Champ of the Camp 2014

Behind the scenes at Dubai's star-making Bollywood singing competition

Area Guides

Held in labour accommodation across Dubai, the annual Bollywood singing competition brings entertainment and hope to the city’s manual workers

Is there some kind of party happening here?’ asks the taxi driver as we pull up outside Petron labour accommodation in Al Quoz. He leans across the passenger seat to get a peek inside the gates: the sound of bhangra music is blaring, and beams of bright light are attracting curious looks from

Yes, there certainly is some kind of party going on. Camp ka Champ is a singing and Bollywood trivia competition for labourers across the UAE. Organised by Dubai-based Right Track Advertising and the brainchild of founder Rupa Vinod, the event is now in its eighth year and the competition is currently in the semi-final stages.

We step out of the taxi and meet the organisers who take us inside, through security and into the workers’ compound.

The basic accommodation has been transformed into a festival, the stage is brightly lit, with sponsors’ banners and posters adorning the backdrop.

The competition inside the camps came to international awareness through 2013 documentary Champ of the Camp by Dubai-based filmmaker Mahmoud Kaabour. Until then, the wider community in Dubai and beyond were largely unaware of the competition. According to Rupa, Camp ka Champ is not about fame or exposing the lives of the workers to the world, it’s about having a good time. ‘I want them to feel like champions. I want them to feel just the same as any other person. I want to give them a platform to stand there and sing and say “Yes, I can also do things that anyone else can do,” and give them some recognition for that.’

The competition was created after Rupa hosted a roadshow in a camp and wanted to give something to the labourers that had a longer-lasting impact than just one evening of music. ‘I really thought it’d be a small concert,’ recounts Rupa, ‘I never thought it’d get to this level. When we started, in one camp we had no-one register – we thought we’d have to hire people to take part. I speak Tamil, I have another colleague that speaks Bengali and we all speak Hindi, so when we got there we went around to encourage them, and said to them just come and sing only one line, it could be “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, it could be your national anthem, just try and you never know where it will take you.’

For some former participants, Camp ka Champ has given them an opportunity to enjoy a new perspective, while for others it has even meant a new life, away from manual labour and the claustrophobic accommodation. Rupa tells us that some of the participants have had promotions in their jobs, and tells us of one contestant who has since met and married a woman from America, and is now moving there thanks to his five minutes of fame through the competition. He even invited Rupa to the wedding. ‘He never thought something like this would happen to him. One year he’s singing at Camp ka Champ and next he marries a girl and is heading to the US. That’s the difference between a person from this community and anyone else. Why should he invite us? He has left, he’s taken his prize money, but he sent an invitation anyway and wanted to thank us.’

Organiser Right Track has seen the number of participants grow year-on-year, from three companies participating in 2007, where the competition reached just five Dubai accommodation camps with 15,000 residents, to 15 companies in 2013, 75 camps and 100,000 hopeful singers across the UAE.

On the night we visit, the event takes place in a courtyard outside of the workers’ accommodation, and those who aren’t singing crowd around the stage. There are more than 200 spectators, dressed in their T-shirts, vests, shorts and sarongs, with camera phones at the ready, taking snaps of their friends that are taking part. The MC, Shobna, is on stage entertaining the crowd with funny quips and singing classic Indian songs.

At this quarter final, 16 contestants from Petron and Al Ahmadiah are competing for a position in the semis. The event is structured like a game show. Six contestants from one company are on stage, divided into three teams of two named Raagam, Taalam and Gaanam after Indian music notes. Round one is the open singing round. Here, they get to introduce themselves and show off their vocal talents with a rendition of their favourite song – some of them really boss the mic, commanding the band and performing an encore as the audience sings along. But there’s more to the competition than just hitting the high notes, and round two sees fingers on the buzzer to name the Bollywood star shown on the video and sing one of their songs. An incorrect answer sees the team lose points. Round three is the Antakshari round – which means ‘last word’ in Hindi. The contestants pull out a word and have to think of a song that starts with it. Finally, in the last round of the night, contestants must name the tune played by the band and the artist who sang it.

As the competition gets into full swing, the crowd doubles, and men emerge from their rooms watching from the roofs and balconies. There are even spectators watching from windows in other camps across the road. The night is hot and humid, and the smell of cooking wafts through the air. Rupa is always amazed at the hospitality and kindness of the labourers. ‘They always offer us food, and many of the men are amazing cooks,’ she says.

The entertainment stops only during the evening prayer break, and we get a chance to chat with some of the contestants. Though their English is broken, it’s clear they’ve enjoyed the night and in this moment aren’t worrying about the hardship many of the city’s manual workers face. Bijou, from Kerala, is still hyped from his earlier performance on stage: ‘I feel super, super, super!’ His eyes light up as we talk through a translator. ‘When I am on stage I get goose bumps,’ he says, explaining that he has been participating in Camp ka Champ for three years. ‘I work until 10pm in the iron workshop, I do welding and fabricating. I come back to my room, eat food, but no sleeping. I just practice singing. My roommates don’t mind – they are happy and supportive.’ Bijou is charismatic, with a bushy moustache and plenty of energy, and when asked if he gets nervous on stage he laughs. ‘It’s no problem –
I am even going to dance on stage, so you’ll take my photo,’ he smiles. Another of the night’s contestants is Ramesh Chandra from Rajasthan, who works for Al Ahmadiah. He has competed before, but this time he’s hoping to go further. ‘I was dropped out of the competition earlier before, so I’m really pleased to be at the quarter finals now. I never did any formal singing but I used to sing in my village,’ he explains, citing the late Kishore Kumar as his favourite Bollywood singer.

As the last of the rounds comes to an end, the event turns into a party – the amazing bhangra band play favourites such as ‘Kajra re kajra re Tere kale kale Naina’ from the film Bunty aur Babli and the crowds throw their hands wildly into the night air. When the band’s dhol drum player comes down from the stage to play among them, they lose all inhibitions, dancing trance-like to the beats.

Ramesh is named the best performer of the night and wins a Geepas rice cooker. He has been selected for the semi-finals, so could be in with a chance of being the next champ of the camp. ‘Maybe I can win,’ he says, ‘I feel good when I’m singing. This is my hobby, and I enjoy it, I’m not looking for any commercial benefits, but I’ll try my best.’

Show off your talents

Indian Karaoke Nights
Sing your favourite Bollywood ballads at this regular live karaoke night. Throughout the week this restaurant also has a resident band that plays Indian music.
Sun 7pm-11.30pm, advance booking recommended, Gharana Restaurant, Holiday Inn, Al Barsha, (04 323 4333).

Bollywood dance classes
Learn some classic moves at this Bollywood dance class. The session combines fitness and choreography, and private classes can be arranged for wedding choreography too.
Dhs55 per class or Dhs550 for 11 classes. Fri 1pm-2pm at BurJuman Community Hall; Sat 7pm-8pm at Ductac, Mall of the Emirates, (050 779 2067).

Rush Thursdays with DJ Hani
Enjoy a night of Desi disco and bhangra beats with DJ Hani at this central nightspot.
Free for ladies, Dhs100 men. Sensation, Crowne Plaza Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road, (050 911 0600).

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