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Lambuji to Computerji
'Kaun Banega Crorepati' reinvented Amitabh Bachchan. It morphed the rebellious Vijay into a believable, cultured father figure.
In the late 1990s, Amitabh Bachchan was in free fall. Movies such as Mrityudata (1997) and Lal Badshah (1999) had tanked without a whisper. His entertainment company ABCL was fast becoming his career's biggest flop. And in those pre-Botox times, he was beginning to look a haggard, overused version of his '70s self.
Yet, almost a decade and half later, the Bachchan brand is still buzzing. The baritone, which could once get men in small-town cinemas to shower coins at the screen, is today persuasively peddling insurance, luxury writing instruments and thanda thanda hair oil on TV. And as an actor he can still scorch the dance floor with babes (Bol Bachchan) and bring gravitas to complicated parts (Aarakshan). When you are making your Hollywood debut this Christmas in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, with Leonardo di Caprio and Toby Maguire as work partners, you're both cool and contemporary. Even though you are 70!
At the core of this gnarled Bachchan narrative is a show that became a national talking point. In its first season beginning July 3, 2000, KBC, or Kaun Banega Crorepati, wasn't just a show;it was a phenomenon.
Now running in its sixth edition, KBC remains the biggest brand that Indian entertainment television has produced;Bachchan being its rocksteady constant, the brief and shaky Shah Rukh interlude apart. There is even more human drama today;more small-town stories with tears and heart, all guaranteed to grab eyeballs. The opening TRP this season was around 6. Millions across India still get drawn to that warm, barbecue voice and that perfect diction when he says, "Gyan ke is kumbh mein aapka swagat hai. " That's why, as Danish Khan of Sony Entertainment television points out, about 15 million registered for the first round of the ongoing edition.
It all began in 2000, when Sameer Nair, Star TV's head of programming, thought of Bachchan as a TV host for an Indian version of Who Wants Be a Millionaire. "It was an instinct. I could think of none other than Mr Bachchan, " he says.
Star was desperate for Bachchan. After all, it was a Rs 75-crore gamble, the costliest show till then for the Indian audience. "It was a make or break show for the programming unit. We had only three in the top 100 shows: Nina Gupta's Saans, Asha Parekh's Kora Kaagaz and Tu Tu Main Main, " recalls Nair.
But getting Big B wasn't easy. The small screen then was primarily a last port of refuge for flop stars and theatre relics. Getting into TV from films was like being downgraded by Moody's. "It took about three months for him to say, yes. There were many naysayers around him, who maintained that the small screen would shrink him, " says Siddharth Basu, CMD, Big Synergy Media, which produces KBC.
The show was a challenge for the megastar too. In an India Today (July 17, 2000) interview, Bachchan admitted that. "?t's really frightening. It's something new for me. There's no script like there's in films. . . . It's tough, " he said.
The self-doubts weren't exactly visible on the show though. For most of India, it was a flawless performance. With his sheer presence, Big B turned the small screen into 70 mm. "Streets emptied during the show. Theatre collections went down, " says Nair. Within a few weeks, the show had prompted clones on rival channels: Sawaal Dus Crore Ka on Zee, Jeeto Chhappar Phad ke on Sony and several more on regional channels. An average two lakh callers per day wanted to be on the hot seat in the first season.
The punchline, "Computerji, lock kiya jai", entered the national lexicon as a synonym for being sure. India had not seen anything like this since Ramayan on Doordarshan in 1987-88. But that was during a monopoly age;this was the satellite TV era. At a time when top entertainment shows had a rating of 10-14 TRPs, KBC comfortably crossed 20. Says Nair, "With KBC, Bachchan got introduced to a new generation. With one sweep, he became relevant to everyone. "
The show not only turned Star - with considerable help from Ekta Kapoor's K serials too - into India's premier entertainment channel, it also enabled Bachchan to settle into a second innings.
Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt feels that the show allowed him to connect with his real personality. "He comes from a cultured and refined background. The angry young man was a Salim-Javed creation. KBC peeled off the make-up and allowed the audience to taste his real rather than the constructed reel self. In the show, he was what he is, not what the screenplay made him out to be. Through KBC, he shed the Vijay skin. The show became a springboard for his second innings in Bollywood. "
Part of Amitabh's appeal as a TV host is his willingness to acquiesce in unusual requests: Geeta Verma, a school teacher from Sri Ganganagar, Rajasthan, asked him to mouth Sholay's famous dialogue, "Tumhara naam kya hai Basanti?", replacing the last word with her own name. He doesn't cringe when a housewife from Kolkata tells him that she smells her palm every now and then since he shook hands with her. And he keeps smiling patiently even when someone shows him a private collection of photographs of his bahu, Aishwarya Rai.
Such affable behaviour, says columnist and author Santosh Desai, establish himself as "a gracious fatherfigure who commands authority but displays empathy and graciousness even towards less successful people. "
It is impossible for any host to have genuine empathy and liking for every contestant. But Big B's skill lies in making every contestant feel special and wanted. Manoj Kumar Raina from Jammu equates his Big B experience to "meeting a family member. " Another KBC participant, Kanwar Surteg Singh, a 21-year-old computer science student from Amritsar, says when he met the actor for the first time it felt as if he had known him for long. "You can ask for an autograph, a hug or ask him to recite his father's poetry, " he says.
KBC also enabled the Hindi film industry to look at Big B in a new light. The post-KBC Amitabh, with dyed black hair, un-dyed goatee and neatly tailored dark suits, redefined ageing in Bollywood. Being old no longer meant doing an A K Hangal. Movies such as Nishabd (2007), a Bollywood take on Lolita, and Cheeni Kum (2007), a May-December romance, wouldn't have happened without KBC. Neither would have author-backed roles in Black (2005) and The Last Lear (2007). "KBC created an important shift in conservative Bollywood. Through the show, Amitabh turned autumn into a second spring," says Bhatt.
The plethora of endorsements that followed turned Bachchan into a superbrand. "KBC gave him the persona of a contemporary father who's sophisticated, commands authority yet entertaining, important attributes in advertising, " says Desai. Cadbury, ICICI, Pepsi, Parker, Dabur Hajmola, Navratna oil - he smiled and sold them all. In fact, Big B earned the maximum points in the BrandWagon-Synovate Best Brands Survey 2011 as the top brand ambassador who elevates the brand with his association.
There is, says social scientist Shiv Viswanathan, reciprocity between KBC and Big B. He says, "KBC created a new idea of heroism for him. He moved from physical heroism to a new kind of miniature adventure where the audience and the viewer were equal participants, " he says. With each season of KBC, as he chats and jokes three times a week in our drawing rooms, the actor sells the fiction and fantasy of being a mentor and friend. And it is so profitable too. Kaun Banega Arabpati? Amitabh Bachchan, of course.
'He evolves with every episode'
TV producer Siddharth Basu, who was involved in the making of KBC since the first season, says that Bachchan's charisma multiplies with each passing episode
Why was AB hired as the host of KBC?
He was ideal for the first big ticket show in the country. He had the stature, the charisma, the gravitas, the eloquence, the sense of drama. It was a great fit for the show, as he combined high culture with mass appeal. It was also a marketer's dream come true. Since no A-list star had hosted a TV show then, and he was then in a league of one as a pan Indian, cross-generational megastar. The impact was bound to be immense.
Has Big B evolved with the job?
The graph is there for all to see. The bilingual eloquence, the courteous manner, and the dry wit were always there. What's evolved is an intimacy, subtly drawing out the personal stories and evincing empathy for the contestant.
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