Kids’ reality TV shows across languages have always posed a moral question in front of their viewers: is it all right to subject children to the machinations of showbiz? Time and again, these shows have been at the receiving end of wrath from viewers and activists alike but have still managed to pull season after season in almost all regional television industries. The Telugu entertainment industry is no different and has been notorious for producing reality shows, some of which were eventually banned under the premise of ‘commercial exploitation’ of kids.
From Aata, Chota Champion to Jabardasth, the stereotyped and age inappropriate content propagated through these shows have come up for discussion. After a complaint was filed last month against the popular kids’ reality show Drama Juniors telecast in Zee Telugu, the debate revolving around the moral compass of such shows has once again revived.
What are the shows like?
People who defend kids being a part of the silver screen on grounds of ‘early exposure to society’ might as well watch Aata, a kids’ dance reality show that was aired on Zee Telugu and was banned in 2015. From children themselves turning judges on the show to making them engage in meaningless gender gang wars, the show made activists see red. It had little girls, who seemed to be barely 7 or 8, wearing makeup and gyrating to songs like 'Mera Piya Ghar Aaya O Ram Ji' while their parents and the judges beamed proudly.
“Certainly there is a need for children to evolve, to hone their talents. But who has vested this authority in the hands of certain television lobbyists to decide what kind of exposure is good for kids at such an early age? Moving their hips to vulgar songs and learning dialogues that make even adults sink into their chairs, these children are robbed of their innocence. The sadder part is that this commercial exploitation has not yet been addressed as an issue in our society,” says Shanta Sinha, an anti-child labour activist and founder of the MV Foundation.
“We have over-evolved technologically, but our cultural space is still not at par with this evolution. The growth should be such that it is organic for our kids to develop holistically,” she adds.
Another show Chota Champion that was aired on Zee Telugu in 2014 had kids as young as 2 years and above participating. The show set different tasks to be performed by each toddler, who was accompanied by their parents on stage. The show had elimination rounds too for kids, many of whom were yet to get admitted into kindergarten. To be more precise, Chota Champion carved champions out of parents in pushing their kids to the edge to be flawless actors and dancers on screen.
“It is fair to presume that none of these children, when they turned 3, told their parents that the next year their goal was to become a reality TV star. The parents made this choice for their kids. And kids being kids will first listen to their parents, and second start enjoying the adulation. Till they get rejected. And then they have a meltdown eventually,” says child rights activist Achyuta Rao, who was instrumental in getting the show Aata banned.
It isn't only reality TV shows which cross the line though. Let’s take the case of the popular Telugu serial aired on Star Maa, Koilamma that has two children playing the lead roles. Biting teeth in anger, plotting crimes along with her mother to kill a peer and slapping her classmates out of sheer jealousy are the character traits of the 10-year-old antagonist Sindhu. The serial often makes one wonder if Sindhu would ever have known what it means to be a ‘child’.
Jabardasth, aired on ETV, has kids performing along with adults in skits, mouthing obscene dialogues with weird haridos, in veshtis and sarees. Leave aside dialogues, one of the episodes has its judge Nagababu (yesteryear actor and producer) openly body-shaming an overweight boy who moves a leg to a popular Telugu number. These kids are also given a weekly payment to act in the show which makes it an obvious case of child labour.
Speaking to TNM, Tamareddy Bharadwaj, filmmaker and critic, and also the producer of Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Telugu, says that a kid’s performance on stage is a direct reflection of the aspiration of his/her parents. “It contains their unfulfilled hopes, dreams and ire towards other parents in proving their kids to be the best. And the entertainment industry banks on this weakness of parents and reaps TRPs. After all, isn’t it all a part of business?” Bharadwaj asks.
Impact on children
Despite such outrage, why do these shows still have sky-rocketing TRPs and a gallery full of audience who roll on the floor laughing at the crass humour?
“The voyeuristic pleasure that viewers get from kids being not-so-kiddish has pushed the industry players to aggravate this commercial exploitation of children,” Bharadwaj opines.
Popular Telugu actor Adah Sharma, who was a judge on the reality show Neethone Dance, aired on Star Maa, tells TNM that people love watching reality shows because they get a peek into other people’s personal lives.
“Some children get messed up with the constant attention they receive from viewers. But it's also up to how parents bring them up as well. I've met terribly behaved bratty kids who have bad behaviour but are encouraged in the name of cuteness, and I've also met some really well behaved and disciplined children, too. It's not easy to do reality TV. For a child, they learn to work in teams, learn to smile even after long hours and learn to be strong. It's really a 'to each his own' situation,” Adah says.
Cut-throat competition, kids pitted against other kids who may be as young as 4, and being told they are not good enough to qualify and then being rejected in front of an audience and having this telecast on national TV - this is the usual trajectory of such shows.
Bhagat Chaitanya, a Hyderabad–based techie who recently filed a complaint against the show Drama Juniors aired on Zee Telugu, says that the problem with such kids’ reality shows is that the child fails to understand why his/her competitor is better than him/her or why s/he has been rejected. The criteria these shows employ are never properly defined.
“For example in an episode of Drama Juniors that was aired on 15 July , 4 children were shortlisted for elimination. Children were made to stand on the stage and a girl started crying within minutes into the elimination process. Two kids got entry into the safe zone while the anchor and judges engaged in some pep talk and finally announced that none of the contestants would be eliminated for the day. If this was the case, why were the kids put through such mental trauma?” asks Bhagat.
In response to the allegations, Zee Telugu spokesperson told TNM that they have been complying with the rules of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) during the execution of each programme. “Zee Telugu is a responsible channel deeply rooted in tradition and culture. We take utmost caution while developing programming content involving children in line with the guidelines laid by the NCPCR. We work closely with parents at every step to pursue a comprehensive approach to every child’s well-being and also have a counsellor on board present on the sets at all times."
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. Bhagat says that despite a month after the plaint has been filed, he is yet to get a formal intimation from the broadcasting ministry.