Growing up, it was commonplace for a school-going chap to be hooked on to Vividh Bharati to listen in to the ‘Bournvita Quiz Contest’. In the 1980s, that gave way to ‘Quiz Time’ on Doordarshan. The affable and personable young man asking the questions – Siddhartha Basu – was soon known as the nation’s quiz master. Years later, Basu resurfaced to give us another delightful quiz show using the licensed rights of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’, called ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’. With Amitabh Bachchan as the host, it revolutionised television. Not since the days of ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’ had television become the cynosure. It left everyone enthralled.
Since then, many games shows and reality based programmes have been attempted on telly, but none had the effervescence and spontaneity of Amitabh Bachchan asking questions in his Paul Muni baritone voice. Basu has given us KBC 1, 2, 3 and even ‘Jhalak Dikhla Ja’, but what is happening on Indian TV now is quite unprecedented. Not since the conveyor belt K-soaps that Ekta Kapoor rolled out from her Andheri factory has anyone dominated Indian telly to such a great extent. Five big format non-fiction shows, all happening at the same time. And all of them giving gangbuster results. Coincidence then that all the five shows – ‘Sach Ka Saamna’, ‘Dus Ka Dum’, ‘India’s Got Talent’, ‘Aap ki Kachehri’, and ‘Godrej Khelo Jeeto Jiyo’ – are from the same stable. The brainchild of Siddhartha Basu’s Big Synergy laboratory.
I was curious that one company operating with a low profile could be behind all this. Then I saw Basu, now balding in a chat on CNBC-TV18. He retained the same honesty and pizzazz in his conversation with Anuradha Sengupta that he had displayed as quiz master almost 25 years ago in the 1980s. I thought this was good a time as any to become quiz master and make some queries of my own. First stop was Anil Arjun, CEO of Adlabs, which now owns Big Synergy to get the big picture. Followed by a concentric circle to get a micro analysis from the man himself – Sid Basu.
Arjun said that Big Synergy had systematically built scale, and with the focus on reality TV, decided that the big format route was the way to go. He said, “Yes, there is pressure on time, but we have multiple teams, which respond to Sid Basu’s creative drive. The results are showing. Last year, Big Synergy did about Rs 18-20 crore of revenues, this financial year, 2009-10, it should do upwards of Rs 60 crore. That all five shows are bunched together is not something that we devised, it just happened.”
Adlabs, essentially after a slew of acquisitions like Synergy, Nitish Desai Studios, Lowry Digital et al, has three key business lines – cinema (where it owns 439 screens around the world), film and media services, and Big Synergy. In many ways, Big Synergy is the crown jewel in an acquisitive strategy, which is beginning to pay in spades. Next level of competence – Big Synergy wants to get into fiction with the objective of creating value, hence smaller shows which remunerate well. While Big Synergy has attempted fiction in the past – ‘Jiya Jale’ on the forgettable 9X – it is readying storyboards to do something which is beyond convention in the telly space.
Sid Basu reckons that big format reality TV with a strong social underpinning is his metier. Appealing to the lowest common denominator and holding up a mirror to the personal space of India is a lot different from his public broadcaster days. But it is working, kitsch is catching on fast, both ‘Sach…’ and ‘Kachehri’ are providing the breakthrough benefit. Many call the two programmes a spanking new killer application in Indian telly.
Here are excerpts from a short interview with Indian telly’s new pin-up boy. In many ways, a rediscovery of the old Sid Basu, only much older and wiser in his present avatar as a creative producer.
How did the quizman evolve into the number one non-fiction programmer?
What I tried to bring to quizzes was a rigour of content, drama of competition, and some flair in presentation, not so much as a host, but as a producer-director. Before I came anywhere close to a quiz, though, I’d done eight years of educational documentary, and had an active involvement in theatre as an actor and director for five years before that. But I really believe its been synergy, as a process, as a productive association with creatively gifted and hard working teammates, that has helped us develop hallmark qualities of content and production values.
You can argue that it is an extension of ‘Mastermind’, your own quiz show on DD, and ‘KBC’, but this is hard-nosed social realism that you are dealing with in at least two of the shows – ‘Sach Ka Saamna’ and ‘Aap ki Kachehri’?
I think both shows confirm that what’s absolutely real and relevant can be very engaging, and entertainment doesn’t only need to be diverting or superficial or dumbed down to pander to the lowest common denominator. There should be place for social realism in our general entertainment space, because that can genuinely connect with people’s lives, their heads and hearts to a much greater extent. The ratings of both ‘Aap ki Kachehri’ and ‘Sach ka Saamna’ demonstrate there’s enough of an audience for such shows if they are done right.
Why did you sell out to Adlabs? Did you believe that you needed money to pump prime your projects to get scale and size; the kind that you are doing now…
We needed both the financial and entrepreneural muscle to do more, to do bigger and better. We needed the empowerment, and it is Adlabs non-interfering support that has allowed us to consolidate our strengths and expand our operations.
The sensibilities of a man who had a public service broadcaster type of image, have they changed to be in sync with commercial realities?
You learn everyday about what works with the audience, and the challenge is to find the audience pulse with your own sensibility. It can be quite a seesaw, because there are constant commercial pressures, and only what rates survive, and other than the show itself, there are so many factors that determine popularity, such as the platform, promotion, scheduling, and so on. The fact that commercial satellite broadcasters entrust with the work they do, is because there’s an acknowledgement that, what the trade calls, ‘classy’ shows can be viable and profitable.
Anil (Arjun) was telling me that you want to make a foray into fiction. What kind of programming do you want to do, not saas-bahu, child remarriage hopefully… You did do ‘Jiya Jale’ on 9X, but you know 9X…
We have a clutch of fiction projects in the works, which have to find enough of an audience or perish. In content, genre, and presentation, we are shaping each to be distinctive and relevant.
What is the size of your team now, given that you have five big ticket shows and how do you keep the creative juices running?
We are producing both out of Mumbai and Delhi, and the project staff of Big Synergy on our current shows is about 200-strong. We have good team leaders working with separate teams on content, but we have a committed and capable core team that backs up with systems, production and sensibility.
Your own views on ‘Sach Ka Saamna’, after all it has stirred serious debate…
Although there are those who find the format provocative, we’ve tried to hold up a true mirror to what is going on in the personal space of Indians today.
(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist, who started his career as a stringer with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. In late 2008, he joined three old friends to launch a start-up – Sportzpower Network – which combines his two passions of business and sport. Familiar with all four media – print, television, Internet and radio, Bamzai is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir.
The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)