'Slumdog' kids get ready for the Oscars

February 21, 2009 12:37:14 PM PST
In the slums where they live, goats pick over piles of trash and men kneel in the street to pray. But the young stars of "Slumdog Millionaire" were cruising Mumbai in an air-conditioned Toyota Friday, doing last-minute shopping and getting advice on the unimaginable: air travel. The slumdog kids had just got the good news - they were going to the Oscars.

"I feel very very very very very very good," 10-year-old Azharuddin Ismail said, sitting across from his home, a scruffy lean-to of tarps and blankets.

He'd never been on plane. He'd never traveled outside India.

And, when pressed, he couldn't name any Hollywood stars he'd really like to meet.

Neither could Rubina Ali, his 9-year-old co-star and neighbor.

Both were plucked from the slums of Mumbai by director Danny Boyle to star in "Slumdog Millionaire," a rags-to-riches tale of a slum kid who makes it big. The film has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Azhar, as his friends call him, was cast as the hero Jamal Malik's brother Salim, and Rubina as the young Latika, who grows up to be his love interest.

All nine actors who play the three lead characters in three stages of their lives will attend the awards ceremony Sunday. "The kids are on their way to the Oscars! Everyone is very excited!"

Boyle said in an e-mail confirming the good news Friday.

They include actors comfortable on the red carpet, like 18-year-old Dev Patel, who lives in London, and the glamorous Freida Pinto, 24, who has been praised in Vogue as a new style icon. Others, like Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, who plays the young Jamal, live in India but did not grow up in the slums.

But for Azhar and Rubina, there was a frenzied scramble this week to get visas, passports and tickets after their parents decided at the last minute they wanted them to attend the ceremony, producer Christian Colson said.

Everything came through Thursday when the children learned they had their visas; their passports were issued a day earlier. Rubina was traveling with her uncle, Mohideen Khan, and Azhar with his mother, Shameem Ismail.

So Friday was anything but normal for Azhar and Rubina.

Around them the slum continued at its usual pace: Sewing machines thrummed from small, dark rooms. Women swatted flies from fresh-cut meat. Mangy dogs slept in the sun. Barbers sat in their barren shops, waiting for customers.

But Rubina and Azhar were chauffeured around in a Toyota Innova with leather seats, talking with a crush of reporters and visiting a local counseling center for some advice about how not to get sick in an airplane and how to handle themselves in America.

Rubina was all giddy smiles. "I'm very happy that I'm going to the Oscars," she said, as her aunt boiled rice for lunch. "I'm the only one of my friends who gets to see the Oscars. My friends are saying, 'Your fate is so good."' She said she plans to take a lot of photographs in Los Angeles to bring home to show her friends.

Her father, Rafiq Quereshi, stood by her side throughout the day, hugging her proudly now and then. He said he couldn't accompany her because he broke his ankle. "I wanted to be there," he said. He plans to watch the awards ceremony on TV.

Khan, who owns a shop that sells paan, a betel leaf, tobacco and spice chew, said he's not sure what he'll wear to the Oscars.

Looking down at his faded shirt and trousers, he laughed, flashing teeth stained red from betel juice. "I'm thinking jeans and a T-shirt," he said.

Rubina packed her new clothes - two pairs of jeans, two tops, and white shoes - and watched her cousin paint fresh swirls of henna on her thin arms. She plans to get her Oscar night outfit in LA.

The filmmakers paid Rubina and Azhar for 30 days of acting work, gave the families a small monthly stipend and set up trust funds that the children can tap when they graduate from high school.

Producer Christian Colson has described the trusts as substantial, but declines to reveal the amount.

News of the children's impending departure traveled fast, as a single, exciting word shot down the murky alleys: America.

"They are going to America, that's good," said neighbor Shakil Sheikh, 28, an auto rickshaw driver who said he earns 300 rupees - about $6 - a day. He was not quite clear about the benefits of a trip to LA. "We are very happy, but what did they actually gain in terms of money?" he said. "They stay in very poor conditions.

They should be taken from this place to a good life."

His wife, Saira Sheikh, 22, who earns 1,000 rupees - about $20 - a month as a maid, giggled at the idea of America. "Who will take me?" she asked.

Dozens of wide-eyed boys, the same size as Azhar, vied for attention from journalists. They bared their skinny arms, begging to have stars drawn on their flesh.

Azhar's father, a rail-thin man who relatives say has tuberculosis and drinks too much, spent most of the day squatting outside his home issuing a stream of invective at anyone who got too close.

But even he managed a big thumbs up for his son. "Very very good," he said.

Shameem Ismail, Azhar's mother, said she's always dreamed of going to America. But her excitement was forgotten Friday in the crush of things to do.

"I am tired," she said, gripping her head. "I am suffering from a headache."

By afternoon, the crowd of journalists had thickened. Neighbors gathered around Rubina to watch her dance and sing for the cameras.

Nearby, over 100 neighbors and reporters jostled around Azhar's house. Boys hung from a metal fence, straining to see.

Azhar jumped up on a wooden platform and gave a shout of joy.

There he was, a one-time school dropout clad in an old T-shirt and a pair of pink flip-flops, at the center of an ever-expanding universe.

"I am not a hero," he hollered. "I am only a small star."

Then his dad and mom pushed through the crowd and dragged him back home, into their shabby lean-to.