How to predict the next Indian Idol

This piece of mine has been published in today’s Lounge, the Saturday edition of Mint.

We’re the world’s largest democracy, but let’s face it, politics is boring. Who to vote for? Why can’t we vote by SMS instead of having to trot to a voting booth? Why don’t our politicians perform? Pah!

That’s why Indian Idol is such a perfect show for us. It gives us the power, it gives us the ease, and it even gives us something to choose from. We’ve given up on governance – let’s vote on entertainment.

And wouldn’t it also be nice is if you could forecast the winner long before the rest of the country knew who it was? Oh, how your friends would admire you then! You would be the Indian Idol Pundit!

Well, Lounge is here to help you pick the Indian Idol winner this year. Large quantities of telephone polling are not required. Public choice theory need not be studied. All wisdom will now be revealed in seven points in the next few paragraphs. Read carefully.

One: The winner will be the boy next door.

Indian Idol is not a singing competition but a likability contest. The winner is likely to be not the best singer, but a good singer with a pleasing personality. In the first season, Rahul Saxena, Rahul Vaidya, Amit Sana, Aditi Paul and Prajakta Shukre were all better singers than the eventual winner, Abhijeet Sawant. In the second season, NC Karunya was streets ahead of Sandeep Acharya. And yet, Abhijeet and Sandeep, besides being competent singers, also had boy-next-door charm. The girls found them cute – the boys didn’t feel threatened by them. Killer combo.

Two: The winner will be an early favourite.

Keep a close eye on who wins the early piano rounds. Both Abhijeet and Sandeep won their piano round in their season of Indian Idol. Most viewers tend to decide early on who they like. The rest of the season, they ignore that person’s failings – unless they are too glaring – and find reasons to reinforce their choice.

This is also why Ravinder Ravi, who won a piano round with a powerful performance in the first season, survived until the final five despite a series of monstrously besura performances: those who had chosen him as their winner overlooked his failings, and kept finding reasons to validate their early choice. This brings us to our next point…

Three: Don’t worry about the besuras

It really is no fun unless a lousy singer goes really far in the competition, despite the jury’s criticism. This happened to Ravinder Ravi in Season One, and it happened recently to Sanjaya Malakar in American Idol. Both times, immense worries were expressed that they would win. But that could never happen.

No matter how much support they get, and for whatever reasons, bad singers will always have more people against them than for. Now, when there are seven or eight contestants left, those votes against are diffused among many people. When there are four or five left, the supporters of good singers who are eliminated switch allegiance to good singers still in the show. It then becomes harder for the besuras to survive. This also works against polarising personalities who are otherwise good singers, such as the arrogant Rahul Vaidya in Season One: the ‘against’ votes count for more as the field narrows down.

But criticism can also help the besura singers, as the next point illustrates.

Four: Criticism helps

Let us say you have your allegiances mapped out, and are planning to send one SMS each for your favourite three singers. Suddenly, one of them has a bad day, and Anu Malik goes ballistic. Seeing a singer you support in trouble, you send three SMSs instead of one. And so on.

A bad performance in a particular episode, or finishing in the last three of a results episode, can actually help contestants by motivating their supporters to vote more. And this can also work the other way.

Five: Complacency kills

The big upset of Season One came when Rahul Saxena got voted out in the last nine stage. A similar huge upset happened in the fifth season of American Idol, when Chris Daughtry got voted out in the last four stage. In Daughtry’s case, a commonly accepted theory is that his supporters became complacent, and assumed that he was so darned good that he would get through without their vote. I’d surmise the same happened in Saxena’s case, and also resulted in Melinda Dolittle’s ouster in this season of American idol. If a really good singer is coasting in the early stages of the competition, watch out.

Six: The winner will be non-South Indian

Viewers tend to support contestants they identify with or feel some empathy for, and they are far likelier to feel that way for people who are from their region. Sure, it’s politically incorrect, but region-specific voting certainly does take place, even if voters often don’t do this consciously, and can rationalize it in various ways. Now, Sony’s viewership is far less in the South than in the rest of India, which makes the going rather difficult for a South Indian contestant. Sure, Karunya got as far as the final two in Season Two, but he did not win despite being overwhelmingly the best singer.

Seven: The winner will be male

That’s why we said “boy next door” in our first guideline. This is bewildering, but Indian Idol doesn’t work like American Idol, and women simply seem to attract less votes, regardless of singing ability: none have made it to the final three in either season. There can be various reasons for this: Maybe voters opt to support someone of their own gender, and guys are more likely to waste SMSs. Maybe the guys vote more for guys, while the girls vote for both sexes. Whatever the reasons, expect a male winner.

Phew, well, there you are. Sure, some of these guidelines may conflict with each other in certain situations, but that’s when your innate sagacity kicks in, right? Also, remember that what makes for gripping television doesn’t always impact the voting: Viewers react more to personality than to back story, and the crying auntie in the audience or the two-minute segment on a contestant’s village won’t affect the voting too much.

Hey, why don’t you challenge Bejan Daruwalla to an Indian Idol prediction contest? Armed with our advice, you’ll surely win! Coming to think of it, if they had an Astrologer’s Idol

(Some of the analysis here elaborates on these earlier posts of mine: 1, 2, 3. Recent posts on Indian Idol: 1, 2.)