Slumdog Millionaire child stars still living in squalor
MUMBAI // 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 concrete slabs and pieces of broken pipe, but it is a losing battle. A large rat, its fur black and matted, emerges from under a discarded sack and scuttles away through the driving monsoon rain.
This is not what the young actress dreamt of when she flew back to India from Hollywood after celebrating the success of the movie Slumdog Millionaire at the Oscars three years ago.
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 two leading characters in the film, Jamal and Latika, when they were very young children.
The movie, made on a comparatively small budget for a major feature, went on to earn more than US$370 million (Dh1.36 billion) at the box office.
The children were sure they had the world at their feet, that Hollywood was waiting. They lapped up the attention and fantasised about plush apartments, plum acting roles, a world away from the squalor of their everyday reality. They had glimpsed the promised land and they wanted a part of it.
Yet three years on, their dreams are in tatters.
Rubina sits with her back to the graffitied wall of the tiny apartment that she moved into with her family six months ago. There is one living room, about 15ft by 10ft, which doubles as a bedroom for the 14-year-old, 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 it.
"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," she says.
"People promised us many things and we believed them. But my dreams have not come true."
She and Azhar sat in front of their televisions as Boyle's dazzling London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony was beamed around the world 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 proteges have lurched from crisis to crisis, feeling let down by people they believed would help them make their dreams come true.
Both had their slum shacks demolished by municipal authorities determined to crack down on illegal settlements.
Last year, Rubina lost all her Slumdog mementoes, including the dress she wore to the Oscars, in a devastating fire that ripped through the city's Garib Nagar slum.
She thought her luck had finally changed this year when the Jai Ho trust - set up by Boyle to look after the two children - belatedly bought her a permanent home.
She had dreamt of moving to Bandra West, the buzzing upmarket suburb on the opposite side of the railway tracks to her old slum home. She wanted a little slice of a life she had glimpsed but briefly.
"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.
Instead, the trust put her in an unfinished apartment in a cramped apartment block in a rundown 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? I still have to share with everyone. There are seven of us, all in here."
She gestures round the room. The walls are dirty and covered in graffiti left behind by workmen.
Tiles are falling off, with bare stretches of rough cement and a curtain to shut off the bathroom and kitchen. A pile of blankets - the family's bedding - sits on a cheap sideboard, the only piece of furniture in the room. There is a TV on one wall, a small pink plastic mirror on another.
She fiddles with her long black hair, hands covered in the fading mehndi henna designs applied to celebrate Eid. She is wearing blue jeans and a pretty blue, white and brown top.
Life is still a constant struggle, she says. 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?", she asked. "Are we all supposed to fit in there when the water comes? This place is worse than the slum."
Neither child bears any animosity towards Boyle, the man who gave them their big break.
"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 for the people he appointed to look after them and those who promised them the earth and delivered nothing, the children have only contempt and anger.
The trust stuck Azhar in a down-at-heel neighbourhood and took three more years to find Rubina a permanent home. Last month, she says, the trust told her it would not pay to make the house habitable.
"I am feeling very angry about what has happened, but what to do? The trust says that Danny Boyle has done what he wanted to do and we are to take care of ourselves."
The family say they simply cannot afford it. Both children receive a monthly allowance of Rs 7,000 (£79), but that is the only money coming into Azhar's house and Rubina's father, a carpenter, says work is hard to find.
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 is months since they have heard anything from Dragons Productions Wales, the company behind the venture, though they were assured that shooting would start this month.
Azhar is sitting on the bed of his apartment. Paint is peeling off the walls and there are damp patches. Outside, rain hammers down on greasy paths. He leans against the security bars covering the one window and stares out.
He is not as unhappy with his home as Rubina; the Santacruz area where he lives may not be anything special, but it is a far cry from the squalor in which he lived before he was plucked from obscurity.
He too shares one room with his family - mother Shamin, 45, his brother Irfan and his brother's wife Heena (his father Mohammed died from tuberculosis on the floor of the apartment not long after they moved in) 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. People talk to you better here and in the slum they throw garbage everywhere but here there are dustbins," he says.
He is getting ready for school. The children go to the same school, but Rubina is the only one of his friends to live in a house; the others still live in the slums.
"I feel bad for them because they are living in a bad place," he says.
He watched the Olympics and liked the fireworks best, but was just happy because it was the work of Danny Uncle.
"Danny Uncle is helping us. He is a very good man," he says.
Yet much of the hope he 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 me 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. Everything costs so much now."
He mentions his ghosted autobiography, Slumboy, and his eyes flash with anger.
"That woman who wrote my biography. She promised that she would give me money and she gave me nothing."
Back in Bandra West, Rubina is standing on the flat roof of the apartment block, 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.
She is quiet for a while, 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 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?"
Published: September 24, 2012 04:00 AM