Shantytown welcomes home its Slumdog kids

February 26, 2009 4:46:10 PM PST
From the shantytown's corrugated tin roofs to its squalid streets, proud relatives and neighbors cheered, celebrated and warmly embraced the two child stars of the Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire" who returned home Thursday. Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, who portrays Salim, the hero's brother, displayed some fancy Bollywood moves as he danced to the throbbing music from the movie, embodying the exuberant spirit of its popular song, "Jai Ho" - "Be Victorious."

His father, Mohammed Ismail, wore a spotless white shirt and trousers and looked on in pride as the 10-year-old entertained the crowd in the Bandra slum, north of Mumbai.

Young Azharuddin - Azhar to his friends - did some more dancing after arriving at his lean-to of plastic tarpaulins and moldy blankets.

Rubina Ali, 9, who plays the film's heroine, Latika, as a child, was carried on her father's shoulders, waving at people who gathered on the rickety roofs and on balconies draped with rugs and filthy plastic sheets.

The pair and other child actors from the film traveled to Los Angeles for Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, where the rags-to-riches tale won eight Oscars, including best picture.

Rubina, who less than a week ago walked the red carpet at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles and romped through Disneyland, came back to her home that sits above a sea of trash.

They were promised a party, and the people of Bandra delivered. What it lacked in Hollywood glitter it made up for in enthusiasm as throngs turned out for what turned into a joyous reunion.

Reporters and photographers mobbed the two children, and Azharuddin fielded questions like a veteran.

"An Oscar award is such an award that big stars dream of getting these awards," he said. "Eight awards! Even one award makes one feel so high, we have got eight awards. So, our movie has become such a super hit."

Azharuddin added: "I am saying so much - if I say more, I will start crying with tears of happiness."

What the future will hold for the child actors is, in many ways, a difficult question. Any sudden wealth can cause immense problems in families like theirs, with jealous relatives and neighbors demanding loans and gifts.

Azharuddin said he would finish his studies before continuing his film career.

"First, I will study. Education is important if I want to be an actor. So, first, I shall study in a school, college, and then I will become a big actor," he said.

Danny Boyle, the British director, said before the Oscars that he wanted Rubina and Azhar to get an education rather than a jackpot - what he called a "slow nurturing" instead of "a sudden dash for glory."

So the moviemakers have gotten them places in a nonprofit, English-language school for underprivileged children in Mumbai, given their families small monthly stipends, and set up trust funds that Rubina and Azharuddin can tap once they graduate.

Their newfound fame was evident earlier Thursday, when the children arrived at Mumbai airport. It took dozens of police - some carrying assault weapons - to get them past fans and into cars.

Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, 8, who plays the youngest version of Jamal, the main character, was hoisted onto someone's shoulders. He and Tanay Hemant Chheda, 13, who plays the middle Jamal, were whisked away to a car before they could talk to reporters.

None of the young actors appeared intimidated by the airport crowd. Rubina smiled broadly as she clutched a small fluffy brown toy bunny.

The movie's two Indian Oscar winners, composer A.R. Rahman and sound engineer Resul Pookutty, also were met by cheering crowds who showered them with flower petals as they arrived in their home towns.

Rahman, who won Oscars for musical score and the best song "Jai Ho," led the dancing throng in chants of the song's title.

"They (the fans) almost killed me with their love," he told The Press Trust of India after landing in the southern city of Chennai.

Pookutty was also overwhelmed by both his reception and his Oscar.

"I never expected something like this," he said. "This is history being made."