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Life’s Lessons from Siddhartha Basu

The TV producer and director on how he became the quiz master

I became a quiz master quite by happenstance. I’d been making documentaries for about eight years, and doing theatre when I could. That’s when I got a call from a friend who said hey, just pop by, will you, and introduce this show for a pilot we’re doing? So I did this two-minute gig, and forgot about it, till I got a call about a month later, and they said, so will you host this year-long national inter college show called Quiz Time? That was it. As the face of the show, it seems to have worked, but I got nailed badly for factual errors on the show, so the next time round, I took on the responsibility of content, format and production, and the third time round, I directed and produced the show.

Once I became a regular on national television my father, who’d worked at the same multi-national bank throughout a 30-year tenure, was sceptical about what he saw as idealist flirtation with mass media. But though he was pleased as punch at having a son who now had a name, and some fame, he still worried like hell about my bank account. My mother was always supportive, as long as I occasionally ate fish, which I used to hate! And Rosa, my wife, was a real trooper. We had a new born son, and nothing beyond modest earnings of a single show (one thousand rupees for hosting an episode, if you please), one season at time. Nobody knew better what it was like to be famous but not rich. But we lived on hope, and we had grit. And we eventually overcame.

If you’re not rich, it’s terribly hard to be famous. And in my experience, fame itself is nothing if not fickle. I’ve seen too many people crumble once they’re out of the spotlight. And I feel sad for people who desperately court it all their life.

My attempt has always been to make memorable shows that raise the bar of factual entertainment, deal honestly with reality and appeal to the highest common factor in a mass audience.

With power comes responsibility. You have to face the bouquets as well as the brickbats. But to me, being your own boss is the only way to work. I’ve been self-employed almost all my working life.

I multi-task all the time when in action mode. When it’s time to think, though, and create, you need to do one thing at a time, with undivided attention.

I don’t really think of people on the rolls of my company as my employees. More as colleagues and team mates, and have a pretty informal working relationship with everybody. As coach, or captain, of course, there’s the privilege of taking the final call!

If there’s one piece of advice I would give to someone it’s to follow your calling, whatever the cost, and make it pay off.

Success is making a difference, and delivering what you promise.

I don’t allow myself the luxury of speculating on what might have been, I accept what is, and change what I can.

I believe failure is a better teacher than success. Every time you fall, you dust yourself off, pick up the pieces, figure what went wrong, and start all over again. You’re anyway mentally attuned to do that when you take the road less travelled.

Every once in a while I remember an extraordinarily kind little old Tibetan lady, whose name I’ll never know, at whose dhaba right above the Beas in Manali I spent one night, during my hippie days, when I was about 19. I was near broke, with just enough bus fare to get to Simla, needed to spend the night near the bus depot, and asked whether I could crash at her small eatery-cum-home on the roadside. She gave me a hot meal when I rolled up later at night, which I hadn’t asked for, as I didn’t have enough to pay for it. Later she tucked me in under warm blankets in a little ante room above the roaring river and woke me up at the crack of dawn in time to catch the bus. She waved aside any attempt to pay her, slipped a fiver into my pocket, slipped a bottle of home brewed chhang (rice beer) in my haversack, and sped me off. All this was pretty much wordless, as she spoke little Hindi, and I, no Tibetan. I was just so grateful for such kindness from a stranger, and I just can’t forget it.

Before my father retired, we lived in a house with a six-acre garden in the toniest part of Madras, with a retinue of 18 servants, in what are now the premises of the Park Sheraton in Chennai. And then suddenly we had to subsist on his modest pension. Through college, from the age of 16, I earned my pocket money through radio, theatre and little gigs, before I started fully earning my keep, from when I was about 21. I’ve lived within my means, and I’ve never been in debt.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would probably be teaching. As it is, a fair bit of what I do now is mentoring and coaching.

Money is a powerful tool, but it’s never been my prime motivation, and has followed from the work I do. Fortunately, there’s always been enough, and I’m not too greedy or spendthrift.

If there’s one thing I regret in life it’s not having learnt to play a musical instrument, or to sing.

I believe in a sporting ethic. To be able to win, play true and play hard, but you have to be able to face both triumph and disaster, and be graceful in victory or defeat.