The other day I was watching ‘Nammal Thammil’ (‘Between Us’, to translate roughly) an interactive talk show on Asianet TV. This is a popular program in Malayalam television, and for many years it has held its place against competition. The USP of the show is the host himself, the very likeable, self-deprecating, Mr. Srikantan Nair, whose mannerisms are now staple fare for the mimicry artists in Kerala. I understand he is a top official in the Asianet TV (MD?).
Normally, the Nammal Thammil participants are divided into three groups. The first group consists of representatives of a particular professional category, such as aspiring playback singers, TV Actresses, magicians, astrologers, and even, hold your breath, contract killers in face-masks as was the case on one famous occasion. The second group is made up of experts from the media or social organizations/ agencies, who generally act as interlocutors of the first group. The third group is the audience in the studio, whose members chirp in with debating points, or rather sharp opinions, from time to time. Mr. Srikantan Nair is the fulcrum around which the whole show moves, and it is quite interesting to watch how he manages the balancing act, literally running between the three groups.
On this particular day the first group was made up of participants from another Asianet show for young singers, ‘Munch Star Singer’. Before you start thinking this is about the culinary habits of cannibals, let me hasten to clarify- ‘Munch’ is a biscuit company who sponsors the show, and hence the somewhat weird sounding caption. In the second group were the proud and adoring parents of the main protagonists of the show. They sat there, their eyes fixed on the respective offsprings, ready to defend the progeny at short notice. But these kids did not need to be defended.
‘Munch Star Singer’ (hereinafter described as MSS) is the junior sibling of another mega show on Asianet TV, ‘Idea Star Singer (ISS)’, a show sponsored by the Idea Cell-phone company the contestants of which come from the age group 16-25 years. MSS is for kids, but of course, it is as fiercely contested as the ISS, with the usual exultations, heartbreaks, and tears, around which these reality shows on television are built and TRPs earned.
The MSS contestants have been brought to this special edition of Nammal Thammil. A first look at the participants is somewhat a shock for me. The contestants are not merely young, a few of them are almost toddlers, or so they look. Some of them even speak with a pronounced lisp, may be the result of parental pampering. The Nammal Thammil show seems like a recess for these kids from their regular work (which is MSS). The kids are a handful for the otherwise able Srikantan Nair. He looks out of his depth trying to get his grip on them. They sit there on the stage in deep chairs, their heads barely rising above the backrests. They are a boisterous lot, totally uninhabited, which is again unusual for kids in this part of the world. It is clear these kids have been exposed to the glare of public attention from a very young age. They are able to keep up a continuous banter with each other and with the anchor, and also with the audience.
The show also had the kids singing their favorite songs. They look so young and vulnerable and speak in children’s voices, but when they start singing they become different persons. The songs the children render are difficult compositions originally sung by experienced singers, some of them in their fifties and sixties. The voices of these children undergo a transformation when they sing these songs. They sing in almost adult voices, which I find somewhat frightening.
I have been a listener of songs in many languages by legendary singers for many years. When I listen to the songs of KJ Yesudas sung in the 60s, his voice has an endearing vulnerability of the post-teen. As you listen to his songs over the following decades you can feel how his voice is evolving and maturing with age. It is a long process, and his voice reaches its full-bodied flow at the end of 80s. But when I listen to these children I immediately realize they sound, or they want to sound, like adults. There is obvious talent on display, but there is something disconcerting too there. I get a feeling that these are like runners who want to begin their race somewhere towards of the end of the track. Not for them the long journey.
They are very media savvy too. The quick repartee, adult wisdom, measured opinions and views fall easily from their lips. I feel the same way when I listen to how the child actors in Hindi movies speak wisdom, though there is a difference- in those movies the child simply mouths the stock dialogues prepared by some crude semi-literate script-writer. But this is real life, the MSS kids are talented, except that they are performing on the terms set by the adult world. The deft turn of phrase, and the songs in the adult voices, are sometimes so natural. I only wish their childhoods are intact.
These kids are gifted.... and I wish they realize their talents in full measure.