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No happily ever after for ‘Slumdog’ kid stars

Rubina Ali's house is flooded with sewer water, and her feet itch. She's discovered a world of creepy-crawlies in the opaque gray water: scorpions, rats and slithery creatures with lots of legs.Two months ago, the child star of the hit movie "Slumdog Millionaire" was worrying about what to wear to the Oscars. Now she has come home to a very different problem: How to get the fetid water out of her
/ Source: The Associated Press

Rubina Ali's house is flooded with sewer water, and her feet itch. She's discovered a world of creepy-crawlies in the opaque gray water: scorpions, rats and slithery creatures with lots of legs.

Two months ago, the child star of the hit movie "Slumdog Millionaire" was worrying about what to wear to the Oscars. Now she has come home to a very different problem: How to get the fetid water out of her family's one-room shack.

The 9-year-old picked up a plastic bucket Monday and began to scoop, but it was hopeless. "There are a lot of rats," she told The Associated Press with a shudder, standing in water above her ankles. "In the night also."

Eight Oscars and $326 million in box office receipts have so far done little to improve the lives of the film's two impoverished child stars.

Rubina and co-star Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail have been showered with gifts and brief bursts of fame, but their day-to-day lives are little changed. In some ways, things have gotten worse: Azhar's neighborhood has grown crowded and tense. Rubina's house is flooded. And fame has brought both opportunity and shame.

If there is a happily ever after, Azhar and Rubina haven't found it yet.

"Slumdog" filmmakers insist they've done their best to help. They set up a trust, called Jai Ho, after the hit song from the film, to ensure the children get proper homes, a good education and a nest egg when they finish high school. They also donated $747,500 to a charity to help slum kids in Mumbai.

Producer Christian Colson has described the trust as substantial, but won't tell anyone how much — not even the parents — for fear of making the children vulnerable to exploitation.

Azhar and Rubina finished their first term at the English-language school the filmmakers enrolled them in and plan to return in June when classes resume.

'We are not dragging our feet'

Noshir Dadrawala, a Jai Ho trustee, said the families have been shown several apartments in Mumbai, but rejected them all.

"We are not dragging our feet. It's they who are dragging their feet," he added.

There have been other offers, but none have materialized so far.

Developers promised the children houses in a fancy new development billed as an eco-friendly sanctuary of villas and high-rise apartments being built in Kerala, on India's far-southern tip. But it's nearly 1,000 miles away, and neither family wants to leave Mumbai.

The government offered them apartments closer to home, but has yet to deliver. By law, politicians cannot distribute such gifts in the run-up to national elections, which conclude next month.

The families say the D.Y. Patil International School, which offers coveted — and pricey — international baccalaureate degrees, also offered them scholarships, though school officials declined to comment.

And then there are the scandals.

A few days after the British tabloid News of the World reported that Rubina's father offered to sell her to one of its reporters disguised as a rich sheik, an Indian businessman who lives in Qatar came forward with an offer to pay for the girl's education through college, her family said.

"The fake sheik and the real sheik," Rubina's father, Rafiq Qureshi said, laughing.

Qureshi denies all wrongdoing, and has not been charged with any crime, but the incident opened old family wounds.

Rubina's estranged mother, Khurshida Monish Dewade, reappeared after seven years, and images of her and Rubina's stepmother, Munni, pulling each other's hair were broadcast around the world.

Rubina tries to ignore the drama. Asked if she wants to live with her dad, she nodded "Yes," then stuck the headphones back in her ears and belted out off-key lyrics to one of her favorite "Slumdog Millionaire" songs.

Small opportunities

Both children have become adept at dealing with the packs of journalists who descend on their homes with each new twist in the "Slumdog" saga. And fame has brought small opportunities.

The children landed roles in a new Bollywood film. Azhar got hired for a photo shoot. They both starred in a fashion show in New Delhi and a concert in Chennai.

But after each brief tour, they return home to the place they know best, the slum of Garib Nagar, "the city of the poor."

Here, neighbors cling to Azhar's fame like a charm, saying he has become the de facto protector of their community.

Slum residents say authorities tore down their homes last year to make way for a municipal park, but since the Oscars they've been able to rebuild. Now shacks of corrugated metal stand where people once huddled beneath tarpaulins.

"Since Azhar is here, there is no worry for us," said neighbor Ramdas Ambadas Gaikwad, a 35-year-old rickshaw driver. "Because of Azhar the demolition has stopped."

Still, even Azhar's celebrity was no match for the local slumlord who came in and built nine new shacks on the already overcrowded spit of land where his family lives. New families were crammed in, and relations between the newcomers and the old-timers are not good.

"There are anti-social elements," said Azhar's mom, Shameem Ismail, complaining of too much cursing, drinking and hashish. "I just don't want to stay here with these people."

She worries for her celebrity son. "He has a name and fame. We have security concerns. He's not the same Azhar he was before," she said, reaching across the rough board where the 10-year-old lay next to his sleeping father.

"I am dreaming of a house," she said. "I'm going to die, I think, before I get that new house."

Azhar's dad finally woke up, and started off down the road just before noon.

Asked where he was going, he flashed a toothy yellow grin. "To drink," he said.

Azhar took off on his new bicycle, a gift from a fan from England. "I want to play, man," he said.

Cloud of flies

But there was no open space, and he kept bumping into piles of trash.

Around him, neighborhood children complained of boils. A baby who was an extra in "Slumdog Millionaire" lay in a strip of shade beneath a cloud of flies, sucking on a bottle of sugar water. His mother said she doesn't have money to buy him milk.

Azhar crouched beside the child. "Help these people," he said, looking up.

Rubina said that since the flooding she hasn't been eating as much because it's impossible to cook in her sewage-filled house.

She and her neighbors have no real way of getting clean. They bathe in their flooded homes, amid floating plastic bags, used shampoo packets, old shoes and discarded coconut shells, using buckets of water carted from a common tap.

The local eunuch, a tall figure in a purple sari who lives a few doors down, tries to keep his chickens dry, hoisting them to the upper racks of their frayed wooden coop.

The filthy water has brought a new game to the children of Garib Nagar: The mud fight.

On Monday, Rubina was the one to start it. She reached down into the muck outside her house and smeared her sticky brown palms across her friend's face.

Shrieking with laughter, the girls hurled fistfuls of mud at each other. They rubbed it into each other's skin and ground it into each other's hair.

Then they doused Rubina with buckets of gray water. She shivered with giggles and her face broke into a glowing smile.

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