Thursday, February 19, 2009


They are not your typical movie stars. Ten-year-old Azharuddin Moham med Ismail lives in a lean-to made of tarpaulins and blankets. Nine-year-old Rubiana Ali’s home is a tiny bubble-gum pink shack. A murky open sewer runs down her narrow lane.

Plucked from one of Mumbai’s teeming slums to star in the Oscar-nominated hit “Slumdog Millionaire,” they are India’s real slumdog millionaires.

Like the film’s hero, an impoverished tea seller who wins money and love on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” they now have a chance to escape the grinding poverty they were born into. Yet, as their still-unfolding story shows, things never go as smoothly in real life.

The filmmakers are helping the children, but they are fast discovering that good intentions and deep pockets don’t guarantee success. Meanwhile, sudden fame and relative fortune are sowing resentment within the families and with neighbors, who wonder why their big-eyed boys weren’t cast instead.

The Fox Searchlight release has grossed more than $100 million, but the children’s lives seem nearly as fragile as before.

“He’s supposed to be the hero in the movie, but look how he’s living,” said Azharuddin’s mother, Shameem Ismail, sitting on a rotting board outside their lean-to. “It’s a zero.”

About 65 million Indians, roughly a quarter of the urban population, live in slums, according to government surveys.

“Most of them are doomed to remain as they are,” said Amitabh Kundu, dean of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Social Sciences in New Delhi.

It’s too early to tell whether Rubiana and Azharuddin - Azhar to his friends - will buck the trend.

The filmmakers debated whether to use slum kids at all.

“Part of your brain thinks, would it distort their lives too much?” says Danny Boyle, the film’s British director. “Then someone said, ‘These people have so much prejudice against them in their lives. Why should we be prejudiced against them as well?’ ”

Rubiana was cast as the young Latika - who grows up to become the hero’s love interest - and Azhar played the hero’s brother Salim.

Mr. Boyle and producer Christian Colson figured education was the best way to help the youngsters. They got them places in Aseema, a nonprofit, English-language school for underprivileged kids in Mumbai.

Some arrive at Aseema with matted hair, never having seen a mirror before. Many need counseling. On one blackboard, the lesson of the day read: “I must close my mouth when I eat.”

School chairwoman Dilbur Parakh said that half make it through high school and that she tries to find vocational training for the rest.

The filmmakers also paid the children for 30 days of acting work, gave the families a small monthly stipend and set up trust funds that Rubiana and Azhar can tap once they graduate. Mr. Colson describes the amount in the trust as substantial, but won’t tell anyone how much - not even the parents - for fear of making the children vulnerable to exploitation.

As the movie’s popularity swelled, the filmmakers’ plan began to fray.

Journalists swarmed the school, forcing Rubiana and Azhar to stay home. The families started demanding more, asking for cash and new houses, Mr. Colson says.

When the city razed Azhar’s neighborhood, Mr. Colson wired the family money for a new home. He doesn’t know what happened to the money.

Most troubling, he said, is that the parents’ commitment to seeing their children through school has waned.

So the filmmakers have agreed to buy apartments and allow the families to move in. However, they won’t transfer ownership to the parents until Rubiana and Azhar finish school at age 18.

The filmmakers also have faced criticism that they didn’t fairly compensate the children, but they have declined to reveal how much they paid, again citing fear of exploitation.

“It’s becoming a full-time job dealing with the daily hassle,” Mr. Boyle says. Still, he added, “I’m glad we did it, even with all the headache.”

He hopes to give Rubiana and Azhar an education rather than a jackpot - what he called a “slow nurturing” instead of “a sudden dash for glory.”

“Moviemaking is distorting,” Mr. Boyle says. “The last thing you want to do is turn them into a star.”

Directing movies, however, is easier than directing lives. Stardom is already distorting Rubiana’s world.

The latest additions to her family’s meager belongings - some stainless steel pots and old blankets - are two small photo albums. Inside are photographs of Rubiana wearing a glittering salwar kameez outfit and sitting in a helicopter, ready to fly off to a strange new world of red carpets and Bollywood heroes.

Yet on the narrow, dirty lanes Rubiana knows best, most children speak Hindi and Urdu and forgo school to work.

Azhar’s mom, wrapped in the sparkly pink sari she wore to the movie opening, wonders where all the money the filmmakers promised is.

“I don’t know if I should go ask them if money is coming in,” she says.

Her husband usually brings in 1,500 to 3,000 rupees ($30 to $60) a month selling scrap wood, but he’s now hospitalized with tuberculosis, Miss Ismail says.

Azhar sat at her elbow, distracted. His friends had been staring at him as he talked with one journalist after another.

“My friends have seen me get new clothes and go in cars and get books,” he said. “Even they want that sort of life.”

He celebrated his birthday recently by buying a cake and balloons for his neighbors.

Now he wanted to buy his friends chocolate, but his mother controlled the purse strings.

Azhar began to cry. Tears ran down his small face.

“It’s my money, and you are using it!” he shouted.

“We have 200 rupees,” his mother said. “I’ll give you some later.”

He kept crying, twisting his body in small unhappy thrusts. “You’re not giving me money,” he yelled. “You’re spending it on other things.”

His mother grabbed a piece of brick and raised it over her head.

“Is it your money?” he shouted, daring her: “Hit me. You hit me!”

Then he fled.

Suddenly, school, Bollywood and the upcoming Oscars all seemed terribly irrelevant.

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