'Who wants to be a millionaire?' puts Murdoch in the dock

Rupert Murdoch has been personally summoned to appear in court in Bombay. The media tycoon stands accused of abetting gambling in India by broadcasting
Who Wants to be a Millionaire on Star TV.

Rupert Murdoch has been personally summoned to appear in court in Bombay. The media tycoon stands accused of abetting gambling in India by broadcasting Who Wants to be a Millionaire on Star TV.

The Indian version of the show, hosted by the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, has so gripped the nation that it has propelled Murdoch's Star channel to the top of the cable ratings and has become India's most popular programme ever.

But an unnamed petitioner is clearly upset by the programme's success. He claims that its invitation to viewers to answer questions correctly and win a pot of cash amounts to a breach of India's decades-old gambling laws. Summons have also been issued against the show's producer Siddharth Basu and Star's senior executive, Peter Mukerjea.

The Indian show is mainly in Hindi, with a few bits of English thrown in, and its title, Kaun Banega Crorepati, translates as "Who will now become a Ten-Millionaire?" A "crorepati" is someone who owns 10m rupees - about £153,000.

Ramesh Dubey, a clothing store owner from New Delhi, had bagged the highest amount so far, 5m rupees (£77,000) - enough to pay his business rent for three years, even after paying 60 per cent tax.

The lure of fabulous wealth has gripped not only the middle classes in big Indian cities, but also millions of poor farmers who live in villages and gather around televisions four nights a week to watch the show - which is broadcast in black and white. Only one in three households owns a television, and much of the population does not speak Hindi and yet analysts believe that close on 100 million Indians are watching the programme.

London-based Celador, which invented Who Wants to be a Millionaire, has sold the format in 30 countries - generally as a direct copy rather than an adaptation of the original. So India's Crorepati has the strobe lights and the drum rolls, and Chris Tarrant's characteristic catchphrases, such as "Is that your final answer?", also fall from the lips of Mr Bachchan. "Sure? Confident?" have entered Indian life. And, like Mr Tarrant, Mr Bachchan waves a cheque in front of the contestant's nose at crucial, nail-biting moments.

But, as elsewhere, the show has its critics. Indian television is accused not so much of dumbing down, but of a corrupting move towards westernisation. One newspaper columnist, Sukanta Chaudhuri, noted in the Asian Age that Crorepati is modelled on shows in the affluent West, writing: "One does not have to be a clichéd socialist to ponder its effects in a country where few are crorepatis, but where more and more are tempted ... to imagine they might become such."

The cost of making a phone call to compete to get on the show is, for many Indians, a day's wage. And yet, shortly after the programme was launched, the producers said it had attracted "one crore" (10 million) calls. To turn Crorepati into a political issue is not surprising in a country renowned for its strident and aggressively democratic free press.

The fact that it is presented by Mr Bachchan only adds to the debate. In the past, various Indian movie idols have attracted almost religious followings and become powerful political figures. Mr Bachchan was at the height of his career in the Seventies and Eighties when he played rebels, smugglers and other anti-establishment roles. On Crorepati, contestants occasionally kiss his feet, and he has received fan letters written in blood.

Star TV executives are plainly overjoyed by the show's success - but yesterday were not prepared to comment on the impending legal case.

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