Real life slumdog millionare? Not so fast

October 27, 2011

Sushil Kumar, left, with Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan, shows $1 million check. (AP)

In the Oscar-winning movie, Jamal Malik, a young orphan fights his ways out of the slums of Mumbai to win the game show with the whole nation watching.

On Wednesday, the thin, moustached Sushil Kumar, 27, blazed his way through a row of questions and finally used the lifelines “Fastest Finger First,” “Double-Dip” and “Phone a Friend” to turn millionaire overnight.

The host of the real-life game show, Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood’s aging and reigning icon, blogged about the win saying: “The entire place just exploded. The family of Sushil Kumar, the contestant, not prone to any kind of public jubilation ran on to the floor of the set in uncontrollable joy and screams and tears of happiness, whilst the live audience were whooping it up on their feet.”

Bachchan’s win may lend some news sites to indulge in “Slumdog Millionare” references. One of the film’s characters was a movie star named Amitabh Bachchan.

In real life, however, the story does not fit the script. Kumar is no slumdog. He has a graduate degree in psychology and earned $120 a month as a government employee, entering data about India’s biggest job dole program for the poor. He lives in a modest rented home. As for Bachchan, the actor disparaged the film, complaining that it portrayed his country as a “third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation.”

Kumar said he will use the money to pay the mortgage, held by a local moneylender, on his family’s ancestral home in the town of Motihari. It was well known as the birthplace of author George Orwell, but is now infamous for kidnapping and extortion. Kumar also wants to spend part of the money enrolling into a preparatory school to take one of the most competitive tests in India that could land him his dream job – a bureaucrat in India’s inefficient officialdom. The final question that won him the jackpot asked when the British colonial rulers withdrew from India’s Nicobar Island.

The story of the government clerk becoming rish is competing with two other stories for headlines in the nation’s newspapers. There has been breathless reporting about Indians who have made it to the Forbes list of the wealthiest. Another is an intense and contentious debate underway about how to calculate the measure of absolute poverty in India. The government proposed that if you earn over 70 cents a day, you will not be considered absolutely poor. According to those calculations: Kumar, at $4 a day, earned about five times the amount of what the government would consider below the poverty line.

Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.
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