The mastermind

Siddhartha Basu. Photo: Nagara Gopal

Siddhartha Basu. Photo: Nagara Gopal

“When people see me, they only see question marks; I am trying to put exclamations,” remarks Siddhartha Basu in the midst of conversation. Over the years, Basu has produced 10 Ka Dum and Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa, and is soon venturing into movie production with Phantom Films, but for a generation, particularly those who were active quizzers, he is still synonymous with Quiz Time and Mastermind . For my kid, he is the guy who puts together his general knowledge workbook “Know for Sure”.

This month he is reinforcing his bond with school students with News Wiz on India Today channel. Hosted by Rajdeep Sardesai, it will test students on their knowledge of current affairs. Sardesai and Basu go back a long way. The seasoned journalist was one of the participants on Quiz Time in 1985. “I was never a hard core quizzer. I have a documentary and theatre background. I am a communicator, who likes to put things together,” says Basu reminding that Sagarika Ghosh (senior journalist and Sardesai's better half), was the score keeper in Quiz Time’s pilot episode.

Over the years, television quiz has become more of a fun exercise and Basu says it is less about memorising facts and more about finding out how plugged are you to the world around you. So, if you have to reach Priyanka Chopra, you have to connect the dots between FBI, the Oscars, Time Magazine and Ka. And for a generation addicted to Google, Basu has devised an open round where they can use any source to reach the answer. “The first information on the Internet need not be the most accurate one,” underlines Basu.

Exactly, but this information overload, seems to be triggering a generation of generalists, and purists seem to be losing ground. “You have both and you need both,” maintains Basu. “In the batch of 1985 Quiz Time , apart from Rajdeep, we had Jayant Sinha and Raghuram Rajan from IIT Delhi. Then I had my juniors Ramachandra Guha and Shashi Tharoor. It proves that there is more to this world than just your profession.” Talking of difficulty levels, he reminds sometimes the most obvious thing becomes tricky. Like, how many of us know that the INA in INA market stands for Indian National Airways or the fact that when Coca Cola was ousted from the country, the two local brands – Thums Up and Campa Cola – that came up were tea and clove-based respectively.

With Kaun Banega Crorepati , Basu has made knowledge-based shows massy but hard core quizzers often complain that he has brought an element of drama to a fact-driven exercise. Most of the times, it seems like a feel good story is driving the show. Basu gives it to the format but also says that quizzes are not like curriculum. “ KBC is not just a quiz show. It is about life changing in front of your eyes. It was not supposed to be (IIT) JEE. KBC and Mastermind are the two extremes; between them you can do a lot of experimentation.” He maintains the role of television is popularisation and “through popularisation there is a ground swell of activity at the grass roots. After KBC, we have done knowledge shows in nine languages across the country.”

He reminds, the format of Mastermind also came from a dramatic real life incident in the life of Bill Wright, the man behind the show. He was dropped on the German side during World War-II, and was asked questions about name, place, reason with a flash of light shining on his eyes.

Having worked with a range of actors across the country, the latest being Arvind Swamy for the Tamil version of KBC, Basu says, “Actors need to be given their lines. It helps if you have a sense of theatre because there are no retakes, there is no going back and there is no stopping and starting. You have to think on your feet.” Of course, egos have to be handled but Basu says, “only to the extent it is required”. He provides support and actors go in for orientation. “Mr. Bachchan spent almost three months on getting a hang of things. Shah Rukh (Khan) got the system set-up at his residence.” “The reason,” he continues, “broadcasters go to the stars is to de-risk the investment.” Is there a moral angle to it, considering an actor fakes intelligence on screen? “No. Amitabh Bachchan was fantastic as a host. He brings drama, gravitas and eloquence. He not only communicates verbally, his non-verbal connection is also excellent. I always tell the hosts that on television, quiz is a three way process. You have to keep the audience equally involved.”

Will he like to return to the centre stage? “No, it is a youth driven medium. I am still fond of setting quizzes but I don’t want to inflict a balding old man on the young generation.” However, he is fast creating space for himself as a supporting actor on screen. Basu gives it to his theatre background where he was one of the founding members of Barry John’s Theatre Action Group in Delhi. “There I am being seen as a balding old man trying to be intelligent but I do it only for friends,” Basu understands his image trap well.

Among the states, Basu says Kerala puts the highest premium on knowledge-based shows. “All the seasons of KBC registered double digit TRPs. The traffic goes quiet, which is a dream come true for any communicator. Recently, we launched our own format Aadi Mone Buzzer (Fastest Family First) and it also opened to double digit TRPs.”

The recent embarrassment in Bihar, where toppers didn’t answer even basic questions of their subjects, makes one doubt the importance of knowledge in our society. Basu, an incorrigible optimist, looks at it differently. “The best and brightest today are far better informed than they were some time back. Shames like Bihar are a different kettle of fish and need to be handled but let me tell you sometime back the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports organised a quiz in 204 blocks of the country and we conducted the finals. It was on adolescent sexual health with NACO as partner. The participants came from rural centres but they were still very well informed. Of course, there are sad chinks in the armour but our society still puts a huge premium on knowledge because it is the ticket to socio-economic mobility. If you don’t have a big father or big money, gyaan will take you up. It is a great leveller.”

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Printable version | May 25, 2022 8:42:17 am |