Slumdog Millionaire propelled nine-year old Rubina Ali to instant stardom and fame. However, too much fame can be a bad thing for a pretty little girl from an impoverished background. She has been subject to near constant media attention, witnessed brawls between her mother and stepmother over her custody and, most recently, been the subject of a dubious international sting operation.
The British tabloid News of the World purported to have caught Rubina's father, Rafiq Qureshi, on video agreeing to a deal to sell the girl to an Arab sheikh for 200,000 pounds (about $280,000). The story quoted Qureshi's brother as saying, "The child is special now. This is not an ordinary child. This is an Oscar child." Without bothering to check the allegations with Qureshi, Indian newspapers and cable television channels descended on Rubina in her home in a slum in Bandra, a suburb of Mumbai, asking her to clarify the incident. Qureshi has consistently denied the tabloid's claims and has not been arrested despite widespread reports in Indian newspapers and on television to the contrary. (See the real slum of Slumdog Millionaire.)
Rubina's biological mother Khurshida, who does not live with her and has been engaged in a custody battle over the child, then registered a case against Qureshi in the local police station. The Mumbai Police, however, have not found any evidence to back up Khurshida's claims or the tabloid's charge of attempted trafficking. "We had only called him in for an inquiry," says M. Dewar, the investigating officer at the local police station.
The authorities did, however, ask a local non-profit group, Childline, to meet Rubina and check on her well-being. "Our chat with the child was informal and was not intended to explore any story or seek the child's version of events or even to determine whether the story was genuine or not," a Childline spokesman said. The group has not yet been able to establish anything about Rubina's relationship with her mother, father or stepmother. "Those require a number of sittings and a variety of investigations," the spokesman said. (Read a story about what fate awaits Slumdog's child stars.)
In the meantime, The Jai Ho Trust, which was formed to look after the two youngest children in Slumdog Millionaire, Rubina and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, sprang into action. (It is supported by Slumdog's director, Danny Boyle, producer Christian Colson and an Indian child rights group, Plan India). The trust issued a statement saying that its representatives are in regular contact with Rubina and her parents to help protect the child's interests. "We are looking towards shifting the family out of the slum and into a flat, which will be held in trust till the children turn 18," says Noshir H. Dadrawala, one of the trustees. "We will also provide them a monthly stipend of 5,000 to 6,000 rupees ($100-$120) to cover their living costs." The trust also plans to hire a local counselor to periodically sit with the children and their families to help them "cope with fame and also how to handle the media."
That's one skill that the slums of Mumbai could never teach them. Rubina and Azhar are learning to live under a media glare that can undo the wealthiest, worldliest movie stars. The Jai Ho Trust has asked the Indian media to curtail their attention in the future, "to limit further unnecessary exploitation of her rights and interests." The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has ordered a probe by the Mumbai police of the alleged trafficking, but is also concerned about the media pile-on that followed the report. "We already have had a consultation with them [the Indian media] in January and we plan to hold workshops throughout this year to sensitize the media about child rights," says Shantha Sinha, who chairs the commission.
Too much media exposure could even put Rubina in worse danger, says Bhagyashri Dengle, executive director of Plan India, part of the Jai Ho Trust. "This constant media exposure has been very bad for her," Dengle says. "She has actually been laid bare to the attention of traffickers." When asked whether the Mumbai police will be keeping a closer eye on Rubina after this incident, a police officer in the local station laughs. "Where is the need for police watch?" he says. "Ever since the Oscars there are a hundred cameras outside her home that are tracking her every movement. They record every minute detail of her life. They have taken over our duty."