One was a journalist, the other was trying to make a career out of theatre and quizzing. They ended up as entrepreneurs who redefined television viewing in India.
Kya Aap Paanchvi Pass Se Tez Hain? might not have made the grade with television viewers but Siddhartha Basu and Anita Kaul Basu aren’t too disappointed. In April this year, the charming couple celebrated 25 years of being together — they first met, and fell in love, when she was auditioning for a play in New Delhi. Now they’re working overtime on their new reality show with supercop Kiran Bedi. India’s first television quizmaster never says no to food and so we decide to do dinner at Mainland China, a stone’s throw from the Synergy Adlabs’ office, in the western suburb of Andheri. With his creative energy and her management skills, they make a great team, writes Shobhana Subramanian.
It’s been a longer day than usual for the Basus because they’ve had to attend a board of directors meeting. These corporate formalities now take up a little more of their time, but both Siddhartha and Anita concede they needed Adlabs’ support to keep going. Which is why, two years back, they surrendered a controlling interest to the ADAG group company. “We couldn’t have survived on two projects a year and we needed to keep together the team that we have built,” explains Anita. She admits they had some apprehensions about whether Adlabs would ‘take over’ but says the management hasn’t cramped their style and they’ve had all the freedom they need. Siddhartha recalls how the deal was signed, believe it or not, in a make-up van on the road. It was the day of Ganpati visarjan and the traffic on the streets was so heavy that neither party could reach the office and the auspicious time was running out.
The partnership is obviously working because revenues — they won’t disclose the numbers — have doubled since then.
We’re eating some crackling spinach, steamed prawn dumplings and corn and water chestnut dumplings for starters. Both husband and wife say they are quite amazed they ended up as entrepreneurs since neither of them had ever harboured any such ambitions. She was a journalist with India Today and he was trying to make a career out of theatre, radio jockeying and quizzing. Incidentally, his co-host on Quiz Time, the charming Kavita who vanished without a trace, Siddhartha tells me, works with Dastakar and is still a wonderful singer. We get back to the subject of Adlabs and both husband and wife agree that the financial support has given them a far bigger platform, allowing them to foray into different genres and even into providing content for regional language channels. Why do you think Paanchvi Pass didn’t go down well with viewers, I ask? Siddhartha admits he was disappointed with the numbers and would have liked it to have got a higher viewership. “With the benefit of hindsight, no one perhaps really figured out the impact of IPL. Also 8 pm may have been somewhat early for the metros and the show may have started out being a little challenging in terms of questions,” he reasons. “But, Shah Rukh (Khan) did a good job and the show had a relatively good opening with TRPs of 4.7, except that I think there was some negative hype in terms of pointless comparisons with KBC.”
In fact, he points out, that in terms of TRPs, there was a difference of only a few decimal points between Paanchvi Pass and Dus ka Dum, though the latter was perceived to have been far more popular. That, says Siddhartha, makes him doubt the efficacy of the rating system, which he points out is based on a very small sample and, therefore, can only reflect a partial picture. Also, he feels the press often tends to pre-decide whether a show has worked or not without looking at the ratings in the proper context. “The average TRPs for IPL, the biggest television event in a decade, were around 4.7, whereas throughout that time the saas-bahus were running at TRPs of over 6. I question that.”
How long will the popularity of reality shows last? “Unfortunately, everything in India is cyclical and so reality shows will go the same way,” feels Anita who adds that it’s sad there aren’t any independent format laboratories like there are abroad. The channels, she says, don’t really give you enough time to develop something. She’s also miffed that broadcasters don’t let content producers keep the IPR for content designed by them. “We haven’t patented any of our formats because the channels refuse to allow us to do so. The same broadcasters are willing to pay foreign producers a bomb for their formats, but they won’t pay us,” she says, adding that producers perhaps need to take this up as a collective effort. One such new format will be a show with Kiran Bedi slated to go on air sometime at the end of October. It is a courtroom drama featuring people in real-life situations, facing real problems, who can get some advice on their legal rights.
The main course is excellent — hakka noodles, lotus-wrapped rice, Tsinghoi vegetables and General Tao’s favourite chicken. Anita, who was quite an athlete in her school days in England — she was a sprinter and also played hockey — doesn’t really have the time for any sport these days. Though both of them manage to catch up on some reading, neither ends up watching too much television — Siddhartha says its quite unbelievable how inaccurate and irresponsible news channels can be. Anita, who took time off from her career to be a committed mother and spend time with their children when they were young, jokes that it’s probably a good thing they’re both so busy because the kids have such little time these days. “In Delhi, at least we have a dog and she welcomes us when go home,” she says. Aditya, the older one, is more like his father and wants to make it big as film maker — he’s currently assisting director Nikhil Advani on Chandni Chowk to China. Their daughter, Medha, who Anita feels may have inherited her management skills, might become an entrepreneur.
Siddhartha regrets that they’re not travelling as much as they would like to. Too busy making money, I ask? “Busy working hard,” he answers. But you must also be making a lot of money, I persist. “Well, we’re happily in the black and hoping to do better, but it’s the broadcasters who are doing well because we work on a fixed percentage,” he says, adding that he’s hoping to change the equation. “The way to do it would be by taking on some of the risk. We’re looking at an option where we buy air time, make content and then sell the time to sponsors.”
For dessert we indulge in steamed coconut dumplings with honey-butter sauce. Neither Anita nor Siddhartha is too fond of Mumbai as a place to live in but they don’t really have a choice. For how much longer do they plan to do this? They’re not hanging up their boots just yet, but at some time, says Siddhartha, he will take up teaching as he has always wanted to do that. As for Anita, she says she wouldn’t mind farming lavender.