Kaun Banega Crorepati, Bournvita Quiz Contest, Mastermind, Jeopardy or Have I Got News For You—chances are you’ve heard of at least one of these popular quiz shows, even if you haven’t thought about them in a while. While watching reruns of Derek O’Brien’s quiz show was once a wildly popular pastime of 90s kids in India, quizzing fandom didn’t percolate down to younger generations the same way. But maybe all of that’s set to change. A handful of Indian comedians—including Kumar Varun, Kunal Rao and Abijit Ganguly—are resurrecting the format with a little help from their friends.
Since India went into lockdown, three fresh comedy quiz shows have made their presence felt; Varun’s KVizzing with Comedians and Rao’s Why Would I Know That? are recurring, ticketed Zoom shows, while Ganguly’s The Kaafi Random Quiz is live-streamed every week. Quizzing is having a bit of a moment—especially within Indian comedy—and we spoke to these three quiz masters to find out what makes this format so exciting.
“The right amount of banter and quizzing is hard to find.”
Kunal Rao says he’s not a quizzer per se, but has always enjoyed British comedy panel shows like The Big Fat Quiz of the Year and Would I Lie To You? “I was toying with the idea (for a comedy panel show) for about five-six years and I’d just never done anything about it.” Until he did. Tying up with the Geek Fruit podcast’s Tejas Menon, Jishnu Guha and Dinkar Dwivedi, Rao launched Why Would I Know That?, a pop culture quiz, in September, 2019 live at Habitat in Mumbai. “Then we sat on our asses for three months (laughs) and we did another show in January.” Since the country went into lockdown, Rao has moved Why Would I Know That? to Zoom. As it has evolved, Rao says that it’s not so much a traditional quiz as it is an improvised comedians’ panel discussion that also has a quiz. The key, he maintains, is the banter.
“My zone was panel discussions and it was the banter between the comedians that I enjoyed—like Would I Lie To You or Have I Got News For You. I was more focused on what the panelists were saying than the host itself. I found that more interesting,” he says of the kinds of quiz shows that have influenced Why Would I Know That?. He maintains that David Mitchell and Lee Mack are the stars of Rob Brydon hosted Would I Lie To You.
So, what’s the secret to getting the banter absolutely right? “I do think that the panelists need to know each other, and they need to have some form of a vibe or connection. I try to keep panelists who are familiar with each other so there can be nice cross-talk between them which can be fun.” Getting the mix absolutely right depends on trial-and-error. “The right amount of banter and the right amount of quizzing is really hard to find!”
And then there’s the content itself. “With Big Fat Quiz of The Year, for instance, hosted by Jimmy Carr, the questions themselves are so amazing to watch. For example, Jon Snow, the TV host, translates song lyrics into news pieces and it’s hilarious.” Another quiz show that has influenced his own format is Victoria Coren’s Only Connect. Rao says, “We have a round in our show where we take four images and the panelists have to guess the connection between them. That’s what I like; there’s so much more that you can do with it than just ask a straight up question.”
“You wake me up in the night and say conduct a quiz—I’ll do it!”
“Quizzing has always been an integral part of my life. Even though comedy happened for me, quizzing was a constant throughout,” says Kumar Varun. The comedian, who began quizzing when he was eight or nine years old, has represented his B-school (Delhi’s Faculty of Management Studies) at India’s biggest quiz show—Tata Crucible—which his team won in 2012. He has been conducting regular quizzes over WhatsApp and email for many years now. He can (and has) put on his quiz master hat at a moment’s notice—including at parties. “You wake me up in the night and say conduct a quiz and I’ll do it!” he laughs. With his new comedy format show, KVizzing with Comedians, Varun found a way to bring these two important parts of his life together.
“I always wanted to explore this further, wanted a quiz show of my own,” he says and, with support from comedians like Rahul Subramanian, Biswa Kalyan Rath and Kanan Gill as well as The Grin Revolution’s Shreemayee Das, Varun hosted the first edition of KVizzing with Comedians late last year at Haiku Jam in Mumbai. Soon after, since the country went into lockdown and live shows were put on hold, he took his tournament-style quiz competition online with help from Only Much Louder and Insider. And it was a runaway success! Varun has since hosted numerous editions of KVizzing with Comedians and, he says, the response keeps him going.
A Bournvita Quiz Contest fan boy, Varun credits Derek O’Brien for introducing an entire nation of students to quizzing. “It used to be so exciting—every Sunday morning!” he remembers. “Not just enlightening and fun, it was also very aspirational to someone going to school in Delhi. You used to see all these cool guys on TV thinking, ‘Oh my god, how do they know this?’ I remember questions and teams from BQC, I was so obsessed.” Who are his other favourite quiz show hosts? Siddharth Basu, who brought Mastermind to India, because he’s a great quiz author apart from being a genius quiz show creator. “And my grandfather because he used to keep asking us questions 24×7 like ‘Who is the finance minister?’ ‘Who is the external affairs minister?’ and so on.”
So has comedy made quizzing cool again? As you’d expect, Varun says he has always thought quizzing was cool. “I think the problem with quizzing has been this entire myth that it’s for nerds,” he says. “I addressed it in some of the matches of KVizzing with Comedians.” He explains that a lot of people are intimidated by quizzing because they think it requires knowing a lot of random facts. “In reality, however, you realise that quizzing is about deducing answers from what you already know.”
He adds that having comedians on does bring a certain kind of energy to the show but “a good quiz is always cool.”
What’s a good quiz, KV? “A good quiz is where after every question you feel one of two things – either validated or like you’ve learnt something new.” His personal favourites include quizzes on India—history, movie, politics…you name it—and on sports. And what’s he watching when he’s not quizzing comedians? “Over the last year, I’ve been obsessed with Jeopardy! It’s on Netflix and everyone should watch it.”
“Harsha Bhogle was such a rock star!”
“The way I think is that—and that’s why I do my quiz in a certain way—being a little high energy and entertaining helps,” Abijit Ganguly says. Not a hardcore quiz show, Ganguly’s The Kaafi Random Quiz is moderate-to-easy. “I wanted to make sure that everyone who comes on board has a good time and enjoys themselves.” Created during lockdown, Ganguly says the reason for this is that he wanted to offset the current gloom and doom with something jovial, spirited and fun for everyone.
Jumping in with some trivia, as quiz masters are wont to do, Ganguly says, “One of the main reasons that Harsha Bhogle discontinued his extremely popular quiz show on Star Sports was because he used to feel very dejected about the people who would lose, the kids who would lose.” And given that he’s a Bhogle super fan (“He was such a rock star!”), Ganguly decided to keep things light and easy when it came to his own live-streamed quiz show.
The rounds are quirky—guess the song from the smileys, fill in the headline or crack the murder mystery riddle—and his quiz master persona doesn’t take anything too seriously. “As much as it is a competition—the moment you have points it gets competitive—even the person who is third (a polite way to say losing) should have a good time.” Another important part of his show is curating the panel of participants, which makes a big difference to the quality of laughs. “What I try to do is make sure every panel is one that complements each other. And they don’t have to all be from the scene.” Previous guests have included actors Danish Sait and Ashwin Mushran, TV show host Rocky Singh and comedians Gaurav Gupta, Neeti Palta, Anshu Mor and Anubhav Singh Bassi.