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Kids go from slums of Mumbai to the Oscars

The youngest stars of “Slumdog Millionaire” bubbled over with smiles and enthusiasm on the red carpet at the Oscars, and the crowd reflected it all back.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The youngest stars of “Slumdog Millionaire” bubbled over with smiles and enthusiasm on the red carpet at the Oscars, and the crowd reflected it all back.

Two of the six actors completed their improbable journey from the slums of Mumbai, India, to the world’s most dazzling awards show. All of them looked as polished in front of the assembled throng of media as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

The two youngest were plucked from the slums by director Danny Boyle to star in the rags-to-riches tale of a slum kid who makes it big. The film was nominated for 10 Oscars, and was an early winner for adapted screenplay and cinematography.

“It’s fantastic. It’s beyond our dreams,” said Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar, who played the “middle” age protagonist Jamal, as he glanced around at the gaggle of famous faces jamming the long red carpet outside Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre.

Lonkar is one of the six actors who play the three lead characters in three stages of their lives. The group chattered happily away to reporters sticking microphones and cameras in their smiling faces.

Asked by one to show off their dance moves, they eagerly complied, with Tanay Hemant Chheda proclaiming, “All Indians can dance.”

Four of the six speak English, and they frequently talked over each other, but all agreed they want to be in more movies.

Lonkar admitted she hoped to meet Tom Cruise and tell him, “Hi, I’m your biggest fan.”

Rubina Ali, a 9-year-old who played the young Latika, lives in the slums, along with her 10-year-old neighbor and co-star Azharuddin Ismail. He’d never been on a plane or traveled outside India until his trip to Hollywood.

Ali wore a pale blue short dress and white ballet flats, with henna decorating her arms and staining her fingernails. The boys wore child-size tuxedos and Lonkar wore a pale mauve dress.

A frenzied scrambleFor Rubina and Azhar, 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. Everything came through Thursday, and on Friday they were cruising Mumbai in an air-conditioned SUV, doing last-minute shopping and getting advice.

Bringing the youngsters to America was a concern of the film’s behind-the-scenes adults, including adapted screenplay winner Simon Beaufoy.

“We were so worried about bringing them over in case it seemed at all inappropriate because it’s the most lavish awards ceremony,” he said backstage. “They’re completely cool about it. We were worried and they’re all running around having a laugh about it. It was absolutely the right thing to do to bring them over.

The film’s adult co-stars, 18-year-old Dev Patel and 24-year-old Freida Pinto, got a kick out of seeing the kids receive the star treatment.

“While me and Freida have been hogging everything, these kids are big stars,” Patel said. “This is some of the appreciation they deserve.”

Director Boyle was grateful the youngsters were allowed to attend the show.

“It’s everything. It’s the real climax to it,” he said. “For us to see them here has just made it all worthwhile.”

Also part of the group was Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, who plays the youngest Jamal and lives in India, but did not grow up in the slums, and Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, who plays the middle Salim.

‘It’s a very proud moment’In the crowded lanes of the Mumbai slums, small crowds gathered around every television set and “Jai Ho,” one of the film’s popular songs, was heard ringing out.

In the tiny, bubble-gum pink shack that is Ali’s home, her mother Munni Qureshi watched the awards on TV as her three other children slept on the floor next to her. The single room, barely big enough to hold three adults, was crowded with dozens of television cameras and reporters.

Outside people bathed, women collected trash and stray dogs fought.

“I had never imagined that such a thing would happen. It’s a very proud moment for me. If she wins we hope some changes will come,” Qureshi said.

She said she had spoken to her daughter and she was very excited.

“We’re all very happy. It seems like happiness is falling from the sky,” said Sohail Qureshi, a neighbor who said he had seen Rubina grow up.

“She’s like a daughter to me.”