As unlikely award contenders go, a film about the Indian version of popular TV quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? made by the guy who brought us that classic piece of mid-90s drug-addled madness Trainspotting has to be up there with the weirdest of them. But then again, the screenplay is by the chap who wrote that equally unlikely smash hit The Full Monty – unemployed, ugly middle-aged men turn successful strippers – so perhaps we all should have known. And in any case, bar the trio of sub-par efforts that were supernatural romantic comedy A Life Less Ordinary, glossy vacuity The Beach and ill-considered sci-fi short Alien Love Triangle from 1997-2002 (likely to be dubbed “The Off Years” in future biographies), Danny Boyle is one British director of whom we can all be hugely proud.
Because although Boyle may well still be best known for 1996’s quirkily iconic Trainspotting – another unexpected hit that drummed up more than its share of controversy and has already earned a well-deserved place on that exclusive list of modern classics – he’s actually been pretty successful in a huge range of genres. Be it the psychological thriller Shallow Grave back in 1995 – a claustrophobic study of psychosis worthy of Hitchcock (if Hitchcock had ever made films for the MTV generation) – or the groundbreaking zombie apocalypse flick 28 Days Later in 2002, sweet family comedy Millions in 2004, or tensely philosophical sci-fi piece Sunshine in 2007, Boyle has an uncanny knack to shift genres with near effortless ease.
Based on the bestselling and award-winning debut novel by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, Q and A, the film follows the story of impoverished Mumbai teenager Jamal (played by big screen newcomer Dev Patel, previously seen on infamous teen sitcom Skins, and proving himself a promising young talent here), who not only manages to land a place on India’s version of the Chris Tarrant-fronted TV quiz, but also makes it right through to the ultimate prize. With such a feat still being such a rare occurrence, suspicions are naturally raised. How did someone with no education from the destitute slums manage to answer so many difficult questions correctly? Did he cheat, and if so, how?
And so comes the exploration of Jamal’s background as he tries to explain how he managed to get so many questions right despite his impoverished origins. With the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? having prize money worth – in terms of the country’s average wealth – vastly more than that of the gameshow’s other international variants, and with strict rules to prevent anyone with too much formal education getting on the show, little wonder that the show’s producers are keen to avoid an episode like the infamous coughing incident that his the UK version back in 2001 with winner Major Charles Ingham eventually convicted of deception. In any case, jackpot winners are so rare on the show – with only six in its ten year UK history, and only four on the Indian version since it launched in 2000 – little wonder that when the top prize is achieved suspicions are raised.
The end result is an engaging, sweet and never predictable detective story with an impressive 93% positive rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, a grand yet modest jigsaw that slowly falls into place as flashbacks splice with the present and Jamal’s story becomes that first of India and then of all of us in a film that by describing any further would be ruined. With numerous awards already under its belt, this modestly-budgeted effort from one of Britain’s finest modern directors is not to be missed.