Meet the four female contestants in the SmartIDOL grand finale

Now in it's third year, SmartIDOL, a talent competition for blue-collar workers in the UAE, will have women participating for the first time among 12 contestants this Friday.
School bus assistants Bijimol Chalamma, left, and Kopila Ghimire Korki practise at Al Quoz women’s camp in Dubai. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
School bus assistants Bijimol Chalamma, left, and Kopila Ghimire Korki practise at Al Quoz women’s camp in Dubai. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

It’s seven in the evening, and an air of urgency fills the Al Quoz women’s labour camp in Dubai as hundreds of bus assistants, cleaners and housemaids return from work. Kopila Ghimire Korki, a 27-year-old school-bus assistant from Nepal, pushes past the chattering women and rushes to her room to shower and cook dinner before getting to an important task: practising her singing for the finale of the SmartIDOL talent competition on Thursday, May 21, at Sheikh Rashid ­Auditorium.

The annual contest was launched in 2013 by the not-for-profit organisation SmartLIFE to provide blue-collar workers with an outlet for entertainment and an opportunity to showcase their skills. This year, for the first time, organisers have included female contestants. Of the 600 workers who signed up for the auditions held between January and March, 100 were women. Kokri is one of four who made it to the finals. They are up against eight male contestants for the prize, Dh5,000, in each of two categories, singing and dancing.

The evening will kick off with a performance by UAE-based rock band Aftermath, who will be joined by one of last year’s winners, Aejaz Ahmed from ­Pakistan.

After his win, Ahmed went on to sing the theme song from Parvaaz, a television series produced and shot in the UAE, and broadcast on Indian channel Zee TV. Participants this year are vying for similar acclaim. Besides the cash prize, they will be offered a one-year contract with the NGO’s SmartBAND, enabling them to earn money from corporate performances. The competition will be judged by Rajini Sridhar and Nigel Soans, choreographer and founder of DANS Institute Dubai.

Korki, who spends her free time listening to classics by Indian singers Lata Mangeshkar and Anuradha Paudwal, isn’t a trained singer but hits the high notes with ease during a rehearsal this week. Sitting on her bunk bed in the small room she shares with eight others, she sips on karak chai and begins humming the song she plans to sing tomorrow: Bahut Pyaar Karte Hai (I love you very much) from the 1991 Bollywood film Saajan.

Listening to the song, she says, takes her mind off her financial woes and the recent earthquake in Nepal, which destroyed her family home and took the life of her brother-in-law. She says financial troubles forced her to seek a living in Dubai two years ago – troubles that have escalated because of the ­earthquake.

“My parents and in-laws are living outdoors because our home is damaged,” she says. “So the money I get from this will go ­towards rebuilding our lives there.

“I was so excited when I got ­selected, but now it is hard to not think about my family. I know I have to put on a brave face and smile during my performance so that I can win.”

Shyama Dilrukshi, 21, a shy Sri Lankan who also works as a school-bus assistant, says she has managed to come out of her shell and perform for an ­audience.

“Dancing is a hobby. I learnt traditional Sri Lankan dance in school. I want to be a professional dancer and this competition is a good foundation,” says Dilrukshi, who is rehearsing in a red-and-golden sequinned shalwar kameez, the only fancy outfit she owns.

Dilrukshi prefers classical dance moves because “they are more graceful”, and will be performing to a medley of Bollywood danseuse Madhuri Dixit’s songs in the final round. If she wins, she plans to donate the money to an orphanage in Sri Lanka. “I also want to start my own orphanage,” she says.

Her fellow Sri Lankan colleague and competitor Sukitha Kushalyani is more comfortable with hip-hop. Both women have been practising for an hour after work every day in a storeroom at the camp.

“I’m going to perform to the song Saturday Saturday from the movie Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania [2013]. I like that song because it’s fast and fun,” says Kushalyani, 23.

Bijimol Chalamma, from Kerala, also a school-bus assistant, doesn’t speak Hindi but will sing the romantic track Sun Raha Hai (Listen to Me) from the 2013 Bollywood film Aashiqui 2.

“I don’t need to understand the language,” she says confidently. “I kept listening to it again and again and now I know it. I want to win and to be able to tell people I can do so much more.”

The 39-year-old school helper has told all her friends back home about her upcoming ­performance.

“I have two sons back home and they called to wish me luck,” says Chalamma with a laugh.

Rex Prakash, a media specialist in Dubai, is one of the many ­volunteers at SmartLife who coach the finalists and give them tips on etiquette and stage presence. He says the idea is to improve the quality of life of the blue-collar community.

“Our sessions with them don’t just revolve around singing and dancing. We are also grooming them and imparting life skills. They get to showcase their talent to the outside world and, for a few hours, forget their problems and enjoy the moment.”

Dreams for the future

Performing in front of 1,800 people for the first time can be an overwhelming experience, but the enthusiasm of the male participants shortlisted from labour camps across the country has been unflagging as they prepare to enter the spotlight tomorrow. Afshan Ahmed meets four of the contestants.

Aasman Tamang, 25, Nepal

Dancer — Bollywood songs medley

“I’ve been dancing for two years and am a big fan of Bollywood movies. I watch Dharmesh and Raghav Juyal [dancers on the Indian reality show Dance India Dance] all the time on TV. This competition is a great way to showcase my talent. I was so excited to be a part of this, but after the earthquake I have been very sad. I hope I win so that I can rebuild my home which is damaged and save some money for my 5-year-old son’s education.”

Ramesh Yerupula, 24, India

Dancer – Bollywood song Bezuban (Remix) from ABCD [Any Body Can Dance], 2013

“I do not like imitating anyone and have my own dance style. I watch a lot of Hindi movies and follow all the work of choreographer Dharmesh. My favourite movie is ABCD and my performance is to a song from that film. I selected that song because there is a lot of feeling in it. If I win, all the money will go towards treating my mother, who is suffering from kidney failure and is in intensive care at a hospital in Hyderabad.”

Anup Kumar, 22, Pakistan

Singer – Bollywood song Be Intehaan by Atif Aslam

“I found out about the competition through a friend. I was part of a band in school and want to continue singing, and hopefully make it a career. I’m always listening to Hindi songs so I decided to sing this one. It suits my voice but I still find the high pitches challenging, especially moving from a high to a low pitch. I’m excited about being a part of the SmartIDOL band if I win. I’ll send all the money to my family in Pakistan.”

Muhammad Ammar Saeed, 26, Pakistan

Singer – Bollywood song Mein Tenu Samajhawa by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan

“This is my second attempt in SmartIDOL and I’m happy to be part of it again. I’ve always wanted to be a professional singer but my family is orthodox, and in the beginning they were not very supportive. But now they have started encouraging me. People tell me my voice sounds a lot like that of [Bollywood singer] Udit Narayan but I prefer singing Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s Sufi songs. If I win, the money will go towards repaying a loan in Pakistan.”

The SmartIDOL finale will be held at the Sheikh Rashid Auditorium in Dubai from 6pm. For more information, email admin@smartlifefoundation.org

aahmed@thenational.ae

Published: May 20, 2015 04:00 AM

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