They might have called it "Kaun Banega Lakhpati". The biggest gameshow in Indian history, the show that revitalised Amitabh Bachchan’s career, the show that emptied the streets of traffic at 9pm, was conceptualised as a half-hour weekly series where contestants would vie for a hundred thousand rupees. Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Star TV at the time, stepped in and upped the volume: He decided the show would work better as a nightly affair, and threw in a hundred times more prize money.
The idea of winning a crore in a game is immediately both obscene and sensational. Kaun Banega Crorepati—like the British original Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?—works because the stakes are preposterously high. A contestant is one answer away from winning a holiday, three answers away from raising money for a sister’s wedding, five from buying a house. The potential to literally change lives makes it more than a guessing game.
It is, therefore, fascinating to watch Quiz—a three-part miniseries directed by Stephen Frears, and streaming on SonyLIV—which shows us that Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? was itself nearly called "Cash Mountain". The series details the voyeuristic pull of the show’s now iconic format, while introducing us to a husband, a wife and a man who coughed a lot, three people who allegedly cheated all the way—onto the sets and past the last question—on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
It begins with a trial. Matthew Macfadyen (from Succession) and Sian Clifford (from Fleabag) sit in court accused of stealing a million pounds, and the public prosecutor tells the jury that they have, in the show’s parlance, a “50:50” situation, leaving them with two options: guilty and not guilty. Then the show elaborates, telling us how the game was made, and how diabolically—and unbelievably—the game may have been gamed.
When it launched, getting on to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? became like hunting for Willy Wonka’s golden tickets. People went into debt calling the numbers to make it to the show. They constructed their own fastest-finger-first machines. Communities came together to figure out what questions were likely to be asked when the show’s selectors phoned them back. A long-haired “veteran” of three Millionaire appearances—bending the rules by appearing in different countries—advertises “regional hubs” that will provide answers, and offers a room with the country’s best pub-quizzers to be used for the Phone-A-Friend option. (Much later, we see this fellow lament the birth of Google and the easy, immediate availability of information: “The bottom’s falling out of the truth market,” he says).
Wading through this world of obsessives are Major Charles Ingram and his wife Diana, both of whom get on to the show—after her brother has already reached the show five times. The major, later gaining notoriety across England as the “Coughing Major”, is reluctant to participate, appears unsure of his answers when playing and when preparing, and, as the prosecution compellingly demonstrates, appears to be changing his answers based on coughing from someone sitting right behind him. He has never heard of the musician Craig David, but wins by correctly picking him as an answer. Surely he must be guilty?
Then again, nobody said the final question was going to be easy.
The birth of Millionaire is a moment. Michael Sheen (from Good Omens) does an inch-perfect impression of quick-witted broadcaster Chris Tarrant. Approached by the producers to host the show, Tarrant is shocked by the prize money and promptly offers to pay for lunch. He is a snarky, winking host, eager to pull a contestant’s leg to get a laugh. When he hears Diana Ingram is married to a Charles, he speaks of that other couple with those names, and how they were the stuff of fairy tales, “or at least that’s how they started out”.
It is Tarrant, I now realise, whom Anil Kapoor channelled so cannily in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, where the host superciliously went after the young hero for being a “chaiwallah” (Bachchan, in contrast, hosts the Indian version with an overpowering humility, forever placing the contestant on a pedestal to make them feel special).
The prosecution points a compelling finger: The Ingrams look guilty, and those working on the show swear things felt wrong that night. The defence, however, states that when we remember something, we are in fact remembering the last time we remember it. What of confirmation bias? It is nearly impossible not to spot cheating—or imagine we can spot cheating—in hindsight. I looked up brand new episodes of Kaun Banega Crorepati (SonyLIV) and found it impossible to overlook a dairy farmer getting questions about buffaloes, and a policewoman getting questions about task forces.
Clifford is great as the eager obsessive, writing a book about “tips and tricks” and refusing to back down as she strives for the prize. Macfadyen gives the major that dumbfoundedness he wears so memorably in Succession, but also imbues him with a quiet pride. Mark Bonnar, as the man who conceives of the show, the format, the lure—the man who baits the hook, so to speak—is particularly good as an understated, unaware Dr Frankenstein. Michael Jibson, as the man with the cough, displays terrific timing, and I would like to single out a particularly fantastic cough at the end of the second episode.
Spare a thought for the victims. The British broadcaster ITV who created Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and sued the Ingrams, also later made a fortune with a documentary about them—and have now commissioned Quiz. Surely these must be the best million pounds they ever lost.
As at a pub quiz, what works best is the length. The three episodes appear straight enough—one prosecuting, one defending, one letting us make up our minds—but that leaves them deliberately uneven, like a jury. The show doesn’t excuse either guilty or innocent verdicts, toying with our preconceptions as we watch, encouraging us to believe what we’re likely to believe. Quiz tells us about a real-life scandal, while also exploring just how seductive drama can be — for an audience, and for a jury.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.