Screen Millionaires

After being part of Kashmir’s routine for decades, media liberalisation took Doordarshan’s audience away to private channels. Delhi spent billions in a brand new channel, the DD Kashir. But it did not click because of mismanagement, fraud and emphasis on mere propaganda. Now, for the first time, the Kashmiri version of the Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) is sending flocks to the long-forgotten screen. Will this renewed engagement help DD revive its Srinagar operations, asks Masood Hussain

The hot seat. KL Image: Special Arrangement Kashmir Life KBC
The hot seat. KL Image: Special Arrangement

At the peak of the anti-establishment wave that dominated Kashmir in the 1980s, the media space that official broadcaster Doordarshan (DD) Srinagar used very cleverly was mostly because of Hazaar Daastan. It was comedy, satire, statement and a lot of good acting at a time when the idiotic box had jumped out of black and white fold into the colour. People used to trek long distances to reach places where the luxury of a TV was available. In the peripheries, Panchayats used to witness mass watching of the popular soap opera that was dominated by dissent, greed, symbolism and crude politics.

The situation then took a dramatic turn. By the time, the larger market and the media started witnessing the benefits of liberalisation, Kashmir had taken an about-turn. In the new situation, individuals and institutions came under attack and had a difficult survival. These included DD.

Almost three decades later, DD has started getting some attention these days, courtesy, the Kashmiri version of the Koun Banega Crorepati (KBC) that Sony is producing for the DD. Though the 60-episode game show may not be the expensive production of DD ever on Kashmir front, it has generated a lot of interest, to the extent, that a few artists have created its comic copy and even that is doing very well on the virtual media.

“The numbers that watch it live and those using social media for watching it have encouraged us all,” said a senior DD officer. “It is a commissioned programme and it is a hit. All of a sudden people are talking about DD.”

KBC in Kashmiri might possibly be the nineteenth conversion of the programme in a regional language in India. In all other states, Corporate India sponsored the show. The Kashmiri version, however, is seemingly funded by the Home Ministry. Home and defence ministries are routinely contributing to the portions of the DD Kashir programming, but KBC seems to be the first such initiative that lacks a direct strategic target other than engaging people. Using Kashmiri language and asking Kashmir specific questions has helped the KBC get into the homes where DD usually does not matter at all.

The first player on a Kashmir game show was a Sikh from Baramulla. KBC Kashmir Life
The first player on a Kashmir game show was a Sikh from Baramulla. KL Image: Special Arrangement

KBC is the desi version of the British show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? In India where it already has completed 10 seasons (777 episodes), the show’s rights are with Sony and have already been taken into eight regional languages. In the Season-I of the Kashmiri variant, 60 episodes are to be shot. The entire shooting is taking place in Film City Noida on the original sets where Bollywood biggie Amitabh Bachchan hosted the inaugural show.

It took off literally by a miss call. “As people came to know that they have to call a particular number for registration, it was responded by 1,25,000 miss-calls,” a KBC insider said. “Then the KBC call centre started connecting with the people to identify the best of the lot on basis of a clear cut procedure. Had the announcement got more publicity, the response would have been in millions.”

“The production team has around 300 people but there is a group of around 20 Kashmiri professionals who get in touch with the participants, get their details, put them to certain general knowledge tests and finally get the best of their life story for the show,” Mohiuddin Mirza, show’s Creative Director said. Some professionals who were already in the show-biz and entertainment like Akeel Hasan were hired by the Sony. “The show has a very transparent system in place.”

Viewership apart, Mirza said the biggest take away from the show is the use of Kashmiri language and the exposure of the Kashmiri professionals and the participants to the mainstream industry. “Only we know the problems we faced because the Kashmiri language lacks a Unicode and is subservient to the Nastaliq,” Mirza said. “I do not know what the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Culture and Languages has done on this front. The Logo of the show was created using a diversity of the fonts because we lack our own fonts. Kashmir language uses peculiar signs, unlike the Urdu.”

Nazia, one of the KBKK participants after playing her game. KL Image: Special Arrangement Kashmir Life KBC
Nazia, one of the KBKK participants after playing her game. KL Image: Special Arrangement

The rigorous process of selection makes participation interesting. Once a person passes through the audition, in the second stage, he literally sits in a sort of examination where he writes a response to long question papers detailing his life – regrets, success, failures, and game-changing events. This is later being used in interviews to seek more details to make the show spicy, engaging and interesting. On the basis of these inputs, a small 2-minute film is being produced that is telecast while the participant is on the ‘hot seat’.

“I am surprised, how we are able to understand what is happening on the other side of the wall,” Mirza said. “There are stories that were waiting to be captured and told.”

These 2-minute stories, being produced for Sony by Srinagar based Associated Media (AM), a premier multi-media company, are interesting. One participant, speaking in front of his close relatives, regretted how he failed thirty times to propose his girlfriend. Eventually, the crisis forced the poor girl to propose him instead to end the tension forever. Another participant broke the audience into laughter when he told his primary school teachers that he was carrying a bomb in his lunch box. The revelation led to the invitation to the bomb disposal squad to his school. Eventually, it was the bun that his father had kept in the lunchbox and the boy heard it wrong at the peak of militancy.

“These stories are more about the desperation of the young men to ensure they earn enough to settle their sisters or manage a few rooms for their parents,” Tariq Butt of the AM, who captured these stories for the show, said. Almost 140 stories scattered across Kashmir, Jammu and Delhi symbolise the struggles, the frustrations and the courage to fight them. “These stories are about the caged lives, missed opportunities and statements of survival against odds.”

A contestant from Srinagar with KBKK team. KL Image: Special Arrangement Kashmir Life KBC
A contestant from Srinagar with KBKK team. KL Image: Special Arrangement

The show host, Rais Mohiuddin, who is sitting on Bacchan’s seat, is not a small story. “He is excellent, engaging, and manages to take everybody along,” Mirza said. “He can wriggle through any kind of awkward situation and has been the right choice for the show.”

Born and brought up in the remote Abhama village, 25 km from Pulwama, Rais studied in a government school. He did his graduation from Srinagar and masters in computer applications from the University of Kashmir in 2010.

By then, he was an approved artist with DD and Radio Kashmir and was presenting the weather news. “I was the announcer at the Commercial Broadcasting Service (CBS) in the Radio Kashmir Srinagar and my show would start late evening till the midnight and resume in the morning at 6 am for four hours,” Rais said. “So I would rush to the Radio every evening, do my job, sleep and dine there, present my morning show the next day and go to college. That was my life.”

It continued for years till an executive of Broadcast Engineering Consultation of India Ltd found him a better catch for the Radio newsroom and appointed him. While interviewing a University official, Rais highlighted the grey areas in the cultural life of the Naseembagh campus and it led to an invitation in the programme itself, to join the University. “I had seen the crisis in the Radio so I quit the job and joined the University as Assistant Cultural Officer in 2010,” Rais said. “Soon, I started facing what was invisible from outside.”

Rais remembers the cultural evening for the visiting NAAC officers when he had spent his salary on the costume of the student artists. “At the end of the event, the head of the NAAC team praised the presentation and insisted he saw the Akbar Badshah for the first time, a role that I played,” Rais said. “He announced that if the University of Kashmir was getting an A-plus rating it was because of the Akbar Badshah.” A Colours TV team was also part of that evening and their intervention fetched Rais an invitation to a national talent hunt programme.

Technical team on the KBKK sets with DG DD Supriya Sahu. KL Image: Special Arrangement Kashmir Life KBC
The technical team on the KBKK sets with DG DD Supriya Sahu. KL Image: Special Arrangement

University permitted him to go and Rais continued winning the hunt till the last day when he got two results on the sets: “As a University of Kashmir participant, I got a runner up position,” Rais said. “On the same sets, I got a call from the University that they had dismissed me as I was not hired for what I was doing!”

Back home when he met Talat Parvez, the VC, he showed his ignorance but could not justify the signatures on Rais’s dismissal order. Rais refused to be re-hired and founded Funtosh instead. In between, he acted in a Kashmiri film Partav and was cast by Mukesh Chhabra in Fitoor, a Sub TV serial YARO Ka Tashan and later in Zee Magic’s Akbar Rakht Say Takht Tak, another serial. In 2018, he was planning to fly to Mumbai when he got an RJs job in Red FM. Now he does a four-hour long Kashmir show on a daily basis.

Then came the KBC opportunity when he was picked from a number of professionals including a few who are already in Bollywood. “It is a wonderful experience and a huge exposure,” Rais said. “But I get up early, go to Red FM at 7 am where I record my show and after transmitting it to Srinagar; I come to the sets of KBC.”

But the stories are captured, recorded, told and, by and large, forgotten. The show will be remembered for some time and maybe some of the stories, the show highlights, may also survive in public memory. But will KBC help the storyteller, the DD, build on it and bounce back to the status that it once had. That question is being asked by the people who are concerned and have some stakes.

DD Srinagar is the third Kendra outside Mumbai and Delhi. Commissioned on January 26, 1973, it was powered by a 10 KW transmitter as two of its studios would produce the programmes. It would be a reference to culture, talent and ‘broadminded men and women’ till the situation enforced new priorities on this ‘exclusive’ premises starting with the assassination of Lassa Koul, its Director.

Though the news units of the twin institutions migrated outside Kashmir, still managing the institution was a major work. Since the government was busy fighting the war on streets of Kashmir, the babus managing the DD converted it into a sort of a fief. They bent rules and played with the systems to keep the show on. At the peak of militancy in the 1990s, a young woman related to a top counter-insurgent was running part of the show. An officer installed a remote controlled door in his office and retained its control in his pocket!

Show's Creative Director Mohiuddin Mirza helping a contestant understand the set. KL Image: Special Arrangement Kashmir Life KBC
Show’s Creative Director Mohiuddin Mirza helping a contestant understand the set. KL Image: Special Arrangement

Priorities of the local managers helped create fortunes as the poultry rears, and state government employees emerged DD Srinagar’s top producers. It emerged sort of a mafia involving the managers, the counter-insurgency, and the local bureaucracy with the sole objective of making money at a time when the TV had moved out of a society’s priority. Deliberate lack of vigilance was the key to the crisis. The compromised systems remained in vogue till a semblance of normalcy was restored and officials started intervening in procedures.

While the efforts to restore managerial normalcy were on, Delhi came with a new intervention – the setting up of DD Kashir. Entire Bollywood landed in a huge charter for a dance and music evening in the lawns of Lalit Grand Palace on June 6, 2000, to mark its formal launch. Aimed at neutralising the impact of Pakistani media, this satellite channel started creating programmes on the culture of diverse regions of Jammu and Kashmir in almost 12 languages.

The channel managers, operating from Delhi’s Mandi House, would seek proposals from the people, process them and pick the best one. Though most of the work would go to the non-locals, still a chunk of the work will be produced locally. Central government liberally funded the channel. Between 2000 and 2012, the government revealed in the Rajya Sabha that the Information and Broadcasting Ministry allocated Rs 452.66 crore to the initiative.

Gradually, however, the systems corrupted. Nobody knows if the channel succeeded in checkmating the Pakistani propaganda and if at all, it got into some kind of ranking in the huge channel wars. But it frequently became news for the unfair commission of programmes that led to the registration of cases and arrest of its people by central vigilance and the CBI.

DD tabled the details of its crisis in the Rajya Sabha, more than once. There were cases of corruption in DD Srinagar Kendra and DD Kashir channel. Names were named in both areas of operation. At least, two directors, both retired, were charge sheeted as the allegations against them were proved by CBI. In one case, a director attempted purchasing a lot of programmes from a private producer that was supposed to be done in-house. In another case, another Director was held responsible for avoiding seeking permission for a specific expenditure. In DD Kashir case, some arrests were also made including that of two top officials and a “top” producer from Kashmir, who was a government employee as well.

It impacted the DD operations on two fronts. The commissioning of programmes stopped in 2010. “They owe us almost Rs 23 crore and they have not honoured even the court directions. These are legitimate payments,” Javeed Shah, one of the private producers said. “This freeze has stopped any forward movement in the private production because the entire capital is blocked.”

DD insiders admit that their budget for the Srinagar centre was substantially reduced as a result of which no private production is taking place. Since all the seniors have superannuated, no replacements have come. Right now, the number of programme executives has gone down to two locals and two non-locals. The centre has nearly 150 casuals who lack a future despite literally running the Kendra. Along with the Radio Kashmir, the Prasar Bharati has more than 800 vacancies in the twin institutions in Jammu and Kashmir. In 2006, the corporation had decided to fill the vacancies in Jammu and Kashmir and North East but the idea was shelved later.

“I do not think any major work was produced for a long time,” Shabir Mujahid, DD’s Srinagar’s last full-fledged, who retired in 2015, said. “The overall freeze has impacted the software production as a few regular programmes are being managed in-house.” He said there is no work for 2500 approved artists in Kashmir for the last many years. Some of them have changed their principle professions, he insisted.

At DD Kashir, which is headquartered in Delhi despite an announcement by two Prime Ministers that it will come home, the managers started rewriting the rules for empanelment and commissioning. This was aimed at preventing the crisis that the guideline had created earlier.

“Under the new system, they will consider producers who have had 300 telecast hours in last few years,” Shah said. “How can we have it when we did not work at all for all these years? We have challenged the new guideline in the court of law. The new guidelines are aimed at helping non-locals.” He is justified because there has not been any commissioning of programmes since 2010 and DD continues to be the only player in the local market. So if DD did not permit them to work, it is presumed, they did not work at all.

This explains why the local producers were angry over the KBC launch. They felt the Mandi House lifted the embargo on non-locals, unlike the local producers. Shah, however, said Mandi House played smartly. “For some reasons, there were 104 proposals pending approval since 2009,” Shah said. “By March 25 when the KBC production was on, 91 of these proposals were approved and the producers were given three days for completing certain formalities. Some producers who did the formalities are yet to get the mandatory advance payment.”

As the KBC had somehow got the cultural circuit back in the discussion, the Show has actually exposed Kashmir. “So far, there have been only three participants who have gone home with a cheque of Rs 6,40,000 each when there was a possibility of winning one crore rupees,” Rais said. “I do feel that we all talk about Kashmir but do not know much about it.” In certain cases, Rais said he himself did not have answers to some questions.

Anchor Rais Mohiuddin and Group's Creative team Anita Kaul Basu and Mohiuddin Mirza on the sets of the show. KL Image: Special Arrangement Kashmir Life KBC
Anchor Rais Mohiuddin and Group’s Creative team Anita Kaul Basu and Mohiuddin Mirza on the sets of the show. KL Image: Special Arrangement

But the real big issue is how the Prasar Bharti will buy peace with the local players and help the DD restore its status. This only is possible if the local players get their stakes in the well being of DD. There have not been any clear pointers towards that even though the KBC has started getting the people back to a screen they had forgotten long back. The issue was side-stepped when the Director-General DD Ms Surpria Sahu flew for the inaugural function in Srinagar early April.

Right now, Mujahid said the in-house production of DD includes the Good Morning Kashmir (its budget has been deducted hugely), the evening Halat-e-Hazira, and the Butraat. “The deterioration has been gradual but it reflects,” Mujahid said. “Kashmir can ill-afford a bad TV.” But Gulabuddin Tahir, the in-charge Director insists that the in-house production has not interrupted any of the regular programmes including Hello DD, the sports capsules and the programme for kids. “We have not permitted any of these programmes to go off the air,” Tahir insisted. “All this we do within our means and in-house.”


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