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Manoj Bajpai, Manoj Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan with his cheque at the end of the show.
Manoj Bajpai, Manoj Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan with his cheque at the end of the show.

INDIA

Fighting the caste system, Slumdog Millionaire-style Add to ...

At 20 minutes past eight on Sunday night, Manoj Kumar and his family were gathered under their thatch roof, warming themselves by the weak heat of a dung fire, faces turned expectantly toward their ancient black-and-white television screen.

In moments, the immensely popular Kaun Banega Crorepati? (the Hindi version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?) would air – a show with 27 million viewers each week, hosted by Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan. Here in rural Bihar, the poorest and least developed part of India, people follow the show religiously.

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In this episode, taped in Mumbai a few weeks earlier, Mr. Kumar, a boy from the village, would sit down opposite Mr. Bachchan and face a barrage of questions about geometry, cricket players and Hindu gods. It would be Slumdog Millionaire brought to life.

Mr. Kumar, 18, is a star Grade 11 student at a school founded by a philanthropist to assist Dalit, or “untouchable,” boys in Bihar.

The name of the school is Shoshit Samadhan Kendra, or Centre to Resolve Exploitation. It is an audaciously optimistic name. But with his appearance on the quiz show, a charity broadcast meant to highlight caste issues, Mr. Kumar gave his community and a nationwide audience a whole new picture of what a kid like him can be.

With seven minutes to go before the broadcast, there was mad excitement in Jam Saut.

Then the power went out. Pitch darkness in every direction. It was not unusual – the village has power intermittently for about three hours a day.

But on this night, it was unbearable.

Mr. Kumar is Mushahar, the Dalit group at the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system, which is still rigidly enforced here. And he overcame a childhood bout of polio that left him disabled and, in the minds of many in his community, a lost cause. He is also only the third person from his village ever to attend high school. Jam Saut is the community where the anti-caste activist Sudha Varghese, profiled in The Globe and Mail’s Breaking Caste series, began her social work 30 years ago, and Mr. Kumar and his education have been a special project of hers.

Sister Sudha, who had come to the village from the Prerna residential girls’ school she now runs in the town of Danapur about 15 kilometres away, made a snap decision. She stuffed Mr. Kumar and his parents into her battered jeep and they took off into the darkness, careening along foggy roads into town, while she phoned ahead to the school to have staff fire up the school’s generator and turn on the television.

At 8:40 p.m., Mr. Kumar, his parents, Shanthi Devi and Mahesh Kumar, and Sister Sudha tumbled in the door to find all 150 of Prerna’s students, bundled into bright print shawls against the cold and sitting on old rice sacks on the floor, crammed in front of the school’s colour television. When they caught sight of Mr. Kumar, they let out a huge shriek, then tugged the shawls over their faces to hide delighted giggles.

Mr. Kumar and his parents arrived just in time: On the TV, another contestant was stepping off the stage and Mr. Kumar was about to shake hands with host Mr. Bachchan, whose lordly manner makes him the most loved, most trusted man in India.

It is not quite the same story as Slumdog, in which a boy from the streets of Mumbai improbably makes his way on to the quiz show and sweeps every question, winning the big jackpot. Mr. Kumar did not come through the screening program for contestants, but was invited; Mr. Bachchan cultivates a reputation as a social activist and, through a connection, heard about Mr. Kumar’s school.

J.K. Sinha, a retired police administrator turned philanthropist, founded it in 2007, after consulting with Sister Sudha, among others, about how he might have the greatest impact in Bihar. Mr. Kumar was appearing on a special charity episode, with any winnings to be donated to expand the school.

At the sight of Mr. Bachchan slinging his arm around her son's shoulders on the screen, Shanthi Devi gasped and started to cry. Her husband looked as if he might burst. Both are illiterate and never attended school. Mr. Kumar himself – slight, bespectacled and shy – maintained an air of studied calm as his own image appeared on the screen.

He was cool on screen, too, whipping through the questions, bantering with Mr. Bachchan and the movie star Manoj Bajpai, who hails from Bihar and who made a special appearance with him on the show. “No one could be afraid with Amitabh Bachchan – he behaved like a friend,” Mr. Kumar said. He also engaged the actors’ questions about Jam Saut seriously, agreeing that no one should have to live that way in India today.

Back to the game: A question came about the opposing team in cricket star Sachin Tendulkar’s last match. “Pakistan,” Mahesh Kumar hissed at the image of his son on screen, before the multiple choice answers came up. But Mr. Kumar had handled the question just fine.

Watching him, Sister Sudha recalled the summer Mr. Kumar was 2. He contracted polio although his mother had faithfully had him and her other three children vaccinated. (He likely received a fake or poorly made vaccine, which used to be a problem in the early days of India’s polio program.) She was heartbroken. Mr. Kumar survived the fever, but was left with one leg paralyzed and was left scrambling on the ground. His family could not afford the five-cent return bus fare to the government hospital for prescribed therapy.

Sister Sudha and his mother embarked on a relentless campaign of physiotherapy; his mother massaged his paralyzed leg with mustard oil and a paste of boiled creek snails, and they made him practise standing, leaning on a tiny cart. To this day, Shanthi Devi and Sister Sudha get teary when they retell the story of the day when he was 4, and took his first steps back on his feet. Today, Mr. Kumar walks with just a slight limp.

Sister Sudha pushed him into school, as part of her campaign to get the local government school to educate Dalit children. Bored and neglected there, he dropped out in Grade 4. But she knew he was bright and hounded him, and urged Mr. Sinha to enroll him at the new centre. Now Mr. Kumar is the top student, and plans to become an engineer. He took a teacher from the centre on the show with him – but it was to Sudha didi [elder sister] he turned quietly on Sunday night and said, “Thank you. This is because of you.”

Sister Sudha replied brusquely, “It’s because you work hard.” But she was beaming, watching Shanthi Devi watch her son.

Mr. Kumar has just one regret. There was something he wanted to tell Mr. Bachchan on the show and, amidst the lights and cheering, he never had the chance.

“My mother always tells other people in our village, ‘Take your children to school’ and they don’t listen. I want to say to all the villagers, on behalf of my mother, send your children because – look at me.”

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