First, Rubiana Ali and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, both 9 years old, starred in an Oscar-winning motion picture. Now they are appearing in real-life soap operas. The paparazzi are everywhere, as are reporters who want to talk to the kid stars of Slumdog Millionaire. Their lives are making the gossip columns and headlines in their native India and overseas. Azhar was reportedly slapped by his father when the boy, begging fatigue from traveling back from the Academy Awards in Hollywood, refused to give an interview his father had apparently promised. (Both were penitent afterward: Azhar said he had been "naughty," according to the Times of India, and reiterated that his father loved him; his father said, "I feel sorry now.") Meanwhile, Rubiana is supposedly in the middle of a custody tug-of-war between her biological mother and the stepmother who raised her. India's Minister of Women and Child Development has expressed concern over both cases.
The various parties promising to look after the two Slumdog children including the movie's director, Danny Boyle might benefit from the experience of the Salaam Baalak Trust, which was formed to look after the kids who were part of another Western-financed movie made in India. Set up by the producers of Salaam Bombay!, the trust looked after the welfare of 27 slum children who were part of Mira Nair's film about Mumbai street kids, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar 20 years ago. With several thousand dollars raised at the film's premiere, the trust provided the children with an education and a safe place to live, as well as medical treatment and counseling. Says Sanjoy Roy, a founding member: "We also supervised their investments and, till the age of 18, the way they spent their money. We arranged for vocational training for some." But despite the best efforts of the trust, says Roy, most of the children took to petty crime. Two of the cast died one from an AIDS-related illness and the other in a motorcycle accident. (See pictures from the life of Slumdog director Danny Boyle.)
Hansa Vithal, the only girl in the Salaam Bombay! group, has married and now lives in Bhayandar, a western suburb of Mumbai. Meanwhile, Shafiq Syed, the lead child actor of the movie, led a roustabout life for years before ending up as an auto-rickshaw driver in Bangalore. Syed gave an interview to an Indian paper the week after Slumdog's Oscar victory, saying, "I roamed the streets of Mumbai, knocked on the doors of producers for nearly eight months, but luck did not smile. In 1993, I returned to Bangalore and began life anew. I've three children who are studying." He said he is writing a screenplay and hopes it will get made into a film someday. (See what life is like in a Mumbai slum.)
Roy counsels that while the producers of a movie "have a moral obligation to ensure that the kids benefit from their involvement with the movie, [they] cannot be held to ransom if the children are unable to make it in their lives." Almost everything, says Roy, depends on an individual child and how he or she matures after the spotlight shines elsewhere. The problems begin almost immediately. "When a slum child becomes famous and comes into money," says Roy, "all sorts of relatives start coming out of the woodwork and laying claims on the money and alleging all sorts of things." To that end, the Salaam Baalak Trust tries to ensure that resources and efforts are spent on education. It also has under its care a boy named Salim who played the role of Jamal in the film Little Terrorist, which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Live Action Short in 2004. Says Roy: "He has immense interest in theatrics and dance. But we made clear to him that he needs to concentrate on education first, and then we will help him hone his interest in acting and dance."
Another foundation, Kids with Cameras, set up to look after the eight children of prostitutes featured in the 2004 documentary Born into Brothels, fared much better with its wards. The children were taught to take photographs and sell them. "The kids have earned over $100,000, which goes directly to their education," says Ross Kauffman, one of the film's producers. Two of the children have gone on to study in the U.S. Still, the kids have to make the choice themselves to better their lives. Some of them have great difficulty doing so. One of the girls has apparently fallen back into the darkness the film was trying to save her from. Local police say she was once rescued from the Sonagachi red-light district, the focus of the documentary, and housed in a juvenile-welfare home until February 2006. But soon after she was released, she returned to the trade.
The one hard-fought success story out of the Salaam Bombay! cast was Raju Barnad, who at age 8 played Keera. Recalls the movie's cinematographer, Sandi Sissel: "He was tiny, and we all thought he was about five years old. He slept outside my guest-room door each night, and ultimately I invited him inside to bathe and sleep on a cot." Growing attached to the child, Sissel enrolled him in a Missionaries of Charity school for street children. She also sent money to the boy's mother.
That did not turn out to be a good idea. Says Sissel, referring to Barnad by his current name: "If you give young kids in the slums money, then they do not see it. The mother took whatever I sent to Bernard. Toys were sold. Books were sold. Cash was taken. They lived in such desperation that she did what she had to do to survive. His mother's boyfriend was burning him with cigarettes. A rat bit him in his sleep, and he became infected. Horror stories that do not end."
Sissel then started thinking of adopting the child. "At first," she says, "I just wanted Bernard to come to L.A. for a visit. Once in L.A., he expressed a desire to stay and go to school. Keep in mind, Bernard could not read, write, count or speak English beyond basic words. I had a lot of Indian friends who got involved. I registered him in an elementary school in Santa Monica." Eventually he was given a student visa to study in the U.S. Now Bernard Chambliss Sissel, he is 30 and a married father working as a camera assistant at Panavision Camera. Says Sandi Sissel: "Making something of himself and not trying to grow up so fast was a harder road to take. These kids steal to eat, lie to get by, outwit tourists to get money. It takes years for them to understand that education is the only way. It has not been easy, given his background, but he is doing well."
Slumdog director Boyle and the film's producer, Christian Colson, have said that resources will be made available to pay for Rubiana's and Azhar's education until they turn 18. A "substantial lump sum" as well as housing will also be given to the children when they complete their studies. The producers have also arranged for a rickshaw to take the children to a nonprofit English-language school, Asheema, for the next eight years, just to make sure they attend. Already there are signs of new affluence in the kids' slum dwellings. Rubiana's house was reportedly fitted with a 32-in. LCD TV screen and a new gas stove.
As heartwarming as the story of Rubiana and Azhar may turn out to be, it must be balanced against the heartbreak of so many other slum kids from Mumbai and the immensity of the problem they represent. According to India's most recent census, the country has 115 million kids out of school. Many millions of them, it can be inferred, make their lives in the teeming and desperate streets. And they have no Hollywood protectors to help them.