Thursday, May 21, 2009


The 9-year-old girl who starred in “Slumdog Millionaire” dodged pieces of falling debris Wednesday as she tried to salvage twisted metal and splintered wood - all that remained of her bubble-gum pink home after authorities demolished part of a city slum where she lived.

Months after their movie swept the Oscars, Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, 10, are both sleeping on hard dirt, wondering when they, too, might go from slumdog to millionaire. Azharuddin’s home was demolished last week.

“I’m feeling bad,” Rubina said. “I’m thinking about where to sleep.”

Wednesday’s demolitions took place because the slum houses were in the way of a planned pedestrian overpass, said a railway official who refused to be named. Such demolitions are common in India’s chaotic cities.

About 11 a.m. Wednesday, demolition crews began working their way down the shanties on Rubina’s lane as dozens of police with bamboo batons and guns patrolled the area.

Ten policemen beat Rubina’s father with their sticks for 15 minutes shortly before the demolition began, sending him to the hospital, family members said.

Rubina and her stepmother salvaged what they could, as men with sledgehammers and metal bars pried apart the flimsy walls of their home.

At 1:35 p.m., there was a great creaking sound, and the last wall fell.

Rubina stood, bewildered, inside the frame of the house she grew up in, ringed by eager television cameras.

For once, she had nothing to say.

Her stepmother Munni Qureshi, who says she is four months pregnant, began shouting at the police.

“How can the police barge in anytime without giving us notice?” she hollered, then sank to the ground, weeping. Neighbors poured water over her to keep her cool as she sat in the scorching summer sun.

Nearby, a neighbor fainted. Women rushed over, grabbing the woman’s arms and legs, and tried to carry her out of the sun. “Water,” they cried. But there was no shade nearby. The houses were gone.

Rubina’s father, carpenter Rafiq Qureshi, returned from the hospital with his right arm in a clean white sling. He stepped across the threshold of the home he built seven years ago with $2,000. Above him was open sky. He rubbed his forehead with his good hand.

“It’s best that I move,” he said, adding that the filmmakers are helping find the family a new home. “They are doing what they promised,” he said.

“Slumdog” director Danny Boyle and producer Christian Colson set up a trust to ensure the children get proper homes, a decent education and a nest egg when they finish high school. They have also donated $747,500 to a charity to help slum kids in Mumbai.

Mr. Colson has described the trust as substantial but won’t tell anyone how much it contains - not even the children’s parents - for fear of making the youngsters vulnerable to exploitation.

The trust offered to rent the families apartments while they search for permanent homes, but both refused, saying they’d rather stay where they were than move to a temporary space.

Destroyed shanties often resurface. By Wednesday, temporary homes had already sprung up around Azhar’s house. Some neighbors had taken out fresh loans from local moneylenders to rebuild, at 20 percent interest a month. Azhar’s family tied blankets and blue and yellow tarpaulins to a wooden frame for shelter.

Dinaz Stafford, a clinical psychologist who helps run Salaam Baalak Trust, which works with street children in India, is not surprised that eight Oscars and over $326 million in box-office receipts haven’t done more to change the lives of the two child stars.

A film cannot change a life, she says. That takes time.

“You cannot help disadvantaged children by making a film or giving them vast quantities of money,” says Miss Stafford, who helped direct 22 street kids in the 1988 Oscar-nominated film “Salaam Bombay.”

“They’ll just spend it. The money is a nightmare. It throws them off.”

She said the biggest problem facing the “Slumdog” child stars is the distorting power of the media. “The kid thinks he’s a celebrity, then it all comes crashing down,” she said.

She also says Mr. Boyle has done a good job. “He’s stood by his children and his commitment,” says Miss Stafford. “There is no law that says filmmakers should create social welfare organizations to change the world. By making a successful film, they’ve raised an issue. That’s a way to change society.”

Associated Press writer Rajesh Shah contributed to this report.

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