The Way We Were: A screen test for a new India
“Sure?” “Confident?” “Lock kar diya jaaye?”
These are phrases no one who watched Season 1 of Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) in 2000 will ever forget. Twenty years on, in its 12th season, KBC is set to be telecast to a new generation. The call has gone out for people to register; currently, host Amitabh Bachchan is recovering from the coronavirus. But that first season is what legends are made of.
By the late 1990s, Bachchan, India’s biggest star, was in a difficult space – trying to transition from leading man to… what exactly? It wasn’t clear.
Films like Lal Baadshah, Hindustan ki Kasam and Sooryavansham, all released in 1999, brought no glory to someone of his stature. Then, suddenly, there was a flurry of image-boosting events. In late 1999, Bachchan was declared the Star of the Millennium, in a BBC online poll. In June 2000, he became the first Indian actor to have a wax statue at Madame Tussauds.
He signed promising films by smart new kids on the block — Aditya Chopra’s Mohabbatein, Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and Aks, the debut film of ace ad filmmaker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. He would be playing older but pivotal characters. The most exciting news was this: he was going to host a TV show called Kaun Banega Crorepati.
Just a few years since liberalisation, India was already in the glamorous age of satellite TV. Zee and Sony dominated this space, Star came in a distant third, and a web of smaller channels was rapidly forming.
The Star TV network was backed by Rupert Murdoch, the Australia-born media mogul who sensed an opportunity in post-reforms India. But as Star Plus’s performance remained depressingly sub-par, executives realised they needed a rock-the-world strategy. They decided to place their bets on a completely new kind of programme, a big-ticket reality show, then an unknown animal in the herd of fiction dramas and soaps.
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, the wildly successful quiz show launched by British entertainment company Celador in 1998, was all about real-life drama. Here, ordinary people had the chance to win big money by answering general-knowledge questions. The Indian rights were duly snapped up and the then Star Plus head of programming Sameer Nair decided he wanted Amitabh Bachchan and nobody but Amitabh Bachchan to host. Bachchan was still India’s most iconic face and voice (and Nair was a huge fan).
There was widespread scepticism: wouldn’t Bachchan be diminished by a role on the small screen? He took his time deciding, but eventually agreed (Star flew him to England so he could see what the show was like, first-hand).
The ultimate prize on the show was a staggering ₹1 crore. To get an idea of what a crore meant back then, in the Hindi movie Hera Pheri released in 2000, the sinister kidnapper Kabira demands the audacious ransom of ₹10 lakh from a rich businessman.
KBC first aired on July 3. Overnight, ratings hit the stratosphere. It left the competition — till July 2, the market leaders — dazed and trailing behind. Indian television would never be the same.
KBC resurrected Bachchan’s career. He went on to feature in a string of acclaimed films and an avalanche of endorsements. He became and remains India’s most enduring star – none of his co-stars from the ’70s and ’80s, not even Dharmendra, has managed anything like his longevity.
KBC also shot Star Plus to No 1, a spot the channel would retain for six years. It opened the floodgates to movie stars on TV.
It inaugurated the era of reality shows in India. It spawned a litter of me-too shows on other channels. In October 2000, Zee launched Sawaal Dus Crore Ka, with Anupam Kher and Manisha Koirala as anchors. SABe TV began Jab Khelo Sab Khelo with Shekhar Suman. In January 2001 Sony began airing Jeeto Chappar Phaad Ke, with Govinda. None of them could unseat KBC.
Siddhartha Basu, the producer of KBC, maintains that the show’s success was not about the money; he says it was the foolproof format, combined with Bachchan’s warmth, exquisite Hindi, and gravitas.
But it was about money too. KBC was an idea in the right place at the right time. The economy was booming. Middle-class Indians were earning big and dreaming bigger. The country was abandoning its post-Independence austerity and embracing consumerism. ‘Money’ was no longer a guilt-inducing word. When KBC got its first crorepati in October 2000 – 27-year-old Harshvardhan Nawathe from Mumbai – it made national headlines.
But the bumper prize isn’t the only reason KBC made history. That happened because in its format, its contenders and in the story of its host, it captured the zeitgeist of a nation.