Music, graphics, lights, song — action.
The first time you see him, he’s hurrying down the corridor; orchestral music plays in the background. He reaches his destination, exclaims what sounds like “Oh!”, and claps his hands before joining them in a ‘namaste’.
Hello, it’s Season 13 of Kaun Banega Crorepati (Sony), and its first episode aired Monday. Your favourite ringmaster, Amitabh Bachchan, was there to welcome you, and so what if the way he was dressed looked like he’d come straight from the sets of the latest James Bond film: Black dinner jacket, black waistcoat, black medallion necktie.
Must say, it feels good to have him back. In a world divided by the Taliban and TV news anchors, violence and bitterness, KBC and Bachchan offer a haven — a comforting space, one where viewers of all persuasions and beliefs can sit together and for just a little while (90 minutes) escape from reality.
Escape from the bleakness in Afghanistan, the looming threat of Covid third wave predicted across news channels; get away from the silly season in the Congress where, according to TV news, it’s still raining strife in Punjab, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh; avoid the absurdity of Maharashtra police arresting Union minister Narayan Rane just as he was about to put the next piece of roti in his mouth….
Five days a week, at 9 pm, we can ignore the deafening ‘fake’ encounters and the mock fights between TV news anchors and their guests; instead, we can come together to root for a Gyaan Raj or a Neha Bhatia to answer questions 6, 7, or 8, and become a crorepati.
Unity in diversity
That is what KBC and Amitabh Bachchan have to offer, besides a whole lot of challenging or odd questions: What language was the Baburnama written in (it’s not as obvious as you think), which of the following can climb a tree – elephant, giraffe, crocodile, hippopotamus (hint, it bellows) – what was the number plate of the taxi G.H. Hardy took to his first meeting with S. Ramanujan (huh?), et cetera.
For several years now, the quiz show has been designed to be a showpiece of unity in diversity, trite as it may sound. Does it work? Mostly. It does this by consciously choosing people as contestants who belong to different states – in Episode 1, ten states were represented starting from Odisha in the east and Gujarat in the west, to Uttarakhand in the north. There was a delicate 50:50 gender balance most of the time amongst contestants, as well as an even urban-rural ratio—if at all, it tilted towards the smaller cities and to villages. Gyaan Raj teaches science and robotics in a village school in Jharkhand.
Kaun Banega Crorepati tries to promote progressive, aspirational values too—not just an opportunity to make easy money. For instance, many of the women contestants, including Dr Neha Bhatia in episodes 1 and 2, are professionals – Bhatia is a veterinarian. On the show, we learnt that she applied for KBC because of her father-in-law’s belief in her. Third, she says she wanted to play the game to win respect as a vet more than the moolah.
All of these are wholesome, some will say old world, values any viewer can applaud or engage with. And the format of a quiz has universal appeal — the question matters most, more than the contestant or the quiz master. Speaking of which, noticed that at least in the first two episodes, contentious political questions have been largely excluded.
Big B, the quizmaster
Bachchan, of course, plays a crucial role.
Seated in that high chair opposite the hot seat, speaking that impeccable Hindi in a way only he can, by turns jovial, intimate, distant and pensive, but always projecting himself as the avuncular elder statesman, Bachchan on KBC is a man we think we can trust. Note the qualification: We aren’t referring to the Bollywood superstar whose forthcoming film Chehre is, currently, being promoted on TV channels; we’re not talking about India’s greatest salesman, either – the man who sells polio drops or Covid safety measures and Kalyan or Tanishq jewellery with equal facility.
No, it’s the gentleman who gently steers each contestant through a minefield of questions, warming to their personal stories — he tells Gyaan Raj everyone is ‘proud’ of him for teaching children in his village robotic science when he could have earned a corporate job. It’s the quizmaster who warns the contestant to be ‘careful’, to think hard, not to apply ‘guesswork’, and counsels them to quit any time they wish. It’s the son who recites his father’s poetry on air, who pauses to talk to the contestants’ families.
The actor in him plays dramatic tricks – he pretends that a correct answer may be incorrect; the performer in him tells the audience how much he missed them last year during Covid; he jokes, laughs and even sings a few lines of ‘Happy birthday to you’ for Gyaan Raj. It’s not just his large frame that he is squeezes into the chair, it’s his superstar status too. His modesty is almost laughable.
And although he conveys the impression that he wants the contestant to win, he remains impassive, silent, aloof when they are thinking of an answer.
A question of trust
The audience, the show and Bachchan have grown older together—over time a bond of trust has developed for viewers, one they don’t enjoy with any other TV personality.
Indian TV doesn’t host talk shows for some odd reason; the only one that comes to mind is Koffee with Karan (Star World) and that was always a bedside gossip session. By the way, Karan Johar is now hosting Bigg Boss OTT (Voot) – made for each other, you think?
News anchors are the closest competition we have for Bachchan in the trustworthy stakes. But think of one who comes even close: It is unfortunate that TV news anchors are admired or trusted by only those whose views agree with that of the anchor. Ravish Kumar (NDTV India) is trusted by one set of people, Arnab Goswami (Republic TV) by another. That says everything about the divisive nature of Indian news television.
Meanwhile, back to Bachchan, question number….and the feel-good factor.
Views are personal.