Has Fame Spoiled the Slumdog Millionaire Kids?

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Manan Vatsyayana / AFP / Getty

Slumdog Millionaire child actors Rubina Ali, left, and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail

Young Rubina Ali's social diary has been more than full these past few months: a trip to Paris; a tea party in Westminster, London; a dance show in Hong Kong; product endorsements; and numerous trips in and out of India for award shows and to promote the Slumdog Millionaire child actor's autobiography, Slumgirl Dreaming. However, the school she attends in Mumbai along with her co-star Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail is not happy with her attendance or attitude. School officials say the girl now disregards the teachers she once always greeted politely in the morning — that is, when she finds the time to attend school. Rubina's father Rafiq Ali is defending her against her teachers, saying his daughter is just a child and under a lot of pressure.

"The two major complaints from the school authorities have been low attendance and an attitude problem, not only with the children but with their parents too," says Madhumati Lade, the family counselor appointed by the Jai Ho Trust, which was established by filmmakers Danny Boyle and Christian Colson to provide shelter, education and health care support for the two young stars of their award-winning movie. Lade visits the school three times a week to check on the children's progress, and she says that for the past six months, their attendance has been steadily dipping. "Rubina has 28% attendance, while Azhar has 37%. They didn't even sit for their last examination," Lade says.

Ali tells TIME that "Rubina's attendance was low as she had burned her foot. I couldn't inform the school on time. But I went and apologized later, and requested them not to make an issue out of this. I don't understand why such a big deal is being made out of this." Azhar's mother Shamim says her son has missed school because of his father's death from tuberculosis in September. "These are all rumors," she insists. "A little irregularity has been blown up. Despite the fact that the school is quite far from where we live, I try to send him to school regularly."

Lade has been counseling the children and their families for the past few months, and she says their behavior is often rude. "I would be talking to Rubina, but she will talk to someone else or do something else, her body language making it clear that she has no interest in what I am saying. Azhar will often cut in rudely while I am talking to his mother, trying to get her away from talking to me." Shamim maintains that Azhar's rudeness is just "immaturity." She says, "He is finding it difficult to cope with his father's death. That is why he has been inattentive at school and sometimes a little bit rude with people."

Ali similarly defends his daughter: "She is only a child, and sometimes she doesn't like to listen to an adult. Life in the slums is not very easy, and she just buckles under the pressure sometimes. Maybe that's why she has not been as polite as she normally is."

The Jai Ho Trust was also charged with finding suitable housing for the children, outside of the slums. While Shamim and Azhar have moved into a new 250 sq. ft. apartment in Santa Cruz West, Ali has refused to move out of the slum, saying that 2,500,000 rupees ($50,000) is not enough to buy a flat. "I wanted to live in Bandra, as it is near to Rubina's school and I don't want her to travel a lot to get to school every day. Can you get a flat in Bandra for that amount? I asked them to increase the budget a little bit, to around 4,000,000 rupees ($80,000) so that I could buy a flat there. But they refused. So what can I do?"

After Slumdog Millionaire's triumph at the Oscars, the children were catapulted into stardom. Azhar tells TIME with pride, "the children in my school call me a hero." Lade, who monitors the children's progress at school through regular updates from the teachers, corroborates that the other children are awed by their status. She says the combination of sudden fame without balancing guidance at home has made the child stars lose touch with reality. "This is a matter of grave concern," says Noshir Dadrawala, one of the trustees. "Both the children have attendance below 40%. They are traveling all the time. I am not against their traveling, but they should travel over the weekends and not during the week."

When Boyle, the film's director, visited Mumbai last week, he too expressed his concern at the situation. "The Jai Ho trustees have been unstintingly generous with their time and expertise ... we hope that their ongoing efforts will help to ensure a happy and stable future for our two young stars," he said in a statement. "For that to happen, the children's families will, however, need to honor their part of the bargain, and we are disappointed that Azhar and Rubina's school attendance remains patchy."

Azhar tells TIME that he likes going to school. "My favorite subject is maths. But I like all other subjects too." He perks up when he asked what he wants to be when he grows up: "I want to be a [Bollywood] superstar like Salman Khan." Although the trustees believe the children are enthusiastic about school, they have made it clear that they will revoke the monthly stipend of 6,000 rupees ($120) if their attendance falls below 70%. "It will be reinstated the month the attendance is satisfactory," says Dadrawala, expressing confidence that after the warning, the children's attendance at school will improve.