India bitten by gameshow bug

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The British quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire, which has already been a massive hit in 26 countries, has in the past few weeks, seized Indian television by the scruff of its neck and turned it inside out.

The British quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire, which has already been a massive hit in 26 countries, has in the past few weeks, seized Indian television by the scruff of its neck and turned it inside out.

The show's host here is a gaunt, ponderous giant of a man called Amitabh Bachchan - "Big B" - who is, without question, the most popular film star India has ever produced.

Turn on the telly in India and it is odds-on there will be either an old Bachchan film or one of his song-and-dance routines playing at any time of the day or night.

When the BBC conducted a poll on its website to elect the Star of the Millennium, it was probably confounded to discover that Bachchan, who has never chanced his arm in Hollywood, polled far higher than more obvious candidates such as Charlie Chaplin or Marlon Brando Likewise, Bachchan is the only Bollywood celebrity to be found in Madame Tussaud's, again thanks to popular acclaim.

But Big B's career has been on the skids for years. In late middle age his touch has deserted him and he has made one clunker after another. He has made a fool of himself in television commercials, flopped in comedies and made disastrous business mistakes. Every article published about the man in the past three years seems to have been a lament for the squandering of his glory.

Now suddenly, thanks to Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), the show's Hindi title, Bachchan is back on top.

Not only has the show catapulted Bachchan's face and fame into national prominence again. It has also salvaged Star TV, the Hong Kong-based Murdoch company which introduced satellite television into India, from the ratings basement. It is revolutionising what Indian viewers expect from television. And it is achieving a minor miracle - bringing a nation as various and divided as India together around the hearth of the television, and making them all feel good about something.

My friend in Bombay, a senior executive in one of the city's most famous companies, invited me round for a drink at 8pm last week, but said if I wanted to fix another appointment for 9pm, that was fine with him. I was a little mystified until 9 o'clock rolled around and, like 40 per cent of Indians with a satellite or cable connection, he turned his back on me and anything else that might have been going on in the world to concentrate on KBC.

As that magic hour approaches, the traffic in Indian cities thins, bars, restaurants and cinemas empty, and viewers stampede across to Star from the other channels. There are various strands to the show's astonishing success. Bachchan is one: the producer, Siddarth Basu, has made the most of his brooding, gravel-voiced charisma to create a mood close to that of a suspense film. "It's not a game show," insists Gautam Ohje, chief of research for the programme, "it's a high voltage drama."

The production values of the show, which is a close imitation of the British original, put it in a different league from anything yet seen in India. Each of the four weekly episodes, transmitted from Monday to Thursday, costs 5.8m rupees, more than £85,000, which is six or seven times more than has been spent on an Indian quiz show before.

As a result, the show oozes attitude. Enormous sums have also been spent on getting the infrastructure right; the phone links for aspiring players to call, the computers used to select the questions. The phenomenon is a loud, slick, wake-up call to a future which, until now, India has not been able fully to bring herself to believe in.

Yet the show's clinching brilliance is its inclusiveness. Ironically, given his record in other markets, Murdoch's Indian venture has been drifting haplessly upmarket for years, into the exclusive and very tiny preserve of the English speakers. The firm's new chief executive, Peter Mukerjea, is bent on reversing that trend. So KBC speaks the plain Hindi of the city streets. It pulls in contestants from all over the country and from all ranks of the even modestly educated. Contestants to date have included a farmer, the operator of a roadside public call office, a cloth salesman, and a teacher.

The questions, in the early stages, are often ludicrously easy, and Bachchan does what he can to make them even more so. "I assist the contestants in whatever manner permissible to ensure he or she wins as much money as possible before leaving the show," he explains gravely. No one has yet won the Rs10m jackpot - about £250,000 - but no contestant departs without winning something.

In return, a number of participants have expressed their adoration of the host by bringing to the Bombay studio tiffin carriers crammed with delicacies cooked at home.

A top film producer in the city has his own theory about the show's stunning success. "We're all looking for the glue that will hold people together," he says. "For a long time, cricket did that. Then with the match-rigging scandal, the cricket god died. This programme has filled the vacuum. Now people all over India can watch Kaun Banega Crorepati, and we can all be lonely together."