What does the just-launched, maha-hyped Kaun Banega Crorepati show prove? That greed binds us all. And that we are pretty ignorant as a people. Such observations, however, do not do justice to the game show that has not just captured popular imagination, but hijacked it. Since the Amitabh Bachchan-hosted show hit prime time, the trickle of participants wanting to warm the "hot seat" has become a torrent, with Star Plus proudly claiming to have received over eight million calls in just a month since the show was announced. And that the number continues to rise as Ramesh K. Arora became the first contestant last week to walk away with a fabulous Rs 25-lakh cheque, inflaming aspirations to fever-pitch.
The copyright of the original Who Wants to Be a Millionaire game show from UK has been tickling the avarice in human nature in over 36 countries. In the US alone, over 30 million people choose this show over the rest of the TV babble. "But nowhere does the host enjoy the superstar status of Amitabh Bachchan, which we see as a double bonus," avers Sumantra Dutta, senior vice-president, advertising and marketing, Star Plus. While Bachchan, who is being paid Rs 15 crore to host the show, will use KBC to lumber out of the doldrums himself, Star Plus is cashing in on him to get over "the effect of being seen as an international and English channel".
For, it was an idea that germinated when its partnership with Zee wilted. With Zee dominating over the other two serious players in the Hindi segment-Sony and Star Plus-the battle had so far been fought through blockbusters and soaps. KBC is only the latest weapon in its arsenal. Says Dutta: "We needed to shake the audience. This show has the biggest budget in Asia (Star Plus is spending nearly Rs 70 crore on the entire show and Rs 1 crore per episode, of which there will be 130) and the biggest prize in Asia."
Star Plus intends replaying the formula in other Asian countries with local glitter and talent. But in India, it doesnt expect to recoup its investment nor expect the sponsors to bear all expenses initially. Its one-point programme is to outstrip contending programmes on rival channels, zoom to the top slot over which Zee currently dominates. "Well think of the money once we get the highest TRP ratings," says Dutta. The show already has four heavyweight sponsors-LG, Colgate, Dettol, and Bajaj Legend-shelling between Rs 4 and Rs 7 crore for the first 13 weeks. Dutta says theyve had to turn off advertisers because the slots are full-up, and there are more sponsors waiting in the wings, to shoulder part of the financial burden (per episode cost is reportedly around Rs 20 lakh).
Avid Amit fan, Simi Garewal, is not surprised about the success of the show. For her, hes better than even Regis Philbin (moderator on the American abc TVs Who Wants...) and Chris Tarrant (on the English itv). Gushingly the actress and TV hostess says: "Im not being biased. Ive watched both these shows and really think hes way ahead. He discussed the technical aspects of the show with me, and he really seemed to be enjoying himself. He has just the right degree of empathy with the contestant, without being overly familiar. I love the way he conducts himself. He brings such dignity and professionalism to the show. It will be very popular."
Judging by the response (one lakh calls a day at the start-off phase), it already is. The hardest hit, apart from the prime-time line-up, will be programmes appearing immediately after. Says trade journalist Amod Mehra of Business Entertainment Network: "Shekhar Sumans Movers and Shakers is going to feel the impact, since KBC is one-hour long. Itll definitely tire out viewers. But whats to be seen is if the show will sustain interest." Garewal thinks it will. As does TV producer Amita Sehgal. "I was hooked," says she. "He captivates the audience entirely. The shows success is a combination of middle-class dreams ("why cant I win that too?") and the Bachchan charm which few can match. I would rate this, along with Star Bestsellers, as among the best TV shows."
Cultural commentator Ranjit Hoskote, an avid quiz-contestant himself, is disdainful. "I suppose Bachchans fading charisma, the greed to become a crorepati and the glamour of TV go towards creating what we may call the inverted mastermind," he says. Not so, says R. Mani, who got himself registered "just for the heck of it", even if he had to answer a "silly question" like how long was Lord Ramas exile? in a multiple-choice format. "Its definitely the money angle. And for me, the Bachchan factor is among the main attractions." He awaits the fateful call.
For Arora, a Delhi-based estate agent and contractor, Bachchans autograph to his son Gaurav (who coached his father from his textbooks) is as precious as the Rs 25 lakh cheque. For Mohammad Jafar Sadeed, a Bangalore student who has only career and computers on his mind, "being with the big B was definitely the high", more than the Rs 40,000 he won.
Divya Nair, a Mumbai teacher who won Rs 80,000, maintains that her success has spurred acquaintances into brushing up their rusty general knowledge. Shes Bachchan-struck, averring that his charisma cuts across all age groups. "While I was exhausted with the shoot, he was inexhaustible, alert, whistling, joking. He obliged me by writing a couple of lines from the Madhushala since I told him my mother was a fan of his fathers poetry."
What many wonder is whether the easy questions are any real measure of the participants intelligence or make him deserving of the money he wins? Nair justifies the simple questions even though she admits how they expose the abysmal awareness levels of Indians. "We anyway have a very low literacy rate. But I think the reason behind making the question seemingly easy is to make even the audience participate."
Psychoanalyst Sailesh Kapadia sees no other reason than greed for the shows popularity. "It is a part of human nature," he says. Its the accompanying ignorance thats embarrassing. His kids at home know more than some of the crorepati-aspirants. "Its sad that we lack some very basic knowledge about our own country." Like Bihar, Punjab, Kerala and Maharashtra being in the east, north, south and west on our map. Or that the sun is the closest star to the earth.
"I dont know how they screen out hard-core general knowledge lovers but I think the nature of questions depends largely on their target audience," muses Sehgal (though Dutta says the selection is all automated). She does wish the show would refurbish its rigid format which might soon begin to draw more yawns than eyeballs. But Dutta says the format, since it comes as part of the copyright package deal, cannot even be airbrushed.
As of now there seems to be no call for a touch-up. The publicity blitz-unusual media slots (centrespread in The Times of India, straddling listings in Mid-day, a front-page in the Dainik Jagaran), special buses distributing Crorepati tidbits, announcements in lunch tiffins courtesy Mumbais famous dabbawalas-has engaged public attention. Besides, Bachchan exerts as great a pull as the get-rich-quick factor. In his interviews hes admitted how he shares the nervousness of the contestant or how tough it is to maintain control in a show that has no written script.
The response from rivals, predictably, swings between wait-and-watch and no-comments. Sony Entertainment Network, planning several new shows for August, isnt rattled. Its serial, Heena, still dominates the TRP chart. "Of the 50 top shows on TV, Sony has 22 and Zee, 20. We arent worried," maintains a Sony spokesperson. Zee TV, brewing its own cocktail for success, announced a slew of new reasons to channel surf. "Besides, we have several interactive shows on the 7.30 pm slot (you may become a lakhpati in Jeeto Jackpot on any given Friday). We were the first to use the concept of interactive shows. The serial Amanat (9 pm) has been in the top-five slot for three years. One other show on another channel wont make much of a difference," says a Zee spokesperson. Anyway, the heart-thumping, nail-biting and mind-numbing "Is that your final answer?" has won itself some sticky eyeballs, all fixated on the one-crore cheque (in UK till now the show has distributed £23,469,000.)
So, to revert to our original question: What does the popularity of KBC prove? That our people lay greater store by Indian films (more fingers clicked correctly on a Raj Kapoor resume) and less by sports (contestants lost out on the number that make up a volleyball team). And that its time to dust up our school books.