Sunday, January 18, 2009

He Answers

"When people ask me questions, I answer," says Jamal Malik (Dev Pastel) in Danny Boyle's wonderful, gritty "Slumdog Millionaire." He's trying to prove to a Mumbai police inspector that he hadn't cheated in the process of coming within one question of winning 20 million rupees ($500,000) on "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" The investigation reveals that each pivotal experience in his life -- seeing his mother killed by an anti-Muslim mob, learning an old Indian song from a sadistic Mumbain Fagin, swiping tourists' shoes at the Taj Mahal -- helps him answer one of the questions leading to the grand prize. It's hard to imagine suitable questions lining up quite so conveniently on a quiz show. But the message is that life teaches invaluable lessons, that self-awareness is infinitely enriching, that truth begets salvation.

Jamal goes on the program not to win the money but in the hope that the woman he has loved and lost, Latika (Freida Pinto), will see him on television. The end of the deeply affecting movie has a fairy tale quality, especially when Jamal uses his "phone a friend" option. It's a dark movie, too, thanks to images of poverty and degradation on the city's streets and the struggles of Jamal's brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) to make honorable choices. He makes up for his bad ones in the end, a la "Gran Torino."

But if Salim can't always be trusted, Jamal can. He personifies integrity. Before he goes on the show, he works serving tea in the customer service department of a cellular phone company. While one of the operators goes on break, he persuades Jamal to answer the phones. The only lie I remember him telling in the movie is when he tells a customer calling from Scotland that he's right down the street from her, near the local loch. Which loch?" she asks. Looking at a travel poster on the wall, he says gamely, "Loch Big Ben."

There's some truth for us in the scene, since we're sometimes miffed when we call American Express or VISA and end up talking to someone in India. Jamal's just a fictional character. But I wouldn't mind calling an 800 number and getting him. We should be so lucky.

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