DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – A classic Bollywood hit blasted across the DM Labor Camp from loudspeakers cranked to gut-rattling levels. One of the contestants, who had changed out of his work overalls a few hours earlier, shimmied on the stage set up in the courtyard.
Everyone in the crowd of South Asian workers roared — the ones pressing up against the stage, others on the rooftops, and the guys piled on bunk beds watching the show through the windows of their tiny rooms. The spires of the Dubai skyline, where many of them work, shimmered on the horizon.
It's one of the biggest nights of the year for Dubai's workers: the finals of the annual labor camp song contest.
It won't show up in Dubai's tourist brochures or be chatted about in the boutique cafes of its high-end malls. This the parallel universe of the mostly South Asian migrant laborers who built the city-state but are consigned to a separated existence, ferried between their work sites and the camps where they live — teeming housing projects, tucked into industrial parks or on the desert outskirts.
"Welcome to Champ of the Camp!" cried local entertainer Shabana Chandramohan at Thursday night's extravaganza, in which 30 hopefuls warbled, crooned and belted out big Bollywood numbers for a share of 7,500 dirhams, or about $2,050, in prize money — a staggering sum for workers whose monthly salaries average about $300 a month.
Overall conditions for millions of laborers in the United Arab Emirates and across the other Gulf states have improved in recent years after pressure from international rights groups. Additional scrutiny is now coming from activists monitoring the construction of venues for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar's capital Doha.
But the unskilled workers drawn to the Gulf for steady pay also give up something in exchange.
Their lives are often highly regulated by the companies that brought them to the Gulf. The workers generally occupy a narrow world bounded by work sites and the camps, which are mostly three- or four-story housing blocks resembling collections of rundown motels where workers can be packed up to 12 in a room.
A rare break from the routine comes in the form of Champ of the Camp. The contest combines quiz show speed, "American Idol" showmanship and movie trivia knowledge into a traveling roadshow that tours the dozens of camps around Dubai week by week for the workers to compete.
The contestants, in teams representing different camps, must first answer a question from the emcee to identify a Bollywood film and tune. Then they perform it to a karaoke soundtrack for the judges. The workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and other countries may not share the same language but are united in their love of Bollywood.
It's always a packed house.
On Thursday, thousands of spectators watched the finalists from more than 3,000 contestants who took part in auditions in July and August.
The acoustics are rough. The heat can be stifling. The atmosphere can be somewhat chaotic as the audience divides its attention between the performers and the free goodies offered by sponsors that include an herbal drink company and Western Union, which competes with other exchange houses for the business of Gulf workers sending money home.
"The idea was to bring some entertainment to the lives of these residents and into the lives of these labor residents," said Rupa Vinod, one of the contest organizers who also doubles as a judge. "This is a needed escape."
The winner, 26-year-old security guard Dhruy Bakshi from Punjab, India, said he tried practicing his vocals in his room after work. But his dead-tired companions objected. So he'd sing while walking through his camp in evenings, even when exhausted.
"After working for 12 hours, six days a week, you can't have time for activities like singing because at the end of the week we just get time to sleep," he said. "And we can say this is kind of like our hobby, our habit of singing. We usually practice daily while on the job or while everywhere."
The competitions began in 2007, launched by the corporate sponsors along with various construction companies and other. Only 30 contestants took part in the first competition. Now, it's a centerpiece event among Dubai's migrant workers.
"This is a fun time," said finalist Ishan Sharma, a 21-year-old machine operator from Punjab, India. "This is different from your job."
Sharma made it through the quarterfinals in early September, but failed to claim the trophy and bask in a shower of gold confetti.
"It doesn't really matter," he said last month. "I was up there. That was me. That is what counts."