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Quiz Whiz

Bonding around the buzzer

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The quiz has taken India's jails, offices, living rooms and clubs by storm. Have you joined the bandwagon? If not, your time starts now.

Last June, inmates at the Tihar Jail were subject to an unaccustomed interrogation. Instead of inquiries about scenes of crime and criminal motives, they were pitched such spinners as 'Which popular car/ automobile brand is known as 'Mehran' in Pakistan?' and 'Against whom did H N Bahuguna contest 1984 Lok Sabha elections from Allahabad and was defeated by a margin of 1, 87, 000 votes? Hint: His slogan was: "Mere angne me tumhara kya kaam hai". ' (Answers: Maruti;Amitabh Bachchan).

No prizes for guessing - it was a quiz at work, an inter-jail competition steered by the welfare wing of Delhi Prisons. The event, planned by the non-profit Samarpan Foundation, even had a bonafide quiz company called Quizworks running the show.

The quiz, it appears, has gained an all-access pass, and not just into prisons. Steel plants, software dens, city pubs, CEO clubs, and of course, living rooms, have all been busy quizzing. Knowledge (general or filtered), once a currency only maverick merchants traded in, is today universal tender. Marketers use the quiz to reach out to old and new markets, employers use it to engage with their employees, and peer groups too have begun to bond around the buzzer. Quiz clubs are gaining new recruits by the month, and TV quiz shows are multiplying. This month alone, two quiz shows have arrived on national TV: 'The Indian Quiz League' on National Geographic Channel, and 'Disney Q (Family Mastermind)', which brings BBC's 'Mastermind' to Disney Channel in a new family format. Not to mention the return of the seventh season of 'Kaun Banega Crorepati' this year.

No doubt, they'll all try hard to not repeat the question.

Quizmaster Harneet Singh, who prepared a mixed bag on politics, current affairs, history and entertainment for The Inter Jail Competition, was surprised by the general level of competence among the quizzers, and the fact that one of them was even togged out in a business suit. "We forget that some of the inmates are high-profile customers, " he jokes. The winning teams, incidentally, took home (or to the cell) gifts of clothing and utilities and prize money of Rs 5, 000 for each of the three top team members, and smaller amounts for the runners-up, which was credited to their jail bank accounts. About 350 inmates turned up to watch. Unlike chess, a meditative mind sport that leaves non-enthusiasts behind, the quiz, by dint of its drama, speed and ability to teach the audience something new, is a more popular sport by far. That's a no-brainer.

What's interesting to see is the culture of quizzing proliferate, thanks in part to versatile salesmen who have spied in it a sales pitch. According to some, the quizzing business is today a multi-million dollar industry in India, with the potential to pack in a few more ciphers.

"There are two parts to quizzing - TV and ground activity, " offers Quizmaster Derek O'Brien, who remembers being paid Rs 500 and four bottles of beer for conducting college quizzes in the '80s. Incidentally, to a whole generation of malted-milk drinkers who grew up on Sunday primetime in the '80s and '90s, it was O'Brien who gave encyclopedias a certain cachet among youth. He was one of the first in India to make a business of quizzing with his company Big Ideas, which now goes by Derek O'Brien & Associates, a Kolkata-based firm with 80 employees who research, design and organise around 1, 400 quizzes a year for institutional and corporate clients, including what he calls the Kumbh Mela of corporate quizzes, the 'Brand Equity Quiz'. Drawing attention to 'ground' developments, O'Brien signals the turn the industry has been taking lately, with marketers having cottoned on to the quiz's budding potential as an efficient tool to reach out to select, sharper focused audiences (eg: the Mahindra Auto Quotient Quiz). O'Brien, who scores his 25th year of professional quizzing this year, says, "In the '60s, the challenge was to make knowledge interesting to as many people as possible;now it's about making people and brands grow. "

Raj Dam backs this analysis. Dam is the co-founder and head of sales and marketing of a company called QuizWorks, which doesn't simply labour to build a company's brand equity in the marketplace outside, but utilizes the quiz to build a company from within - to scale up employee soft skills (team work, strategising, etc), update them on business developments (an annual report is more palatable when compressed into 20 Questions), impart technical knowledge, and even help recruit potential employees at focus fairs. "A quiz ought to do two things: Engage participants and act as an alternative vehicle for learning, " Dam says. As an example, he points out that software staffers are more likely to remember key messages from, say, the field of social media analytics solutions, if they encounter that information as "gamified content". And so, in 2011, QuizWorks created a property for IBM called IBM Social Genius, a quiz on social instruments and connectivity that played out in real time and on social media. Incidentally, social media has emerged as a convenient dais for the quiz, if not a logical extension of its ground work. Derek O'Brien conducts a three-question, pop quiz on Twitter every Sunday, from 11 am to 11. 15 am, with sponsored gifts. "The Twitter time line (@ quizderek) will show you, it has thousands of participants, " he says.

BIGGER BUCK FOR THE BANG

In Eden, it was the promise of knowledge that made the Adams eye the apple;today, it's the fruit that has people skimming Wikipedia and wading through sample quizzes on the Internet. "The stakes have definitely risen, " agrees Ajay Poonia, who runs a three-year-old quiz company called Qryptiq, and claims a turnover of Rs 3. 8 crore this year - a sign that this field is green. "Even colleges are putting up Rs 1 lakh in prize money. " At one of the corporate quizzes Poonia developed, the prize for the winning team was not only a kitty of Rs 25, 000 per participant, but a promotion as well. "Effectively, whichever team won would end up becoming the boss of the losing team. "

Quiz prizes have counted trips abroad (Lufthansa's Trip Around The World quiz) and even a course at INSEAD, Singapore (Mint Success Curve quiz). The gold rush was effectively set off by 'Kaun Banega Crorepati'. While no other Indian quiz show, on or off the air, has matched the popularity of KBC, or Amitabh Bachchan's fee as quizmaster, the high stakes of the show itself have raised the bar for quizzing on the whole. And what KBC has done for the prize, television has done for the quiz.

According to Arul Mani, quizmaster and volunteer with the Karnataka Quiz Association, in Bangalore, the airwaves have done a great deal to further the cause of the quiz. "For many people of my generation, it was a combination of quizzes on the radio and, eventually, the arrival of Siddhartha Basu's 'Quiz Time' (on Doordarshan) that got us hooked. TV has always won quizzing new audiences, " he says. The top guns were 'Quiz Time' (1985), 'BBC Mastermind India' (1998), 'Bournvita Quiz Contest' (1992), and that rocket launcher, 'Kaun Banega Crorepati' (2000).

THE WHYS AND THE WHEREFORES

Just like the Seine has a Left and Right Bank, so too the quizzing community is split between the puritans and the populists. The former, some of whom are invariably attached to quiz clubs, devote their lives to the refinement of the Question. It is they who deplore, what they call, the commercialising of the quiz, with its allegiance to the market, its mass appeal, shorter format and its bold bait of reward. Dam, of QuizWorks, likens both sets of quizzers to performers. "The puritans are like the National School of Drama;the rest are like Bollywood, " he says.

While the debate will continue to rage, what remains incontestable is that the quiz needs to evolve to keep and grow its parish. Across forms and formats, quizmasters are looking for new questions to ask, and new ways in which to ask them. Vikram Joshi of the Bombay Quiz Club (BQC) talks about a new section called 'Roti, Kapda, Aur Makaan' that they included in BQC's annual quiz-off on March 2 & 3. "It was a quiz on food, fashion and architecture, " says this serial quizzer who travels two weekends every month to a contest in another city. He informs that the BQC awarded a total of Rs 65, 000 across six quizzes last weekend, attended by about 150-180 people with nearly half from outside the city. "But only 5% of quizzers play for the money, " he reckons.

It's probably why 'Disney Q (Family Mastermind)' is offering no money, in fact, no prize at all, except the title of 'India's Smartest Family'. "Indian culture prides itself on its quest for knowledge, " explains Vijay Subramaniam, executive director, Kids Network, Disney-UTV, suggesting that pride in proving one's collective smarts (and no doubt pipping the neighbour to the crown) is good enough for those auditioning. They put a whole season together (56 episodes) in three months, which shows it was no long hunt to find competent quizzing families.

Here's a fact to prove that quizzers are a flourishing breed in India. According to Dr Anurakshat Gupta, one of the founders of the International Quizzing Association, about 25 per cent of global participants at the annual World Quizzing Championship, hail from India, most from Calicut. "Unlike the rest of the world, where the average quizzer is between 30 and 50 years, in India those between 15 and 30 years make up half the participants, " Dr Gupta says. India may have the numbers, but it has yet to make them count. So, it is to take India into the winning league that a Quiz Society of India is in the making. "We hope to nurture quality quizzers right from school so they make it to the top billed global competitions. This is also why we're introducing a national ranking and rating system for quizzers. We want quizzing to be considered as serious a mind sport as chess. " No question about it.

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