The slum kid stars of Slumdog Millionaire want a lot of things in life — new houses, a car, trips to London and Paris — but they aren’t too interested in school.
Ten-year-old Rubina Ali has missed nearly 75 percent of her classes and her co-star hasn’t done much better — truancy that filmmakers say will jeopardize their trust funds and monthly stipends if it continues.
Their parents blame the absences on deaths in the family or other misfortunes, including the demolition of Rubina’s shanty by city authorities earlier this year, and have promised to do better.
The filmmakers, however, say the children are being lured away by endorsement deals, TV appearances and other opportunities to cash in on their celebrity — at the risk of losing the money set aside for them once they graduate.
“Our love got a little bit tougher today,” Slumdog producer Christian Colson said on Thursday.
“We understand there are opportunities for both kids — and for the parents of both children — to cash in, in the short term, on their celebrity. We don’t have a problem with that. But if they want to benefit from the trust, they have to get those attendance rates up,” Colson said.
Beneath the debate about school is a deeper tug-of-war between the impoverished families’ urge for as much short-term gain as possible and the filmmakers’ desire to endow the children with a secure future.
Rubina and 11-year-old Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail both grew up in one of Mumbai’s most wretched slums. They shot to fame after starring in the rags-to-riches blockbuster, which won eight Oscars.
Rubina was cast as the young Latika, who grows up to become the hero’s love interest, and Azhar plays his brother, Salim.
After filming ended, director Danny Boyle and Colson got the pair placed in a Mumbai school that helps disadvantaged children. These days, however, Azhar is showing up to class just 37 percent of the time and Rubina’s attendance is only 27 percent, said Noshir Dadrawala, an administrator of the trust.
“It’s pathetic,” said Dadrawala, adding that a flurry of awards ceremonies, festivals and fashion shows that have taken the kids to Paris, Madras and elsewhere are detracting from their studies.
These have included Rubina’s Paris trip to promote a book about her life, Slumgirl Dreaming: My Journey to the Stars, as well as a tea party at Westminster in London, a dance number on a Hong Kong TV show and, of course, a trip to Los Angeles for the Oscars.
“They are constantly going ... That’s fine, but go over the weekend, not at the sacrifice of school,” Dadrawala said.
The parents were told on Thursday that if the children do not get their attendance above 70 percent they would lose their monthly US$120 stipend. And if the kids fail to graduate, they will forfeit the lump sum payment set aside to help them get a start in life, Dadrawala said.
The filmmakers have declined to reveal the amount of the trust for fear of exposing the families to exploitation. In addition, both families are covered by medical insurance, which the trust finalized on Thursday.
Azhar’s mother, Shameem Ismail, said her son had missed school because he has been inconsolable since his father died last month from tuberculosis.
Rubina’s father, Rafiq Qureshi, said his daughter’s absences were because of the destruction of the family’s shanty last May and a cut on her leg that forced her to stay home.
“It will not happen next time,” he promised. “I also know education makes people brighter.”
Colson and Boyle were in Mumbai this week to meet with Indian filmmakers and Bollywood megastars Anil Kapoor and Aamir Khan about several film projects, including a thriller loosely based on Suketu Mehta’s book Maximum City, a journalistic memoir about Mumbai’s seamy underworld.
They also hosted a tea party reunion at the JW Marriott hotel in a posh neighborhood at the epicenter of Mumbai’s burgeoning film industry that was attended by many of the film’s child actors, including Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar, who played Latika as a young teenager.
As Rubina and Azhar swept into the Marriott’s marble lobby — Rubina in pink Puma sneakers and Azhar in a flashy silver and red jacket — they were ensnared in a net of popping flash bulbs and aggressive TV cameramen. They began to perform for the cameras: Rubina grabbed on to the bulky biceps of a celebrity bodybuilder passing through the lobby as Azhar looked on grinning.
Asked what he wanted Rubina to be when she grew up, her father said: “She should be a star.”
Dinesh Dubey, a friend of the families who attended the meeting with Boyle and Colson, said he made a special plea.
“I said, ‘Danny Boyle, I just have a request to you sir: In the new film just give them one role,”’ Dubey said.
Colson said he and Boyle would be happy to cast the kids in a new film, as long as it didn’t interfere with school.
“Everyone can dream,” Colson said. “But it doesn’t matter if you’re Azhar or Rubina or a kid in Milwaukee: It’s a precarious dream. My advice is go to college in case it doesn’t work out.”
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