Indian from modest background becomes TV game show millionaire

Sushil Kumar’s job entering data into a computer earns him $120 a month. His 50-year-old home is in serious need of repair. His family owes $8,500.

But his life, so similar to the hardscrabble existence of fellow Indians, has taken a decidedly Bollywood turn for the better.

The rags-to-riches story that unfolded in the 2008 Oscar-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire” came to life this week when the struggling government clerk from eastern India won $1 million on a TV game show.


Kumar, the first Indian to win seven figures in such a contest here, became an instant hero to aspiring youngsters across the country who dream of lifting themselves out of poverty.

His achievement mirrors the plot of the film, in which character Jamal Malik, a tea boy working in a call center, uses his street smarts to figure out winning game-show answers.

Kumar, the 27-year-old son of a farmworker, and his wife, Seema, jumped and shouted as they were handed a check for 50 million rupees, or just over $1 million, on the Mumbai set of India’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

The couple tied the knot only a few months ago in an arranged marriage. “I liked her but there was no love at first sight,” Kumar said in a telephone interview. “But she’s proven so lucky to the family.”

“She’s our Lakshmi,” he said, referring to the goddess of wealth and prosperity.

Kumar, who watched “Slumdog Millionaire” when it showed briefly at a theater in his hometown, said he thought he would win a few rounds but didn’t dream he would take the top prize. On the final question he hesitated for a long time, eliminating a couple of choices in his head to narrow the odds.

“I could put two and two together,” he said. “I was 90% sure and took a chance.”

The show was taped this week and is scheduled to air Tuesday and Wednesday. Producers of the program, which is known as “KBC,” an abbreviation of the Hindi “Kaun Banega Crorepati,” aren’t revealing the final question Kumar answered other than to say the topic was history, an incentive for viewers to tune in and see for themselves.

“What a sensational day,” host and actor Amitabh Bachchan later posted on his blog. “An incredible feat.”

News reports suggested that Kumar would buy a new house, but he said he’s not going to blow the money on cars and mansions.

His priorities include repairing the family’s aging home in Motihari village in Bihar state and paying off family debts.

After that, he said, he’ll continue studying for the Indian civil service exam, which he has been doing mornings and evenings outside his job, so that he will have a respectable profession.

Although many in the West might focus on personal gratification after a windfall, Indians are under more social and moral pressure to care for family and neighbors, said Ravinder Kaur, a social anthropology professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.

Kumar’s dream of becoming a civil servant is not all that unusual, she said. Many people in Bihar and in the north-central state of Uttar Pradesh, among India’s poorest and most crowded, grow up feeling repressed by local kingpins and the limited opportunities.

“People want to turn the power equation around, since they’ve always been stepped on,” Kaur said. “The power that Indian bureaucrats wield, especially in small places, is very visible.”

Kumar said he was the only one of five brothers interested in schoolwork.

“My mother used to scold, even whack, them to try and make them study,” he said. “But it didn’t work.” Now his siblings either work in shops or as insurance agents.

His family was so poor that at one time it didn’t own a television set. In 2007, when he got the government job, he bought a small set and was able to watch the quiz show, which had intrigued him since it started in 2000. His trip to Mumbai was his first trip on an airplane or to a big city.

This season, for the first time, the program started inviting self-made, physically handicapped and hard-luck contestants from modest backgrounds, rather than the well-educated elites who previously were the focus.

This change has been well received and reflects, observers say, increased upward mobility in Indian society as caste structures erode and the economy becomes more open.

Kumar said he hasn’t returned to the village yet but hears that his family has been besieged by friends, relatives and more peripheral contacts.

“There are so many people queuing outside our house,” he said. “My father said it’s as though you’ve won the Cricket World Cup for us this year.”

Tanvi Sharma in The Times’ New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.