MUMBAI (Reuters Life!) – Rubina Ali is already a Hollywood star, and now the 9-year-old “Slumdog Millionaire” actress, who lives in a one-room shack with her family in a Mumbai slum, has her eyes firmly set on Bollywood.
Her dream has been whetted by the clamorous media attention and glitzy parties that followed the Mumbai premiere of the Oscar-nominated movie, a rags-to-riches tale of a young boy from a Mumbai slum, in which Ali plays the leading lady as a girl.
“I like films. I like poems and I like my school,” said the bright-eyed girl, popping a piece of chewing gum in her mouth before confidently reciting English poems to visitors, her nose stud gleaming and pigtails bobbing.
Ali’s education at an English-language school, where she is in the first grade, is a gift from “Danny Uncle,” director Danny Boyle, who has denied a report in Britain’s Daily Telegraph that slum children in the film were poorly paid.
The school — Ali’s first — and photographs of the premiere and a helicopter ride for the kids in the film are among the few mementos Ali’s mother, Munni, has of the movie that is raking in awards even as they continue to live in a shack no different from dozens around them, with no windows, running water or toilets.
“She was very happy to be in the film. Now she wants to be in more films Danny Boyle makes and become a star,” Munni said of the movie that has generated controversy in India over its name, its depiction of the poor and the treatment of the cast.
“She’s very stubborn, very spoiled because she’s the youngest child. Whatever she wants, she gets,” she said, as she puts away her daughter’s school backpack, black shoes and white socks.
Ali and Azharuddin Ismail, who also plays a slum child in the feature, were enrolled last June in English-language schools paid for by Boyle, who also met their teachers.
Boyle has arranged to pay about 1,500 rupees ($31) monthly for their fees and other living expenses above the money paid for their work. Fox Star Studios, which released the film in India, said their wage was three times the average local annual adult salary for a month’s work, but they would not give a figure.
Boyle and producer Christian Colson will pay for the kids’ education until they are 18 years old, and a “substantial lump sum” will also be given when they complete their studies to encourage them to continue with their education, Boyle has said.
Despite the funds, Munni, who works as a domestic helper, is uncertain about her daughter’s future and is also concerned about their inability to move into a proper house.
“We are poor people. Bringing up five children is hard,” she said. “Danny Boyle is a good human being … but we are poor, and we would like to buy a home. We have said we need help. He can show more kindness if he wants.”
The open sewer outside the door and the smoky fires that cook the evening meal are a far cry from the flashbulbs and sequined gowns that Ali and her mother wore at the Mumbai premiere.
The new clothes, paid for by Boyle, are now folded away in bags and boxes piled high on shelves that line the wall. Barbie stickers and spangly plastic bangles mark Ali’s corner.
“The film has done so well and won so many awards, it is only fair that these children’s lives should change more,” said Nicholas Almeida, a social activist and slum dweller who has filed a complaint against the film’s title in a local court.
Boyle’s munificence also appears to be out of reach for Ismail’s father, who was admitted this week to a hospital to be treated for tuberculosis.
The family was forced to move two months ago into a shack with flimsy plywood walls and a tarpaulin sheet for a roof after a wall that propped up their old shack was demolished.
“What is the use of the money? I am a sick man. The government is taking care of me, not those people,” he said, sitting on his bed in a crowded government hospital.
For Ali’s mother, Munni, the potential demolition of their home — which, like most shanties in this teeming city, is an encroachment on government-owned land — is also a worry.
But her daughter’s immediate concern is to master the art of signing autographs, which she practices in reporters’ notebooks.
“I want to be a star like Preity Zinta,” she said, referring to a popular Bollywood actress, her head bent in concentration as she spelled out the letters of her name in English.