In 1992, Sukanya Kripalu, who looked after the Maggi brand in Nestle, left to join Cadbury. A few weeks later, she and her colleague Gautam Sengupta came to me with a proposal. Cadbury's sponsorship of the Bournvita Quiz Contest on radio was over, and the company wanted me to conduct 50 stage quizzes in five cities. The fee - Rs 2.5 lakh for the year.
Celebrations at the end of a BQC grand finale
Now, I already had four year-long quizzes running - North Star as an open quiz, Brand Equity for companies and corporate houses, Maggi for schoolchildren in class VI or below, and Cadbury for schoolchildren in classes VII and VIII. I was riding high. In 1994, for the first and only time in my life, I was sacked.
With actor Aamir Khan
Cadbury told me it was not going to renew the contract. It had decided to take the Bournvita Quiz to television and was discontinuing the stage quizzes. The television quiz would be designed and shot by a production house in Mumbai. It would hire a presenter and outsource the question-setting to a third person. As a quiz professional, I knew the three aspects could not be compartmentalised. This formula would not work.
With a nearly unrecognisable Sabyasachi Mukherjee (fashion designer) at an outdoor session of the quiz show
Soon, Cadbury and the production house realised this, and asked me to set the questions. I refused to do it for another presenter, who would simply read out a script. Either I would set the questions and be the quizmaster or I wanted no part of it. Reluctantly, Cadbury agreed - but I would need to do a screen test. After all those years of conducting quizzes, I went to a Mumbai studio for the test. It was a nervous moment, but I passed.
With Adnan Sami on set during the Guess Appearance round of the quiz. Pics Courtesy/Derek O’Brien
Next, Rila Banerjee and I were hired, on behalf of our company, to come to Mumbai, research and set the questions and have me present the show. I was paid Rs 5,000 per show. In 1994, it seemed a big amount.
A year down the line, the technical crew working with the production house realised Rila and I were running the show. Gyan Sahay and Dongrej Gor came to us on behalf of the crew to say, "Take over the quiz. Do a contract with Cadbury. We'll work for you." So from 1995, the Bournvita Quiz Contest became entirely our baby. It was the third flagship show on Zee - alongside Rajat Sharma's Aap Ki Adalat and Annu Kapoor's Antakshari. It later moved to Sony.
The show is remembered to this day because the team wasn't bothered about what other shows were doing. We were in a niche category by ourselves. In fact, when we started off, we were the only English show on a Hindi channel.
Not only children but parents were also hooked to it because during the '90s, television dominated entertainment consumption. The family would sit glued to the telly, and watch shows like BQC together. The smartphone hadn't taken over as a source of entertainment or education. Besides, the show offered wholesome content and didn't appeal just to children. To date, former winners - army colonels, chess grandmasters, corporate bigwigs - and their parents - come up to me to recall their association with show. It's a satisfying feeling.
Its magic was linked with our company motto: Making knowledge interesting to help people and brands grow.
Over two decades later, the ride continues in full earnest.
The writer is a politician, author, television personality, public speaker and quiz show host. He began his career as a journalist with Sportsworld. He tweets @quizderek
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