In edited excerpts from The Making of Star India, Vanita Kohli-Khandekar reveals the back story of how key staffers at the television network, including CEO Peter Mukerjea and programming head Sameer Nair, got Kaun Banega Crorepati off the ground.
A show that ‘didn’t exclude people’
When [Peter] Mukerjea was trying to figure out who to hire as head of programming, Shashanka Ghosh and several others recommended [Sameer] Nair. He was a creator and a producer, so he knew both ends of the game. In February 1999, when he was finally made programming head, he kicked off a lot of shows that were ‘much appreciated and applauded but got us no ratings,’ says Nair.
Around then, Steve Askew, the tall Australian programming head for the region and Nair’s boss in Hong Kong, came across Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. ‘It was very popular [in the UK and Australia] and not at all elitist. It didn’t exclude people. People with average intelligence, like me, or the next viewer could watch and enjoy it equally,’ said Askew.
In July 1999 Askew showed a tape of the show to Nair. ‘He saw what I saw,’ said Askew. ‘I said it was damn good, but it doesn’t work for us because of this half-Hindi, half-English limitation,’ says Nair… He asked Askew to buy the rights for Who Wants to Be A Millionaire from ECM, the firm that had bought the Asian rights from format creator Celador. He then started looking around for someone to make a show like that in India.
He zeroed in on Siddhartha Basu. Siddhartha had worked with Star Plus earlier on A Question of Answers, a current affairs show with journalist Vir Sanghvi, and on Eureka, a science show.
Askew, Nair and Siddhartha met in January 2000 at the Oberoi hotel in New Delhi to talk about who would host the show. For Nair, ‘Amitabh Bachchan was the only choice.’ India’s biggest superstar at the time was fifty-seven and on the wane. His films had been flopping and he had no connect with a new generation of Indians. Still, his was a name almost every Indian knew and then some.
While they were still talking, late in February 2000, Murdoch senior came to town after four long years. And in a meeting that has now become part of corporate legend, he changed everything. He upped the prize money by about a hundred times, made it an hour-long daily show instead of a half-hour weekly show. The name of the show then changed from Kaun Banega Lakhpati to Kaun Banega Crorepati. For most middle-class Indians, Rs 1 lakh or Rs 1,00,000 was a huge amount; it still is for large swathes of Indians.
Getting the Big B was proving to be difficult, however. Nair called Sunil Doshi, Bachchan’s agent, man about town and now a producer of some repute, and sent him the tapes. ‘Amitabh didn’t have work, nobody wanted to work with him. The market thought he was finished and the family was against it,’ remembers Doshi. ‘He was interested but he kept see-sawing,’ says Nair.
‘Can you do it exactly like the Brits?’
In the process of convincing Bachchan, Nair, Siddhartha, Doshi, Deepak Sehgal, Ravi Menon (part of the programming team) and Dutta took him to London to illustrate what the show was about. Bachchan spent a full day in Elstree Studios on the sets of the UK version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, which was being hosted by Chris Tarrant. He saw for himself the drama, the scale and the involvement the show created.
Here is how Siddhartha relates what happened next. Bachchan was quiet for some time. Then he turned to Nair and asked, ‘Can you do it exactly like the Brits?’ Nair turned to Siddhartha. ‘My worry was whether the stakeholders would wrap their heads around what was involved. The technology, the telephone issues and the participants—those were my problems. We used to handle very complex shoots on shoestring budgets. So we could do it but “if you give me the resources”, I told Sameer. And Star pulled out all the stops.’
In April 2000, India had just over 32 million landlines and maybe a couple of million mobile users against over a billion now. A lot of work went into meeting the right people in the government and in telecom companies so that a good back end could be set up. Synergy’s team relocated to Mumbai from Delhi and a team of about 250 to 300 people started working on KBC. The sets (designed by ace set designer Nitin Desai), the floor lighting, the chair, the computer—all of it—was put together according to the bible that Celador provided and was of a quality that Indian audiences and even the crew had never experienced.
‘Like Michael Jackson’s Thriller’
When the phone lines opened the per day call volume was over 150 per cent of what the system was designed to handle. An estimated 1.2 million calls were received before shooting for the show began at a specially constructed set at Mumbai’s Film City in June 2000. When Bachchan entered the set on the first day of the shoot, all the lights went off. There had been a big technical fault somewhere and all of Mumbai was on the blink. After a wait of three hours the shoot was cancelled. ‘Amitabh thought it was a bad omen,’ remembers Doshi.
On a rainy Monday night on 3 July 2000 at 9 p.m., Indian homes tuned in to Star Plus to Bachchan’s baritone announcing, ‘Main Amitabh Bachchan bol raha hoon aur aap dekh rahein hain Kaun Banega Crorepati.’ The biggest shows then, Amaanat and Hasratein on Zee and Dastaan on Sony, did between nine and fifteen on the rating charts. Within the first week KBC hit a rating of ten. By August that year it had crossed eighteen. ‘KBC’s impact was like Michael Jackson’s Thriller—immediate and overpowering. We were one, two, three, four, all within a week,’ says Nair, using an analogy he has used countless times to describe the impact that the show had.
Excerpted with permission from The Making of Star India: The Amazing Story of Rupert Murdoch’s India Adventure, Vanita Kohli-Khandekar, Penguin Random House India.