Eight years after he won Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), Harshvardhan Nawathe, the popular game show’s first-ever winner, remembers every one of the 15 questions which propelled him to stardom and a Rs1 crore fortune (Rs35 lakh of which went to the income tax department). If he has a sharp memory, so do quite a few Indians, who watched him snag the prize on 19 October 2000 (the date the show was aired). They know he is familiar and try to play guess-the-face—“Are you a news reader? Do you play cricket? Are you in the serials?” When he is correctly identified, they have one more question: “How was the experience with Amitabh Bachchan?”
A few of the nosier ones have asked him what he’s done with the money and if he is married (the answers are: “None of your business” and “yes”, respectively, though Nawathe is too polite to give the first).
Still Still lucky: Nawathe has received business proposals for everything ranging from driving schools to hotels. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Son of a retired IPS officer and a homemaker, Nawathe grew up in a middle-class Maharashtrian home in suburban Mumbai. He’s grateful to his parents for what he considers his biggest gift—education. His dad helped him with his math homework and his mother ensured he went to school even though, sometimes, the day looked too good to spend in a classroom. His mother encouraged him to take part in KBC because he could answer most of the questions while watching the show on TV. And he could answer most of the questions posed to him by Bachchan on KBC because he was preparing for his Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exams and had read the answers to most in the course of studying for the General Studies paper.
At Nawathe’s modest home in Sion, Mumbai, over a spicy breakfast of fluffy yellow poha, a few similarities surface between Nawathe and Jamal Malik, Slumdog Millionaire’s young hero, who grew up in a Mumbai slum and went on to win the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Just like Jamal in Slumdog, Nawathe too ignored the studio audience poll tip-off when they chose Pervez Musharraf as the then president of Pakistan in answer to question No.10. Nawathe realized they were wrong, remembered a story he had read about a cricketing controversy that had a quote by Rafiq Tarar, the de facto head of the cricket board, and the then president of the country. He selected Tarar’s name, even though he had gotten the least number of audience votes. Nawathe was proved right, 300 people wrong, and he won Rs3.2 lakh.
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And like young Jamal, Nawathe is a big fan of Bachchan. But he probably wouldn’t have Jamal’s chutzpah if he had to claim an autograph. “I’ve watched all his movies, I have all of them on DVD. But I have never had the courage or felt it appropriate to tell him I am a big fan,” Nawathe says. The biggest photo frame in his white-and-orange-painted living room features Bachchan in a white kurta, standing with a 27-year-old Nawathe in a three-button suit, shot a few days after he became the first person to win Rs1 crore on KBC.
For our meeting, Nawathe, now 35, is dressed in a blue kurta with white embroidery around the neck—he looks more comfortable in the kurta than he does in the suit in the picture, (standing so close to his cine hero could have caused him to look on edge). His cheeks have filled out, but that lopsided grin is still the same and he’s unmistakably the same person who became a household name and face eight years ago. Even though most of India still recognizes him (yes, they still do, at restaurants and shopping malls), he says his life is filled with way more than those 15 minutes of fame.
Nawathe did his MBA from Scotland’s Napier University and is currently the deputy general manager of child rights at Naandi Foundation, an NGO started by K. Anji Reddy, chairman of the pharmaceutical company, Dr Reddy’s. He married Sarika Nilatkar, a Marathi theatre and TV actor in 2007, and the couple had a baby boy, Saraansh, last October. “It was an arranged marriage. One of my cousins is married into her family. My parents were looking for a match and I had already rejected a few hundred proposals,” Nawathe laughs, referring to the proposals he received after he won the show. He was stopped at traffic signals by fathers saying they had daughters of marriageable age; and his mother was approached by a maid who worked in their building with an ultimatum—either your son marries one of my three, very beautiful daughters, or he pays for one of their weddings. Sarika laughs uproariously when he recounts these stories, though she’s heard them many times before. She says some producers don’t want to pay her, saying, “Your husband is a crorepati, why do you need money?”
Money has definitely coloured most of Nawathe’s life after the win. Though it’s brought him many good things—“My first car, a silver grey Maruti Esteem VX, and I made good investments and used that money for my education”— it’s not made his life as easy as most would expect. He had to give up his childhood dream of joining the police or the Armed Forces because of the media blitz after his win. “UPSC is something for which you need a very dedicated, focused effort. I knew I wouldn’t have the same focus again. You have to study every day, the syllabus is very intense. I just couldn’t do that any more.” Nawathe feels he would have made a good police officer. “I don’t really regret it, but it was one of my ultimate goals. As a child, I used to sign my name as Police Commissioner Harshvardhan,” he says.
He admits that six months after the win, he did nothing but relax at home and party, and that he was temporarily enchanted by the glamour of Mumbai’s party set.
“I was going to all the happening parties in the city at the time. I was quite young then, and I used to think it was cool that I had friends who were covered in the press every third day,” he says. “I can’t say it disturbs you, but it does put you off track.”
Nawathe says he partied for a couple of months with a bunch of people which included cricketer Salil Ankola. “After a point of time I realized I come from a different background. I’m not like them. Slowly I began to feel left out in their company. There was nothing common. The things they spoke about were alien to me. I still used to travel in autorickshaws and taxis and would be wearing my floaters,” he recalls.
He also made friends with photographer Atul Kasbekar after he signed up the latter’s public relations agency to handle his work. “I used to meet him almost every day. I used to go to his studio if I was not doing anything, spend time there,” says Nawathe, who has now lost touch with Kasbekar. “I will never say I made a lot of friends during this time.”
What he did get was a lot of unsolicited attention. He remembers how, when he was applying for jobs, he was interviewed for 2 hours once; the interview was nothing related to the position. Most of the questions centred around Bachchan: Was he really as nice as he seemed or was he just pretending? Was that his real hair or a wig? At the end of it, after speaking to everyone from the chairman to the management, he was told: “We can't hire you as senior manager, marketing, but we can create a special position for you, where you do our public relations, with the chairman.” It was difficult to face all this, Nawathe says.
While working in project finance in Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Ltd, Nawathe realized he wasn’t really happy with his career. “I wanted to do something coming from the heart, which gave me pleasure at the end of the day,” he says. He met Manoj Kumar, CEO of Naandi Foundation, when the NGO was looking for someone to head its Mumbai project. The organization works in three main areas: safe drinking water, creating livelihood and education. Nawathe has been with them for two years, heading the education project, which works with 100 Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) schools in Ghatkopar, Worli, Borivali and Kandivali. The project works within the established BMC system, helping primary schoolchildren to cement their basics, which are often shaky.
Nawathe likens his job at Naandi to his appearance on KBC . “It was something I always wanted to do and was a great opportunity. It’s something that you’re hoping for, and it just happens,” he says. He’s happy giving back to the community and maybe one or more of the 8,000 underprivileged children that are being taught by Naandi in Mumbai will become the next crorepatis . Because in Mumbai, slumdogs and middle-class Maharashtrian boys do become crorepatis .