From 'item' song dances to obscene skits: How Malayalam reality TV shows exploit kids

Despite Child Rights guidelines, neither parents nor TV channels are willing to look at the harm that such shows can do to children.
From 'item' song dances to obscene skits: How Malayalam reality TV shows exploit kids
From 'item' song dances to obscene skits: How Malayalam reality TV shows exploit kids
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Dressed in a flaming red sari with gold border, she sashays into the room—she is ‘Haritha Nair’, the caricature version of Saritha Nair in this skit. Her lawyer speaks about a list where names are marked according to the money transactions. When a TV reporter requests her to break into a dance, she does. Before this is another scene where a minister is being reprimanded by his wife for his involvement in the case.  Each dialogue is welcomed with claps, the guests are MLA PC George and actors Aditi Ravi and Askar Ali and their expressions vary between adoration and amusement. 

 This was from Laughing Villa Season 2 and the above-mentioned skit had children on stage. The youngest child may have been around 5!

Now, try recreating that skit in your head with kids all over again. Dressed as adults, some had grey hairdos. One can possibly overlook the costumes and the makeup but not what came out of those innocent mouths.

Were the producers of the show aware that they had just made these tots stage an infamous sex scandal in the state? They were playing out roles that would make a script for a soft porn film—sex, sleaze, corruption, exploitation and the chaotic state of Kerala politics. What really breaks our heart is the earnestness with which each of them acted, unaware of the grime they were letting out into the world. The audience consisting of adults (possibly the parents) and a few children, were delighted and clapping at the most horrific dialogues.

A sizeable amount of reality TV featuring kids brings out such ludicrous content in the name of humour (the glorious exceptions are musical reality shows which are properly done).

There is Katturumbu on Flowers, a kids reality show hosted by Pearle Maaney which has an extensive dubsmash segment with popular Malayalam film scenes and dialogues, cinematic dances and other skits.

The episode we saw, began with Shwetha Menon gyrating to a Telugu 'item' song (a later one had Pearle doing the honours), followed by a dubsmash from Kilukkam. Most of the skits portrayed marital issues, in-law troubles, cheating, and mocked the regressive daily soaps. In one skit, there were two kids enacting a segment from Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha. One line goes something like, “we have 10 kids and you still talk about mistakes.” Groan!.

“When children are pushed into the world of cameras and makeup, they not only lose a part of their innocence but also their ability to think like children. The constant pressure to perform well affects both their minds and bodies. Long shooting hours and rehearsals take them away from the fun of reading and playing. Participation in reality shows come at a price. In some shows I have shockingly noticed children dancing to adult songs ('item' numbers). At a time when we are struggling to protect our children from the filth and violence of the adult world, it is strange that the judges and the organisers, including the parents, allow these things in the name of competition,” says Soumya Vidhyadhar, poet and mother of three girls.

The movie scenes, though popular, aren’t really the wisest of picks to be enacted by kids. Like a scene from Vettam, where Dileep mistakenly puts his hands inside a man’s pants or a marital bed scene from Kilichundan Mambazham or a profane scene from Annan Thambi. In one episode of Laughing Villa 2, they had the kids dancing to a song about the merits of drinking toddy.

In Mazhavil Manorama’s D4 Dance Junior Round, they had a “Romance round” where little ones waltzed together for love ditties.

“These days every film has to go through a series of censoring, from the authorised officials, religious and caste groups, political outfits and so on. But all that is not insisted upon when it comes to TV shows. It's actually a serious issue, as a sizeable section of the crowd watching TV shows are kids, belonging to various age groups. To gain better TRPs, the TV channels add enough spice, without considering the maturity level of the viewers and the ramifications are alarming. Somehow all the moral brouhaha is always limited to the big screen, whereas it is high time the impact of the small screen is monitored,” says media and film analyst Vijay George.

One of the earliest offenders in Malayalam reality television was Kuttipattalam, a show where mimicry-comedy actor Subi Suresh interviewed a small line-up of kids and nudged them to start a conversation. The only hitch was that the questions varied from wondering about their parents' behaviour, corruption, whether the mother cooks, the dad hits the bottle and other not-so-innocent probing queries into their personal life. One episode had a 5-year-old question Subi’s profession and how it will affect her married life. Gulp!

The show was taken off air after Hashim Kolamben, a native of Malappuram, petitioned to the Kerala State Child Rights Commission in 2015, accusing the show of “indulging in mental torture of children as a result of the anchor speaking to innocent children in language in double meaning, so as to give a vulgar twist to their innocent replies.” The CRC pulled up the channel which stopped the telecast. 

“Competitive marking system adds pressure on the children and if the show offers content that isn’t age appropriate that can cause a negative perception on the young minds. What is needed is thoroughly researched content that helps in the overall development of the child. Some of the musical shows that way are nicely done, helping them to shed their social anxiety. Also, parents should be given guidelines along with children and judges,” says junior consultant psychiatrist Unnikrishan.  

One pertinent question remains: why do parents allow their kids to be part of such shows? Kuttipattalam, for example, had the parents well in attendance, squirming in their seats at some of the confessions that came out of their children’s mouth. If the content is adult, even the clothes and makeup aren’t pleasant.

Secondly, why is there no censure or censor on such shows? Some of the dialogues can even be called obscene. It’s a clear case of violation of children’s rights.

In fact, reality shows should have an age limit. A stringent set of rules should be laid out regarding content, language and appearance when it comes to shows featuring kids. An environment in which children find themselves surrounded by cameras most of the time has the tendency to make the challenges of growing up that much more difficult. Moreover, competitive reality shows result in added pressure and a sense of rejection when things don't work out.

Since they attract high TRP and make overnight sensations out of tiny tots, parents find themselves agreeing to it while the producers and makers dig up every possible trick to make it more sensational. The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights in 2010-2011 had issued guidelines for children participating in TV shows and advertisements, regulating working hours, prohibiting inappropriate roles and providing for adequate supervision. But nobody follows these measures as there are no controlling bodies for reality and talent-based shows in India.

With glamour-struck parents living their dreams through their offspring, rules are easy to flout. “Any show that takes away the inherent rights of the children are violative of their fundamental rights, whether consent is there or not is immaterial,” maintains lawyer Harish Vasudevan Sridevi.

At the rate at which newer shows are mushrooming and instant little superstars are springing up from every other channel, it doesn’t look like this alarming trend will subside anytime soon. Either parents turn wiser, let the children be or channels sensitise and censor themselves before throwing these kids into this ugly circus of instant gratification. Show business is no child’s play!

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