Rubina Qureshi and Azharuddin Ismail, the two young Indian child actors starring in Oscar winning film Slumdog Millionaire, live the life depicted in the movie in reality as both their families reside in Asia’s biggest slum Dharavi in Mumbai.
Nine-year-old Rubina, here with her aunt and uncle, plays the young Latika in Slumdog Millionaire
Dharavi is home to more than one million people. Generations of families live in huts which are less then 30 sq meters in size. It is said that the 'natural' portrayal by Rubina and Azharuddin as slum children has contributed in a big way to the success of the film. Many questions have been asked about the measures taken and promises made by the film team and the Indian government regarding the future of these children. But how do the children themselves and their families see this?
Rubina, aged nine, sounds a bit sad that her trip to the US for the Oscars is over but at the same time she still seems to enjoy all the attention she has been receiving:
"I liked it very much. Yes, my family was scared that I would not come back. But I had to come back as there was nobody living there from my family. So I had to come back. I feel nice. Before no one bothered about me but since I started going for the shoot, everyone used to ask 'Where are you going?'"
Rubina’s father Rafiq Qureshi, father of six and currently an unemployed carpenter, says he has no problems with the media attention. "From the government we have not received anything as yet", he says. "We only heard that the Maharashtra Government wants to give us flats."
In English medium school now
The Qureshi family had to open their first bank account to cash the cheque received by Rubina for her acting. Today Rubina is the only one in her family who attends an English language school. Before the movie she used to irregularly attend an Urdu language school just like her siblings still do.
The travel costs and tuition fees for her schooling are born by the film production team. The director of the movie Danny Boyle created a trust amounting to 2,5 million Rupees (about 40,000 Euros) in the name of Rubina and Azharuddin to safeguard their future. But it has a condition wherein both the children have to be educated till the age of 18 which did not go down well with Rubina’s father: "What we said is that money is a different matter but we were educating her anyway – so why are you saying only if she studies we'll get the money."
The Mumbai based NGO, Inter Mission, has been educating children in slums like Dharavi for the last 27 years. Timothy Gaekward, the NGO’s director is critical of the measures taken by the film crew. "If you work in a community you cannot just work with one individual", he argues. "This kind of discrimination is not good. If they should provide for the child they should provide for the whole family: Relocate the full family, relocate all the children to a better school, give them good education. If they are comfortable in Urdu education – what is wrong with Urdu education? Aren’t there Urdu scholars?"
Victory - against all odds?
Slumdog Millionaire is not the first film to have used real slum children from Mumbai. Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay created a similar debate more than a decade ago. And despite setting up a trust to safeguard the future of those slum children some are back in the slums today.
But who knows? Maybe the title of the Oscar winning song comes true for Rubina and Azharuddin: "Jai ho - let there be victory". Maybe they succeed against all odds in life just like their characters did in Slumdog Millionaire...