May 30, 2020
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The Zero Sum Game

He may lack the charisma of Amitabh, but Kher hopes his bald charm will see Zee's show through

The Zero Sum Game

THEY say, if gambling's here, then war can't be too far behind. After all, that's what's been happening ever since the epic days in this land. Well, if Star Plus had the gumption to pose that question, Kaun Banega Crorepati, it was bound to find an echo-an answer, in fact, in the form of a counter-question. Zee Television this October 23 will beam Sawal Dus Crore Ka (SDKC). And in so doing, it will take the battle for prime time-hitherto a matter of vapid news presentations and equally, if not more idiotic, family soaps-into a terrain more befitting the epic scale. The riposte will test the loyalty of the KBC viewer, and determine whether size really does matter, whether in terms of the man who hosts the show or the prize it carries.

And while KBC did a phoenix-from-the ashes act for Amitabh Bachchan, Zee Television dawdled, before deciding on Anupam Kher as its sdck anchor. Coming low down in the long shopping list of choices does not diminish Kher's bravado as he fields the inevitable, even unenviable, comparisons. The other names, left tantalisingly unconfirmed by Zee TV-Madhuri Dixit, Rekha, Govinda, Shahrukh Khan, Paresh Rawal-drop the sawal further like a noose around Kher's neck. The actor is far from deterred: "Even if I was their tenth choice and believed I could do justice, I surely would have taken it up. Besides, no channel will choose a host who cannot give them a possibility of a hit."

When going to press, Manisha Koirala's name was also being flung about as co-host. Kher is unfazed by the need to decorate the screen with flamboyant props. Koirala's name, he says, is yet to be finalised, but believes, like the ever-true soldier, his channel knows best. "There is no ego involved. I am much too normal a person to see it that way. Such apprehensions are the concern of unprofessional people."

Says a trade source wishing anonymity: "Rekha was an obvious choice. She obviously had to say no. Why would she pit herself publicly against Bachchan? Shahrukh Khan is much too loyal to Bharat Shah and the B4U channel, besides he has a background in television and knows its demands. Madhuri Dixit knows that TV can be more binding. You can't shift schedules as in films (also, her married home being in the US, she is unwilling to make commitments that will tie her here). Zee is still working this out, but I think it will have celeb co-hosts like Manisha to match what Star Plus is doing-having Aamir Khan and Sonali Bendre as participants on KBC." (Even TV superstar Shekhar Suman-hosted Movers and Shakers on Sony TV, ignored somewhat by KBC-lured viewers, will have Raveena Tandon as part of its Diwali pyrotechnics).

Character artiste Paresh Rawal says talks with Zee foundered when negotiating the monetary part of the "interesting" sdck deal, while reports indicate that Kher may be earning Rs 8 lakh per episode. A trade source says the earlier Star Plus contract, officially confirmed as being renewed with Bachchan, was for about Rs 15 crore for the run of 130 episodes. Kher does not grudge the higher package. "Obviously, Bachchan is my senior. It is 100 per cent right that he earns more," asserts Kher, who sought "Bachchan's blessings" before agreeing to the knock-up.

Notwithstanding his butterflies-in-the-belly feeling (as "with Saraansh"), Kher is unwilling to look askance at luck (he has a one-year deal with Zee). No psycho-babble on why his colleagues shirked the offer. "Who knows why they never took it up? I feel one needs guts to host this show. Guts will work more than luck. Having a solid theatre background has trained me to slog it out, live up to the audience expectations." On the comparisons (other than the initial 'A' in their names) between the two dramatically different dramatis personae, he shrugs: "When I am on a particular job, I compete only with myself. Besides, I have great regard for Bachchan. It feels great that there will be comparison between us." Nor will he count sheep over this. "People are already familiar with my persona, whereas Amitabh was someone larger than life. It took them time to see his human side. They all relate to me as a concerned and more accessible individual. Therefore, I foresee an instantaneous spontaneity from contestants and audiences."

Rendezvous TV hostess Simi Garewal, however, votes with her heart. "When you see a bandwagon, it is already too late. The benchmark has been set by KBC. Everything else can only be a copy. And how can you copy a show which has everything-a superb anchor, superb production (with Rs 12 lakh production cost, and determination to shell out Rs 1 crore per episode in booty)? This (gameshows like SDKC and October-scheduled Sabe TV's Shekhar Suman-hosted Jab Khelo Sab Khelo with Rs 1.25-crore as prize money) is a knee-jerk reaction that shows the panic button has been pressed," observes the avid Bachchan fan who never misses a KBC episode if she can help it.

The bandwagon buddy, superstar Suman, is unfazed. The promo line "phone ghumao, ticket banao, lakhon-karodon kamao" is directed at housewives who, Suman hopes, "would rather look at me". Also, he grins, the time slot is in the afternoon-clearly the battle rules, like the arena, are different. He is not jumping on to the bandwagon. Nor into a swimming pool where others are trying out a "breast-stroke, back-stroke, free-style or butterfly. Like Olympic star Mark Spitz, I have the pool all to myself. I can pretend I am all alone here."

Star has neither "action, nor reaction but will only wait and watch", maintains Sameer Nair, the Star honcho behind KBC. Meanwhile, Star Plus, riding on KBC's tidal wave of success, has lost its earlier disadvantage as a pay channel (unlike prime rivals Zee and Sony), and entered the mainband. KBC is pushing up viewership of other programmes and Star Plus crested the top-10 slot for weeks with KBC for four days, Kyonki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi for three days, followed by Zee's Amanat. After Indianising the Who Wants to be a Millionaire show with star participants (Bachchan has also spoken to Shahrukh, Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar and Rani Mukherjee), Star Plus has allotted itself a "meaningful" benefactor's role-in charity (Aamir Khan and Sonali Bendre contributed their Rs 75 lakh-odd prize money to their favourite causes).

If there is hectic brain-storming at Zee we get to see only the blasŽ front. Sainath Iyer (head, corporate communications, Zee TV), carries the unperturbed image further, and observes that the channel has been "doing gameshows since its launch"-Saanp Seedi, Tol Mol Ke Bol, Ek Minute, Aur Ek Minute, Jackpot Jeeto, Sa Re Ga Ma, while Close-up Antakshari probably has hit a world record of sorts. As leader, says he, Zee did not want to cross the Rs 1 lakh-rubicon in prize money. But then Star Plus has upped the ante. Though it still favours being seen as the leader offering a "basket of programmes to the Indian family"-with most of the new ones strategically positioned to recapture prime time (Rajesh Khanna-starrer Ittefaq at 8 pm, SDKC at 8. 30 thrice weekly to snap into KBC, Thief of Baghdad on Wednesdays, while Antakshari comes repackaged with a Rs 1.28 crore prize). There is already a slide in KBC's trp ratings, observes Iyer.

Zee also believes that TV creates anchors ("even Bachchan would never had a blockbuster every week in his film career as he is having now"). Hence it faced the choice on whether sdck would be a star-based show or an anchor-based one. "We needed someone with experience, empathy, maturity, versatility". Apparently adjectives to which Kher proved the perfect answer. Money, it believes, has been the primary ingredient in the KBC masala-mix, therefore its offer of the "biggest gameshow". It hopes at some point that the novelty factor (as "gameshows the world over have shown") will wear off and the prize amounts will "neutralise" their own impact.

Garewal, however, chooses to differ. "Does this greed emanate from the viewer or the participant? There is also the credibility factor. How much prize money will Zee pay up? After all, they have the lowest budgets." Mediapersons Karuna Samtani and Amod Mehra also believe there can be no KBC without Bachchan. Says Samtani, "For sdck the barriers are more, the rules a bit more complicated."

In retort, Iyer, who sees SDKC as a tribute to India's contribution of shunya to the world, offers the response of two million post-cards from crorepati wannabes. Though the participant has to skirt around 25 questions (inhouse format, questions sourced through Derek O'Brien) to hit jackpot against KBC's much less, there are prizes along the way-a 20-gram gold coin, Rs 15 lakh in prizes to sister publication TV World readers (for which purpose five lakh copies have been printed), Rs 5 lakh for even couch potatoes.

Harsh Vardhan of Mumbai, the first winner of a crore on KBC, may have a name that chimes in with the beginning of a new calendar. But only the following weeks will answer the 10-crore sawal-who will win the crorepati stakes-the viewers or the channels?

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