I am an ardent fan of the show Masterchef Australia and was most upset when the last season ended. I had been seeing promos of the India and US series of Masterchef which were slotted to start right after the Australia series ended. Although these promos didn’t look as promising as the Australia one – I couldn’t keep myself from watching a few episodes … and I soon realized that each of these shows was a reflection of the social, cultural and economic environments prevalent in each of these countries.
The original version was the British Masterchef. When Masterchef Australia was first launched it was criticized as a huge departure from the original British version due to the change in format and “making it over- the-top by adding more drama and storytelling and a sense of theatre.” If this is what the critics thought of the Australia one, wait till they see the India and USA versions !
Since the first version of the show to be aired in India was the Australia series – for me that show is the benchmark. Perhaps I have been over-exposed to the zoom-in-zoom-out dha dha dha dhan music of the Indian soaps and reality shows and due to that I found Masterchef Australia to be a refreshing, non- spiteful and constructive competitive show.
The show is a reflection of the cultural diversity in Australia – this is mirrored not only in the ethnic diversity of the participants but also in their cooking styles as well as the challenges and ingredients presented to the contestants. During the course of the show, we saw them using curry powder and preparing “naan-bread”, cooking Greek-Cypriotic dishes, recreating the classic French Duck à l’orange and competing in Spanish-themed invention tests and a Korea-inspired mystery box challenge.
They were also exposed to a much more diverse pantry – and the contestants were well aware of these exotic ingredients and how to use them. The fact that they were aware of such exquisite, exotic and expensive ingredients and had some experience of either having tried them at a restaurant or used them in a recipe at home also echoed their relatively higher standard of living and economic stature.
No doubt that there is drama in the show – but it is all focused around cooking disasters or running low on time or cutting fingers at critical moments or forgetting an ingredient and at most about missing their families and how they need them for inspiration to cook and perform better. But all contestants live cordially, like-a-family and there’s a real bond that comes across. They help each other through tough times, through recipes, sharing ingredients. This is perhaps a reflection of the general social environment of the country – cordial, helpful, friendly and not fiercely competitive.
The first thing that jumps out is the differences in the economic and social backgrounds of participants in the Indian series vis-à-vis the Australian. There are challenges each week where the winner takes home Rs.1 lakh – and most often they plan to use this prize money to pay off a loan, to pay for education of their children, to buy a house, for medical needs, etc. In contrast, the prize money won in Australia was always spoken of to be used in pursuit of their culinary dreams – start their café, go to culinary school, etc. It seemed like the primary objective in India was to take home the moolah; making a career in the culinary world seemed secondary.
The contestants’ exposure to various kitchen apparatus and ingredients was also much lower. For one of the challenges, the contestants were taken to Hong Kong and exposed to south-east Asian produce and they each had to be walked through what these were, what it would taste like, what it would add to a recipe in terms of flavor and texture and how it could be cooked. These same ingredients seemed very basic and common in the Australian or USA version, but not so in the Indian one. Similarly they were each given a different cooking apparatus or tools but each one needed to be explained and demonstrated.
Although, compared to the first season the drama was a lot more toned down this time, yet if you compare it to the Australian version, it was overly dramatic. The emotional ranting was almost nauseating. This one episode particularly stood out where not only the contestants got emotional but also the judges touched the feet of the eliminated contestant! Here’s the link if you want to view it.
The first thing one notices is the excessive and casual use of profanity on the show. Every other sentence has a “beep” in it! Not only amongst contestants but also the judges! It seemed totally reflective of language used during social interactions by a significant (or a certain) section of the population, the kind of drama and language used in other shows, the acceptability of such loose use of obscenities on television. Just watch the first 60 seconds of this clip – there are 4 beeps and 4 other beep-worthy words – all in just one minute !
Also, the competition amongst contestants was fierce. No one was friends with each other, no one helped each other, there was a constant blame game of copying ideas, menus, recipes, etc. Team challenges were highly tense and frosty. There were glacial looks exchanged, people didn’t communicate, some people didn’t speak to each another and no one even claimed responsibility for their faults, they always blamed each other for their failures. The current economic environment, the lack of job security, cut-throat competition in the society was all reflected here.
There was a sort-of lack of respect for the judges even ! In the Indian and Australian version, the judges were looked upon for guidance, advice, mentoring, counseling, etc., whereas in the US version the judges were addressed and treated very casually and callously by the participants and there didn’t seem to be a mentor-mentee or expert-amateur kind of relationship.
Such stark differences in the three shows, in their participants, in the judges, in the formats – and these all seem reflective of their primary audiences and their attitudes and preferences.
Having said all this, it also leads me to wonder what thoughts run through foreigners’ minds about us as a society when they watch saas-bahu weepies on TV. Or ‘Dabangg’ !