For seekers of general knowledge, Dr. Navin (50) is also an ophthalmologist who has hosted almost every edition of the 22-year-old quiz he has become synonymous with.
As I rang up contacts in an attempt to seek an appointment with Dr. Navin Jayakumar, they all had just one warning: “He will be very busy this week. Why don’t you try after the quiz?” They were referring to the Landmark Quiz, held every Independence Day, of which Dr. Navin is the driving force. I took my chances and called him, only to receive the expected answer but for an unexpected reason. “I am busy,” the ace quizmaster said, “I have a surgery at 11.”
Just as I lost hope, he offered, “But we can meet at 10.” For seekers of general knowledge, Dr. Navin (50) is also an ophthalmologist who has hosted almost every edition of the 22-year-old quiz he has become synonymous with. When you look him up on the internet, it is only on the second page of Google search that his accomplishments as an ophthalmologist are listed — he is the only Indian to be invited to become a member of the editorial board of the world’s premier scientific publication, The Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology.
“I have weird, multiple interests,” he confesses, giving a hint as to what has driven him since 1987 when he founded the Quiz Foundation of Chennai and began hosting the Landmark quiz a few years later. Quiz enthusiasts find him pleasant and patient, and — as I spoke to him — I realised these traits were not restricted to the stage alone. He has an inherent way of putting you at ease, with his consummate humour distracting you from the thought that he is someone whose job it is to know everything about everything.
A quizmaster first and a quizzer next, he remembers his first quiz as a student of Madras Medical College. “I did not even understand the questions. They were very short, and worse, everybody else seemed to know the answers to everything.”
The trick was simple, Dr. Navin figured out later: “Avid quizzers note down every piece of information.” Not that he was a newbie to this world. He is the son of Saranya Jayakumar, India’s first woman quizmaster and also a member of Motley Crew, a legendary team in the country’s quizzing circles, whose rivals include the legendary Neil O’Brien.
“She is still at it, noting down every little thing she reads and thinks is a potential quiz question,” Dr. Navin said of his mother, “I keep looking into her notebook when I prepare the questions.”
His questions are usually long, and have lots of visual and audio clues — “questions that have different ways to reach the answer. It is all about making that informed guess.” Behind all this is months of preparation — TV, documentaries, the internet — as the quiz takes shape, challenging for the participants, yet accessible to the audience.
Last year, for instance, he showed a clip of the legendary song Mere sapnon ki rani, which had Sharmila Tagore travelling in a train while Rajesh Khanna followed her in a jeep. Dr. Navin asked about the song’s connection to Satyajit Ray. The teams were imaginative in their responses — wondering if she was reading his book during the journey or whether perhaps the veteran director had been called to shoot, specifically, that iconic scene.
“Sharmila was doing a Satyajit Ray movie then and didn’t have dates to spare. This scene was shot much before the jeep sequence. So, it literally means he is not following her, That’s why you never see the two of them in the same frame” he said when he finally gave the answer. “I saw it in one of the programmes on news channels that trace back the journey of music directors and actors,” he said.
“But a good quiz is when the quizmaster does not have to give the answers,” he said. And it is this approach that perhaps drives whole families to the Music Academy every Independence Day. “For me, it is the audience that is more important than the teams. The questions have to be interesting and relevant to the audience in some way.”
So this year, will there be questions on Rajesh Khanna? “Yes of course, there will be questions on the first superstar and the present superstar. You have to have questions on Rajini, right? But there is a bigger surprise,” he said, his familiar eyes glinting. “It is tiring to host the whole quiz, right from the prelims until the end. And, there are people who have taken part in this quiz as school and college students and then while working, and now they come with their children to watch them.”
“This year, we will celebrate the timelessness of the quiz that saw an entire generation grow with it,” he said, hinting at a big change this year, even as he made me promise I wouldn’t reveal it.
Quite the star on stage, Dr. Navin has also appeared as a doctor in the AVM Studios tele-serial Vazhkai. It had a scene in which a child loses her eyesight but regains it due to his intervention. “And since there was no external injury shown, I had to explain to the parents that there was bleeding within the eye.”
Besides learning to say rathakasivu for clotting in Tamil, which, he said, was difficult, having been brought up in Kolkata, he also had to do the ‘bandage-removing’ and ellam nalla irukku (all’s well) scenes. Immediate recognition was to follow when a little boy in Ooty identified him as the ‘Vazhkai doctor’.
“Television has that reach,” he accepts, but that is not sufficient to tempt him to accept offers to host TV quizzes. “I already have my hands full.” And, there is another passion which ranks ahead of even quizzing — the piano. “I started re-learning it along with my son,” he says. “I like being the quizmaster because I see it as a performance art. I like it when the stage comes to life with the lights, teams and the tension.”
“But playing the piano is more than all that, it is a passion I enjoy pursuing the most,” he says, as he displays the Cicely Goschen Trophy, which he won a few months ago. “The best part is the trophy has the names of the 30 greatest performers of times, including, L. Shankar and L. Subramanium,” he muses.
With Navin, there is always a story to everything and a potential quiz question in each story.