Gethin Chamberlain in Bombay for Grazia, 21 September 2009
IT is raining, the water dripping from roofs of tin and plastic into the pale grey ooze of the drain running down the narrow lane between the shanties that make up Bombay’s Garib Nagar slum.
Rubina Ali, Slumdog Millionaire starlet and precocious 10-year-old, is skipping from one concrete slab to another, trying to avoid the stinking puddles and the filth strewn all around. It is futile: the dirt is as much a part of the slum as are its 5,000 impoverished inhabitants.
Six months after the movie took the Oscars by storm, the little girl plucked from the slum to capture the hearts of a worldwide audience is no closer to escaping its clutches. The film has grossed more than £86 million, but the £480 she received has long since gone. Most of it went on treatment for her father’s broken leg; the rest she used to buy a mobile phone. But the phone, too, is gone, smashed to pieces when the council sent in the bulldozers to demolish the family’s home a couple of months back.
The slabs run out and she splashes through the mud until she reaches a small shop by the side of the railway line that marks the edge of the slum. Pushing a couple of rupee coins into the slot of a battered gaming machine, she hammers away at the buttons, manipulating the on-screen fighters. After a few minutes, the screen flashes up the word “Winner” and she dances a little jig of excitement.
A couple of miles away, in a grubby one bedroom apartment in the run-down Santacruz district of the city, her co star Azhar Ismail is also playing a computer game on the Nintendo he brought back from his trip to the Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles.
Azhar is supposed to be the lucky one. He is the one with the new apartment, a solid concrete roof over his head, an inside toilet, running water, all paid for by the Jai Ho Trust, set up by the film company, Celador to take care of the children it took from the slum and turned into global stars.
But luck is subjective: this part of Santacruz is not a good area. The houses opposite the high-rise are black with grime; an auto-rickshaw is parked outside. The autos are the poor man’s transport, their drivers badly paid. It speaks of one step off the bottom rung of the poverty ladder, nothing else.
Every few minutes, a plane thunders low over the rooftops, rising slowly into the sky from the nearby domestic airport. Long, slow-moving trains rattle past a hundred yards away on the railway line which runs behind the apartment.
Azhar seems oblivious to it all. The 10-year-old sprawls on the only bed in the room, engrossed in his game, while his mother Shamim spoons tea from a glass cup into the mouth of his father, Mohammed, lying on the floor along one wall of the yellow-painted room, his emaciated body lost in the blankets draped around him.
Shamim helps her husband sit up, easing his nightshirt from his shoulders. There is almost nothing left of him. His skin is stretched taught over ribs as clearly defined as those of a famine victim. An adult could encircle his waist with the fingers of two hands. Here, on the floor of the home of one of the most famous children in one of the world’s coming economic powerhouses, a middle-aged man is dying from tuberculosis, a treatable disease. He slides shakily back to the floor and pulls the blankets around himself.
On that sunny day back in February, when the children flew home to Bombay from Los Angeles, elated by their Oscar triumph, dreaming of lives transformed, even the most cynical of Hollywood writers would have hesitated to pen a script this dark.
After all, the children were the real deal, genuine film stars. As the crowds cheered and the theme music from the movie belted out of loudspeakers set up to celebrate their triumphant homecoming, they believed that they had made it, that they they had earned their tickets out of the slums into a bright new world in which the sun always shone and the only clouds on their horizons would be white and fluffy.
They were wrong. Just because you have cracked Tinsel Town doesn’t mean your life has to run like a Hollywood script.
Rubina is sipping a cup of sweet tea, sheltering from the rain perched on a wooden table under the canopy of her grandmother’s chai stall by the side of the track. She is wearing a little black sequined dress; around her neck is a gold necklace with the letter R embossed on the pendant.
“Coming home from abroad is hard,” she says. “ Everything is luxurious when I go away, there are five star hotels and luxury but I’m born and brought up here, so this is my life.”
Anyway, she says, who says she has to leave?
“My movie is a hit, but so what?,” she says. “It was my bad luck that we were searching for a house at the same time as Azhar’s family and they found one first, but it doesn’t seem so unlucky now. This is where I’m born and this is where all my family and friends are.
“So what? He’s got his, I’ll get mine in the end. The problem is that the only houses we can find to move to are are very small because the budget is small.”
She’s not jealous of Azhar, she says. They still go to school together, in the same rickshaw. She giggles and rolls her eyes at any suggestion of a budding romance, but her protestations are not as fervent as they have been in the past. “We are friends. There is nothing official,” she says, and turns her eyes to the ground.
Outside, the rain eases a little. Rubina gets up and wanders back to the tiny shack that is home, down the lane with the drain which runs a foot outside their front door.
Inside, she leans against the low tiled wall which separates the rest of the room from a small washing area. The room is painted pink, her favourite colour. Her father, Rafiq Qureshi, bought the tiles on her insistence, with their pictures of Mickey Mouse and an alpine house set on the shores of a lake. That’s what she wants, she say, that house, with its red roof and the pine trees behind it. Rafiq dug deep to pay for the tiles. She perches on his lap, playing with a computer game on a borrowed phone. This is the man a British tabloid newspaper accused of trying to sell her. No, no, they both insist. It was a set-up, a misunderstanding. They were the innocent victims of a sting. It is hard to know what to believe: there are nine of them, living in the one 10ft by 10ft room. Qureshi is clearly fond of her and she of him: did he perhaps think it would be better for her and for all of them if someone could offer her a way out of the slum? But no, they are adamant.
The room is tiny, pots and pans piled high on the shelves. The only hint of the money she has subsequently earned is a new flat screen television on the wall.
Since returning from the US she has been to France (“not so clean but better than this place”) for the launch of her autobiography (ghostwritten by an Indian journalist) and to Hong Kong for a charity show. She shot an advert for Schweppes with Nicole Kidman and thought the star “strange”.
The one star she met who she really liked was Gerard Butler, she says. He treated her like she mattered, treating her and Azhar to a day out at a top hotel, lavishing attention on them.
“When I was in LA I met Gerard Butlers on the red carpet and then he came to India and we met him and he gave us lots of chocolate,” she says, giggling again.
Garib Nagar is literally on the wrong side of the tracks: on the other side of the railway line lies the up-market suburb of Bandra West. This is where the families dreamed they would move, close enough to the slum for them to stay in touch with their old friends, yet still a world apart.
It didn’t happen, because the £30,000 budget set aside by the trust to buy each of them a new home would barely cover the cost of a bathroom in Bandra West.
“I don’t want my child brought up here but it is not my fault. Whatever I have achieved I have achieved here,” Rafiq says. “Whenever we go abroad with Rubina and she meets these celebrities then we are very happy and everyone is very happy to meet us, but then we come home and we forget all about it and they forget about us too. If we want something, we pray to Allah and Allah will give it to us.”
The phone rings: it is a British film company, asking if they would be interested in working on a project. The room fills with excited chatter; maybe this is the breakthrough they crave?
Rubina’s family have held out, refusing to accept the trust’s offers: Azhar’s caved. It was hardly a surprise. His father was already sick with TB and his drinking was a problem. Despite all the promises they had received, they were still stuck in a tiny shack even smaller than the one in which Rubina’s family live. Like Rafiq, Mohammed had been on the receiving end of bad publicity, photographed smacking Azhar, who – tired and fed up with all the attention – had been reluctant to give another interview. The pictures were published around the world and Mohammed was vilified. It seemed unfair; the imposition of first world values on a third world situation. As Azhar acknowledged a few moments later, he had been playing up. He loved his father and his father loved him, he said, and it was true.
But the drinking was a problem, and Shamim didn’t really want Mohammed to move in with them, so he stayed on in the slum to look after his scrap wood business until he became too ill to look after himself.
Azhar sits on the bed, playing with his camera, another memento of his US trip. He snaps away at his father, showing him the pictures, and the older man nods in approval.
Azhar’s own autobiography is due out in a few days [Sept 23]. It is just the start, he says. One day, he will be a bigger star than his hero, the Bollywood star Salman Khan, who looks down at him from a poster pinned high on the wall above the bed.
The best thing about him fame is that he no longer has to queue to use the public toilets, he says, though he wishes the house was larger. He’d like his own room, somewhere to put his computer and is own furniture. But at least here he can play football and his friends can come and visit.
“I’m happy but I was not expecting that the house would be so small,” he says. “I wanted a swimming pool, but God has not fulfilled my dreams. I want to work in Hollywood so I can earn money and fulfill my dreams which have not been fulfilled yet.”
The room is tiny, 12ft by 10ft. Azhar gets the bed. His mother sleeps on the floor with his older brother and his wife. Behind a curtain is a toilet cubicle, a bathroom and a kitchen. From the kitchen comes the sound of his sister in law washing the pots and pans.
“I thought I would be getting movie offers from Hollywood,” he says, jabbing at the buttons on his game. “The main problem is that everyone wants to know about me but nobody understands us. They give the impression that we are poor but I don’t want charity. I’m a film star and when I grow up that’s what I’m going to be.”.
And Rubina? She comes to the house often, he says. “We play and eat at the same time and sometimes we share a plate together.” And he too looks a little bashful.
His father coughs hard and Azhar looks up. Does he know what is happening?
“I want my father to get well soon and play with me but he is just lying there,” he says, putting down the game and sitting up, looking over at Mohammed.
Mohammed coughs again. There is nothing that can be done for him now. It is too late, far too late. He raises his head slightly, looks up to the ceiling and raises his arms slowly and painfully, hands spread wide. “It is in Allah’s hands now,” he says.
He died the next day. Azhar was at school, so his mother called a family friend, Dinesh. When Dinesh got there, it was almost over. He could see the blankets still moving slightly and Mohammed’s hands shaking a little. After a couple of minutes, there was no more movement.
They covered Mohammed’s face with a cloth and waited for Azhar to come home. At about half past six, he walked through the door, saw the cloth on his father’s face and assumed it was there to cool him down. Before anyone could say a word, he went into the kitchen to fetch a fresh cloth. It was only when he bent down to his father that the truth hit him. He screamed, and burst into tears, and cried and cried and cried.