15 March 2022 17:51:30 IST

A management and technology professional with 17 years of experience at Big-4 business consulting firms, and seven years of experience in high-technology manufacturing, Rajkamal Rao is a results-driven strategy expert. A US citizen with OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) privileges that allow him to live and work in India, he divides his time between the two countries. Rao heads Rao Advisors, a firm that counsels students aspiring to study in the United States on ways to maximise their return on investment. He lives with his wife and son in Texas. Rao has been a columnist for from the year the website was launched, in 2015, and writes regularly for BusinessLine as well. Twitter: @rajkamalrao

Behind the scenes: How the Indian Idol top four entertain the world

Famous Bollywood playback stars have entertained Indian diaspora audiences for decades (Mukesh and Lata Mangeshkar, Royal Albert Hall, 1976; Kishore Kumar, Los Angeles, 1979). 

But, an unlikely quartet of artists — contestants from Sony Entertainment Television’s Indian Idol 12, Pawandeep Rajan, Arunita Kanjilal, Sayli Kamble, and Mohammad Danish — have become international celebrities in their own right. These suave performers have brought audiences to their feet in the UK Canada, and the US at sell-out events. 

For Bollywood music lovers, game-themed shows have been a dime a dozen. Sony’s competitor, Star TV’s Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, has been running for 27 consecutive years. Only one winner, Shreya Ghoshal, from Sa Re Ga Ma Pa in 1996, became a mainstay Bollywood playback star. Other winners have fanned out into regional film industries, such as Vijay Prakash (Kannada) and Hrishikesh Ranade (Marathi). The rest have mainly disappeared into oblivion.

Spreading wings

Several factors explain why mega success for game show artists is elusive. There are only so many top spots available. Although Bollywood has expanded beyond films to music labels and web series, creating opportunities for newcomers, supply still far outstrips demand.

Those who make it to the top refuse to give up their hard-earned laurels easily. Shreya Goshal was just 16 years old when she recorded the blockbuster hit  Bairi Priya for the film  Devdas in 2002. She may rule the industry for another 20 years for an astonishing 40-year career, replicating the legacies of Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle. Established playback singers like Monali Thakur have been unable to dislodge Ghoshal from her perch.

Playback singer Shreya Ghoshal

Versatile singers have better chances of success. Sunidhi Chauhan specialises in performing “item songs,” which rarely relate to a film’s plot. Newcomers like Neha Kakkar have attempted to claw at Chauhan’s success.

Once a game-show contest begins, the brutal reverse pyramid model ends dreams for many quickly. Contestants are regularly eliminated if they don’t garner sufficient votes from the viewing audience to progress to the next round. Performers begging the nation for votes — often a commercial bonanza as voters are directed to a sponsor’s website —adds to the drama.

Given the extraordinarily lopsided supply-demand equation, how is it that the Indian Idol Top 4 have broken out to become rock stars? I ventured to find out. Az Qasmi, the CEO of Sunglow Entertainment, a Dallas-based promoter of Bollywood shows, agreed to let me interview the performers for the Worldview column when they were in town for their March 11 show. 

Bollywood goes global

Qasmi has been a fixture in the North Texas media entertainment business for 30 years. A brilliant entrepreneur, he is the force behind scores of Bollywood-themed shows in Dallas — including an 18,000-seat sold-out performance in 2019 at the American Airlines center featuring Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Sonakshi Sinha, and Hrithik Roshan. 

For all the shine of a show on event day, which is the only factor that matters to the paying audience, Qasmi described the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Conversations begin with an international promoter, such as Balaji Entertainment, specialising in bringing Bollywood shows abroad. Qasmi assumes the financial risk of the operation, promising the international partners a fixed fee for an event several months down the road that must be hosted rain or shine. 

Az Qasmi, CEO, Sunglow Entertainment, a Dallas-based promoter of Bollywood shows

Qasmi’s team then gets to work by booking an entertainment venue for rent. “The American Airlines center rents out at $250,000 an evening, and even after I said I would put in an earnest money deposit, they hesitated because they didn’t know who Salman Khan is,” he told me. Sizing the seating capacity of the venue is crucial and must occur before a single ticket has been sold. The Indian Idol quartet was trickier - young, talented, but no presence outside of the game show universe so Qasmi had to bring in his decades of experience to find the right venue. 

Qasmi’s team depends upon sponsors to help underwrite the event in return for promising prominent brand placement during promotions and the event. The team then prices out the seats, mindful that tickets that are too expensive could turn away audiences. Event tickets are perishable inventory. A spot unsold when the event starts is a spot forever unsold.

Finally, Qasmi unleashes every trick in the book to market the event. Local radio stations that beam Bollywood songs are the ideal medium. Social media helps too.

Qasmi invited me to a meet and greet session with the Indian Idol 4 at a local Kabab place. A crowd of 60 supporters anxiously awaited their arrival, sipping milky hot tea. And then the buzz started as armed security guards escorted the quartet up a stage, where they posed for photos with the selected guest list. 

Qasmi had said that I could interview the performers for this article after dinner. Imagine my surprise when he revealed an update: the performers arrived with a binding non-compete contract forbidding them from talking to any India-based journalist (foreign media was okay). 

Rajkamal Rao (columnist), and Indian Idol top four Pawandeep Rajan, Arunita Kanjilal, Sayli Kamble, Mohammad Danish (from left to right)

After dinner, Arunita and Sayli were whisked to a black unmarked GMC Suburban, the kind used for presidential entourages. A minder allowed me to speak to them privately, but I was repeatedly warned, “No questions!” The minder rudely confiscated my phone and let me stand by the SUV’s open door to exchange pleasantries with the two remarkably gifted young women who may, just may, become mainstays in Bollywood. Two minutes later, I stepped back from the door.

I attended the concert and was amazed at the supportive crowd. The performers took it all in, entertaining the hungry audience for three long hours. And as the lights came down, they were safely ushered to their SUV for a ride to the Marriott where they were staying. Next stop: San Jose, where the whole spiel would repeat.

I couldn’t answer the question about what makes the top four tick — because I was disallowed from interviewing them. The media lawyers that control them would rather place a gag order on a professional newspaper interview than increase exposure back home.