon the show's greatest challenge. With over 200 scripts written in the first season and several angles to social themes used, the writers are running out of ideas.
"Our USP itself has become a shortcoming. Each week it gets harder to come up with stories," says the Director.
Currently, Vijay TV has slipped back to the second position with a margin of over 4000 points but Zee TV is confident that this will change. "We have better talent this season and are more motivated than ever. We are sure we can replicate our success," says the Director, confidently.
The rating however, remains in favour of Vijay TV so far, by the channel's own admission. When asked why there was no competition for the top spot, this reporter receives a sardonic laugh followed by, "They have a huge head start."
At the sidelines of the set, meanwhile, Nityashree is profusely apologising to five-year-old Andrea, who played the role of the house help's daughter in the play. When asked why, she says, "I beat her up really hard, to make it look real and now I feel terrible. But I just got so much into the character," she declares, rather seriously.