Will the real "slumdog millionaire" please stand up?

He was the only man to win the grand prize on India's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" And though he wasn't a slumdog, he has now devoted his life to helping impoverished children.

Published March 23, 2009 10:27AM (EDT)

Harshvardhan Nawathe is sitting in front of a small television set in his tiny apartment in the northern part of Mumbai. It is a Sunday evening in early March, one week after the Oscar awards ceremony, and Nawathe is watching a talk show called "We the People." The guests on the program are arguing about the film "Slumdog Millionaire," which won eight Oscars. They -- and the rest of India -- have been arguing for days now.

Harshvardhan, who is known by his nickname Harsh in India, was also invited to be a guest on the program. The subject is whether the film, in which an orphan boy from the slums wins a quiz show and becomes a millionaire, is offensive to India, or whether India ought to be proud of the film's success at the Oscars. Harsh declined the invitation.

He switches off the TV, picks up his 4-month-old son and places him in his arms. Then he speaks to the baby and makes faces at him, just as the experts recommend in the book "Baby Minds Brain-Building," which he is reading. He wants to make sure that Saraansh grows up to be clever, just like his father.

Nawathe wants nothing to do with all the commotion surrounding "Slumdog";  as a father he doesn't have the time anymore. He works with children in the slums of Bombay -- or Mumbai, the city's official name today -- as part of a foundation that pays for teachers, schoolbooks, clothing and computer courses, so that none of the children in its programs will leave school without graduating.

There is probably no one in India who would have as much to say about "Slumdog Millionaire" as Nawathe. He saw the film shortly after it was released in India in January. He wanted to know whether he would recognize any part of his own story in the film. He and his wife took a taxi rickshaw to the nearest movie theater, where only the last two rows were taken. As is the custom in Bombay movie theaters, the audience stood up and sang the Indian national anthem before the film began. Shortly after it starts, when protagonist Jamal jumps into a cesspool full of excrement, Nawathe's wife lost her appetite and stopped eating her popcorn. She found the scene disgusting and felt that her honor as an Indian woman had been assaulted. Nawathe was also disappointed. But it was just a film. A fairy tale from Hollywood -- or Bollywood. Either way -- just a film. The reality is different, he thought. My life is real.

Nawathe is India's real "slumdog millionaire." He was the first and so far only winner of the grand prize on a quiz show called "Kaun Banega Crorepati" (KBC), the Hindi version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" To date, no one has made it as far on the show as Nawathe did.

More than eight years ago, on Oct. 19, 2000, Nawathe won 10 million rupees (€150,000 or $195,000), the biggest possible jackpot at the time. A third of all India, or about 350 million people, sat glued to their TV sets at home or in front of the windows of electronics stores to watch Nawathe, a poor student at the time. To this day, he is still recognized on the streets of Bombay, where he is a folk hero, and his story is much more popular in India than the film from "the Hollywood." What does fame do to someone who comes from the bottom of society and suddenly shoots to the very top? How long does the dream last? And what happens afterward?

Nawathe saw many images and read many articles after that Oscar night. He saw Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Ismail, 9 and 10 years old, the amateur actors in "Slumdog Millionaire," on the red carpet in Los Angeles. He saw them being picked up at the airport in Bombay by a motorcade of cars, saw garlands of flowers being hung around their necks and saw the convoy drive them through the city to the slum where they live. It is called Garib Nagar, or Poor Place. He saw images of Azharuddin, who played the brother of the "Slumdog" protagonist Jamal in the film, sitting on a plastic chair in front of a hut made of corrugated metal, making cool gestures he had learned on the red carpet, flashing the cheeky grin that everyone loves and spreading his fingers to form the victory sign.

He also saw how Azharuddin's father slapped the boy, because he had promised the media an interview and Azharuddin became tired of answering so many questions. It was just a slap, but one with consequences. He read that the boy now has a group of self-proclaimed advisors, who loiter in front of the hut and call journalists, who give the "advisors" rupee bills for every story. There were photos of the father slapping the boy, and the story was printed in newspapers around the world. After that, Azharuddin had to give even more interviews, and India's women and child development minister threatened to order an investigation into the case and the father apologized. Now jealous and gloating neighbors come to the hut and argue with Azharuddin's parents, saying that their sons would have been more suitable for the role, and asking where the money the boy made from the film had gone and when they would move into a new apartment.

The news stories remind Nawathe of his own tale. He knows what it feels like -- the fame followed by the letdown. He could teach the child stars of Garib Nagar a thing or two. He knows that fame is a dangerous thing. Don't loiter, Nawathe would say, go back to school instead!

Nawathe, a grounded, modest man of 35, did something with his life, despite the early fame, the temptations and the many millions. His win was like a curse at times, because he was wholly unprepared for it.

Nawathe was never a child from the slums. Instead, he was one of those well-behaved boys depicted on posters used to teach good habits to children in Indian schools, the same posters that are sold in flea markets in the West. He was diligent, clean, punctual, a good Hindu and always showed respect for his elders. He comes from a family with modest means, but his parents took care of him. His mother made sure that he received a good education, and his father, a policeman who worked in an anti-corruption unit, told him bedtime stories about frauds and tax evaders, and would also read to him from the "Mahabharata," India's ancient heroic epic.

Eight years ago, when Nawathe was 27, he wanted to become a police detective like his father. He spent months cramming for the police entrance examination, considered among the most difficult in the country, by studying review books and learning about politics, history and political science. In the evenings, he would put away his books in the family's tiny apartment on the seventh floor of a rundown high-rise building and, with his mother, watch the new TV show everyone was talking about.

His favorite actor, Amitabh Bachchan, was the show's host, a bear of a man with a booming voice who the Indians call "Big B." A popular leading man in 1970s Bollywood films, Bachchan is the actor for whose autograph Jamal jumps into the cesspool in "Slumdog." When Nawathe and his mother watched the show, he knew every answer, and she convinced him to audition.

In October 2000, Nawathe was sitting at the KBC studio in Bombay's Film City to participate in the qualifying round, known in India as "Fastest Finger First." The contestants were asked to put a number of presidents in chronological order. It took Nawathe 9.1 seconds. The crane camera zoomed in and Bachchan led him to the hot seat. Nawathe stared at the screen, hardly saying a word. It was child's play for him. He was well prepared.

In which state is the Tirupati Temple, the host asked? In Andhra Pradesh, Nawathe responded. He had prayed there once with his parents, he said.

What was the first name of the wife of the last Viceroy of India? Edwina, Lord Mountbatten's wife, Nawathe said. There was once something between her and Nehru, India's first prime minister.

Who was the world's first woman prime minister? Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher? Answer C: Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka.

And then there were two questions about the heroic epic his father used to read to him at his bedside. Next to having a phenomenal memory, Nawathe was lucky that day.

The 320,000-rupee question was a trick question, and Nawathe was stumped for a moment. Who is the president of Pakistan? Nawathe asked the audience. Seventy percent believed it was Pervez Musharraf. But Nawathe knew that Musharraf had come to power in a coup, and that he was never elected. It had to be Rafiq Tarar, whom he had read about in the newspaper. So it had to be answer C, the one with the fewest votes from the audience. Bachchan, spellbound, did not press the contestant. "Log it in," he said, "answer C."

The last question, question 15, was about the Indian constitution -- child's play for Nawathe. "Are you sure?" Bachchan asked. "Sure," Nawathe replied. "This is a historic moment," Bachchan said. "Don't go away. This boy is playing for his life!" Cut to commercial break.

Three minutes later, Nawathe was India's 10-million-rupee man. As he awkwardly raised his arms into the air, confetti sailed down from the studio ceiling, women wept, and someone brought out the check. After the show, Bachchan took the boy aside and said: "Your life will change." What is he talking about? Nawathe thought to himself, as he nodded politely.

Then his new life began. The show was recorded, not live, and the broadcast was not scheduled until a few days later. Friends called. Did you win? they asked. No, Nawathe said, lying. He had signed a contract with the station, Star TV, and was not allowed to say anything yet about winning. Nevertheless, the press learned of his victory and besieged his apartment. The station checked him into a hotel under an assumed name. At the hotel, surrounded by shopping bags full of new clothes, he walked the hallways and felt trapped by his good fortune.

Chaos erupted in Bombay on the evening of the broadcast. Large crowds convened on Film City, forming convoys of cars, honking their horns and blaring Hindi pop songs from their stereos. Thirty-three percent of viewers had watched the show, the highest audience rating in years.

Throughout the next year, Nawathe felt as if he were living in a film, but it was the wrong one. He received baskets of letters every day in which fans asked for autographs, donations for their temples, to meet him or to marry him. Everyone shook his hand, clinging to him, hoping that some of his luck would rub off. Although his father had already been retired for 7 years, there were spurious rumors he bribed the host, Bachchan, who had been embroiled in a tax scandal at the time. As a corruption expert, they argued, Nawathe's father must have known how to commit it.

Nawathe's life was suddenly filled with PR consultants, who convinced him to make 800 appearances, cut countless ribbons at dedication ceremonies, stand around at film parties and political events, open jeans boutiques and pastry shops and do commercials for cookies. To this day, there are still eight shopping malls in Bombay that are named after him.

He was used and turned into a brand name, a living example of the adage: "Everyone can make it, even you!" He didn't have to go along with everything, but he was too polite, and perhaps he was also seducible and dazzled by the glitz.

Sometimes his parents asked: What do you want to do with your life? He started going out a lot, with cricket players and Bollywood stars. But they were the celebrities and he was merely a quiet overachiever -- they were fleeting friends. And at the end of the day he would return to his parents' apartment, pull out the sofa bed and sleep next to his books.

At some point, Nawathe must have realized that he had lost. He owned a car, a watch and investments, but he lacked a plan. He had become lazy, living for the moment. He was depressed, the papers wrote.

He moved to Edinburgh to get an MBA, and gradually his life improved. There, he was no longer a celebrity and no longer hounded by the press, which was barred from the university campus. He completed his degree with honors. When Indian superstar Shahrukh Kahn was hired to host the next season of KBC, journalists called Nawathe to ask how he liked the new show. "My life goes on," he said. "I haven't watched a single episode."

He wanted to return home, because he knew that media fame and the ensuing failure are a global phenomenon, something that happens everywhere. But in Bombay, a film city in love with its movie stars, it was a different story. In Bombay, a person is either consumed or reinvents himself. If he could start again anywhere, it would be in Bombay, a city made for new beginnings.

He changed his mobile number, terminated all contracts, moved into a small apartment, threw out old photos and newspaper articles, and married. It was an arranged marriage. It wasn't as if he couldn't have had his pick of offers. But Nawathe asked his mother to find a woman who knew her way around the glamorous world of Bollywood and was not overly impressed by it. Before giving birth to their child, Nawathe's wife Sarika was an actress in daytime soaps. She says: "He is very sensitive." He says: "Life is better with her." It took him a long time to find fulfilling work. Most of the jobs he was offered involved promoting something.

For the past two years, Nawathe has been the deputy general manager of child rights at the Naandi Foundation, an Indian NGO. His story could be the material of an even better film: India's real "slumdog millionaire," the man who knows every answer, is helping Bombay's forgotten children to cope with life more effectively. Nawathe says: "It's time for me to give back some of my success." Hardly anyone in India knows this part of his story.

The problem is that no one is interested. Poverty is taboo in India, and it is considered shameful. This is why "Slumdog Millionaire" is so controversial here. For years, the Indian tourism industry has used the advertising slogan "Incredible India." The message it seeks to convey is that India is incredibly beautiful, not incredibly problematic. And then along comes this film, by a British director, about a Bombay urchin whose mother is murdered by fanatical Hindus, a boy who begs and steals and whose brother becomes a henchman of human traffickers. For Indians, it is a film made up of clichés -- and an insult.

"Slumdog" is especially offensive to the national pride of India's rising middle class. The movie theaters where the film is being shown are empty, and many film posters have been torn down. Big Bachchan, the former KBC host, doesn't think much of the film, and a well-known Indian director, writing in the magazine India Today, complains: "India is not Somalia. We are one of the foremost nuclear powers in the world. Our police commissioner's offices don't look like shacks and there are no blind children begging in the streets of Mumbai. This is an absolute and intentional exploitation of India."

Aravind Adiga calls what is now happening in India the "Slumdog effect." He has felt the same effect. The story of his debut novel "The White Tiger" is similar to that of the film, except that it is told in a much more malicious and provocative way. In the novel, an illiterate man works his way up the ladder to first become a driver, then a murderer and finally the head of an outsourcing firm. It is about an up-and-comer in the new India, about the mendacious world of the rich and the dark sides of the boom.

Adiga, 34, is sitting in a bar in Bandra West, on the chic side of the tracks, but not far from the huts where the child stars of "Slumdog" live. He speaks a refined American English, wears a suit and leather loafers and orders whisky on the rocks. Sales of his book in India, where it was ripped by critics, have been miserable. But it is a bestseller abroad and has been translated into more than 30 languages. "I wrote it for Indians," says Adiga, "and they hate it." Not even the fact that he was awarded the Booker Prize in London has changed their assessment. In India, he remains a denigrator of his country, a traitor. "It's a nightmare," he says, "I insulted my country and I am supposed to feel guilty. Unfortunately, it's true. I do feel guilty. India's true dictatorship is the middle class. I myself am from the middle class."

And now the country is offended again, this time by the film. Although Harsh Nawathe, India's real "slumdog millionaire," finds the film unrealistic, he also understands why it has upset people. When he was in England, he was once asked whether they still ride around on elephants in India. He says that he will never forgive the English for that question.

Perhaps Nawathe's story inspired the author of the book "Rupees! Rupees!," on which the film is based. Nawathe doesn't know. The author, an Indian diplomat, never contacted him, nor did Danny Boyle, the director of "Slumdog." Nawathe lives a very quiet life today, focusing on his family and his job. When he drives out to Kandivali, a poor neighborhood, there are no longer any cameras.

He is sitting on the floor of a classroom, on a shabby red carpet. Today is a test day. The pupils' knowledge of mathematics and Hindi will be tested. The children are given white pieces of paper with a large number of multiple-choice questions. Sometimes they pluck Nawathe's sleeve and ask him for the correct answer. The teachers record each child's test results in tables. They say that the children are making progress. Nawathe's organization offers remedial teaching for pupils who are behind in their studies, a service that is urgently needed in Bombay's government-run schools, where 40 to 50 students in a typical class rattle off a mantra of information they have memorized while their teacher talks on his mobile phone or reads the newspaper.

The children are from Poisar, a slum. They haven't seen "Slumdog." And why should they? They are all too familiar with the images it depicts. But they admire Nawathe. Their parents have told them about his quiz show victory years ago. The parents trust Nawathe. They no longer send their children out to beg or to collect garbage but to attend his classes. They say, if anyone can teach our children, then he is the one. Sometimes Nawathe visits the parents in their huts and tells them: "If I gave your child a million rupees today, you would buy jewelry and cars, and then you would sell everything again. The only currency that remains is education. It's the only one that pays."

He plans to fly to New Delhi on the next day, but not to appear on a talk show or at some other public event. This meeting is about the future. He will negotiate with donors to raise the funds needed to accept 8,000 additional children into his remedial program. It will be a good day -- for Nawathe, for Bombay and for India.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

By Fiona Ehlers

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