What ‘KBC’ Tells Us About India
The format was given up on as dead. After a spectacular debut a decade ago that flagged off Amitabh Bachchan’s television career, a combination of factors including staleness, ailments and Shah Rukh Khan saw ratings drop.
Two thirds of the way through the second season, in 2006, the B fell seriously ill and the show was scrapped. SRK took over as host in 2007, and this was a bit of a disaster. Simply doubling the prize money—from the initial Rs1 crore to 2—and changing the host, wasn’t enough. Star TV thought India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Kaun Banega Crorepati, was past its sell by date. It bailed out, and Sony took over the rights.
But sell-by dates depend on what you’re selling. Star was selling a reality quiz show. Sony tried that for a year in 2010—and then, in 2011, decided to sell real stories.
Yusuf Mallu, from Gujarat, had a fall from a tree that changed his life. It put him in a wheelchair and impaired many motor functions. At the show, he has to use his knuckles to beat other contestants at the “fastest finger first” round, where speed at punching the right answer is paramount.
Moumita Roy, from Cooch Behar, is sad because her parents didn’t approve of her marriage to a man with modest means—and haven’t visited in years. She wants to repay a home loan; it would bring stability back, perhaps even her parents. For her, Rs80,000 would do it.
Aparna Malikar’s farmer husband committed suicide in Vidharba. Stanzin Youtso survived the Leh cloudburst. Amita Singh Tomar must win because there’s a good chance she might have to pay dowry for her daughter’s wedding. She comes from Gwalior.
This is India. There are real stories everywhere.
The engine for the the revival of KBC, however, was an out-and-out work of fiction. Slumdog Millionaire (2008), as Siddarth Basu, chairman of Big Synergy which produces KBC, acknowledges, renewed interest in the quiz show format. But what drew audiences in worldwide was the slumdog’s story—not the sum he won.
“We’ve taken it much further, in India,” says Basu. This has meant going deeper and farther afield to find contestants. The current version of KBC has a four stage screening process (one more than the last) that starts with basic general knowledge questions and ends with an expert panel interview. The panel decides the mix, based on education, economic status, location and so on. “In a given week, we could have contestants from Laskala, Kunjabahadurpur and Imlikhera, and this is off the top of my head,” says Basu.
It’s fairly obvious that this has worked very well with the audience: KBC tops every other reality show. By some measures, it has even worked better than the daddy of all television programming—cricket—according to Basu. The current series has an average TAM rating of 4.8. IPL 4, earlier this year, had a 3.7 rating, and last year’s IPL garnered 4.2. These ratings come with one key clause: they are for Hindi-speaking markets. In other words, heartland India.
Yes, KBC works there. But what does that tell us about the place?
The promotional ads for the current series cashed in on the priorities of frustrated ordinary Indians—of the kind who live in places like Kunjabahadurpur not Delhi or Mumbai—to be regarded as equal (if not better) than those who belonged to the ruling (and corrupt) establishment.
Aired a few months before the show commenced on August 15, the first ad showed an honest worker afraid to report his bribe-taking superiors because he might lose his job. But ‘Shuklaji’, makes it to KBC and wins a large sum of money. And when Bachchan asks him what he will do with all he cash, he says: “Pehle loan chukayenge… phir mooh kholenge.” (First I’ll repay the loan, then I’ll open my mouth.)
Few people have understood the mind of the aam Indian (version 2.011) better than Shuklaji, and no one has been as specific about his finances and his morality in six words.
In episode after episode, Bachchan asks people the same question he asked Shuklaji: “What will you do with the money?” And never a day goes by without a contestant saying they have a loan to repay.
Debt connects the Vidharbha widow, the Bengal housewife, and the petty government officer from Delhi—and a serious chunk of the audience.
After KBC’s early success ten years ago (and inside the first decade of liberalisation), surveys showed that most contestants put their winnings in fixed deposits. It wasn’t necessarily the smartest thing to do, but it is what middle-class people traditionally did, if they had a windfall in a saving-oriented economy. KBC 5 tells us, through its detailed ‘case studies’, that this has definitely changed. That in reaching for his aspirations, and sometimes just for survival, aam aadmi 2.011 has gone the spending and borrowing route. And that on occasion at least, he may be overreaching.
If he has, and he is in front of his TV set at home, he could send out an overpriced SMS and have a shot at solving all his problems. In the old days, he might have bought a lottery ticket, possibly with better odds.
Now to the second part of Shuklaji’s succinct quote: when will this man from heartland India speak out? Rise against all the corruption around him? Shuklaji makes it pretty clear: when his loans are repaid.
Till then, he will watch the cleverly formatted KBC (the future will no doubt bring more innovation). There, he will see someone like himself telling their story through touching, amusing conversations with India’s greatest superstar, and with some luck repaying that loan.
Postscript: An SMS to KBC costs Rs5 (conditions apply). Estimates vary, but an army of aam aadmis send in SMSes each day. According to one financial website, revenues add up to more than Rs24 crore a day. Business Standard reported that Amitabh Bachchan was paid Rs1.6 crore an episode last season. No one has won the Rs5 crore top prize yet, but this is the lead-up week to Diwali, so don’t be surprised if someone does!
This story by Avirook Sen was originally published on Firstpost.com.Tags: Amitabh Bachchan, Kaun Banega Crorepati, Sony, Star TV, Television, TV