THE MELLOW FRIDAY MORNING at Film City’s Studio 16 in Mumbai is electrified as a Toyota Land Cruiser pulls up and one of India’s most recognised faces emerges. In his dark jacket, track pants, and skull cap, Amitabh Bachchan needs no flamboyant gestures to show he’s the star. Few of his fans hanging around the studio entrance recognise Siddhartha Basu, 58, the man in shirtsleeves who comes out of the warehouse-like studio and follows the star into an OB van parked nearby. But Basu is also a celebrity in some circles. He is India’s best-known quizmaster, the man who has been orchestrating the hugely popular game show, Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), now in its sixth season. Today, Basu, the chairman and managing director of Big Synergy Media, the production house that makes KBC, is bringing Bachchan up to speed on the day’s shoot and the script.
A little later, inside Studio 16, dressed in a black-and-gold bandhgala, Bachchan makes his appearance to tumultuous applause. The audience settles as the 70-year-old star sits down; Basu heads towards him and they take a final look at the script. With everything in place, Basu makes his way down to the production control room as the lights dim. Bachchan fidgets with his earpiece making sure he is still secured to Basu. “I have his ear throughout the show, linking up as and when required,” says Basu. “Quiet please … we’re ready to roll now … standby … roll VTR,” booms Basu’s voice. Shooting begins and Bachchan lobs some easy, early questions at the participant. “There are only two types of quiz questions: easy, if you know the answer, and tough, if you don’t,” says Basu. On the sets of KBC, it’s all about making the tough look easy.
In the highly competitive and uncertain world of TV programming (estimated to be worth Rs 35,000 crore as of 2011 and comprising over 800 channels and a host of production houses) Basu leaves little to chance. “We’ve been very hands on with the company,” says wife and Big Synergy director Anita Kaul Basu. “I think it’s crazy but we’ve had very little life outside of it. Each and every project that Big Synergy has worked on, we have steered that completely ourselves.”
Basu says no newspaper, book, or textbook gets the kind of scrutiny by viewers that KBC ’s content (questions, which Basu prepares, Bachchan’s lines, etc.) does. That’s why the answer to every question, for example, is verified by at least three authoritative sources. “It’s hygiene for his quizzes, and in all these years, there has never been an error,” says Sameer Nair, the former CEO at STAR TV (India) and NDTV Imagine, who envisioned KBC along with Basu. Arundhati Menon, one of Basu’s two elder sisters, says he was a born perfectionist—a gene, she says, that comes from their father. Basu won numerous inter-school elocution and drama competitions in his early years. At 14, he won best actor for reciting a Sanskrit monologue for two hours uninterrupted.
Of late, Basu has been redirecting his energies towards shows that have nothing to do with the field that heaped fame on him in the first place. Basu says he wants to “move from question marks to exclamations”. Big Synergy, the television software company he founded, though now majority owned by Anil Ambani’s Reliance MediaWorks, is making a conscious push towards developing programmes that audiences can relate to. As Big Synergy’s chairman and managing director, Basu talks of using TV shows to drive social change with almost messianic zeal, while the businessman in him senses that this will also connect him with new audiences and markets. “Real people, real India, real stories, real emotions, that’s the genre we want to strengthen,” says Basu. Enter reality shows such as Aap Ki Kachehri and Lakhon Mein Ek, based on real-life disputes and heroic tales of unsung heroes, respectively. There’s also the social skew to the last few seasons of KBC and Sach Ka Saamna.
In effect, Basu is turning his back on quizzes. That may sound blasphemous, especially given the stupendous success of KBC, but as he says matter-of-factly, “hardcore quizzing itself has become a niche activity and it’s getting increasingly difficult to find funding for quiz-based shows”.
WHEN BASU BURST onTO the scene in 1985, quizzing was a cottage industry. Schools, colleges, clubs, offices, all held quiz tournaments. There were a few well- known quizmasters such as Neil O’ Brien, a Kolkata-based publisher, and his son Derek, and the odd well-known national quiz like the Bournvita Quiz Contest (then only on radio) sponsored by Cadbury India. Basu, who had been a documentary film-maker and done a fair amount of theatre, was asked by some friends who were producing a quiz for Doordarshan to introduce the quizmaster. He did a two-minute gig—and within weeks was asked to host the show. Thus, Quiz Time and quizmaster Basu were born.
Besides Basu’s lively compèring, a few things contributed to Quiz Time’s success. Though commercial satellite TV was still a distant dream, the potential of TV had already been discovered. Doordarshan was in a frenzy, adding transmission towers, which meant Basu reached out to many more people. Quiz Time was also broadcast on the 9 p.m. slot reserved for private producers. Overnight Basu became a sensation and Quiz Time ran for three seasons. Basu had put a structure around what was an amateur’s space, which allowed it to attract a sizeable audience and money. Even today, people on the sets of KBC often ask him if he’ll ever reprise Quiz Time.
By 1987, Basu had started Intermedia Services (it would be re-christened Synergy Communications), his own production house, to have more control (“both creative and financial”, he says), and a spate of quiz shows followed—Alpha Plus; Spectrum, the seven-nation SAARC quiz; India Quiz; Mastermind India and University Challenge India for the BBC, etc. In all of them, Basu played quizmaster. He had begun experimenting with talk shows such as A Question of Answers for STAR Plus, anchored by journalist Vir Sanghvi in 1997. KBC happened in 2000. While that loudly reaffirmed his position as India’s best impresario of quiz shows, it also taught him to handle big-ticket productions.
The KBC set is like a small town, with its own catering area, audience area, edit rooms, telephone rooms, a huge production control room, a graphics room, and the room for the expert, who acts as one of the lifelines. It costs
Rs 50 lakh—every episode. His team also handles the call-for-entries (a massive 15 million this season) in a systematic, auditable, accountable, and transparent way. Shortlisted contestants have to be then taken through game sequences, testing sessions, Q&As, scripting of their stories, and making associated scripts. It’s as if Basu is running a hotel, travel agency, catering services, a legal advisory, and a call centre, all at once.
“WHERE HAS KBC BROKEN through in the last two seasons?” Basu asks. He answers it himself. “Chhote sheher mein, gaon mein, yahan pe, wahan pe.” (In small towns, villages, here, there, everywhere). And that’s a huge viewership base—30 million this season. This is the audience that Basu wants to capture with his new, non-quiz shows.
In addition, he is keen on building a certain respect for reality shows with a documentary idiom and presenting it in an entertainment format. It’s a space that most TV producers shy away from, preferring to focus on fiction, which leads with 26.5% of the advertising money. Basu talks about India’s Got Talent, where he found a lot of the participants were daily wage workers and telling their story was a huge thing. (Most of the members of Prince Dance Group, the winners of the first season, were from the disadvantaged sections of Orissa’s Ganjam district, and two of them were physically challenged.)
Most of the non-fiction shows he has produced in recent years are licensed, local adaptations of international formats—Got Talent becomes India’s Got Talent, The Power of 10 (10 Ka Dum), Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? (Kya Aap Paanchvi Pass Se Tez Hain?), Strictly Come Dancing (Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa), or Weakest Link (Kamzor Kadii Kaun)—but Basu has Indianised them his own way. For example, in Jhalak, Big Synergy brought in bhaav, or expression, which is a key element in Indian dance forms, but isn’t usually a part of say, ballroom dancing, or any Western dance form.
Basu’s also had to deal with the format police of the original producers. On Kamzor Kadii for instance, “The host [Neena Gupta] was not allowed to smile, her teeth couldn’t show, we had to remove the hint of silver on her black dress because it’s supposed to be only black, all that kind of nonsense,” says Basu. In Jhalak, he had to battle the foreign producers to accept Western dance forms to Indian film music (think Bollywood numbers to a cha-cha or waltz). Moreover, many of the international producers have set up shop here and insist on producing their own formats. Both FremantleMedia India and BBC India have now begun producing India’s Got Talent and Jhalak, respectively.
Convinced that he’d never do the over-the-top fiction that others do (“People slapping each other, tears, etc. We have never taken that road,” says Anita) Big Synergy has begun producing gritty shows around very Indian issues. Like Lakhon Mein Ek, a one-hour telefilm based on the exploits of little-known, real-life heroes who have made a difference to society, such as Ranchi’s Husna Bai, who adopted baby girls dumped in municipal garbage bins. It harnesses TV’s reach and power to shape society’s outlook and mindset by making examples of individuals. “We all look up to him for his tenacity, conviction, and focus. Sid is a top-class professional who is totally committed and has the energy of someone half his age,” says Nikhil Alva, co-founder of
Miditech, a leading production house, and Basu’s friend.
Basu is not averse to controversy. One of his programmes, Sach Ka Saamna, a variation of the U.S. gameshow The Moment of Truth, has led to debates in Parliament, with its attempt to delve into the psyche of the contemporary Indian. Episodes dealt with the myth of the great Indian joint family; sex and sexuality (first season); a man who ran a school and got the teachers to write the answers for his son during exams; a doctor who didn’t have a medical degree but ran a clinic (second season). All these people, talking openly on TV, shocked the nation.
This is a very different Basu, not the suave, anglicised person from a background of privilege whose clipped accent on Quiz Time was copied by school kids. His grandfather Santosh Kumar Basu was a prominent Bengali Congressman, the mayor of Calcutta, and a minister in pre-Independence Bengal, and Basu says he is essentially a liberal, firmly committed to an India that is inclusive and pluralistic. The closest he gets to espousing any ideology is in the context of some of the content in Sach Ka Saamna. “It [the issue] is endemic,” he says. “But man, deal with it. If you don’t acknowledge it, how are you gonna deal with it?”
Theatre professional Barry John, who was a mentor and directed him at Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College where he studied English literature, says Basu feels deeply about issues. John calls him an intellectual powerhouse who is quick to grasp ideas and concepts and make them his own. “I was always envious of the fact that he was studying literature and was more erudite than me. He had a great facility for words and had a gift for writing succinctly and clearly.”
But merely preaching about India’s ills makes for bad TV: So Basu’s focus is on the intersection of entertainment and societal change. His mainstays are emotional quotient and connecting with the audience. In the trade, such programmes are called non-fiction but for Basu it’s “factual entertainment”. “Look at our TV, it doesn’t reflect the great unwashed. One would imagine that it doesn’t exist. The big cities had shut their eyes to it. And we wanted to show it empathetically,” says Basu.
When he had pitched the idea of Kachehri to STAR Plus, the sales guys were circumspect. It was about resolving everyday disputes (family, property, marriage, etc.) on camera by former cop Kiran Bedi. The show was meant to be cathartic and also to tell middle India how to solve its problems, based on law and equity. “The initial market research for Kachehri said ‘Don’t do it’,” says Basu. Middle class India wouldn’t like its troubles aired. “Research can help but sometimes you have to fly in the face of research. You have to make an intuitive, creative decision,” says Basu. He persisted and the show became a hit.
In Sach Ka Saamna’s second season, Basu highlighted corruption. This was when Anna Hazare and his team were campaigning against corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, but Sach Ka Saamna had people from all walks (lawyers, journalists, cops, teachers, insurance salesmen) talking about corruption in their fields. Alva says non-fiction TV is finally connecting with new audiences across the country and giving the masses a voice.
The results have validated Basu’s instincts. The first season of Kachehri, which ran for 75 episodes from Dec. 1, 2008 to March 14, 2009, had an average TAM rating of 3.4, the highest for any non-fiction show in the year, including Big Synergy’s own 10 Ka Dum as well as rival productions such as Fear Factor India and Bigg Boss.
Similarly, the first season of Sach Ka Saamna, which began on July 15, 2009, had the highest opening of any non-fiction show in the year—4.6, peaking at 5.2. Having been shunted after a few weeks to the 11 p.m. slot, for its mature content, it still notched up a season average of 2.6.
Basu also gets letters from participants thanking him for the chance to change their lives. Take the example of Anil Kumar Sinha, a bank official, who won Rs 1 crore on KBC 5. Having lost his younger brother in a railroad accident, he bought a plot of land with the prize money to set up a trauma care centre. Then there’s Manoj Sharma, a shrimp farming expert from Gujarat, who has transformed the lives of coastal fishermen by promoting aquaculture with his winnings. He has even received offers from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania to start consultancies there. In Kachehri, a martial arts trainer who had suffered domestic violence by her husband, approached the forum. Having won the dispute, the Kachehri team got her to teach students martial arts in an NGO.
Indeed this year’s most talked about factual entertainement TV show, Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate had been initiated by Basu, and developed for about a year in tandem with Khan’s team. It was to have been produced by Big Synergy, till there was a parting of ways. Basu prefers to remain tight-lipped on the subject.
MEANWHILE HE IS ALSO pushing into the regional language market, particularly the east and south, which constitute a significant proportion (nearly 55%) of total cable and satellite households in the country. “The South Indian market itself is approximately Rs 3,500 crore,” says John Brittas, head, Asianet Communications. The big break came last year with the Tamil, Malayalam, and Kannada versions of KBC. “KBC was easily the turning point for STAR Plus’s fortunes. So, when we needed a clutter breaker on Tamil television, we simply couldn’t look beyond the KBC format,” says K. Sriram, general manager, Vijay TV. “With a successful format like KBC, we wanted a team which understood the knowhow of the show. So, going with a local producer for Neengalum Vellalam Oru Kodi (You too can win a crore) was never an option. It was high time that regional audiences experienced the real deal.”
Basu understood this and ensured that the star anchors for KBC in each region were big names in regional cinema: Suriya in Tamil Nadu, Puneet Rajkumar in Karnataka, and Suresh Gopi in Kerala. For KBC’s versions in the east, it had Shatrughan Sinha anchoring the Bhojpuri version, and former Indian cricket captain Sourav Ganguly for the Bengali version.
And the magic worked just as it did for STAR Plus (KBC seasons one to three) and Sony Entertainment (KBC seasons four, five, and six). Viewership numbers on the three South Indian channels increased four-fold and they became leaders in the primetime weekday slot. “Kannadada Kotyadhipati (Karnataka’s crorepati) brought in new viewers not only to Suvarna, but also Kannada general entertainment,” says Anup Chandrasekharan, business head, Suvarna TV.
All of which is good news for Big Synergy. Today, it accounts for 2.2% of the content hours (fiction and non-fiction) on Hindi general entertainment channels. That translates to 5% of the market revenue. In the regional markets, the corresponding figures are 1% and 4%, respectively. Big Synergy targets about 6% of the content hours in Hindi and 3.6% in the regional market by FY15. The company is currently working out of four cities: Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata. Its revenue has doubled from $6 million (Rs 33.24 crore) in FY08, and it expects to generate $60 million by FY15. The way this industry works is, a production house enters into a contract with a channel to produce a show, the cost of which is underwritten by the channel. As its fees, the production house gets a percentage of the costs: 10% is the industry standard but premium shows such as KBC command 15%. Big Synergy also gets a separate licence fee from channels for original formats such as Khelo Jeeto Jiyo and Tech Grandmasters (both gameshows).
With second seasons of the regional KBCs in the offing, the benefits are expected to flow in. “At the regional level we are looking to raise our market share from 1% to nearly 4%, and that will straightaway triple our turnover by FY15,” says Indranil Chakraborty, Big Synergy’s COO.
Big Synergy’s newest game hinges around the digitisation of cable. “With digitisation, more channels will be delivered to consumer homes compared with only about 100 currently through analogue cable. Thus, with greater reach, advertising and subscription revenues for a channel will increase significantly,” says Smita Jha, leader, entertainment and media practice, at consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers India. The issue of carriage fees (the money that broadcasters have to pay cable companies for them to ‘carry’ their channel) will also be mitigated to a great extent. These benefits will improve the business case for existing as well as new channels and drive growth, in turn leading to improved prospects for content providers and production houses.
Big Synergy is looking at specialised channels—including education, films, and food (Basu is an acknowledged foodie). “One of the biggest advantages of collaborating with Big Synergy is that one is guaranteed valuable inputs from an industry stalwart like Siddhartha. From day one, he was involved in every nuance and aspect of Foodistan, be it lighting, mood, or format,” says Monica Narula, vice president programming, NDTV Good Times, and executive producer for Foodistan, a cooking challenge where chefs from India and Pakistan squared off against each other. Here again, it’s Basu’s way of getting warring neighbours closer.