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Five crore question: What makes KBC work?

After 11 years and four seasons, Kaun Banega Crorepati successfully reinvented itself as a show that could transform the lives of invisible, often impoverished Indians from the hinterland. Poonam Saxena writes.

tv Updated: Nov 19, 2011 19:06 IST
Poonam Saxena
Poonam Saxena
Hindustan Times

Twenty-seven million viewers tuned in to watch Motihari’s Sushil Kumar win five crore on Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) earlier this month. The ratings for that episode were so stratospheric, the executives at Sony (the channel on which the show is aired) almost had a seizure. Laughs Sneha Rajani, senior executive vice president and business head, Sony, “My heart popped out!”

The moment was eerily reminiscent of 3 July 2000, when KBC first hit Indian TV screens. A struggling Star Plus, lagging behind Zee and Sony, had gambled on getting Amitabh Bachchan to host the desi version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, a hit British TV quiz show which had been recreated in over 20 countries. There was no dearth of sceptics. Wasn’t Bachchan a has-been superstar, whose career was set for a slow fade-out? Wasn’t it suicidal for him to stoop to television? Recalls Sameer Nair, then Star’s senior vice president (programming), “I remember some junior people in Star suggesting Govinda’s name instead! People scoffed at us, saying who puts a quiz show on prime time?"

In the end, it was Amitabh and Star who laughed all the way to the bank. KBC became a monster hit and changed Indian television forever. Star Plus shot up to No. 1, a position it still holds on to with grim determination. Not only was Bachchan’s career resurrected, he legitimised TV for movie stars. KBC became India’s first official adaptation of a big international reality show, opening the floodgates for acquisitions of American and British reality show formats by Indian channels. And, in a post-liberalised India, it made the word ‘money’ a ‘not-dirty,’ even desirable word, despite critics who insisted the show had spawned a culture of greed.

But in an astonishing feat, even after 11 years and four seasons, KBC has smashed TV ratings records once again and emerged as the top show this year. Isn’t there such a thing as fatigue? Ironically, that’s what Star Plus had thought when it declined to renew the rights to the show after hosting three seasons of KBC (the last one with Shah Rukh Khan in 2007). Explains Nair, “From the Star point of view, it was like people would say, ‘Really? Is that the best you can come up with? What’s new?’”

Star stepped back, Sony moved in. Says Rajani, “We never thought the show had reached its sell-by date. We always knew it would be a success, but that it would be such a roaring success…”

There is a reason for that “roaring” success. In this, its fifth season, KBC has become a platform on which Indians left out of the Indian dream can transform their lives and realise their aspirations – substantially if not fully.

The show has always been about the contestants, the prize money and the host, not necessarily in that order. “But now, the interplay between Amitabh and the contestants and the types of contestants – that took the game to another level,” says Rajani.

Here’s how that happened. After Sony received responses from aspiring contestants, it made a final selection via a complicated procedure which ensured that the contestants’ pool was like a microcosm of India. Geography, demography, education, occupation – and the ability to answer quiz questions correctly – all this was taken into consideration. Says Danish Khan, senior vice president and marketing head, Sony, “If we hadn’t gone through this exercise, it would never have been a pan-Indian game. The entire matrix we created was to ensure that we got an all-India representation on the hot seat.”

Adds KBC producer Siddhartha Basu, “It was very much a programming decision to reach out to contestants from further afield, from the interiors, to have video windows on each one of them, their lives and milieus, their hopes and disappointments... Because we wanted the viewer to relate more deeply with the person on the hot seat in this life-changing game. Koi bhi insaan chhota nahin hota, the tagline of the show this year, proved to be a game changer.”

That’s also because much of the viewership of the show came from these very ‘interiors.’ In 2000, there were 25 million cable homes. Today, there are 110 million, and this massive expansion has swept small towns deep in the hinterland in its embrace. Watching KBC was always something of a vicarious pleasure – imagining yourself in the hot seat and answering the questions, to know how you would have fared if you’d been there.

But when this new aspirational audience watches contestants from its own world win lakhs of rupees (at the very least) on the show, there is a special edge to the normal viewing pleasure. Many of the contestants have been dedicated viewers themselves.

And contrary to conventional wisdom, the show is not just a lottery. Getting to the show may be a game of chance but contestants who got to the hot seat did their best to leave nothing to chance. Anil Kumar Sinha, a Kolkata-based bank officer who won a crore this season, has been trying to get on the show from way back in 2000. “I never stopped trying,” he says. “And I was never disheartened because I knew that so many millions of people were trying along with me.” It was the same with this season’s five crore winner, Sushil Kumar. And with Yusuf Mallu from Banswara in Rajasthan who didn’t stop trying even when he met with an accident in 2007 and was paralysed neck downwards.

And since KBC is, as Danish Khan says, a skill-based test, for many of the contestants, it was akin to preparing for a competitive exam. All of them, like Anil Kumar Sinha, “did something for their general knowledge every day.” Reading newspapers and magazines, brushing up on GK – it was not something they would do for a few days once they got selected for KBC. It was something they did every day, week after week, year after year, so that when – and if – the big day came, they would be prepared.

The other thread that links almost all the contestants is the emphasis on education. Each one of them, points out Danish Khan, “has invested in education.” Sushil Kumar doesn’t credit luck for his success. He credits education. “Education paves the way for knowledge. It also makes you aware of your surroundings,” he explains. It is this quest for knowledge that made him a post-graduate in clinical psychology though not one of his four brothers could go beyond even the matriculation stage.

For Sushil Kumar and the other contestants, getting on to KBC was not just about participating in a quiz. It was going to be one of the, if not the highest point of their lives. Says Anil Kumar Sinha simply, “I wanted to prove myself.” For many, it was a dream to be on a show they had followed for over a decade. And for all of them, down to the last man / woman, it was an opportunity to meet Bachchan.

No wonder Sneha Rajani says that when Sony took over the property, they had decided that if Bachchan declined, they were not interested. “The show belongs to him,” she declares. “With due respect to other superstars, this is his show.”

But in the end, as Basu says, it was the contestants, drawn from “the base of the social pyramid,” that lit up the screen in this season of KBC.

Q&A: Amitabh Bachchan

Amitabh KBC“The stories were so powerful, heart-rending”

The host for four out of five seasons of KBC, Bachchan is almost synonymous with the show, which has just finished its fifth season.

What’s the journey been like, from 2000 till now?
Initially of course it was all about moving to TV from films. It was considered taboo back then – moving from 75 mm to a 25-inch screen, reducing the size of your face and figure. But I found the concept novel and different. There was a lot of apprehension. But when the show opened, and the first reactions started coming in, it was clear that the show had taken everyone by storm. We did 320 episodes at a stretch, that’s a lot for a game show! TV is hugely exhausting because most of it is impromptu. It's tougher than film. And then we did KBC Dwitiya.

What happened then?
Well, I fell ill. Then Shah Rukh Khan took over the show. After him, Star forgot all about the property. Sony took KBC and approached me. I was sceptical. The show had been played out, weren’t people bored of it? I checked with some other channels and they all had the same thing to say. But eventually I decided to do it.

In this season, the show was all about the contestants…
Our tagline was, Koi bhi insaan chhota nahin hota. That was the spirit of the show. We had contestants from places whose names we were hearing for the first time. Their stories, their lives… to see their condition, hear about it, it was heart-rending. The other day, we had this woman from Madhya Pradesh who earns R3,000 - R4,000 a month. She eventually won R25 lakhs but she broke down after she’d won R20,000 itself. She said she’d never seen so much money. There were such powerful stories. And you know, despite everything, their morals and beliefs are intact.

Will you be doing KBC next year too?
Yes, I am contracted for one more season.

Though Shah Rukh did KBC for one season, you are the one most closely identified with the show. Do you feel a sense of ownership of KBC?
No, nothing like that. I’m just contracted to do a show and I do it.

Most of the contestants are so overwhelmed when they meet you. Do you feel embarrassed?
It becomes most embarrassing. But look at it from their point of view. It was like me coming to Mumbai for the first time and seeing my idol Dilip Kumar. Many of them had never been to a big city.

Some people feel the crorepati episode was orchestrated because the season was ending.
This is so disrespectful to our countrymen, their knowledge and their sincerity.

The journey from 3 July 2000 to 17 November 2011
Season 1 - From 3 July 2000 to 31 December 2001. The show played Mondays to Thursdays, with Amitabh Bachchan as host, took the nation by storm. Included Junior KBC

Season 2 - Began on 5 August 2005, taken off air in January 2006, because Bachchan fell ill. KBC Dwitiya, as it was called, was a weekend show. Prize money raised to two crore

Season 3 - Shah Rukh Khan took over as host in January 2007. He did 52 episodes over 13 weeks, Mondays to Thursdays. Though SRK did his best, it wasn’t good enough

Season 4 - The show moved from Star Plus to Sony and Bachchan was back as the host. Started on 11 October 2010, ended on 9 December. A total of 36 episodes, and a five crore jackpot

Season 5 - Started on 15 August 2011 and ended on 17 November 2011. A total of 56 episodes went on air, Mondays to Thursdays. The season was a stunning success

Harshvardahan Navathe

HarshvardhanIn 2000, Harshvardhan Navathe, from Ghatkopar, Mumbai, became the first person to win a crore on KBC. In the aftermath of Sushil Kumar’s win, Navathe relives those 11-year-old ecstatic moments.

Did the Sushil Kumar episode bring back memories?
Yes, it was quite nostalgic. All that confetti falling on him. The energy one feels… His reaction was a little different from mine. I was more in control. I didn’t react that much. I just raised my arms in the victory posture. Sushil Kumar showed his emotions and his happiness.

What did you do with the one crore you won?
I paid my taxes. I made some investments. I bought a car and a house. I went to Napier University in Edinburgh and did an MBA.
Today I am heading a social business – we are the largest community water provider in India.

It didn’t turn your head, winning one crore?
I was 27 years old. Suddenly I was attending all these parties. I was thrown into another world. But I remained grounded. I realised that that was just one day of my life, not my life. I enjoyed it while it lasted, but I knew one day it was going to end. I was not going to sit around waiting for the phone to ring, for someone to invite me to a party or request me for an interview. I couldn’t make a profession out of winning quiz shows.

Are you still recognised?
It’s 11 years now. It’s not the same. I have changed too – I have put on weight. Often people recognise me but can’t place me. They ask me if I’m a newsreader or if I play cricket.

Q&A: Rahat Taslim

RahatRahat Taslim, from Jharkhand, is the only woman crorepati on KBC. The toast of last year’s season 4, Rahat’s story is nothing less than a movie script.

How did you end up participating in KBC?
I always wanted to participate in KBC. But the mahaul in my sasural was not conducive to doing so. KBC is a general knowledge programme and my GK was always good. My husband was working in Kerala, I used to teach girls stitching at home. I always wanted to go out and work but was never allowed to do so. But I was determined to try for KBC. I went ahead despite opposition at home.

How did you feel when you won a crore?
It was like a sapna. I didn’t even have a bank account. Meri zindagi badal gayi. I always wanted a good lifestyle. I renovated my house, made a nice kitchen. I got new furniture. I want to do so much for my children. I am spending money on my daughter’s education, she wants to become an engineer. I’m also saving up for her wedding. My son is not so good in his studies, so I want to start a business he can do with his father.

Is your family happy now?
Nahin, aaj bhi nakhush hain.

Sushil Kumar, Motihari hero
“I have tasted years of failure and humiliation”

Sushil Kumar

Want to get in touch with the winner of the Rs 5 crore prize in this season’s Kaun Banega Crorepati? It’s simple. Just address your letter to ‘Sushil Kumar (KBC winner), Motihari’ and it will be delivered to his door.

Just a couple of weeks ago, few residents of Motihari had even heard of the neighbourhood where Sushil Kumar, the 27-year-old son of a retired R70-a-day farm labourer from Gandhiji’s Champaran, lives. Now anyone will be able to guide you to him should you want to visit.

“You could almost call him a renaissance man for small town youth,” says Irfan Ahmad, Sushil’s longtime friend. “Young people with high aspirations but limited resources think he has all the answers.”

Sushil knows that fame is fickle. Even as he smiles when people who only a month ago wouldn’t give his family the time of day arrive to congratulate him – “Nothing can be more gratifying for someone who has tasted years of failure and humiliation,” he says – he admits that he’d be happy to return to a life of anonymity and his first love, reading.

Sushil has fame in plenty now, but the fortune has yet to arrive. Though viewers watched KBC’s host Amitabh Bachchan hand over a cheque for R5 crore to Sushil on November 2, the actual cheque for R3.5 crore (after taxes) had not yet reached him by November 12, the day Brunch spoke to Sushil. The R6,000-a-month computer operator with the MNREGA (the rural development ministry’s job guarantee scheme), is looking forward to the arrival of his prize money.

“The delay is because I do not have a PAN card and am in the process of getting one made,” explains Sushil. So all their plans for using the money are also held up. “All that’s on my mind at present is to get our ancestral house released from mortgage, build a new one large enough for the entire family and start a business in which Sushil’s brothers can be gainfully engaged,” says Amarnath Prasad, Sushil’s father.

“I also want to build a library and help children who have talent and dreams but little resources to pursue them,” adds Sushil. “The remaining money will be banked to generate a steady income of interest.”

At this time however, the family’s debt is actually deeper. “We were already paying interest of R25,000 a month on our borrowings. Now we have been burdened with increased expenditure because we travelled with Sushil to Mumbai by air, took taxis to Patna and are now entertaining an endless stream of guests,” says Anil Kumar, Sushil’s elder brother, an LIC agent.

Fortunately, after Sushil’s win, people are more than willing to lend the family the cash they require immediately. “Success in borrowing has nothing to do with need,” says Sushil wryly. “It’s all about perceptions of your financial solvency to repay the debt.”

Sushil is acutely aware that his family members have unspoken expectations from his winnings. His father, for instance, credits the family with allowing him space to study by freeing him from contributing funds to the common kitty. “He could not have succeeded without this support,” insists Amarnath. Sushil’s father-in-law claims some credit for his win as well. “I was among the first to spot talent in Sushil. That’s why I gave him my daughter’s hand in marriage. She has brought him luck,” says Krishna Patel, father of Sushil’s wife Seema, at his pakora shop in Meena Bazar, Motihari.

Sushil’s champion turn has also brought about a spurt in attendance at general knowledge ‘discussion groups’ among competition-oriented Motihari students. “From 2003 to 2007, I was part of such a group called Jai Hind,” says Sushil.

It was this experience that gave him the strength of mind to get through KBC, especially the final question. If he’d been wrong, he’d have slipped down the ladder to R1.6 lakhs. But he kept his head and answered correctly. And almost blew up the R20-crore KBC set! “I poured a bottle of water over my head in joy when I won, and the people at the channel later told me I’d almost caused a short circuit that would have destroyed the set!” he laughs. Fortunately, nothing of the sort happened, and Sushil will soon prepare to follow his dream to become an IAS officer. “I think it can be done,” he says with quiet resolve.

-- Rai Atul Krishna in Motihari

From HT Brunch, November 20

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First Published: Nov 19, 2011 15:51 IST