MUMBAI: Trading their Blackberries for scrubbing brushes and their mansions for huts, a group of wealthy youth are gluing Indians to their TV screens in a country struggling to bridge the gap between poverty and prosperity.
Sunny Sara, 28, a nighclub owner in Mumbai, was one of the participants in a new and popular reality TV show called ‘The Big Switch’ which involves rich contestants residing in a slum for one month to help slum dwellers.
‘There was no running water, no air conditioning, none of the amenities I was used to. I missed by Blackberry and my bikes,’ Sara said. ‘It was a life-changing experience.’
More than a third of India’s population survives on less than one dollar a day, according to a 2007 United Nations report, while the number of dollar millionaires rose almost 23 per cent in the same year, the fastest pace in the world.
The show went on air late last month, almost a year after Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ showed the world what it was like to be poor in Mumbai, where more than half its 18 million residents live in slums or on the streets.
‘Most of India’s television audience is in the middle class,’ said Zarina Mehta of UTV Bindass, which airs The Big Switch.
‘When you bring in people from the richest strata and put them with the poorest of the poor, it makes for great television,’ Mehta added.
‘Our show is also about hope and the fact that you can work your way out of that poverty.’
The show involves 10 rich contestants paired with 10 slum dwellers. The groups have to work on tasks such as shining shoes at railway stations and selling wares at traffic signals, jobs the poor often have to do.
Points are given for each task and the onus is on the rich contestants to win the cash prize of 1 million rupees ($21,600), which would go towards fulfilling the dreams of their partner.
The show, which ends in the last week of January, was shot in a slum in Mumbai’s suburbs where fishermen live, and contestants, who also included an actor and a former Miss India, had to live in a one-room hut with their partner.
Sara’s partner on the show is Abhishek Kushwah, a 22-year-old who grew up in Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum.
‘Me and Sunny are similar in our thinking, but we come from such different backgrounds,’ Kushwah said.
‘Yet, he did all he could to help me towards my goal of going to catering school. This show could be my ticket to a good life.’
For Sara, there were some experiences that were not so good.
‘The smell of rotting fish was unbearable. There was a lot of filth and dirt,’ he said.
Reality TV and game shows have proved to be huge hits with Indian audiences. From Indian versions of ‘Who Wants to Be A Millonaire’ to ‘American Idol’ and ‘Big Brother’, they all air on primetime.