They could have chosen a movie star – no shortage of them, and it has been done before. They could have picked a sporting personality or a writer – again, plenty to choose from.

And yet, for the fourth season of the Marathi version of Kaun Banega Crorepati, titled Kon Honar Crorepati, the show’s makers went for a director of gritty, caste-themed dramas: Nagraj Manjule.

Manjule’s credentials are solid: he is the director of the biggest hit in the history of Marathi cinema, Sairat (2016). His first feature, Fandry (2013), won the best debut award at the National Film Awards. Both movies are regarded as game-changers in the depiction of caste in cinema. In 2018, Manjule produced the critically acclaimed Naal, about an adopted child’s quest to find his biological mother.

Yet, Manjule seems to be an unusual choice for hosting a game show that is as mainstream as it comes. The anchors are nearly always showbiz high-flyers who are vastly different from the contestants.

Or perhaps not. Who else but the self-made Manjule, who grew up in hardscrabble circumstances in a Dalit family and has a Masters in Marathi literature, to host a game show that celebrates general knowledge, aspiration and the universal desire to earn lots of money very fast?

Manjule has been anchoring Kon Honar Crorepati since it went on air on May 27 on the Sony Marathi channel. He has been guiding contestants with a confidence that belies any nervousness he might have felt when he was first approached for hosting duties. “I have never done television in any form,” Manjule told “When the people from Sony spoke to me, I was in Nagpur shooting for my film. I thought they were meeting me for a movie. I was surprised, and said yes, but I wondered, why me?”

Why indeed? A clue to what Manjule represents can be gleaned from his introduction scene in the first episode. He emerges from the audience section to declare to the camera: there was a time in my life when I wanted to be one of the contestants. Now, I am the anchor. This is how life can change.

Kon Honar Crorepati.

The can-do quality of the game show, an adaptation of the British series Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, has proven to be deeply popular in India. The first version in Hindi, Kaun Banega Crorepati, was aired in 2000. Bollywood’s eminence grise, Amitabh Bachchan, has been the face of KBC since its inception (Shah Rukh Khan stepped in for the third season, but even this self-made millionaire could not dent Bachchan’s popularity).

Bachchan began hosting Kaun Banega Crorepati after a string of low-performing films. He rediscovered stardom through the television screen and set the tone for subsequent anchors with his trademark gravitas, ability to calm nervous contestants and smoothly roll out scripted small talk. He will return for the eleventh season, which is expected to go on air on Sony in a few months.

The success of Kaun Banega Crorepati has led to several Indian language spin-offs, including Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Bhojpuri and Bengali. There’s even a Kashmiri version, Kus Bani Koshur Karorpaet, which is being currently aired on DD Kashir.

The anchor has always been a prominent actor. Manjule is the exception: he does have a few acting credits, but he is primarily known as a filmmaker. He replaced the Marathi movie stars Sachin Khedekar, who hosted the first two seasons, and Swapnil Joshi, who sat on the bar stool-like chair for the third season.

“No director has enjoyed the status Nagraj has, he is a phenomenon and an inspiration,” said Ajay Bhalwankar, Business Head for Sony Marathi. “It goes beyond Sairat – he stands for people who want to climb up in life. He has seen hardship, he has no formal background in filmmaking, and is the very opposite of glamour. He has folkloric status.”

Sairat (2016).

A recent visit to the set of Kon Honar Crorepati at Mumbai’s Film City studio revealed Manjule’s ability to forge a connection with his contestants. Beyond the lot where the game show is being filmed over 12-hour shifts, actresses playing air hostesses for a fictional airline scurried about on a set that declared itself to be Amritsar airport.

On the set of Kon Honar Crorepati, however, the line between make-believe and reality was being erased. Archana, the owner of a crockery shop in Pune, had taken the hot seat across from Manjule, who was trim and professorial in a grey suit and power-blue shirt.

Archana had won the inaugural fastest finger first segment – she was the quickest on the draw with the question that privileged her over the other contestants. They watched, as did Archana’s husband from the audience, as she took on questions that ranged from botany to civics.

Sairat loomed over the moment when Manjule asked Archana whether she was anything like the movie’s heroine, who is also named Archana.

As show director Amit Phalke’s voice floated in from the console at the back, Manjule went through the motions. While the question-and-answer sessions were recorded in real time, there were retakes for anchor links that needed to be polished. The lighting changed too – aquamarine one moment, crimson another.

An exchange about Archana’s lack of confidence about speaking English drew assuring words from Manjule. There are people who have never seen a lakh of rupees in their lives, he observed, once again reminding his viewers that despite his personal fame and fortune, he could emphathise with their reasons for watching and wanting to be participate.

The contestants have included a housewife, a vegetable vendor, and a Maharashtra Public Service Commission candidate, Sony’s business head Bhalwankar said. The current season of Kon Honar Crorepati follows the original format of 15 questions that lead up to the Rs one-crore prize. “It’s not just about earning money, but also going up in life,” Bhalwankar added. Successful contestants get professional investment advice from Sony Marathi. A segment called Karamveer invites social workers to play for big stakes and donate their earnings to charity.

Kon Honar Crorepati.

For Manjule, a highlight of his stint in the big chair is the opportunity to chat with a variety of people. “People want to meet me afterwards, and that is always nice,” he said. “Some of them want to chat, others want to take photos. Some ask for roles, and others show me their scripts.”

Manjule’s ability to switch accents, depending on which part of Maharashtra the contestants are from, and his earthiness and unfussy ways, are also factors that endear him to viewers, Bhalwankar observed.

“Nagraj has made films about common people, and he fits the format of KHC’s everyday heroes,” Bhalwankar said. “When we chose Nagraj, we thought he would be able to appreciate the efforts being made by people to prove their worthiness. It’s warm and intimate, and the contestants are relating to the host.”

For those who care about this kind of thing, Manjule is the Marathi equivalent of Amitabh Bachchan. The fact that Manjule’s first Hindi movie, Jhund, stars Bachchan as a football coach, makes this ascent that much more momentous.

“This is an amazing coincidence,” Manjule said. “Of course, I cannot compete with him. I am anchoring the show on the basis of my own experiences.”

Kon Honar Crorepati is expected to run until August 15. Meanwhile, post-production work on Jhund is underway.

Whether or not he sees it that way, Manjule has become something of a brand among Marathi filmmakers, the man with the golden touch who has realised his dreams and is bringing others closer to theirs.

“I don’t really see myself as a brand,” he observed. “I didn’t do the show for that reason. I am a part of people’s lives. I am going into their homes, and that’s what I like most about the show.” It’s time for another fastest-finger-first round, another go at wish fulfillment, and another opportunity to remind contestants that if Nagraj Manjule can, so can they.

Naal (2018).