For Child Stars, Life After 'Slumdog Millionaire' Full of Promise -- and Skeletons

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 20, 2009

MUMBAI -- Never again would Azhar Mohammed Ismaill, 11, sleep in the overcrowded warren of shanties and festering lean-tos known as Garib Nagar, literally "city of the poor." Azhar, one of the child stars of the Oscar-winning film "Slumdog Millionaire" recently moved with his family to a new home in Mumbai: a modest two-room apartment on the ground floor of a high-rise called Harmony.

The apartment was a gift from "Slumdog" director Danny Boyle, whose film grossed $300 million. On the rooftop of his new building, Azhar, 11, danced as he watched jetliners take off from the airport. He recognized the emotion as similar to what his character, Salim, must have felt as he looked out over the Mumbai skyline and said: "India is the center of the world now, brother. I am at the center of the center."

Azhar's real-life journey -- and those of the other child stars in "Slumdog," including his elfin co-star Rubina Ali, 9 -- has been a roller coaster of personal tragedy and red-carpet glamour. In many ways, they are experiencing at warp speed the masala of euphoria and turmoil that India's vast poor feel as they emerge from the iron bonds of caste and class to an era of genuine social mobility.

Over two decades, India has awakened from a drowsy agricultural nation and into an industrial one that has lifted millions out of poverty. Rapid urbanization and the opening of markets has broken down feudal village roles and inspired young Indians to grab hold of new destinies in cities far from their birthplaces. Mumbai has become a magnet for a new generation of Indians, a New York of India, where professions are no longer inherited, where hundreds sleep on the street for a chance at a better life.

Unlike Azhar, Rubina has not seen her fortunes improve much since the movie in which she plays the young ragpicker Latika. She filmed a soda commercial with Nicole Kidman and collaborated with an Indian journalist to write her autobiography this year.

But her family's shack was demolished by city municipal workers and later rebuilt in the same spot, next to an open sewer and piles of garbage. She remains in the slums because her father, despite Boyle's offers for a new home, isn't sure he wants to leave. He also was caught in an undercover sting by a British newspaper where he allegedly agreed to sell her for adoption to a wealthy Dubai family for the equivalent of $290,000; he denies the allegation.

The way Rubina and Azhar's lives have diverged also tells the story of an India where some are forging ahead while others struggle and worry they will be left behind.

"But to me," said Vikas Swarup, the author of "Q&A," a novel on which the film is based, "the most enduring image was at the Oscars, when Rubina and Azhar shared the stage with Steven Spielberg. That was the central message of the film: Whether you come from a slum or a five-star home, what matters is not where you are from, but where you are going, and that is an enormous change in psychology of Indians.

"Yes, they have gone from zero to hero. Yes, they have been touched by magic. But their journey -- in its spirit -- is not very different from the spirit of Mumbai, the feeling across Indian cities and towns today -- which is full of stories of people who are at ground zero of the great Indian dream."

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Just six months ago, Azhar and Rubina were walking the red carpet at in Los Angeles at the Academy Awards. Azhar wore a bowtie and tuxedo, his hair neatly oiled. He held hands with Rubina, who wore a sea-blue princess dress with matching headband over her pixie hairstyle, her hands festooned with traditional henna.

"Angelina Jolie," cooed Azhar, recently lounging in his new home. "She was so beautiful."

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