City City Bang Bang, Columns

KBC & the rescue of reality

Not many people saw it coming. It had seemed that the time for Kaun Banega Crorepati had come and gone. This column argued as much a few years ago, when Shah Rukh Khan took over the reigns of the show. He did well enough, but it still seemed that the time for the genteel game of knowledge had passed. There was too much blood in reality television, and KBC simply did not have enough platelets for it . It had no backbiting intrigue, it lacked a cast of almost-losers and missed the low-life loquaciousness of other reality shows, and nothing ever needed to be beeped out on it, a sure sign that it was out of touch with the times.

And yet, not only is KBC back, but it is back in a very real sense not just as a TV show that gets good ratings, but as an idea that connects with something deep and real in our lives. What makes this particularly interesting is that not very much has changed in the show. Its focus has shifted to smaller towns and an ‘aadmi’ more ‘aam’, and the prize money has gone up over the years, but these are minor adjustments, not major departures. The format is pretty much the same and the return of Amitabh Bachchan restores to the show both the gravitas and the empathy that has been its hallmark.

Perhaps KBC works because it reconciles many competing ideas for us. For a show that bestows undreamt of wealth on people who win, and does so with reasonable regularity, KBC manages somehow to rise above the money it throws around. By locating money squarely in the context of small dreams, family and community, KBC shows us a face of money that is ennobling. The money of KBC is treated not as a jackpot but as a vardaan, a gift from divinity that comes as a reward for one’s persistent effort, a prize for the penance called ordinary life. The images that surround the winners are not big cars and fancy brands, but houses made pukka and IAS dreams pursued. The winners have been remarkable ambassadors for the show, focussing not what the money buys them but what it enables them to work at in the future. Money speaks in the language of responsibility, not indulgence and steeps a larger collective in its pleasing warmth.

The format of the show ensures that we see people as they are, rather than the usual sight of raw innocents gradually losing their transparent naivete in a haze of hair dye and exfoliation. On other reality shows, fame and money are insistent in transforming those that they favour and what they tell us is that success must put distance between destination and source, between who we are and what we must become. On KBC, it is the innocence that is spoken to and as an audience it is this quality we respond to. When a Sushil Kumar describes his life and attributes his success to his wife, who in turn is quick to shyly shrug off the credit, we see, for once, something that smacks of the real on a reality show.

As the reality show evolved, it found reality too boring and vapid. It was so much for fun to manufacture it by making people act in unpleasant ways, and say unsavoury things to each other. Now, no reality show can really bring us reality; any act of representation and framing creates its own version of reality in many different ways-by aestheticizing it, emotionalising moments, dramatising revelations, withholding information selectively, or by imbuing some moments with significance while ignoring others and even KBC uses these techniques. The difference is that it uses these to drive us towards the central premise of the show rather than see those as individual ‘masala’ elements. In a world where television is racked by anxiety about itself, and where every new season is an exercise in renewed desperation, KBC stands apart by trusting itself and its viewers and by continuing to tell a human story about dreams and their fulfilment and doing so without trying too hard.

There is no question that KBC rests on the persona of Amitabh Bachchan for he reconciles for us the ideas of fame and humility, of achievement and empathy in the way he treats the participants. He has a special ability to look into the ordinary and find something special and the humility to be awed by it. He is simultaneously The Amitabh Bachchan, the wax God who we touch and squeal when we find out that it is real and a fellow sympathiser and co-traveller on the journey called life. As a carrier of life-altering destiny, he underplays his role to perfection, acknowledging the enormity of what winning means for the participant while revealing the wisdom that knows that it is only money. Under his steerage money is no longer cold with acquisitive urgency but warm with unfolding possibility.

KBC shows us, close-up and in slow motion, the act of a miracle colliding with a dream. In doing so, it tells us that money can change things for the better, when it finds the right home. By applying good fortune to good intention, it keeps the miracle alive, well after the moment of impact. As the winners no doubt find out, one can never have enough money, and that relative scale makes everyone a relative pauper. In the final analysis, Kaun Banega Crorepati reveals both the nobility and the eventual poverty of money, no matter if it comes in eight figures.

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