THEIR roles in Slumdog Millionaire have won them international acclaim and seen them rub shoulders with the film’s glamorous stars and its British director.
But the reality of life for Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Ismail is far closer to that of the characters they play in the story of love, violent crime and extreme poverty in India.
The child actors’ parents have accused the hit film’s producers of exploiting the eight-year-olds, disclosing that both face uncertain futures in one of Mumbai’s most squalid slums.
Slumdog Millionaire has already won four Golden Globes and is nominated for 10 Oscars. It is on its way to making hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.
The film’s British director, Danny Boyle, has spoken of how he set up trust funds for Rubina and Azharuddin and paid for their education. But it has emerged that the children, who played Latika and Salim in the early scenes of the film, were paid less than many Indian servants.
Rubina was paid $1060 for a year’s work while Azharuddin received $3600.
Both were found places in a free “English medium” school, usually attended by relatively poor children, and receive $42 a month for books and food. However, they continue to live in grinding poverty and their families say they have received no details of the trust funds.
This week, their parents said that they had hoped the film would be their ticket out of the slums, and that its success had made them realise how little their children had been paid.
Their payments were considerably worse than those received by the Afghan child stars of The Kite Runner, who embarrassed their Hollywood producers when they disclosed that they had been paid $19,000.
Rubina and Azharuddin live a few hundreds metres from each other in a tangle of makeshift shacks alongside Mumbai’s railway tracks at Bandra. Azharuddin is in fact worse off than he was during filming: his family’s illegal hut was demolished by the local authorities and he now sleeps under a sheet of plastic tarpaulin with his father, who suffers from tuberculosis.
“There is none of the money left. It was all spent on medicines to help me fight TB,” Azharuddin’s father, Mohammed Ismail, said between fits of coughing.
“We feel that the kids have been left behind by the film. He should have been taken care of. We should have been taken care of. He is a hero of the film. He should have been taken to London. They have told us there is a trust fund but we know nothing about it and have no guarantees,” he said.
Further down the tracks, an open sewer trickles past the hut that Rubina shares with her parents, older brother and sister. Her father, Rafiq Ali Qureshi, a carpenter, broke his leg during filming and has been out of work since.
“I am very happy the movie is doing so well, but it is making so much money and so much fame and the money they paid us is nothing. They should pay more,” he said.
“I have no regrets. I just had no knowledge at the time of what she should have been paid.”
His daughter has been overwhelmed by the glamour of her experience and idolises Freida Pinto, who plays her character as an adult.
“I want to be a star like Freida. I am going to ask Danny-uncle [director Boyle] to take me to London and be in more films. I want to travel the world and wish I could still be with the Slumdog team,” she said.
The film’s producers were unavailable for comment.