In Akola's Bapu Nagar, in Maharashtra, Ghanshyam Baman's Diwali celebrations were special, albeit unusual. The sweeper with the Brihan Mumbai Mahanagarpalika kept images of Lakshmi, Ganesh, as well as Salman Khan in his tiny pooja corner and worshipped them all.
"He's our devtaa, madam," he says. Thirty-five-year old Baman recalls the time he met the actor as a contestant on the game show 10 Ka Dum on Sony. "I was neck-deep in karza (debt) and had people banging at my door. I even tried to kill myself," he says, explaining that his monthly salary of Rs 5,500 is still insufficient for making ends meet.
Sick of his life, Baman responded with an SMS to a question that was asked on the show. He got lucky and was auditioned. Before he realised it, he was face-to-face with Salman Khan answering questions, hoping to win at least some money for his family. He didn't win a penny but got lucky when Khan came backstage and handed him Rs 1.5 lakh in cash.
"I had loans worth Rs 1 lakh and when Salmanji gave me the money, I fell at his feet," he says.
Baman may not be the quintessential rags to riches protagonist, unlike Slumdog Millionaire's Jamal Malik who, in the film, walks away with $1 million after answering questions correctly on a show. But thanks to 10 Ka Dum, Baman didn't come away empty-handed. Like Malik in the film directed by Danny Boyle, to be released in India on January 23, Baman too walked away with money to fulfill some of his dreams. The film, already a money-spinner, shows Mumbai cops traumatising Malik, suspecting him of winning fraudulently. "Professors, engineers and doctors can't win. What can a slumdog know?" says a cop in a scene.
Vishal Netke laughs when I offer him this synopsis of Slumdog Millionaire. "I, an autorickshaw driver, beat an IIT engineer and answered question after question correctly," he says. "In three hours, from being a poor rickshaw-wallah, I had become a lakhpati," he grins proudly. Netke, a resident of Mumbai's Borivali, who continues to live in a one-room chawl with his mother, wife and eight-year-old son, says the money made a big difference to his life.
Before he came on 10 Ka Dum, he had Rs 1.75 lakh worth of debt on account of medical expenses. To make matters worse, he fell ill, so for a few months there was no income. The final straw was an old wall collapsing on his autorickshaw, damaging it. "I needed a miracle in my life," he says.
The miracle happened on June 17, 2008 when he was called on the show. "My wife went to a nearby mandir, while my mother, my sister and her husband came with me," he says. Like Slumdog Millionaire's Malik, Netke kept interposing his life's hardships with every question that was posed to him.
"I was psyched seeing the arc lights, but as the prize money kept increasing, I kept thinking of how many financial troubles I was able to tick off my list," he recalls.
On winning Rs 40,000, for instance, Netke remembered a long-standing promise he'd made to his mother "of taking her in an aeroplane from Mumbai to Pune."
When challenged for Rs 1 lakh, he thought of getting back the gold his wife had pawned in times of crisis. He played cautiously, trying to contain his excitement for fear that a silly mistake may ruin his chances of further wins. By the time Netke had won Rs 2 lakh, he remembers wiping away his tears. "Winning that amount put an end to my debts. I could start afresh," he says. He won Rs 10 lakh.
Starting afresh was on Ashutosh Kaushik's mind too. Currently regarded as the face of Indian reality shows, Kaushik admits he was tired of sweating it out in the modest dhaba that his family owned in Saharanpur. Having won Rs 2.5 lakh and an expensive bike on Roadies, on MTV, Kaushik's big win came when he won Rs 1 crore on Bigg Boss, a popular show on Colors. The win prompted him to shift to Mumbai for a career in the entertainment industry.
"When you have so much liquid cash, it gives you time to think about what you want to do in life," he says.
Vipula Raina agrees. Not just her, even her children are taking time out to think about what they'd like to do with their lives. Her daughter Richa is thinking of a career in choreography, while her son Arjun is happy to hit the gym or get treatments at the salon. As for Raina, she's waiting to win another lottery ticket. "The prize money has dried up," she relaxes in her plush home in the NCR, which ironically continues to remain mortgaged. Raina got Rs 66 lakh after tax deductions.
She gave Rs 40 lakh to her husband for his fledgling business, saved another Rs 20 lakh for her children, spending the rest of the money on other things. Hailing from an upper-middle class business family, Raina says in 25 years of married life she's experienced immense wealth as also hard times.
"Once when she saw us fighting over chocolates, she sold off some jewellery to buy us expensive chocolates," remembers her daughter.
"We believe in good living," smiles Raina. "When I went on 10 Ka Dum, I wore an Armani watch," she shrugs nonchalantly, "today I also wear a Rado."
Habib Mithiborwala, an upcoming actor in Mumbai, feels that it's not just about winning the prize money. "Slumdog Millionaire shows the protagonist growing more confident. That's how I felt after I was on 10 Ka Dum," he says. He may not have won a penny but Mithiborwala felt like a winner all the way. He had been seriously injured in the Mumbai floods in 2005, after which his fianceé left him, his friends deserted him and he lost his job.
"Doctors said I wouldn't be able to walk. Even today, I have a problem with my ankle movements. Dancing with Salman," he says, "was worth crores."
While Slumdog Millionaire doesn't show how the protagonist's life changes after winning, our own reality winners admit that money can change lives for both the better and, at times, for the worse. It's common news that Harshwardhan Nawathe, the first Kaun Banega Crorepati winner, found the media glare overwhelming and disruptive.
Praghjyoti Samal's mother is reluctant to hand over the phone to her daughter. Twenty-four-year old Praghjyoti won Rs 1 crore on Shah Rukh Khan's Kya Aap Paanchvi Paas Se Tez Hain, another game show on Star Plus.
"Winning the money wasn't important. It was the experience that my daughter enjoyed and she's taking her time to decide what she wants to do with her life," says her mother firmly. Yogita Shetty, another winner on the same show, who took home Rs 20 lakh, says Praghjyoti was nervous after she'd won the Rs 1 crore. Shetty spent three hours with Praghjyoti on the sets and remembers the 24-year-old being petrified at the attention. "She was scared for her family, herself, and feared being mobbed in Bhubaneswar. It's difficult when you hate the attention but are suddenly in its midst," she says.
For those like Baman, the sudden adulation meant promises that remain unfulfilled. "I was promised a promotion and a raise. Nothing happened," he rues.
Raina, for her part, continues to sign autographs in malls and has people asking for her contact details all the time. "Some news channel hailed me as a devout Sai Baba bhakt because I'd mentioned a trip to Shirdi after I won," she says.
Her son Arjun chips in, "We can't bargain any longer."
Shetty, a financial consultant in Ahmedabad, feels that the win can change people's perception about winners. "People wonder why I need to work. It's another matter that, despite coming from a well-off family, I've always worked," she says. Another contestant who doesn't wish to be named says that appearing on Kya Aap Paanchvi Pass Se Tez Hain was the biggest mistake of her life. "It was traumatic, the manner in which some people hounded me. My parents had a police case against an influential person in Mumbai. My mistake was getting identified through the show. Unfortunately, they settled scores with my parents through me," she cries, refusing to talk further.
Money, they say, can show you the good and the bad side of life. But for our own slumdog millionaires, it's also meant desperation -- to appear on other shows to win more. "It's shown me an appetite for greed," confesses Raina. Netke now wants to be on Roadies. "This time I want to win to buy a home for myself," he says.
Danny Boyle ought to be thinking of a sequel to his film already.