Sunday, January 29, 2017

'Pentathlon': Five rounds, one finale

Quizzing in Sri Lanka, the way I see it, is supplemented by two points: celebration of school-colour, and the inclusion of General Knowledge as a compulsory subject in the local curriculum. Individual victories are hence quickly subsumed by collective victories. That is why school Quizzes are popular and that is why, if you look carefully enough, you can predict an individual’s school’s rise, fall, and shifting fortunes in the years to come. As a Quizzer myself, I have seen how much the collective prevails over the individual. I have also seen how things get predictable and then swerve off towards the end of a Competition. That’s quizzing for you: predictable, but only to a point.

On Sunday, January 15 at Stein Studios, Ratmalana, Sirasa TV ended what can well be considered as one of the biggest Quiz Shows in our time and country. Pentathlon, a contest that spiralled into a tool of mobility for schools and Quiz Teams, bade farewell to its first season with a veritable display of talent, excitement, and wit. There were four schools, 20 contenders, and one winner. Like I mentioned before, the individual was quickly taken over by the collective. And so, as the evening drew to a close, with the victors being cheered on by a bunch of testosterone and adrenaline laden teenagers, I couldn’t help but think that Quiz Shows couldn’t get more marketable than this.

As the title suggests, Pentathlon is based on five contests: Thappareta Uththare, Ratavata Kathawak, Gola Thunayi Akuru Thunayi, Danumata Ravumak, and Karata Kara. As someone who’s seen the show from its inception, I can say this much about them: they’re structured in a way that no one team can scrape through with sustained victory. The fact that schools have scored in the first few rounds isn’t a guarantee that they’ll get through the last rounds. It’s not only about merit, in other words. It’s about luck too. Big time.

Factoring all this in, how did the show fare? First and foremost, I loved the setup. There was tension, expectation, and, yes, unpredictability. The four contending schools (Royal College Colombo, Musaeus College Colombo, Mahamaya Girls School Kandy, and Mahinda College Galle, in that order) all showed a penchant for fighting on, buttressed by their friends and classmates cheering them from the side-lines. The final result, which I will get to in a while, was merely the culmination to the ecstasy and the agony that prevailed throughout that evening.

None of this, however, would have amounted to much without a set of good questions. By “good”, I am commenting not on their content, but on their malleability and answerability. Before I get to the individual rounds, I therefore will say this: there was an impressive array of questions, some of which were laced with tentative visual clues and many of which, as I expected, relied on the contender’s ability to “filter out” obviously wrong answers.

I found this to be pertinent, for instance, with a question given (in the fourth round) on a painting: the contenders (from Royal College) were told that it was from the Modernist (“Nuthana”) era, after which three Pre-Raphaelite and Impressionist painters were listed as possible answers. The fourth such answer, which was (obviously) correct, was Matisse.

I don’t know whether the Royal College team (which did select Matisse) resorted to a “filter out” strategy, but I could glean from this that the Pentathlon crew didn’t merely dish out random questions (visual or otherwise) which tested the contender’s ability to remember. Reality, after all, isn’t only about remembering: it’s also about intuition, about purging what you know to be wrong.

So what of the show itself? Kingsley Rathnayake and Chanu Dissanayake, the hosts, were witty enough. While I am wary of hosts of shows like this “playing around” with children as though they are either sophisticated adults or immature juveniles, I could only smile as they engaged with the contenders, spicing things up and retaining enough tension to prevent the competition from going overboard. Kingsley in particular, firing away quips and anecdotes I could have sworn were impromptu and out-of-the-blue, even managed to “connect” the contenders with the audience, to show them out as the eager, though not blue-eyed, teenagers they were.

Which brings me to the four teams. Royal College, which won, was bested in the first two rounds by Mahinda College, which came second. The Mahinda College team aced Thappareta Uththara, where they went on answering a series of questions in 30 seconds while tossing a ping-pong ball, thanks in part to Lasith Gaurav (who before this had become a sensation online on account of his deft ability to answer questions one after the other, in quick succession).

Ratavata Kathawak, which was less a quiz than an impromptu drama session, had the contenders act out a person’s life: Royal got Usain Bolt, Musaeus got Nelson Mandela, Mahamaya got Ernest Hemingway, and Mahinda got Alfred Nobel. Again, Mahinda topped the round.

Gola Thunayi Akuru Thunayi unearthed the contender’s flair for basketball: you shoot the ball through the basket to reveal the letters of a long word, or you guess the word itself (not the wiser option). The battle lines between Royal and Mahinda converged a little there. With Danumata Ravumak (involving a revolving dartboard), however, the scales tipped in favour of Royal, while in the final round, Karata Kara, the whole show almost went downhill, to the latter’s advantage.

What happened? Karata Kara was a buzzer round. The problem wasn’t that the buzzers didn’t work. The problem was that the buzzers were “buzzed” before the questions were even asked. What’s more, this was permitted, which in a convoluted sense meant that even if the contender couldn’t answer the question, s/he was allowed to press the buzzeras it was being read.

Predictably after a while, the entire round deteriorated, to a point where Mahinda and Royal seemed to engage in a veritable fisticuff, the one trying to press the buzzer before the other (of the other two teams, only Mahamaya managed to get even one question). Was it distracting? Yes. Was it unfair? Well, a couple of spectators behind me seemed to think so. One of them even offered a comment: “Almost a joke.”

Did this mean that it unduly favoured one team, though? I doubt it. The battle lines were, as mentioned before, between two contenders. By the end of the fourth round, again as mentioned before, the scales had tipped. My issue with the final round, therefore, has less to do with conspiracy theories than with the fact that it was jarring and unfairly hedged bets on who could press the buzzer first. On that count alone (and I can only suggest this, as a writer), I believe that Pentathlon should at least qualify the mechanism behind Karata Kara, when it enters its Second Season.

In any case, the final score (Royal 301, Mahinda 250, Mahamaya 195, and Musaeus 47) was quite evidently the result of a tight, terse competition. Royal College moreover walked away with one other trophy, for the best sportsman, dished out to Suveen Ellawala (who, by the way, went on pressing the buzzer to get his team through the final round, ironic considering his award). While there would have been a little bitterness on the part of those who envisioned a different outcome, it all ended with a careful blend of jubilance and sobriety. As it should.

And so, that Sunday evening drew to a close. Like countless other shows as memorable, if not more so, have. Did I like it, as a reluctant consumer of television and an ardent quizzer? Yes. Was there room for improvement? Yes. Was there something that compensated for that? Yes. What?

Simple: the fact that Pentathlon, more than anything else, managed to unearth talent and show it to the rest of the country, and in the process, bring to the forefront schools and Quiz Teams that would not, but for Sirasa, have arisen. Royal College won, yes. Mahinda College got second place, yes. But I am not talking about the final episode only. I am talking about the whole show, from back when it started last year right until its finale that Sunday evening. If at all, the journey, the trials, and the tribulations of every participant have been captured. And preserved.

As a Quizzer, therefore, I will end on this note: Pentathlon should continue. Season Two will, I know and I believe, be awaited. Eagerly. By all of us.

Written for: Ceylon Today HELLO, January 29 2017