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Orwell Is Watching

KBC enacts the winning formula of Slumdog to grab eyeballs

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Orwell Is Watching
Fotocorp (From Outlook, November 21, 2011)
Orwell Is Watching

Art, it’s said, imitates life. Sometimes, the exact opposite happens. We watched a replay of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire when computer operator Sushil Kumar, hailing from a little-known town called Motihari (East Champaran, Bihar), became the first person to win the five-crore rupees jackpot on the popular reality television show, Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC). Incidentally, Motihari is the birthplace of acclaimed author George Orwell, though in modern times it has become more famous for extortions and kidnappings. No wonder Sushil Kumar didn’t appear too keen on taking his largesse back home in a hurry.

However, what’s even more intriguing than the blessed man’s dream story is the amazing run of the show itself. KBC is now 11 years old and is in its fifth season. And along the way, the show has jumped channels, switched hosts, upped the prize moolah and the producers have liberally tinkered with the format. While it has not been able to recreate the spectacular TVR (television viewer ratings) of 14 points from its first season (2000), the show continues to top the GEC (general entertainment channels) ratings chart, even at a figure hovering around a relatively modest 5 points. And 5 points isn’t bad at all, when you consider that the Indian mediascape has turned on its head in the last decade. In the year 2000, KBC was primarily competing with Ekta Kapoor’s family dramas. Today, it has to also jostle for mindspace with the dramatic news channels, Kindle, Apple apps, Facebook, Playstation, Twitter, Skype, etc.

One thing is quite clear, though. Despite its success, and despite all the format alterations, KBC’s allure had, by the fourth season, taken a serious nosedive in the urban areas. While greed always sells, too much of it can cause boredom and predictability. Realising this, for the latest KBC version, the channel Sony deliberately (or so it appears) decided to target interior India, where the show still grabs many eyeballs. So now the contestants come from really impoverished backgrounds, and their gloomy stories are played out generously. For example, we were constantly reminded that the five-crore bounty winner Sushil Kumar ONLY earns a measly sum of Rs 6,000 per month (half the salary of a memsaab’s chauffeur in Mumbai). Thank god we were spared horrifying details of the break-up in terms of Basic, HRA, DA, LTA, etc, though I am sure the channel suits would have loved to dish them out. The big question is: why have they chosen to target mofussil towns and the teary-eyed have-nots? At first glance this appears to be a suicidal marketing strategy when you consider that sponsors and advertisers would not want to be a part of any activity that does not engage India Shining aka India Splurging. Conspicuous consumption mainly happens in the metros and the large towns of India.

Well, the truth is, there is actually a very clever strategy at work out here. Which is to showcase the less fortunate from remote areas, and let the affluent city-slickers enjoy all the weeping and drama that inevitably happens when the rags to riches story plays out. And that is exactly what happened with Slumdog Millionaire. South Bombay was enthralled by the film, but South Latur was left wondering what the fuss was all about. For a lowly paid computer operator from Motihari, an amount of Rs 5 lakh is life-altering, leave alone Rs 5 crore. And the constant rona-dhona of the have-nots, their earthy antics on the large LED screen, keeps India Shining amused. Many of us enjoyed Sushil Kumar’s desperation to use the toilet during the tense moments as also Bachchan’s inability to help him in the matter. Not surprisingly, therefore, Sushil Kumar, on that fateful evening, was not just happening in Champaran, he was trending on Twitter too.

Superb success formula. Tears of the poor. Entertainment for the rich. And just in case you belong to neither category, there’s always Amitabh Bachchan’s unfailing charisma to keep you from hitting the remote button. By the way, I am sure if fellow Motihariwallah George Orwell were to have watched KBC, he would be mighty pleased with Sushil Kumar’s performance. But the author would be appalled by the goings-on in the other popular reality TV show called Bigg Boss. Fishmarket catfights aren’t exactly what he envisioned in his cult Big Brother book, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

(The writer is a Mumbai-based journalist. Since repeated attempts by him to appear on KBC have failed, he is contemplating a shift to Motihari.)

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