Four from UAE pass the Idol test

On Saturday four people from the UAE were savouring the moment of moving into the next round of Indian Idol.

Saurav Jha celebrates moving on to the next round of Indian Idol which is held in Mumbai.
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DUBAI // Pursuing your dream can demand talent, nerves of steel and dogged determination - and a plan for shaking off the day job. On Saturday, Saurav Jha, 25, savoured the moment he left behind hundreds of other hopefuls and moved into the next round of Indian Idol, the musical reality show, which will be filmed in Mumbai. Bursting through the doors of the Sheikh Rashid Auditorium at the Indian High School, he celebrated in front of the cameras, waving the golden ticket that could yet prove to be his pass to a first-class future.

"Congratulations," read the printed message. "You're a step closer to becoming the next Indian Idol. You are invited to the theatre rounds, so pack your bags as the city of dreams awaits you." The only snag is the reality of Mr Jha's job as an engineer with an oil and gas company in Abu Dhabi. How keen would his employer be on him packing his bags? "Maybe if I took the ticket to work, they would believe me," he said.

For two days, Mr Jha travelled back and forth between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, a journey that has brought him closer to his dream of performing on Indian Idol. Three more rounds stand between him and a place among the final 12 contestants who will compete for the ultimate prize, when Idol begins its fourth season in September on Sony Entertainment Television, Asia. The show's production team, from India, made Dubai their last stop on a search for talent that has taken in London and 15 Indian cities.

More than 1,000 Indian hopefuls, aged between 16 and 30, trod the boards in Dubai, mostly in vain. On Friday, day two, Mr Jha was the first of only four who made the final cut from a shortlist of 34, facing a flurry of cameras, celebrity judges and occasionally harsh criticism. "I always wanted to try out but this year I finally had the guts to audition," he said. Two of the four judges from the show who arrived in Dubai on Friday to cast a seasoned eye over the talent were Sonali Bendre, a Bollywood actress, and Kailash Kher, a Bollywood playback singer.

"It is not just about singing," said Bendre. "It is about how you perform, it's about entertaining." Being an entertainer, she said, "is an art. Then there is the hard work behind it, that's the craft. We are looking for a package." Bendre has spent the past few months travelling. This year, the show has focused its search in the small towns and villages of India - and she has seen a lot of raw, untrained talent.

"We are not picking from music schools, but from villages," she said. "The talent is raw but this person, if pushed in the right direction, will shine because of their potential. That's our hope." This is Bendre's first season with the show. Although she confessed she had not followed the programme previously, she said she considered herself just like the millions of fans who called or texted in their votes for acts.

"Eventually, it is all about listening to good music. Then you know how to decide what you like," she said, adding it made no difference whether a performer came from a small village in India or the metropolis of Dubai. "It's music. They'll be singing in Hindi. They're Indian. How's that any different? You're either in tune or not," she said. By late afternoon on Friday, only one other contestant besides Mr Jha had qualified and despair was starting to set in among the others. Next to get the golden ticket was Deepika Nair, 21, a graduate of Mahe Manipal College in Dubai. A trained Indian classical singer, she was accompanied by her father, Keshav Dev, who nervously hugged his daughter in front of the cameras.

"I'm elated," he said. "We always knew she had this potential in her." For Ms Nair, the only critical observation from the judges was that they hoped she would be able to carry her "sweetness" through the next few rounds. Others, such as Sachin Raj, 18, also a classically trained singer, who had travelled with his father from Ras al Khaimah, went home disappointed. His father, Prem Raj, had high hopes that, if his son qualified, he would have been kept busy during his summer break.

Kher, the second judge, was prepared for an afternoon of fans posing for photographs with him and then serenading him during their auditions with songs from his soundtracks and albums. "The future decides how Dubai will fare," he said. "Somewhere out there in Dubai, maybe there is an Indian who will shine, but it will also define how seriously this generation of Indians living away from India take their music.

"Whatever they sing, they have to win my heart. When I am looking for talent, I am looking for something that touches the heart." The final two qualifiers came in quick succession towards the end of the day - Vipin Kumar Sharma, 27, who called his daughter in Delhi with the news, and Sharon Rego, 29, who promptly collapsed before composing herself for the cameras. "I'm speechless," she said, post-swoon. "I was so nervous when I went in and it seemed to go on and on forever."

She insisted on posing in front of the show's poster, with a question mark reserving the spot for the portrait of the final winner. The show has yet to have a female winner. Ms Rego is undeterred. "I want to be on all the billboards everywhere," she said. "But first, I have to call my mother."