Betting on Bachchan: Confident, pucca?

Updated: Sep 14, 2010, 09:15 AM IST

Shashank Chouhan

Was it the rich baritone or the crisp game format? One can’t really be ‘pucca’ about it, but what we can surely ‘lock’ is the fact that Amitabh Bachchan and Kaun Banega Crorepati became a part of our popular consciousness a decade back, and both entities continue to draw curiosity and admiration even today.
One for being an entertaining gentleman, and the other for putting a crore at stake.

In a flashback of the 80s, when Amitabh’s fortune had begun dipping after Puneet Issar’s punch and TV began its intimate journey with Indians with serials like Mahabharat and Ramayan, KBC had viewers of the new millennium rapt with attention.

When the clock struck 9 pm and the signature tune of KBC- copied from the original Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, much like the game itself-played out from every house, streets went empty, either you had had dinner or would have it after 10 pm, attendance at cinema halls dropped and forced a Delhi theaterwallah to write to Bahchcan requesting a change in his show timing, phones were kept free in the hope of getting a friend’s call for help and everybody waited for Bachchan to share his pearls of wisdom in shuddh Hindi in the end.

Of course it didn’t end there. The show was followed by frenzied calling up on KBC’s phone lines to register as a contestant. One rarely got through (there were 200,000 calls a day, they say) what with the lines getting totally choked as soon as Bachchan announced their opening.

KBC was a game changer of a show- for Amitabh Bachchan and Indian television.
Amitabh Bachchan agreed to sign up at a time, when he had been retired for a few years, was nearly bankrupt, and was nowhere near being called a legend that he is today with films like ‘Lal Badshaah’, ‘Mrityudata’ and ‘Hindustan Ki Kasam’ taking him further down the dump.

Nothing was working for the Big B, not even bringing the Miss World contest to India.

Along came Sidhhartha Basu, India’s favorite quiz master, and Star Plus with the proposal of a new game show called ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’. Television was as yet an uncharted territory for the senior Bachchan and he was offered enough money to get him back on his feet- Rs 40 lakh per episode, as per some estimates. He agreed to the show. The rest, as they say, is history.

Amitabh’s career picked up again, he did films like ‘Black’ and ‘Sarkar’ which re-established him as a phenomenon and he was loved by his 15 million viewers for his comic timing, etiquette, modesty and wisdom which made them feel that the tallest hero of Bollywood was one of their own. He also started appearing in advertisements of various products including hair-oil and was more active professionally than all of his peers and contemporaries.

The story was good for Star Plus as well. The Rupert Murdoch owned channel was flagging as the saas and bahu tears were getting stale, come-back-from-death sequences were boring, jumps in life-spans made Baa of ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’ (their serial names were just getting longer too) live for at least 200 years, adultery was being frowned at etc. Result: Star’s audience were going away and their top bosses had a new brief for the creative and business heads, which was to bring as much viewers as an India-Pakistan cricket match did.

That, as anyone would know, was a nearly impossible target. The team thought a lot and had a brilliant idea- reinvent the wheel. Or at least Indianised it. So they copied the globally successful format of Celador’s ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’ and Voila! Their opening TRPs shot up to 16 at a time when all other shows were scoring in single digits. Not only that, the channel had 12 of its productions in the top 50 charts the year KBC was launched. It became the undisputed leader of the industry.

But for you and me, it meant exposure to a new and exciting style of programming- reality TV.

Having a show where the viewers were not considered dumb, but active participants, was the new mantra. That legacy of KBC is growing even today and every channel has its teeth dug in the reality TV pie which occupies more than 20% of the total programming share and continues to increase.

The idiot box is now credited with discovering much latent talent in the country apart from entertaining us in newer ways. In short, KBC created a new star out of Bachchan and made stars out of the audience by re-writing the way television was looked at in India.

Ten years later, the horizon appears to be bleak again for both of the above entities.

While Amitabh Bachchan is still the Big B, he is no more the Badshaah of the entertainment industry. Since he agreed to do Ram Gopal Varma’s remake of Sholay, things have been looking down for the mega star with none of the films giving him the response that he got a few years back.

In fact, he jokingly said at the press conference where his return to KBC was announced, that he did not have any films in his hands right now. That could well be the truth.

Now Sony, the channel that has bought the rights to KBC-4 (Star Plus was too bruised after their tryst with Shah Rukh as KBC-3 host, I guess), has been struggling for viewers and totally relies on Indian Idol and Big Boss for sustenance. Its bid at bringing Yash Raj Films to small screen with 6 serials failed miserably and they have now put their bets on KBC and Amitabh Bachchan (Aamir Khan reportedly rejected the offer, though Sony denied this).

Both, thus, need each other more than ever before- much like the conditions a decade back. But can the magic be re-created?

The fact is that the television market today is jam-packed with shows that offer racy details about contestants, show ‘real’ tears and fights, offer trips abroad and not just bundles of cash and most importantly, give the 15 minutes of fame to anyone who is upto to snatching it.

Discounting the fact that a stench of disgust is slowly nauseating audiences of these shows, reality TV remains the life-line of all channels, which are introducing latest ways to grab more eyeballs even if it means doing a ‘loyalty test’ on unsuspecting partners or behaving like a dog on a street (that really happened). In such a scenario, can a decade old, Q&A format capture an audience which is increasingly getting younger and hence impatient?

There were only over 150 channels at the turn of this century, and now there are over 500. That makes for thousands of TV serials across the country. In fact when KBC made its second comeback in the year 2005, its ratings were down. When Shah Rukh Khan took over as the host for KBC-3 in 2007, owing to Bachchan’s illness, the ratings dropped further.

Moreover reality TV shows have historically lost viewership in their fourth or fifth season. Not only that, Salman Khan fans may walk away after knowing that the actor’s ‘Dus Ka Dum’ is no more wanted by the channel because they have the Big B now.

The needs of both the Big B and the TV industry may be the same, but the market has changed in the ten years since ‘Computer ji’ became a part of our lexicon. It will thus be very difficult to re-create the success of 2000 and tougher to better it. And that’s not just because you can’t go on re-inventing the wheel.