The year was 2008. Sixteen-year-old Prashant Sharma, son of a milkman and farmer in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, came in third in ‘Aligarh Got Talent’, impressing the local show’s judges with his Bollywood dancing skills. Four years later, Prashant would find himself doing headstands, flips and 180-degree splits on the stage of reality show Dance India Dance as Terence Lewis, Geeta Kapoor and his “idol”, Remo D’Souza watched.
Prashant didn’t win, but making the distance from the rickety wooden stage of Aligarh to the flashy studios of Film City in Goregaon, Mumbai, was enough. The story of thousands of others like him, he knows, ends at the unceasing queues of audition venues.
Like that of the 17-year-old from Faridabad, who earlier this month was arrested for smothering a 68-year-old woman to death in her flat in Delhi. Police say he did it for money to become a dancer and to participate in reality TV shows. This was allegedly his second murder in five months, for the same reason. His other “victim” was a 13-year-old whom he was teaching dance.
At Surya Vihar in Faridabad, one of those colonies where a city meets a village, fields of mustard, bathua and radish rest easily among unauthorised constructions and muddy pathways. Alongside lie the colony’s dance academies, with boards advertising everything from hip-hop to jazz dance.
In the past four months, they have all shut down. Nobody seems to clearly know why. But they all know about the 17-year-old “murderer”. “Haan suna hai, par humein pata nahi kaun si family hai (We have heard about the case, but we don’t know which family it is),” says one of the residents.
Less than 2 km away, in Saraswati Nagar, Prashant is swaying to the tune of a catchy hip-hop number at friend Rakesh Kumar’s home. He is accompanied by his mentor and the owner of Ganeshaa Dance Academy, Atul Tyagi, 28.
The group is busy practising for an opening act to perform at an event a few days from now. Their studio in “Faridabad city” is undergoing renovation, and so they are practising at Rakesh’s home, where there has been a power cut for a few hours now. The group is using their phones to play the music and a few candles for light.
“After I won the competition in Aligarh, I was convinced I want to make a career in dance,” Prashant says, not halting his practice. “But I couldn’t tell my father about it. Despite the financial crunch at home, he had put me in an English-medium school. How could I have told him that I didn’t want to study any further?”
Friends pitched in to raise some money for him. “With Rs 3,000 in hand, I took a train to Guwahati. I am not sure why I chose Guwahati, but I took the first train that I saw on the platform and hopped on,” Prashant recalls. “My mother and two sisters knew I was leaving home to follow my dreams, but my father hasn’t spoken to me since.”
He spent the next two years working at a garage in Guwahati and taking dance classes in the evening. In 2010, he came to Delhi. “I was too scared to go to Mumbai,” he smiles. “I slept on the benches outside Centrestage Mall in Noida and kept taking rounds of the mall during the day. One day I saw a poster of Ganeshaa Academy and learnt that they were coming to the mall. Remo D’Souza was coming too,” he says.
It took him a few days though to convince Atul to take him in. “I saw potential in him and after hearing his story, I wanted to help him,” says Atul, while trying to explain a ‘move’ to Rakesh and Prashant in the dark. “I didn’t ask him for the Rs 1,500 fee I usually take from other students.”
Atul opened the academy eight years ago with no support from his family, and does everything from wedding choreography to event management to keep it going.
In 2011, Prashant got his first big break. Zee’s Chak Dhoom Dhoom had put out advertisements. “I had done a couple of local shows and events but I didn’t have the confidence to audition for a TV show. I would go and stand in queues with close to 40,000 to 50,000 participants, and when my turn came, I would chicken out,” says Prashant. But that time he performed, and got in.
Ganeshaa Academy’s dancers remain the only troupe from Faridabad to have appeared on a dance TV reality show.
Prashant is part of the academy’s “core team” now, taking training in Bollywood, contemporary and hip-hop, and helms classes in Atul’s absence. With a monthly salary of Rs 25,000-30,000, he has managed to rent an apartment in a colony nearby.
Prashant’s father still doesn’t speak to him, but he visits his aunt in Delhi to enquire about his family.
Apart from Zee’s Dance India Dance and Chak Dhoom Dhoom, Prashant has also performed on Sony’s Entertainment Ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega, and Colors’s India’s Got Talent. All praise for how they were treated in Mumbai — “the train tickets and accommodation were taken care of, the production people were very helpful” — Prashant grins, “Ab Mumbai jaate rehtein hain, ab darr nahin lagta (I keep going to Mumbai now, I don’t feel scared anymore).”
According to data with Zee, well over 25,000 people auditioned for the last season of Dance India Dance across India. They have increased the number of cities they visit to select talent, going to 17 last year — Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Bangalore, Baroda, Bhubaneswar, Lucknow, Nagpur, Jaipur, Patna, Guwahati, Raipur, Chandigarh, Ranchi, Dehradun, Indore and Siliguri, each of which, in turn, was a centre for smaller towns. Lately, they have also been focusing on the Northeast.
A large number of contestants, a spokesperson for Zee says, are from lower-middle class families, who are either self-taught or have learnt the basics from dance schools such as Ganeshaa Academy.
Dance India Dance is one of the biggest dance reality shows of India to only feature common people.
It is at the auditioning stage that many get a reality check. The screening process, followed by pretty much all talent hunt shows, is gruelling and often, intimidating.
A senior production team member who has worked on Dance India Dance among other talent shows, but doesn’t wish to be named, says they rely on a “talent team”. “Their job is data collection. They call up ex-contestants, dance academies, choreographers, college cultural clubs across cities, asking them to suggest names of potential candidates across genres. At the same time, they scout the Internet for videos to discover new names or the video entries received through the channel website, called ‘silent auditions’. Those who come highly recommended may get a chance to skip the first round of audition. The others, however, join the queues at the venues for open auditions,” he says.
Back in 1996, Sony’s Boogie Woogie was the first of the dance reality shows. However, the format focused on showcasing of talent. People from across age groups were encouraged to present whatever dancing talent they had, and a winner was chosen at the end of a two-day contest, held every weekend.
“That’s where Dance India Dance changed the landscape,” says choreographer Terence Lewis, who has been a judge on several seasons of Dance India Dance. The show will air its sixth season this year. “It selects 18 contestants, whom we nurture for an entire season, through mentoring by experienced choreographers.”
Lewis earlier ran an academy, with franchises across the country, as well as boot camps to train aspirants for reality show auditions. He says he has since shut it down because of the copycats. “They have taken away the focus from quality training.”
Since 2009, when Dance India Dance began, a number of such shows have cropped up, including Just Dance and Dance+, while others have faded off in a season. The popular American series, So You Think You Can Dance, has just announced its India franchise for &TV, also a Zee enterprise, naming Hrithik Roshan and Varun Dhawan among its judges. The show will go on air in April this year.
At Dance India Dance, the prize money varies season to season. But importantly, the winners get to sign a contract with Zee’s talent management team, which nurtures them (till 18 years of age if minor; for one year if the winner is an adult), getting them shows. The company keeps a certain percentage from the winners’ earnings.
Zee also has other formats of Dance India Dance, including Dance India Dance Supermoms, Dance India Dance Li’l Masters.
Dance India Dance, India’s Got Talent and So You Think You Can Dance will be coming out with their latest editions soon.
Punit J Pathak, a graduate from Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, was among those who had got a call for the first season of Dance India Dance. He laughs now recalling how he let it pass because the show was new and he didn’t know what to expect.
When that first season became a hit and the next was announced, Pathak was among the first to line up. “The open auditions were to begin at 9 am and I reached the venue at Borivli by 7.30 and saw some 30-odd aspirants sleeping outside the gate. I was relieved that I wasn’t late,” says Pathak, who lives in Vile Parle East, Mumbai. “But when I walked in, I realised there were already some 200 people ahead of me in the queue.”
Pathak remembers having to clear four performance rounds and an “in-depth” interview before finally facing the judges another day, and eventually contesting on Dance India Dance Season 2. He finished third.
The first four preliminary rounds happen over two days. The audition with the judges, which lasts another couple of days, takes place a few weeks later.
“The rounds at audition centres are each of about 30 seconds. You need to perform on the same song. About 500 people are selected and then taken to Mumbai, where there are another two-three rounds. It is only after all this that one gets to the TV stage,” says Himanshu Rajput, the owner of a dance academy in Meerut.
A few seasons down the line, Pathak became a “master” on Dance India Dance, training his own small team of contestants. The 28-year-old is now an independent choreographer, and led the performance at the recent Make in India event in Mumbai.
In 2013, he starred in Bollywood’s first dance film Any Body Can Dance (ABCD) and is now part of the core team of the forthcoming season of India’s Got Talent.
They all know about ABCD here, and about the boy like them, Dharmesh Yelande, who made it to the film. Their black Snapback caps with metal spikes oddly offset the pale pink walls of this 10X10 “dance school”. The caps are worn askew, with as much swagger as their frayed denims and fitted tees. As they wait for the other four members to arrive, Sunil Ramdas Khandare says they are the ‘7 Assailants’, a hip-hop crew from Dharavi.
Khandare switches on the DVD player placed on a plastic chair and connected to a set of small speakers. As Rihanna begins to belt out her chartbuster Umbrella, the three break into dougies and spins, in what appears to be a well-rehearsed routine.
The seven, all between the ages of 15 and 17, are practising for auditions for India’s Got Talent, explains Khandare. Breaking to pause for breath, he adds, “This is the song I auditioned to last season.”
It was in 2010, when he first saw Dance India Dance, that he got hooked to the street dance style of hip-hop, says the 17-year-old, who is doing a course to be an electrician from a vocational college on the side. By the end of the first two seasons, when names such Prince, Dharmesh and Salman became household names, those like Khandare in Dharavi were preparing to follow suit.
A few years ago, Khandare requested his elder brother, a garage mechanic, to let him borrow his phone in the evenings, once he was back from work, so that he could imitate moves from instruction videos.
Last year, Khandare decided he was ready to audition. While he couldn’t go past the first two rounds, this badge of honour, captured in selfies from the audition, has been enough to get him his own set of pupils. “I started to train some of my friends who were already learning from YouTube and we have now formed 7 Assailants,” he says.
They picked the name as it had a nice ring to it, the boys laugh.
“Now we have decided to make a video of one of our dance routines on a phone and upload it on YouTube. I have heard sometimes TV shows find participants on the Internet,” says Khandare. The identical caps are the first step in that direction.
Eighteen months ago, the Slumgods’ trajectory had run a different course. While the crew has never appeared on a talent show, this academy, started by boys from the neighbourhood, is reportedly set to feature in a Shekhar Kapur film. A R Rahman, says Sagar Vatapu (aka DJ Segar), one of the key members and a beat-maker with Slumgods, will be providing the music.
The crew was formed in 2009 by Akash Dhengar, a resident of Dharavi. However, as Vatapu and later Sunil Rayana joined in, they decided to “spread the hip-hop culture across the city and the country”. They began with teaching rapping, b-boying (similar to breakdancing) and beatboxing to slum children from Dharavi, encouraging them to use original lyrics in their vernacular language.
“I didn’t grow up in Dharavi but come from a slum nearby so I am aware that children from the slums have very little to keep them occupied, except cricket. It is why so many take to substance abuse and crime. But hip-hop culture is an art that can be consuming and give them a focus, even if they don’t take it up as a career choice,” says 26-year-old Vatapu.
Slumgods — the name, of course, a play on Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire — began by teaching children in open spaces such as parks and the sea face. In 2013, they moved into a rented hall in Dharavi. Since the classes are free, they raise funds through live shows where they perform by invitation and through their agency Slumgods Tours and Travels, which is popular among foreign tourists. They have picked up English along the way, including Vatapu’s very distinctive pronunciation of ‘often’.
Their list of students has kept growing. “We trained around 50 children for a year in that rented hall. But now the lease is over and we are looking for a bigger space to fit in up to 100 children,” says Rayana.
Slumgods are also backing a new project they call Neo Indian. “We want to push talents of children from slums. Sometimes, we get them an assignment, and at other times, arrange dance workshops with international hip-hop artists,” says Vatapu.
While Slumgods themselves claim to be disillusioned with TV, they confess a large number of their trainees come in with the hope of making it to the reality shows. “We don’t trust these shows. We were called to audition for the last season of India’s Got Talent, where we reached the fourth round. Later, the channel told us they had lost our videos and we should resend it. We lost interest,” says Vatapu.
Another 15-member crew from a slum in Sion though can hardly wait for the India’s Got Talent auditions this weekend. They call themselves Destroy — because “every stage we perform on gets damaged”.
Today, they are polishing the routines they want to showcase at the audition. Lack of space has brought them to the amphitheatre on Carter Road promenade. The noon sun shining overhead, the boys practise in full hip-hop gear — sweatshirts, skinny denims rolled up to calves, metal chains and studs in gold as accessories.
“It’s important to maintain the look — it is part of hip-hop culture. Mostly, we put in our money to buy this gear but sometimes, NGOs help us too,” says Omkar Kheradte, 18, who started Destroy two years ago.
Last year, he auditioned for Dance India Dance, but claims he was asked for Rs 25,000 to help clear the third round. “So I dropped out and don’t care about these shows anymore,” he says.
At the same there is India’s Got Talent ahead, and Kheradte has an explanation for why he can’t stay away. “I don’t care if my performance gets an audience. I want my boys to be noticed. So I will keep trying for talent shows till I can get through.”
A “veteran” now of a few TV shows, Prashant of Ganeshaa Academy in Faridabad has a tip: getting there is not all about dance. “See, it is a reality show,” adds Atul. “The producers tell us there are dancers in every residential colony in India, they want performers. We understood the process early on and managed to break in.”
Many such roads start from Meerut, less than a hundred kilometres from where Atul stands. The city now enjoys a special place on the dance map. As per a Zee spokesperson, “A huge number of people who audition in Delhi come from Meerut.”
It’s morning rush hour in the city. The tea vendor on the busy Sharda Road is handing out steaming cups of chai to customers, who are all glued to the small TV set in a corner of the shop, showing live images of the JNU protests in Delhi.
Competing with the audio levels of the protests is Bollywood actor Varun Dhawan’s latest song ‘Goriya re…’, blaring out from the second floor of an old commercial building nearby. Here, right above ‘Madrasi Dhaba’, eight students of ‘Dancers Adda’ are sweating it out practising ‘Bolly-Hop’, a mix of Bollywood dance and hip-hop, to the song.
“In the last five years, Meerut has become something of a hub for professional dance aspirants. There are about 10 dance academies just in this lane,” says Himanshu Rajput, 25, a co-owner and teacher at the academy with Pankaj Sharma, 24. “Not many people have managed to reach the TV round from here yet, but just go to any of these auditions, aspirants from Meerut are everywhere.”
Trying to explain the reason, Pankaj says, “Meerut is a conservative town. People aren’t very progressive here. Dance has given us a platform to express ourselves.”
While Pankaj’s father is a farmer, Himanshu’s worked for a few years after doing his B.Tech and saved up money to open the academy. In the meantime, he also took regular dance classes to hone his skills. Dancers Adda has around 40 students and charges Rs 1,500 for an hour-long class.
Among those “hoping to make it big” here is Shivam Saini, 18, the son of a vegetable vendor, dressed in a polka dotted white shirt, fitted jeans and a black cap. As he practises his hand movements and expressions, watching himself in a full-length mirror, Shivam confesses his father thinks he is at an engineering coaching class. His mother and sister, however, know the truth.
Shivam first joined dance classes three years ago. “I saw Dance India Dance in 2011. Till then I hadn’t realised that one could make a career out of dancing. I am a fan of Shiamak Davar and would often watch his videos on YouTube at the local cyber cafe.”
That first time, he left after four months as he couldn’t afford the fee and “didn’t have the courage to tell my father”, he says, bobbing his head all the while.
Finally Himanshu agreed to train him without a fee, and he made up the engineering coaching excuse at home. Between attending school and helping his father, Shivam is a regular at Dancers Adda, attending both the morning and evening classes.
He has picked up trophies at several local contests since. “There are hundreds of these contests in Meerut, many celebrities come for them too,” says Pankaj.
The walls of their 15×10 ft studio with glass panels are lined with the medals the group has won at local competitions, as well as posters of Pankaj and Himanshu in “rapper” clothes. There is a small sound mixing system and a laptop for rehearsals.
Last year, Himanshu convinced Shivam to go for the audition of Dance India Dance. Himanshu has himself been going for reality TV auditions since 2009, without much luck. “We have taught him all dance forms, even Govinda-style dancing. We were very confident of him,” says Himanshu.
Shivam remembers reaching the venue in Delhi at 8 pm and standing in a queue the whole night. “There were about 50,000 people and I didn’t even move for water or to use the toilet. With every passing hour I only grew more nervous. There were people rehearsing steps everywhere,” he says.
He was finally called in at 3 pm the next day. “The music played for 30 seconds. I performed my lyrical hip-hop moves — dance moves on slow music. Even before I had done a few steps, the music stopped, I was asked to leave and that was it. I wasn’t selected,” he says.
Rajput admits Shivam’s confidence level took a hit after the audition, but this year they will be trying again. “This time we will send him for the auditions in Dehradun. It will be less intimidating there,” he adds.
As the morning batches, each of seven-eight people, end, the group of students settles down for a cup of tea. It is an interesting mix — three siblings whose parents want to ensure that at least one of them makes it to a reality show, an 18-year-old girl who wants to open her own dance academy in Mumbai, a 19-year-old BSc student who loves Prabhudeva and a 16-year-old aspiring Bollywood choreographer.
Pankaj puts on a Tiger Shroff song on the laptop and the students begin discussing the actor’s dance moves. They also talk about the fresh promotions planned for the academy. “We have put up a lot of our performances online and the response has been good,” says Pankaj.
Shivam, holding his tea, is still standing in front of the mirror rehearsing his neck movements. It is just a few months to the Dance India Dance auditions and the clock is ticking. “I want to crack it this time,” he says.
Looking on, Rajput isn’t surprised there could be murder allegedly linked to the dance craze. “I haven’t heard of the case, but things like this can happen. The dream of making it big can push people in the wrong direction,” he shrugs.