'Slumdog Millionaire' Detractors Say Child Actors Were Underpaid

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 31, 2009

MUMBAI -- This tangled neighborhood of pieced-together shacks along a railroad track seems an unlikely residence for movie stars. But here is where two of the child stars of the hit movie "Slumdog Millionaire" live, amid the rusted tin lean-tos that flourish in the shadow of this city's high-rises for the wealthy.

The 8-year-old actors are at the center of controversy surrounding the Golden Globes-winning rags-to-riches movie. The film hit a sensitive nerve in India, launching soul-searching debates over the actors' compensation, the movie's portrait of the country's vast poor and the title's use of the word "dog," which some slum dwellers consider so offensive that they ransacked a theater in Bihar's state capital of Patna, where the film was being shown in India for the first time.

Emerging from her tiny, windowless shanty, the pixie-haired Rubina Ali, who plays the young romantic interest early in the film, says she loved making the movie and snapping photographs of Bollywood idols on the set. For the first time in her life, she set foot inside the city's many five-star hotels. But her father, Rafiq Ali Kureshi, a carpenter who said he was a set builder for the film, broke his leg during filming and has been unemployed since.

Living farther along the sludge-coated tracks is Azharuddin Ismail, who played a young Salim, brother of the film's main character. His family's illegal shanty was recently demolished, and his father is suffering from tuberculosis. They live under a tarp. Much of his salary from the film has been spent on his father's treatment and feeding his family, he said.

"Uncle Danny has sent us to school and is paying for that and we are happy," said Rubina, using a term of affection to refer to Danny Boyle, the film's British director. "But it's still very tough for us."

"Slumdog Millionaire" -- or "Slumdog Crorepati," as the Hindi-language version is known -- received 10 Oscar nominations and has become the modern-day fairy tale of the year in multiplexes across America. Amid the film's U.S. box-office success -- it had grossed almost $60 million by last weekend -- comes ever-rising scrutiny within India of Boyle and the film's distributors, who find themselves fending off criticism. They are accused of not having done enough to compensate some of the younger Indian actors and extras who worked on the film, and have been called peddlers of the country's poverty.

Editorial writers and film critics have said that "Slumdog's" popularity raises a larger issue: To what extent are filmmakers and artists responsible for improving the lives and fixing the societal dysfunction that made their movies possible? Or does that responsibility ultimately rest with a society or government, once its conscience has been pricked?

"We feel strongly that we want to do all we can for Rubina and Azharuddin, especially long term. And we have started the process of talking about what our responsibilities are. But at the end of the day, it is just a movie," Boyle said in an interview. "In the end, India will have to address its own issues. They are too big to be solved by our efforts alone, although we can try."

Despite its recent economic growth, India still has the largest number of malnourished children younger than 5 in the world -- a total estimated by the United Nations at 57 million -- along with some of the largest slums, especially here in Mumbai, where a vast stretch of low-lying tin roofs is the first thing visitors see from airplanes on arrival into Mumbai, the country's entertainment and financial capital.

Boyle has put both Rubina and Azharuddin in schools -- their first time to attend -- and set up a trust fund that they will have access to once they finish their education.

Still, his efforts have been marred by accusations of underpaying the child actors. The film's producers insist they have been generous, paying them more than three times the average annual salary of any adult in their neighborhood. The children's parents dispute those figures.

This week, Britain's Daily Telegraph quoted the parents as saying Rubina received 500 pounds, or roughly $730 at current exchange rates, for filming and Azharuddin, $2,475. The film producers have said the actors were paid more and given monthly and yearly stipends for schooling, although they did not release specific amounts. A third young actor in the film, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, comes from a middle-class family; his compensation has so far not been an issue.

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