Thursday, October 14, 2010

Kaun Banega Addicted

Watching Amitabh Bachchan's "Kaun Banega Croreparti" on television is a fantastic exercise in not just rewiring and acid-testing your grey cells, but understanding the cultural nuances of India as well! It's an addictive & well-lubricated series, and hence immensely enjoyable to be part of such an exercise.

How easy it seems!
Well, KBC is a general knowledge based quiz programme, intended to bring out the best in its participants, all of whom chase the seemingly not-too-far a target of Rs 5 crores. In just 12 seemingly simple steps, you can reach the pot of gold! But no one seems to reach there quite often. Come to think of it - in an informal sitting, if I make you an offer that in just 12 questions you can win Rs 5 crores, and you can use 4 helplines too in the process, you'll think I'm a lunatic (as you will be almost totally sure of winning). But then, on the sets of KBC, not many people actually reach there. Amazing, isn't it?

Amitabh's style has the following distinctly positive elements -

  • Ultimate grace - you will never find Big B losing his calm and composure even under provocation. He remains cool, dignified, solid and friendly towards the participants, and the audience.
  • Helpful hints - perhaps as a part of the programme designers' strategy, Amitabh gives several hints before 'locking' any answer. A smart contestant on the hotseat can easily pick the clues.
  • Puts life even in repetition - the whole format is repetitive. After all, what's there in it? You get 10 people to do "fastest-fingers-first", then you get one of them onto the hot seat, then you throw 13 questions at him/her, then you award the money, and back to step 1. Even then, the whole process looks (feels) totally new everytime Amitabh reboots it. Credit goes to his personal charm, charisma and quality of communication.
  • Sartorial treat - most of the times, the dress designers earn a 10/10 for Big B's fantastic suits and ties. Even the most boring (rare!) of episodes seem to scrape through due to this!
The programme has revelations for you, if you take some pain to delve deeper -
  • A gold-medalist teacher who is on the hotseat, and unable to answer a question because he does not know the meaning of "vacuum" is a big red flag for Indian teaching system
  • A computer engineer (B Tech, 24 yrs of age) who does not know what the "S" in the "SIM" card stands for, is another big red flag for the engineering education in India
  • Many of the apparently easy questions are not easy at all! You realise that once your confident answer (delivered in front of your wife and kids) goes haywire. Ha ha!
  • Even a very slow programme (the KBC is quite slow - just 10 to 20 questions per episode of 1 hour) can be made addictive for millions of viewers, for years on end
These are revelations! And KBC has such nuggets in abundance.

The more things change, the more they remain the same -
  • The show's lead sponsors keep changing. But that does not at all affect the continuity of the show and the brand image "KBC". Logically, at times I think, it should.. as so much is at stake through the active involvement of the lead sponsor. But the KBC brand remains intact, irrespective of all this.
  • Even the anchor changes, and the brand remains intact! Shah Rukh Khan led the show in its third version, and came out a winner. And today when Big B is back, KBC is as vibrant as ever. This is quite amazing. And it indicates that the underlying trust of millions of viewers is much stronger than anything else.
  • KBC appeals to the most intellectual of viewers, as well as to those with no particular interest in the pursuit of knowledge. That's a significant achievement, especially in the Indian context. Perhaps that's why Bollywood was roped in to lead the show.
  • I guess one of the unstated clinchers in the KBC drama (I use this word positively here) is the cultural exploration of the contestant's background, by Big B. The way questions are asked (and answers given) about the personal, social and cultural background of the hotseat'ed' is very revealing. And at times, it seems to overshadow the quiz itself! But no one minds.
  • KBC holds lots of practical lessons for students of management - in marketing / advertising / branding, in operations / processes, and in strategy.
So on the whole, a wholesome treat to eyes, ears and the mind. KBC remains that lottery that can change your entire life, at least for some time!

Rock on, KBC!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

China's Nobel nightmare, and lessons for India

It finally happened. Despite aggressive posturing by China over the past few months, the Nobel Prize Committee decided in favour of granting this year's Nobel Peace prize to Mr Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident.

What's the story?

Well, in the year 2008, before the Beijing Olympics were to be held, a group of prominent Chinese intellectuals and dissidents met to discuss and debate the issue of "Universal Human Values" and whether these truly are universal (and hence worth pursuing) or - as the Chinese Communist Party likes to put it - a Western plot to push its own values onto the unsuspecting East.

The meeting ended with the creation of a Charter called the Charter 08 - which was a declaration that certain values like freedom of speech and democracy are indeed worth pursuing, are universal, and hence even in China, they must have a possibility of democratic debate and ultimately, a democratic government system.

This was enough to enrage the Chinese government. Obviously! So they did what they are best at - a rapid crackdown saw most of these intellectuals behind bars, Mr Liu included. The charges were 'revolt against the state'. But what Mr Liu had done was not unique. This was the feeling in the minds of a large number of Chinese, although not many openly speak up in the Chinese system of perpetual repression of free speech.

This incident opens up a lot of issues worth pondering.
  • How long can the Chinese trick of posturing (aggressively) before various world governments continue? Every time some head of state wants to meet the Dalai Lama, there is a stern warning issued by Beijing warning them of dire consequences. Even Norway was issued a similar warning recently (that relations will sour between the nations if the peace award was indeed given to Mr Liu). But Norway went ahead and did it. It's another matter that the Norwegian government is now trying to project that the Prize Committee and the Government are two distinct entities!
  • What is the "Chinese model of growth" that so many of us in India are also enamoured of? Put simply, it is a model of forced growth, where one central planning body takes all the decisions, and simply puts them into execution. They do not seek anyone's views, permission or dissidence! They just go ahead and do it, Nike style! There are no courts to interfere, and definitely no free media to slow them down. This model has created an amazing material prosperity for large parts of the Chinese mainland, and has been touted as perhaps a model that India would be better off with. In short, this is a model that does not value democracy, and believes firmly in "ends justifying the means".
  • A lot of Indians too have a feeling that perhaps this "Chinese model" may be better for India. They are lulled into thinking so because what we see around us is a lot of poverty, illiteracy and decadence. They see corruption, debilitating delays in the judicial machinery and horrendous inefficiencies. And they come to a simple conclusion - "Democracy is the main cause of India's backwardness".
  • I beg to differ. I strongly feel that democracy is a better system and must be followed by India always. I feel that democracy is the only way the universal value of freedom can truly be practised in a practical format. So where's the catch then?
  • Democracy is not responsible for our poverty and backwardness. The corruption and lethargy of the State apparatus is responsible for all this. We have to learn to differentiate between these two extremely different issues. If the State machinery is corrupt, inefficient and insensitive, that does not mean that democracy is responsible for it. It may mean the opposite - that despite democracy, the citizens are not taking these problems seriously enough to effect a large scale long-lasting change in the society.
  • In fact, the Indian State has become a parasite - feeding off its own people, demotivating the honest & the enterprising. Ominous portents. Problem with large part of Indian media too - can't genuinely differentiate between the goodness of democracy (as a model) and the badness of our State's apparatus. They automatically equate the two - because we have so many poor, hence democracy is bad. How wrong a logic this is! I repeat my conviction - we are poor because our State does not perform efficiently, not because we are democratic.
  • A final argument in favour of Indian democracy - it is a fantastic system of checks-and-balances, and generally is able to keep absolute power from falling into any one hand. And since absolute power corrupts absolutely, perhaps we are spared the tyranny arising from the same!
So my fellow Indians, the luxury of democracy is something we can surely live with! But the decadence of a deteriorating State apparatus is something we should all cry hoarse about.

Inefficient babus, corrupt netas, slow office procedures, lack of vision in project design and  implementation, amazingly slow judiciary... all these are eating into the vibrant democratic freedom that we have offered ourselves.

Let wisdom prevail. Let change come.