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The crowd pullers!

Aparna Krishnakumar | February 23, 2005

Vimla Thadani, 40, is single and lives in Mumbai. She is no different from hundreds of other women in the city -- except in one respect.

Apart from babysitting her nephew, she has been seen in several television shows like Kaun Banega Crorepati on Star Plus, Jeeto Chappar Phad Ke on Sony Entertainment Television and Star Yaar Kalakaar on Star Plus -- as a member of the audience.

Thadani is in good company. Hordes of middle and upper class Indians are brought into broadcasting studios by what are called audience coordinators. Their sole responsibility is getting the right audiences for television channels.

Madhu Bhandari, for instance. Seven years ago, Bhandari was just another housewife in Mumbai. Then she participated in a gameshow Double Trouble.

She had taken along some friends to cheer her. One thing led to another and she soon found herself bringing audiences for shows like Star Yaar Kalakaar (Star Plus), Antakshari (Zee), Movers & Shakers (Sony) and Tea Time Manoranjan ( Doordarshan).

Rajendra Nanda too does exactly what Bhandari does. His name doesn't ring a bell but he's better known in the television industry as Pappu Lekraj -- a name the industry instantly recognises as the moniker for the man who organises audiences for production houses like Asha Parekh Productions, Sri Adhikari Brothers and Rose Audio Visuals.

"It's been a family business for the last 50 years. My father Lekraj provided junior artistes for the film industry since the days of Raj Kapoor. For me, organising a television audience is an extension of this, the difference being that members of the audience are ordinary people, not trained actors."

That's the case too with Rajan Shegaonkar, who has been supplying audiences for the last seven years for programmes like Khulja Sim Sim (Star Plus) and Kisme Kitna Hai Dum (SET). Shegaonkar switched careers after his events company failed.

Together these three supply audiences for more than 15 shows on television channels.

But why do television broadcasters require audiences? For one, game shows and reality shows now account for a significant chunk of most broadcasters' programmes -- and all these require audiences to cheer participants and add to the energy levels of the show.

Explains Karun Prabhakaran, head of operations at the Siddhartha Basu-owned Synergy Communications: "Audiences add to the drama, tension and excitement of the programme and so are wanted by all producers."

That's a remarkable change from the position 10 years ago when audience-backed shows were a rarity and using ordinary people was unheard of, according to Prabhakaran.

That's where audience coordinators step in. Says Vipul Shah, creative director at Optimystix which co-produces Indian Idol on SET: "Audience coordinators guarantee a crowd which is very necessary for a game show or any such show in the initial phase."

Prabhakaran cites three reasons for producers relying on coordinators.

"Producers are already bothered by the hassles of on-site production. By outsourcing audience co-ordination, they reduce a lot of the headache. Secondly, producers can get the audiences they require. Thirdly, coordinators have access to a larger number of people."

To be sure, audience coordinators need to have large data bases. Says Bhandari: "When I am approached for arranging crowds, I prefer to know the script and the flow of the show first hand. That makes it easier for me to arrange audiences."

Boasts Shegaonkar: " At any point of time, I have access to people along a stretch from Victoria Terminus station in the heart of Mumbai to Kalyan and beyond." Bhandari claims that she organised a crowd of 200 within hours in between shoots.

Today, however, it's easier to gather a bunch of people, something that was not the case some years ago. Lekraj recalls that he once sent out 3,000 pamphlets and only one girl turned up to be a member of the audience.

"Today, even if I need only 200 people, 500 turn up and I have to ask people to go," he notes. Also, the middle and upper middle classes are eager to be featured on television shows.

Star Plus's KBC changed the rules of the game. In the past, audiences used to be herded like cattle to studios. But Star India made arrangements to pick up audience members in buses and get them to Film City in Mumbai.

Depending on the time, Star also provided them with lunch or dinner and tea and snacks, never mind that people came just to watch the Big B (actor Amitabh Bachchan) in live action. Says Shegaonkar: " KBC changed the rules of audience coordination."

Sometimes audience coordinators have their task cut out for them. Shegaonkar and Bhandari narrate stories about celebrities having turned up late -- they would have incurred the ire of the audience had it not been for the coordinators.

Says Lekraj: "How is it possible to maintain discipline among 400 people between shoots? That's something we have learnt to handle over the years." Adds Shegaonkar: "Audiences hang around only because of the goodwill that we have generated."

It also helps that audience members are paid in cash or kind. While Bhandari says she has never paid audience members, Lekraj and Shegaonkar pay anywhere between Rs 200 and Rs 500 to every audience member.

How much money do the coordinators make? Producers usually pay a flat fee to them, depending on the show. They decline to divulge their income.

Shegaonkar notes wryly that if their income figures are published, people who come on the shows would think twice before agreeing to be an audience member.

Still, some audience coordinators have a tough time. Tales abound of coordinators having been paid a mere Rs 350 for a 15-day shoot or not having been paid at all for years, and of audience members having been charged anywhere between Rs 300 and Rs 500 to watch shows. Audience coordinators also tell stories of undercutting, betrayal and dishonesty.

They also have to contend with the Cine Agents Association, a union of junior artistes. The association demands that junior artistes must comprise 30 per cent of the audience of any television show.

But most producers prefer real people to trained actors. Some producers meet the association's demand, others donate money to the association so that they can bring in outsiders.

Confronted with such problems, production houses like Synergy and Optimystix have begun developing an in-house audience management team.

Says Prabhakaran: " We have always treated audiences as guests. So for all our shows we send out invitations asking people to be part of the audience. Thankfully, because of the brand name that Siddhartha Basu has built, we have had no dearth of people willing to be audience members."

Shah too feels that having an in house team is better than outsourcing the task of finding an audience in the long run.

Still, both agree that audience coordinators are here to stay. Notes Shegaonkar with glee: "From a farmer to a housewife, the lure of watching a celebrity and being on television will always attract many -- ensuring that we will never run out of business."


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