"I think television offers mindless stuff, as well as stuff that makes people use their grey cells": Anita Kaul Basu Synergy Communications director


Mastermind India on BBC World is a quiz show that has stood the test of time on television without losing out on its loyal viewership. The show which recently concluded its fifth season with panache at the imposing Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad, is all poised to launch its new season soon.

Anita Kaul Basu , director, Synergy Communications and producer of Mastermind India talks about the hard work that goes behind the making of an episode and reveals how and why the show still enthralls participants, audience and viewers alike.

Anita Kaul married Siddhartha Basu in 1983 and gave up her job as journalist with India Today. She then waited in the wings for her children to grow up and decided to reshape her life and destiny. She returned to the spotlight as producer of the fanatically popular Kaun Banega Crorepati and Mastermind India.

Excerpts of an interview via email with indiantelevision.com :

What kind of ground work goes behind the making of a 'Mastermind India' on BBC ?

It's a seemingly simple, yet compelling format but logistically a very complex and challenging process. We have an army of coordinators across 24 centres in India, a battalion of crew that moves from place to place and truck loads of equipment that is trundled on highways and train tracks and flight routes to reach heritage venues for the shooting.

We have limited time to create a modern, high tech, studio environment sometimes amidst ruins or against the backdrop of a splendid palace. We have to do innumerable retakes at all these sites before shooting, since once there, we can ill afford to leave anything to chance. Often the lights and equipment and cameras we use are not readily available at most of these places. I can only compare it to sending a rocket into space - every pin and nut and bolt must be in place to launch it !!

"Preparing for Mastermind India is like sending a rocket into space - every pin and nut and bolt must be in place to launch it !"

Could you give details about the format of the show ?

Mastermind is a formidable and durable format that has transcended time and TRPs. One pivotal black chair, four contenders under a single spotlight and four minutes each of relentless interrogation on a subject of their choice and a general knowledge round. No frills, no options, no fallbacks- just pure, unadulterated drama.

The quiz, in fact was fashioned on a real life World War interrogation style, with the opening music being appropriately titled "Approaching Menace!" The structure of the series follows a three-tier competition which is 16 preliminary episodes, four semi-finals and one final. Of course, other than the black chair, the interesting aspect of the Mastermind format is the special subjects chosen by the participants. We have had diverse subjects like the 10 Avtars of Vishnu, The Bahmani Kingdom, Adventures of Asterix, to more esoteric ones like history of firearms,rifles, revolvers and pistols, opening systems in the game of chess, Ponniyan Selvan by Kalki and The Hitite Empire.

What kind of a process do you follow in selecting the participants for the show? Could you give the details about the elimination rounds?

The selections basically boil down to a civil services type of exam which is conducted at 24 centres across the country. The centres are carefully chosen so as to represent the four geographical regions of India. Sealed question papers are sent from Delhi to all the coordinators, who in turn hold the test under the supervision of invigilators.

Over the past five years that Mastermind India has been telecast, the number of applicants who have sat for the test has increased from a mere 500 in 1998 to nearly 4000 in 2002. It's the ultimate arbiter of the popularity of a quiz that has no prizes, just the honour of winning the title. Out of this number, only 64 qualify for the television rounds. We do take the top scoring individuals from across the country, but keep in mind regional representation and a certain amount of "reservation" for women contestants, as well as the interest value of the subjects they offer.

"Television has a pattern which follows viewership and thereafter market forces. Its cyclical. Right now of course the saas bahus are top of the pops.That too shall pass!!"
Do you have any special criteria for selection of participants ?

The participants have to be 18 and above . We have had a 75 year-old on the show, unemployed contestants and housewives as well. As long as they are English speaking, interested in a subject that is not in the ambit of their studies or profession, any person is eligible.

The number of quiz shows on TV has shown a sharp decline. Do you feel quiz shows get a raw deal on television?

I think television has a pattern which follows viewership and thereafter market forces. It's cyclical. Right now of course the saas bahus are top of the pops. That too shall pass!!

I think infotainment is the backbone of most quiz shows and the more populist and entertaining, the more their appeal and therefore the staying power. It's more to do with creating a mind blowing idea and format that cuts across all barriers. I think television offers the mindless stuff as well as stuff that makes people use their grey cells. That's an ideal world and I hope one day the forces recognize that. It can't be all about money!!

Is it difficult to get sponsorships for quiz shows, when compared to other game/talent shows on TV ?

No, it's not difficult. It's tied to successful formats, aggressive marketing and a great deal of channel support.There are very few just pure quiz shows on air across the world. Mastermind is probably the exception - but then it has a loyal brand following and a formidable format. The rest are all entertainment based quiz shows - more game shows where a basic question and answer element is used to add a competitive edge to the show.
What are the essential requisites of a good quiz show ?

A strong and sustainable format, a gripping sense of drama, high production qualities and show packaging that is fresh, contemporary and eyeball arresting !! Of course, having great contestants and a good host add to the overall impact of the show.
"A good quiz master must have the skills of a good communicator - clarity, brevity, diction and audibility."

What are the essential qualities of a quizmaster?

A good quizmaster has to act as a referee. He or she cannot be overbearing and condescending towards the contestants. They must have a tolerable, minimum amount of general awareness. In fact, a high level of awareness has a direct bearing on their performance and conduct for a given show. A good quiz master must have the skills of a good communicator - clarity, brevity,diction and audibility.

What do you have to say about the quiz shows currently on air -like 'BQC' on Sony TV and ESPN Star Sports school quiz ?

BQC has been around for decades and has a strong identity. But I feel it needs to evolve in terms of production qualities and format to contemporarize it. ESPN's quiz is good as a school level competition.

What are your future plans ? Do you intend to do any other quiz/game show on other channels?

Quiz shows are our stock in trade and we have the expertise to do any level of multicamera game or quiz show. There are other areas we are developing and will be doing a couple of new game shows for different channels. Once we sign on the dotted line, we will go public - meanwhile, watch this space!!

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