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Scraps for the slumdogs

The child stars of Danny Boyle's Oscar-winning masterpiece are still looking for their ticket to the big time, reports Gethin Chamberlain

 

The rubbish lies thick and festering outside the entrance to Rubina Ali's new home, little islands of it poking through pools of foul-smelling stagnant water.

Someone has tried to improvise a precarious path across the oozing mud with a few concrete slabs and pieces of broken pipe, but it is a losing battle. A large rat emerges from under a discarded sack and scuttles away through the driving monsoon rain.

This is not what the young actress dreamed of when she flew back to India from Hollywood after celebrating the success of the movie Slumdog Millionaire at the Oscars three years ago. Back then, she and her little co-star, Azhar Ismail, believed they stood on the threshold of a new life, away from the slums of Mumbai from which they had been plucked by director Danny Boyle to play the young stars of a movie which went on to earn more than HK$1.5 billion at the box office.

Now, Rubina sits with her back to the graffitied wall of the tiny new apartment that she has moved into with her family. There is one living room, about 15 feet by 10 feet, which doubles as a bedroom for the 14-year-old and her mother, father and two sisters. Her two brothers sleep on the floor of the small kitchen. There is a toilet cubicle and a shower room - and that is all.

"When we came back from the Oscars we were so happy. We had all these dreams about what we were going to do and how our lives were going to change," Rubina says. "People promised us many things and we believed them. But my dreams have not come true."

She and Azhar sat transfixed in front of their televisions as Boyle's dazzling Olympics opening ceremony was beamed around the world from London this summer, marvelling at the spectacle, gasping at the fireworks, delighted at the success of the man they still affectionately refer to as "Danny Uncle".

But it was hard for them not to reflect on how far their lives had diverged. While Boyle has gone from strength to strength, his young protégés have lurched from crisis to crisis.

Both had their slum shacks demolished by municipal authorities. Last year, Rubina lost all her Slumdog mementos, including the dress she wore to the Oscars, in a fire which ripped through the city's Garib Nagar slum.

She thought her luck had finally changed when the Jai Ho Trust - set up by Boyle to look after the two children - finally bought her a permanent home earlier this year. (Azhar moved into his new flat in 2009, but Rubina's father, Rafiq, had turned down several offers). She had dreamed of moving to Bandra West, the buzzing upmarket suburb on the opposite side of the railway tracks to her old slum home.

"After the success of the movie, I was dreaming that we would see a good apartment and be able to have that - somewhere where I could have my own room," she says.

What she got was an unfinished flat in a cramped apartment block in a run-down part of the suburb. "I still have no privacy. In the slum it was exactly the same, so what is the difference between this and the slum?"

She gestures around the room. The walls are dirty and covered in graffiti left behind by workmen. There are tiles falling off the walls, bare stretches of rough cement and a curtain to shut off the bathroom and kitchen.

A pile of blankets - the family's bedding, which is spread out on the floor every night - sits on the cheap sideboard, the only piece of furniture in the room. There is a television on one wall, a small pink plastic mirror on another.

She fiddles with her long black hair, her hands covered in the fading mehndi henna designs applied to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, a week earlier. She is wearing blue jeans and a pretty blue, white and brown top.

The water comes on for only 10 minutes a day, and in that time the women scramble to fill buckets and other containers to last them the rest of the day. Rubina gestures at the shower room: "What use is a shower when there is no water? Are we all supposed to fit in there when the water comes? This place is worse than the slum. The building is bad and there is a bad smell."

IT WAS NEVER GOING to be simple to reintegrate the children into their old lives once they had glimpsed the world on the other side of the tracks. The contrasts were too extreme, and both came from complicated backgrounds.

Azhar's father, Ismael, died from tuberculosis on the floor of the family's new apartment not long after they moved in. He had been a heavy drinker and quick to anger, though it was clear he cared for his son and was proud of his success.

Rafiq found himself the subject of a British tabloid newspaper sting when allegations surfaced that he was trying to sell his daughter for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He denied the accusations, but the newspaper stood its ground. Rafiq, a carpenter, maintains that he cannot support his family financially, and he has proved a difficult negotiator in dealings with the trust, turning down housing to force it into raising its offers.

For Boyle and Slumdog Millionaire producer Christian Colson, the challenge has been to plot the right course in trying to safeguard the future of the children they plucked from obscurity and whose lives they inevitably changed forever. They established the trust, have paid for the children's education and put aside a lump sum that the youngsters will receive when they reach 18, on the condition that they complete their secondary education.

"When we first met Azhar and Rubina in 2007, they were living in extreme poverty in the Garib Nagar slum in Mumbai. We were aware from the start that it would not be right to cast these two children in the film without making special provision for their long-term welfare," say Boyle and Colson, jointly, via e-mail.

"To this end, we set up the Jai Ho Trust. The trustees have worked tirelessly in the best interests of both children and they have given their time and expertise pro bono in often very trying circumstances.

"We bought apartments for both kids so that they could move out of the slum - not palaces to be sure, but proper permanent homes of their parents' choosing with decent sanitation, running water and electricity. Additionally, we have provided for social-care support for both families, medical insurance and a monthly subsistence allowance.

"Crucially, we have insisted that they regularly attend the school we enrolled them into. We have maintained regular, direct contact with their teachers and we [Boyle and Colson] visit the children in Mumbai once a year to see how they are and to encourage them in their studies.

"Our philosophy has been to encourage self-reliance in both kids through education and hard work while providing a safety net that lifts them out of the extreme poverty in which we found them," they say. "We want what is best for them, but we can't live their lives for them, and their situations are compounded by difficult family circumstances over which we have little control."

There is nothing to be gained by throwing money at the problems, they say; what the children need to do is pick up some real-world skills and ambitions that would increase their chances of leading happier lives.

"Despite the circumstances we found them in, which appal our sensibilities, these were and remain really good, decent kids … Maybe they will delight everyone and live rounded, fulfilling lives. We hope we have made a contribution to that through some of the benefits the film has been able to share with them, and that in time, both children will come to think of their experience with the film as something special and treasured, rather than as a Shangri-La that never appeared," Boyle and Colson say.

"The journey into adulthood is a difficult one for many child stars and the challenges in this case have been compounded by unusually difficult circumstances. Giving large sums of money to the parents now will not solve Azhar and Rubina's problems and would, in our view, leave the children worse off in the long run.

"Significant challenges lie ahead," the filmmakers say, "but the two of us and the board of the Jai Ho Trust will continue to do what we can to help both kids in a responsible way which does not leave them reliant on a lifetime of handouts."

Neither child bears any animosity towards the filmmakers.

"I am very grateful to Danny Uncle because whatever we are is because of him. If he had not come into our lives nothing would have changed," says Rubina.

But there is still a simmering resentment that promises made over the years by others have not been kept. The local housing authority promised them new homes, but never delivered. Other promises also evaporated as interest in the pair dwindled. Both say that financial assurances they received from their biographers have been broken and their last real hope of a breakthrough - a part in a mooted British movie, Lord Owen's Lady - remains uncertain.

The children say that it has been months since they have heard anything from Dragons Productions Wales, the company behind the venture, though they were assured that shooting would start last month.

The company says it is trying to find the final £3 million (HK$37.2 million) it needs to start production and that the children remain in their plans.

THE RAIN HAMMERS down on the greasy streets of Santacruz, a nondescript area of concrete apartment blocks. Azhar is sitting in bed. The paint is peeling off the walls and there are damp patches. He leans against the security bars covering the only window and stares out.

He is not as unhappy with his home as Rubina is with hers; the area may not be anything special, but it is a far cry from the squalor in which he lived before the film.

He, too, shares one room with his family: his mother, Shamin, his brother, Irfan, and Irfan's wife, Heena. But it is 14-year-old Azhar, as the only one bringing in any money, who gets the bed. The others sleep on the floor.

"This is much better," he says. "People talk to you better here. In the slum they throw garbage everywhere, but here there are dustbins."

He is getting ready for school, the same one Rubina attends. But Rubina is the only one of his friends to live in a bricks-and-mortar home; the others still live in the slums.

"I feel bad for them because they are living in a bad place," Azhar says. "Danny Uncle is helping us. He is a very good man."

Yet much of the hope Azhar brought back from Hollywood has slowly ebbed away.

"When I came home I thought I would take my father back to Los Angeles and I would work with the big stars and the dreams have not come true," he says. "I dream about the places I went, all the luxury in LA. Everything is very nice there and here, in Mumbai, everything is slums.

"I want to be a big star. If I do the hard work, I am sure I will get the jobs. I say to Danny Boyle, please give me some more work so I can give my family some money.

"I think we have been lucky but I would like to be more lucky. The trust is helping but my family is big and the house is very small. We need more for food and clothes because we don't have enough money," he says.

Like Rubina, he believed what people told him. And like Rubina, he is angry that those people lost interest as time passed. There were actors who befriended them and promised them help, but it never came. Phone calls went unanswered. People promised them money, Azhar says, but all they did was use them and cheat them.

Though it is clear that both children still believe that they will make it in the movies, the dream is fading.

Boyle and Colson certainly believe that the children would do better to look on Slumdog Millionaire not as the launchpad for a film career but as a life-changing experience, something that has given them opportunities they would never have had otherwise.

Yet Rubina is reluctant to relinquish the dream. Back in Bandra West, she is standing on the flat roof of the apartment block, eight floors up from her flat, leaning on the parapet and gazing out towards the sea. Spread out beneath her are the metal sheet roofs of the neighbouring slum, many draped with blue tarpaulins to keep out the rain.

Beyond, the view is breathtaking, the city stretching away into the distance, new buildings soaring skywards all around. Out there are people moving into the smart apartments she thought would one day be hers, people making money, achieving the success she thought she had earned.

She is quiet for awhile, the little girl from the slums still surrounded by them, forever trying to find a way to bridge the gap to the life she can see but which remains just out of reach.

"Sometimes I feel that I am nothing," she says suddenly. "Then somebody comes to see me and I believe again."

She pauses again and looks out across the city. "But then they go away and everything goes back to how it was.

"I dream and dream of being an actress but if I don't get the work, how will people know me? How will I ever be an actress? How will I achieve my dreams?"

 

 

 

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