India Hooked On 'Millionaire' Show

Wednesday, September 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BOMBAY, India--It's hard for anyone in India these days to state a simple fact _ their name, address or the day of the week _ without a friend asking, "Are you sure?"

That's the catch phrase of the newest Indian TV hit: a Hindi-language version of the American quiz show "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire."

The show, hosted by the country's all-time top movie star, Amitabh Bachchan, is India's most popular TV program ever. Millions of Indians are hooked, dreaming of winning the rupee equivalent of $219,000. The stock phrases used in the show, "Who Will Become a Holder of 10 million?" _ rupees, that is _ have become part of the culture.

And in a typical local reaction to the chance to win loads of money, Indian viewers are trying to figure out who to bribe to get on the program.

Indians are not alone in their obsession.

Versions of the show are licensed and on the air in 31 countries, from Finland to South Africa, and 19 more companies have opted to start local versions soon. In most places it's a big hit.

The show's set, music, question format and contestant qualification process are set out in a 169-page guide that the creators, Celador Productions Ltd. of Britain, provide with the license. "The show is pretty much the same the world over," said Colman Hutchinson, executive producer of the original British show.

But there are local variations.

It's called "Oh Lucky Man!" in Russia. In Spain, it's "50 for 15," meaning 50 million pesetas for the 15 questions it takes to win the grand prize.

Japanese audiences didn't take to "Millionaire" because of a cultural bias against individuals who flaunt wealth. Swedish authorities banned the show, saying it violated laws against lotteries. Many candidates in the last Russian presidential race went on the program, though eventual winner Vladimir Putin wasn't among them.

After the show became a hit in the United States, it spread fast.

"None of us thought it would be the global success it has been," Hutchinson said. "It's like when the Beatles went to America. They became a global domination."

Launched on July 3 by Rupert Murdoch's Star TV, the Indian version, called "Kaun Banega Crorepati," was an instant hit.

Just as Philbin, the host of the American show, tortures the audience and contestant with "Is that your final answer?" the Indian show's host asks squirming, would-be millionaires: "Are you sure?" "Confident?"

As viewers sit with bated breath in front of their TV sets across India, movie star Bachchan twists the knife, raises an eyebrow, offers an enigmatic smile. "Shall we lock it?" he asks the contestant. And finally, "Computer, please lock the answer."

The highest amount won so far in the Indian game was $110,000, collected on Aug. 23 by Ramesh Dubey, a clothing store owner from New Delhi. It's enough to pay his business' rent for the next three years, even after a 60 percent tax bite.

Dubey's wife, who sat in the audience praying during the last four questions, came to stand next to her husband after he won. But she didn't hug him in ecstasy, as American winners' spouses often do. She bent down and touched the feet of the host, Bachchan, in a traditional Indian respectful greeting.

"Winning the money was not the only criteria. I wanted to be on the show, be on television and meet Amitabh," said Satinder Singh, who won $28,000 in August. "Also I hoped I wouldn't make a fool of myself."

Like millions of other Indians, Singh had been watching Monday through Thursday, trying to guess the answers and see if anyone would become a "crorepati," or "holder of 10 million."

"My wife kept telling me to try, and I did on an impulse," said Singh, who runs a retail furnishing business in the northern city of Haldvani.

Singh answered the first 12 questions correctly, doubling his money each time as he covered history, mythology, films and sport. When it came to the 1.25 million rupee question, Singh asked for a friend's help to answer: "Which Moghul emperor transferred the jagirdari (right to the estates) of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa to the East India Co.?"

Singh's friend correctly chose "Shah Alam."

The answer to the next question would have netted Singh $56,000.

"In which sport is this 10-yard long cloth, folded into six and called Movashi, used?" the question read. The choices: Sumo wrestling, pollet, hurdling or malkambh.

Singh chose not to take a guess, instead stopping and keeping his winnings. He said he plans to donate 10 per cent to charity. The correct answer was sumo wrestling.

Bachchan, 58, with his white beard and billowing dark hair, is an Indian superstar whose "angry young man" roles dominated Hindi cinema for more than three decades. He has a huge fan following in India and abroad.

His recent films have flopped and a bank is threatening to sell off his mansion because of bad debts, but the TV show has given his career a boost.

"Amitabh is extremely stylish and dignified. Our thinking was that he would add to the magic. Initially many participants came just to meet him," said Sameer Nair, senior vice president for programming on Star TV, which has enjoyed a ratings boost from the show.

Scam artists have already tried to cash in by promising hopefuls access for a fee. Some were told $225 was the price for a participant's slot. Over the past couple of weeks, several people have arrived at the filmings offering cash bribes to get on the show.

"We've already announced on subsequent shows that there is no fee to get on," said Nair, the Star TV programming vice president. "But all this makes for good fun."