The making of a theme round

(Note: If you are reading this on a feed-reader and you don’t see the Slideshow embedded into the page, you should probably click on the actual post link and read it first. Trust me.)

Every time I am done with a quiz, in addition to the ‘thank you’s and the ‘great show’s that come my way (and the occasional “you call that a quiz?”), there are a few individuals who ask me – “How do you come up with the questions?” Unfortunately, the moment just after the quiz is also the precise instant the adrenaline rush is wearing off, and you realize that you’ve been on your feet for a few hours, and your throat hurts like mad from speaking a little too loud. So the typical answers come out – “I read, and I watch movies, and sometimes the questions just come to you.” Which is all true, but does not really cover the mechanics that go into making a quiz question “sing”, to use a metaphor badly.

While I will go into details of making a quiz question – my personal experience of it, that is – in a future post, I thought it would be nice to write about one round in particular, of a quiz I did this weekend. Why this quiz, and this round, you ask? Well, because I came up with the idea of the theme, and the questions, in about an hour or so, on Saturday morning, when my flight to the venue – IIM Ahmedabad – was just a few hours away. I normally do not cut things so close, but the joys of late-night intercontinental conference calls forced my hand, alas. But the positive part of it was that coming up with this round left me feeling very pleased with myself. It was an India quiz for Nihilanth, the inter-IIT-IIM quiz-fest. Until a few days ago, I had thought about including a theme involving Kamal Hassan movies – which turned out heavily South-India oriented and I dropped the idea. Not all quizzes need theme rounds, so I gave up the idea and focussed on a round made entirely of connect questions.

Somehow I got to reading about the Bharat Ratna – and the part about living recipients caught my eye. Voila, six people, and all of them quiz-worthy individuals. I had the answers to my theme questions, all I needed now were the questions themselves.

Now here’s a confession – every quiz I work on does its best to transform itself into an entertainment quiz – making it almost a matter of pride for me nowadays to keep the ent questions to a minimum. Considering that I was running short of time, and because the quiz was otherwise balanced enough  – and, heh, to add a little misdirection, I thought about making the questions ent-based. So the first question became the most obvious one – Lata Mangeshkar and her brief career as actor and music composer. Old chestnut, phrased in a gender-neutral way, with the answer directly connecting to the theme.

Now the second question in the theme is important, because as soon as the first one is answered, the participants are processing multiple possibilities to which the first answer can relate. An obvious answer, and you find your theme cracked in the second question, and one does not want that, really. So, instead of going with Amartya Sen directly, the question became about his daughter. The answer “Raja Ravi Varma” was completely unrelated to the theme ( as I would inform the participants as the quiz progressed), but hey, you could see Nandana Sen in the poster.

For the third question, I had multiple options – there was the one about Ravi Shankar having “remixed” Saara Jahaan Se Accha for the Doordarshan theme music, there were possible Beatles questions, maybe something about Anoushka Shankar ( the thought of which I ditched immediately, because two father-daughter connects would have been a bit too much ). Maybe something about the Grammies, because of the recent Indian nominations? But then a little serendipity came into play – just that morning, I had heard Nitin Sawhney’s soundtrack to The Namesake, and I remembered reading his comment Shankar’s soundtrack for Pather Panchali on the Guardian’s Top 50 OSTs list. Brief googling and yes, I had the precise context, and I remembered that I also had the PP soundtrack somewhere as part of another album. Couldn’t find it, and decided to play one of The Namesake tracks instead. Another question down.

Nelson Mandela’s question was straightforward – though there was the brief temptation to hunt for the comic that was made on his life and ask something on it. But Invictus was more relevant, it had just come out last December and was an Oscar contender. Since it was based on a book, and the book was not called Invictus, there you go. Straightforward, slightly long-winded, mostly-guessable question.

With Kalam, I was completely out of ideas. Time was running out, and I had absolutely no desire to go looking for his poetry or quotes from his books – there is a Rahman song written around his lyrics but again, too much work. So settled for reading his Wikipedia entry, and hell yeah, his Hoover medal, how did I forget that? Done, and sorry, I knew it wasn’t ent-oriented, but there’re compromises a man’s gotta make when he’s running out of time, and this was one of them.

Which left us with the last question, the one on Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, and I didn’t have to think twice. The first question of the preliminary round of the quiz was – “What was the first instrument seen on the video of Phir Mile Sur Mera Tumhara?” It was only fair to have the last question of the quiz to be about the original Mile Sur video, and yup, it made me happy to end the quiz on that note. One might argue that my quest for closure in my quiz made the last question too easy. But two points you have to understand – at this point of the quiz, there would be the people who had already cracked the theme, so chances that they knew the answer already was very high. And this being a college quiz, the percentage of the demographic who had seen the original video of Mile Sur was, in my opinion, very low.

Endgame: So, did it work out the way I had planned? Not really. For starters, mentioning that the theme was exhaustive kept everyone guessing. As expected, the second question proved misleading enough. But the unforeseen problem-child was the Pather Panchali question, which had everyone thinking Satyajit Ray instead of Ravi Shankar – a train of thought I had …uh…neglected to take into account. Obviously Ray was also a Bharat Ratna recipient, but one very much dead, defeating my theme squarely. It had participants guessing things like ‘people who received highest civilian awards from multiple countries’, or ‘Indians who have won the Legion d’Honneur”. Oh well, they did get it at the end, but in hindsight, I should probably have mentioned Ravi Shankar as the connect, would have made things much easier.

So there you go, an insight into how a theme was made. Not my favorite bunch of questions, and not the greatest theme of all time, but a quick and dirty way of doing it. Mind you, going in reverse is not the only way to go about creating a theme round. Maybe I will talk about the other way in another post, or maybe this post will get some proper quiz-masters to talk about the mechanics of creating a quiz on their blogs.


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