How to Win a Reality Show: Forget Your Talent, Surrender Your Dignity


How to Win a Reality Show: Forget Your Talent, Surrender Your Dignity

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

Recently, Nishant Kaushik, an author who lives in Australia, took to Twitter to share his harrowing experience at auditioning for Indian Idol, a reality TV show for singers. In the post that went viral, Kaushik wrote about queuing up for the audition in Mumbai for more than 12 hours with no facilities, witnessing participants praising the show on camera after being lured with an early call to the judges’ room, and a blind man’s disability being exploited for TRPs.

In his rant, he summarised the ugly truth about reality shows that we are all aware of – they are far from real.

I’ve had a full 360-degree experience of it myself. And this goes beyond binge-watching Unreal, a show on exactly how manipulative the business is. I was one of the hundred volunteers at the Delhi auditions of the first ever Indian Idol. On that muggy September in 2004, the hockey stadium was teeming with people – organisers, volunteers like me and participants. Thousands and thousands of participants. So the four days of what I thought was all about making a quick buck, turned out to be an eye-opener.

These were early days of reality TV in the country and they brought a lot of hope for small-town India. As hordes flocked to the stadium, we slapped their chests with stickers that reduced them to a number. In groups of 20, they stood outside the audition rooms awaiting for their turn. Those who had already auditioned waited anxiously outside the results room which I occupied. I simply barked out the numbers that got selected for the next round. The ones I didn’t announce hung their heads and left the venue. Many among those who were asked to leave were trained classical singers.  

I was also given the job of getting “bytes”. I asked the ones who qualified what an Indian Idol ticket means to them; often I asked them awkward questions about their families and their social status. Most found themselves flabbergasted in front of the camera, so I helped them with prompts like “Humari zindagi badal jayegi show jeetne se.” Lines such as this got me a pat on the back from the higher-ups.

The judge, some beefy guy from the channel, announced, “Sab Hindi mein baat karenge.”

By the end of the auditions, I had seen a poor vegetable seller who sung beautifully get promoted more for his story than voice. I had seen awful singers being encouraged to sing in front of the judges only so that they could ridicule them. We all remember the “funny segments” where the “besura but brave” singers auditioned for the show, don’t we?

When the season was aired, there were many participants I remembered. And then I forgot about them. But years on, I still remember many of those who never made it in front of the cameras, those who were relegated to being part of the Mexican wave shouting “Indian Idol” after waiting for a chance to audition for most part of the day.


These were early days of reality TV in the country and they brought a lot of hope for small-town India.

Image Credits: Getty Images

Back then though, it was still easy to forget the ugliness of reality shows. Four years after my Indian Idol stint, I decided to apply for MTV Roadies. I was selected and finally had a chance to find the answer to the question that defined my generation: Tu Roadie banega saale?  

I’d know only after the 10-hour ordeal that the audition turned into. In the long, long line that led to the venue, I befriended a Divyanshi, who said she wasn’t prepared for the auditions at all, but her peroxide hair and obnoxious heels told a different tale. A certain Nancy standing ahead of me had a cut on her forehead. “I was at the earlier auditions and a bottle hit me during the ruckus,” she told us. And here I was, believing that I was a true Roadie only because I woke up at 6 am and made it to the venue.  

Soon a camera swooped past us and we were asked to cheer very loudly and scream “Roadies”, the MTV version of the Indian Idol Mexican wave. The host asked the guys to do push ups and everyone scrambled to prove they are the “real mards”. I coyly waved at the camera and then cursed myself.

After a few hours of waiting, in groups of eight, we were led to different rooms for a “group discussion”. The judge, some beefy guy from the channel, announced, “Sab Hindi mein baat karenge.” And then went on to speak in fluent English that the topic of debate would be “live-in relationships”. Before I could wrap my head around what was unfolding, the other seven participants started speaking… all at the same time. “Love shuv kuch nahin hota,” said one guy. The other said, “Sex important hai, sir”.

The cacophony continued until the show’s main man barged into the room, his hands outstretched. He walked up to one of the boys and dragged him by the collar, accusing him of violence at the earlier audition that had caused the cut on Nancy’s forehead. “Khub tod fod kara tune us din? Chal ab karke dikha, apne dosto ko bhi bula le,” the main man barked. The six-foot tall Jat cowered. “Sir, mujhe police ne bina karan do mara. Maine gusse mein khidki todi, God swear sir.”  

“Sorry bol B&^*$!”

This is the moment I was waiting for. The true Roadies moment. The 10-hour wait that preceded it now seemed worth it.

And this was followed by what seemed like an eternity spent waiting in a large auditorium of an old school with no food or water. I could have ideally left anytime, having said absolutely nothing in that discussion and no one would’ve noticed. But something made me hang on. Maybe the sporadic takedowns by the angry host at unsuspecting stud boys.

Hours later, the results were announced. “Love shuv” guy was selected, so was the “sex is important” guy. Divyanshi was not; I was shown the door too.

I did not find the answer to what it takes to be a Roadie. But I learnt something else: That the entire process of audition is maybe unfair to those who believe in the power of art – but what the artist and the aspirationalist have in common is that each one gives up a bit of their self-esteem to reach this point. People who apply for reality shows do it for a reason – for some it may be fame, for some it maybe be money, and for someone like me, it just helps break away from the monotony.   

For a fly on the wall like me, this whole experience has ended up as a funny story that I tell my friends. But for so many others, being in a reality show is probably a ticket to fame, fortune, or even livelihood. Those of us with the privilege to follow our dreams – and the privilege to lose out on a few – will never understand the transformative power of a potentially life-changing chance. That dream and that chance alone is worth the pain of rejection. For a dream, a hundred times over.