Gethin Chamberlain in Mumbai, for The Sun on Sunday, 20 April 2014
THEY are the slum kids who were going to set Hollywood alight – the stars of Oscars sensation Slumdog Millionaire, plucked from the gutter to become overnight stars.
As the film became a global hit, Rubina Ali and Azhar Ismail were convinced a life of fame and fortune lay ahead.
Five years on, it has not turned out that way. The offers have dried up and hardly anyone recognises them anymore.
Rubina’s family are so poor they cannot afford a DVD player for her to watch her movie on.
The 15-year-old, sitting on a mat- tress in a room she shares with eight family members, said: “We won eight Oscars and I had so many dreams of what I would do – buy a car, all those things. But now nothing has happened.”
But when The Sun on Sunday tracked the pair down in Mumbai, India, this week, they were still remarkably upbeat – still convinced they will make it big.
Azhar, 16, said: “I still want to live in America and be in Hollywood. I don”t want to live here. In Mumbai it is a slum with only slum people. That cannot change, ever.”
Despite the setbacks, they have only good things to say about Brit Slumdog director Danny Boyle.
They met him just last month. Azhar, holding a cricket set the film- maker gave him, said: “He comes every year to meet us.
“Every year he says the same thing – do your study well and after that I will take care of you.
“We asked him to make Slumdog 2 and he was laughing.”
Thanks to Boyle, they say they are now going to school and have a roof over their heads. There is also a trust fund that will provide them with a lump sum at 18, but they do not know how much.
The pals said they were bowled over by America – a world away from the grim poverty of Mumbai’s Garib Nagar slum where they lived surrounded by rubbish, rats and overflowing drains.
Azhar and Rubina were convinced offers would roll in and it would not be long before they could leave the slums behind.
But it was not to be. Rubina shot a soft drinks advert with Nicole Kidman. Azhar appeared in a couple of Bollywood movies. But then the work dried up. Instead, they found themselves confronted with the grim reality of slum life.
Rubina’s father Rafiq is suffering from tuberculosis and is not working. The paint on the walls is peeling but there is a small kitchen and bathroom which is an improve- ment on places she used to live in.
For the first three years after the film’s release, the family stayed in Garib Nagar slum in shacks regularly demolished by the council.
In 2011, they lost everything in a fire, including Rubina’s movie souvenirs. But the Jai Ho trust set up by Boyle moved them into the new apartment. At first Rubina – who played the young Latika, the film’s female lead – seems downbeat.
She is studying hard, she says, because Boyle – who she calls ‘uncle’ – convinced her and Azhar they must finish their studies before thinking of acting.
She says she would also like to teach. She says: “Uncle Danny asked me how my studies were going. He said first we should do the study.
“I would like to be a teacher, then I can teach the poor people who live in the slum, because they don’t have a chance. Some parents stop them learning and make them work.” But it is clear she has no intention of giving up on the dream. Rubina adds: “I don’t want a fee to teach them. When I do become an actor I will get a lot of money so I can help people.
“I want to show my acting and my talent to all the world. Everyone wants to become famous. Why should I not expect more?”
Azhar – who played the young Salim – has also had his share of misfortune.
He had continued to live with his parents under awful conditions before getting a flat provided by the Jai Ho trust. Soon after, Azhar came home from school to find his dad dead on the floor. But now life is better than in the slum.
He reveals: “What happened in the film and my life are the same. It’s hard. There really are people who torture kids.”
Travelling to the Oscars in 2009 – where Brad Pitt complimented his performance – gave him a glimpse of a new world that made going home harder.
He adds: “It was like a dream. One minute I?m sleeping in the slum and the next thing I’m there. But we had to come back.”