Desai aims for Indian star's popularity

Staff WriterApril 1, 2009 

Chances are, singer Prashant Tamang is not on your pop-culture radar. The guy never appears on Hollywood gossip Web sites or starts celebrity feuds, and you can't buy his music on iTunes here.

But when the "Indian Idol" appeared onstage over the weekend at Dorton Arena in Raleigh as part of India Fest, dozens of teenage girls pressed against the barriers near the stage to sing along with the Hindi pop songs they had seen him perform on satellite television.

That's the kind of fame and adulation that a local Indian American -- Chapel Hill's Anoop Desai -- hopes to have, too. He's in the running for this year's "American Idol" crown. Assuming he makes it through tonight's vote, Desai, a 22-year-old UNC-Chapel Hill student, will be one of just eight finalists remaining.

Although the hit film "Slumdog Millionaire" may have only recently illuminated the influence of Indian pop culture in America, Indians worldwide take their pop music seriously. Tamang, 26, received 70 million fan votes to win the 2007 "Indian Idol" competition, which mimics the American version right down to the theme music.

Across North Carolina, devoted and enthusiastic fans are tuning in each week to cheer Desai on, then phone and text votes in his favor.

On Tuesday night, Desai performed "Caught Up" by the R&B hitmaker, Usher. The judges gave mixed reviews to the performance.

"You definitely, definitely picked up your swagger," said judge Randy Jackson, who liked the vocals but wondered if Desai had picked the right song for his personal style.

Judge Simon Cowell was less kind.

"I just thought it was a complete and utter mess," he said.

For young people unaccustomed to seeing Indian people on U.S. television, watching Desai can be inspiring. "It says that someone from Cary or Chapel Hill -- even an Indian kid, can go to 'American Idol,' " said Hriday Kemburu, 14, who lives in Cary. "It makes me proud to be Indian."

Karina Javalkar's family watches more Indian television on satellite than they do American TV. At home in Cary, the family speaks Marathi, a language prevalent in western India.

"My family religiously watches 'Indian Idol,' " said Karina, who is 15. But they also watch "American Idol," one of the few English-speaking shows family members view together. Karina is a Desai fan and thinks that America is open-minded enough to choose an Indian to be the American Idol.

"I think they would," she said. "He's really good."

With an Indian contestant on "American Idol," "it feels like we can all live together in America," said 12-year-old Nupur Jain, who lives in Apex. "Even though he's not the typical American Idol, he could be the American Idol. It gives us hope to follow our dreams."

Cultural pressure sometimes persuades Indian students to major in medicine or engineering, even if their hearts lie with the arts, said Archita Golwala, a freshman biology major at Wingate University east of Charlotte. Maybe, she said, Desai's "Idol" appearances will "inspire more Indians to go outside their shells."

The "Indian Idol" winner, Tamang, has long since removed his shell. A police officer in India, Tamang has taken an extended break from crime-fighting since being crowned in fall 2007.

He has traveled to the United States before, performing on a four-city tour that catered to Nepalese crowds in Atlanta, Boston, Washington and New York.

Tamang, who is of Nepalese origin, looked like an American pop star during an interview in a hotel lobby prior to his Triangle performance. His dark hair was gelled and spiky, and he wore a designer T-shirt and jeans.

He traveled a long way to perform in Raleigh: a 15-hour flight from India to JFK on Friday before connecting to Raleigh. After performing Saturday, he returned home Sunday.

Tamang, who speaks English well, described the whirlwind of "Indian Idol" much like those who have won the competition in the United States. After leaving his day job behind, he is mobbed by fans wherever he goes.

Not that he's complaining. The first single from his post-Idol album was called "Dhanyavad," which translates to "thanks."

And he didn't even seem to mind traveling so far for a single concert. "It feels great," he said of performing, "even if it's for one hour."

Tamang hopes to keep returning to the U.S. The way he figures it, the more work he puts in, the better acquainted with American audiences he will become.

"It's up to me," he said.

Desai's chances, meanwhile, are up to others -- the often-fickle TV viewing public that must turn out to vote each week to keep him in the "American Idol" hunt.

matt.ehlers@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4889

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