Final Question: Who’s Afraid of a Slumdog Millionaire?

Who wants to be a Slumdog Millionaire?
Who wants to be a Slumdog Millionaire?
“All the world is a quiz, and all the men and women merely players.” That’s how the late Magnús Magnússon, iconic host of BBC TV’s long-running quiz Mastermind, once described the scope for his line of work.

These words came to my mind as I watched the new Danny Boyle movie Slumdog Millionaire in New Delhi on its opening night on 23 January 2009. For two hours, it held me spellbound and transported me, alternately, to the rough world of Mumbai slums and the glitzy world of television quizzing in Bollywood.

It’s a feel-good, rags-to-riches story about Jamal Malik, an 18 year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai who goes on to win a staggering 20 million Indian Rupees (a little over US$ 400,000) on India’s version of the popular TV game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? . The story, adapted from an award-winning novel Q&A(2005) by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, resonated strongly with me given my own, long-standing association with the overlapping worlds of quizzing and TV hosting.

As the story unfolds, we find out how and why Jamal – who has had little or no formal schooling and lacks ambition to win the quiz – got on the show: for a very personal reason. Through a series of amazing coincidences, well known in the movies that often ask us to suspend disbelief, the answer to each question he faces is deeply etched in his memory from his tumultuous past.

When the show breaks for the night, Jamal is only one question away from winning the show’s grand prize, which can make him a multi-millionaire. But the show’s organisers just can’t believe that an uneducated street kid (or a ‘slum dog’) has made it thus far on his own. So they call in the police.

As the police inspector says: “Doctors… Lawyers… never get past 60 thousand rupees. He’s on 6 million.” The question for everyone is: how does he do it?

Jamal is arrested on suspicion of cheating, and police torture him overnight to find out how. Desperate to prove his innocence, Jamal tells the story of his life in the slum where he and his brother Salim grew up, of their adventures together on the road, of vicious encounters with local gangs, and of Latika, the girl he loved and lost. Each chapter of his story reveals the key to the answer to one of the game show’s questions…

Watch the official movie trailer for Slumdog Millionaire:

Jamal returns the next evening – straight from police custody – to face the final question. The right answer would earn him 20 million; giving the wrong answer would lose all his winnings so far. By this time, his meteoric rise to the final question has made news headlines and tens of millions of TV viewers across India are watching the show and cheering for him. Among them is the young woman for whom Jamal got on the show in the first place…

The dramatic story ends on a happy note, in true Bollywood style, when boy meets his long-lost girl. One of its sub-plots offers insights into the high adrenalin world of quiz shows, which are now being played for high stakes.

Is that your final answer?
Is that your final answer?

The film uses the actual set of Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), the Indian version of the globally popular game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? which offers large cash prizes for correctly answering 15 (or in some countries, 12) consecutive multiple-choice questions of increasing difficulty. It represents the highly commercialised end of the quizzing world, which traditionally shunned cash rewards for performance. For example, the winner of BBC Mastermind receives nothing more than the coveted title.

I can’t remember exactly when I first took part in a general knowledge quiz — that is now buried too deep in the sediments of my memory. But I have been an active participant in the fascinating world of quizzing for at least three quarters of my 42 years, first as a quiz kid and then as a quiz master.

Slumdog Millionaire reinforces a point I have been making for years: not to equate knowledge with intelligence. Quizzes of every kind only test the general knowledge and quick recollection ability among participants — but not necessarily their intelligence. Measuring intelligence (that is, determining intelligence quotient, or IQ) is a specialised and complicated process. In any case, scientists acknowledge that such measurements are not always accurate because of cultural diversity and other variables. Although someone excelling in quiz would, in all likelihood, also have a high level of intelligence, quiz performance by itself is no measure of someone’s IQ.

Similarly, there is also no direct co-relation between the level of educational attainment and performance at general knowledge quizzes. While good quiz kids generally tend to be high achievers in their curriculum studies, that is not always so. I remember a London taxi driver once beating dozens of academics and professionals to become the overall winner in Brain of Britain, the BBC’s long-running radio quiz show. Apparently he used to read a great deal while waiting for hires.

Finally, I know of serious quiz enthusiasts who frown upon game shows like KBC as a dumbing down of the cerebral art. But there’s no denying that, by invoking popular culture, the new formats have hugely enhanced the audiences following quizzing on TV. For the true aficionados, there’s always Mastermind and other ‘pure’ forms of quizzing that remain above the fray of commerce. For the rest, there are shows that mix the quest for knowledge with the pursuit of happiness through material rewards.

Who’s afraid of the lure of 20 million Rupees?

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

7 thoughts on “Final Question: Who’s Afraid of a Slumdog Millionaire?”

  1. Nalaka,

    Who’s afraid of the lure of 20 million Rupees?
    Hmmm…that is an interesting question !
    Who’s afraid of answering one benign simple question? –
    For example…
    “Who is the (name of, and face of) the person/s responsible for the conception/creation of the original and innovative cartoon character “Ozzy Ozone”?

    I am amazed that so many experts within the UNEP and TVEAP do not seem to be able to crack the answer to this simple question! Or is it that they are afraid to give the answer? If so, why? What could they possibly loose by being transparently truthfull? The mind boggles!


    1. Thomas,
      I admire your persistence, and fully share your quest for the answer to the question: who created the internationally known cartoon character Ozzy Ozone, But let me clarify once and for all: I don’t have the answer, and am curious to know it myself.

      It’s true that my organisation, TVEAP, is distributing Ozzy Ozone on a non-exclusive, non-commercial basis in the Asia Pacific. See: However, this does not bring us any closer to the elusive answer.

      Almost a year ago you first raised this question on my blog, as a comment to my blog post At the time, I immediately passed it on to Anne Fenner, who said she didn’t know the answer herself and promised to get back to me with it. Since then I have sent her a couple of reminders, but she hasn’t responded. I don’t want to speculate about her silence.

      There’s nothing more I can do — except to suggest that you use more formal channels to seek the answer. For example, I don’t know your nationality but if you can somehow work through your country’s ministry or department of environment, which is usually the national focal point for UNEP, then the UN agency will be under legal obligation to provide a proper answer as the UN is an inter-governmental agency with most of the world’s governments as its members.

      Incidentally, the 25th Session of the UNEP Governing Council – its highest decision-making body – is to be held on 16 – 20 February 2009 in Nairobi, Kenya. This might be a suitable forum to raise this, and certainly far more effective one than on this humble, private blog. See:

  2. For the past month I have been pondering about the vivacious “Slumdog Millionaire”. I could not bring myself to write a review about this landmark flick because I honestly thought it was beyond my comprehension. Every once in a while a movie such as this comes along and remind us life’s worthiness. To experience such a cinematic work of art makes us realize the value of our senses. This has been an extraordinary winter in Hollywood, where a series of brilliant films competed against each other for greatness.
    Warning – Spoilers
    The movie itself starts by asking the audience one question. The protagonist is one question away from winning 20 million rupees, and the reason for that being, A. He cheated, B. He is lucky, C. He is a genius, D. It is written. And in the end the movie shows answer D as the correct one. Because all the answers were based on his real life experience, it is evident that the fate of the quiz show is already written.
    The film’s greatness aside, I would like to point out some of the dramatized versions of the real life events portrayed in the movie. (Cynicism doesn’t exist when it comes to this film) The mega hit show “Who wants to be a millionaire” originated in United Kingdom. But it became world famous after United States adapted the British version with Regis Phelbin being the host. India also has its very own version hosted by Amitabh Bachchan. It is called “Who wants to be a Crorepathy”.
    The contestants first have to undergo a preliminary round, called “Fastest Finger First”, where they are all given a question and four answers from the host. They are asked to put those four answers into a particular order. (In the very first series of the British version and until the end of the 2003 season in the Australian version, “Fastest Finger First” required the contestants to answer one multiple choice question correctly as quickly as possible.) The contestant who does this correctly and in the fastest time goes on to sit in the chair (the “hot seat”) and play for the maximum possible prize (often a million in the local currency, though this depends on its value).
    In the US version, this round was called “Fastest Finger” and was eliminated when the show moved to syndicated distribution in 2002. US contestants are now required to pass a standard game show qualifying test at contestant auditions (usually 100 questions) and these contestants have passed a more difficult qualifying test than in the UK format.
    In the movie Jamal Malik accidentally gets the opportunity to contest in the show while working as a tea-boy at call center.
    In India they use the terms, Lakh, Crore instead of Millions.
    I have been a huge fan of the show ever since it aired in United States. The questions were extremely easy compared to Alex Trebek’s “Jeopardy”. Because I have being a resident alien during my stay in United States, I could never participate in the show. (Only citizens are allowed to play)

  3. Nalaka,

    Thank you for your courteous and instructive response re: who created the cartoon character Ozzy Ozone as utilized by UNEP.
    I will take your advice on board and act appropriately.
    Your blog site is thankfully a humble one but I would liken it more as a “precious pebble in a shoe” – although it may be a hidden personal irritant underfoot, it can, when removed, then be tossed into the ocean, were ripples expand far and wide and soon a tsunami of opinion rises as a mountain of truth for all to see.

    With knowledge comes responsibility. I will take your /views/advice/direction as read, and will act appropriately. However, remember, this is not my duty alone ( although I am prepared to go the distance ), it is a concern that we ought promote “justice for one justice for all”. Nalaka, it is you who first raised the issues surrounding the imprisonment and proposed release of Ozzy Ozone from his brand guardians. I responded and expanded on this regarding the identity of the creator behind the true original conceptualization of Ozzy Ozone. So I would suggest that you too might take the opportunity of the 25th Session of the UNEP Governing Council – its highest decision-making body – to be held on 16 – 20 February 2009 in Nairobi, Kenya forum to raise this, and yes it certainly may be a far more effective route than on your humble, private blog. But, it has been and is, your humble blog that is the “precious pebble in a shoe” .

    Thanking you for your patience and tolerance,
    Keep up the good work!


  4. I was never good at quiz so have no idea what it is like to be in the spotlight and hear the seconds tick away. But I imagine it can be exciting or even stressful. How some people can enjoy it is beyond me! Is quiz an extreme sport of the mind?

  5. Nalaka…We all know Slumdog should win. It is by far the best movie…but the politics of this seems to lean toward the movie Milk….we shall see and I am keeping my fingers crossed.
    David Damario

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