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Slumdog actors show Mumbai's rags and riches

Rubina (left) and Mohammed Azharuddin
Slumdog actors Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail still live in the Bandra slums

By Zubair Ahmed
BBC News, Mumbai

The sprawling slums caressing the east side of Bandra railway station in Mumbai (Bombay) are no different from hundreds of slum clusters all across the city.

They are filthy, without a sewage system and have rows upon rows of makeshift rooms made of plastic sheets.

Malnourished children seemingly without any care in the world often run around the narrow by-lanes. Some go to schools but many don't.

Visibly the slums may be no different from those in the film sets of the award winning film, Slumdog Millionaire, but the reality is much harsher.

Slumdog finally opens in India on Friday, a day after the Oscar nominations and following worldwide success.

Mosquitoes

Slums and swanky buildings stand cheek by jowl in this city and yet their worlds don't meet.

People in the Bandra slums - like many others in the city - live in grinding poverty in the shadow of the city's new business district, the Bandra Kurla Complex.

Slum in Mumbai
Mumbai's slums and upmarket districts exist hand in hand
Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, who plays the youngest version of the main character's brother Salim in the film, lives with his parents and siblings in a makeshift plastic tent, pitched on a half-finished government park.

Besides friends and neighbours, he has a big garbage dump and armies of mosquitoes and flies for company.

Ten-year-old Azharuddin's mother says they have been homeless for a while: "We have been squatting on this government park since the time our hutments were demolished over a year ago and despite showing the right documents to the authorities we have not been allotted our room [a one-room tiny flat]."

Rubina Ali - who portrays the youngest version of the leading lady Latika in the film - is playing with Azhar and other children.

Their faces glow in the rays of the fading sunlight. They greet the BBC team with coyness. Ask them to pronounce the film's title and they fumble amid nervous smiles. "Aslum dog minaire," says Rubina. "No," Azhar tries to correct her, with his own incorrect version.

'Miseries and pain'

A few days before its release in India an intense debate is raging whether the film has been made in the image of a Westerner.

Many Indians are upset over what they feel is the film's reinforcement of stereotypical Western views about India. They believe the film bagged the Golden Globes because it depicted India's underbelly in a white man's image.

Wealthier children on the cast of Slumdog Millionaire
(From L) Tanay, Tanvi and Asutosh have learned a lot from filming
But Rubina and Azhar's poverty-stricken existence, with an uncertain future, makes this debate redundant.

Indeed the child actors' parents believe the argumentative Mumbaikars often tend to ignore their plight.

The parents question whether a camera can ever really capture the miseries and pain of the slum dwellers.

Interestingly, the film itself is a great leveller. Its cast includes children from the middle class and exceptionally wealthy families. The rich boys in the film say interacting with the slum kids was a humbling experience.

Tanay Chheda lives in one of the city's wealthiest enclaves. "It's the world's 10th richest street," he says.

Tanay, 12, plays the middle version of leading role Jamal.

He says that he now looks at the slum kids with more compassion and love and wonders why there's so much fuss about showing poverty in Mumbai.

"Danny Boyle [the film's British director] wanted to show the truth in the movie. If we only had to show something wrong or negative about India then we wouldn't have shown that a slum boy becomes a millionaire."

Asutosh Lobo Gajiwala, who plays the middle version of the main character's brother Salim, says that if "you put a rich man in a life like theirs, the person will go into depression, but slumkids find happiness in anything and everything".

Asutosh, 15, says he believes all human beings are equal. "I was always aware that God has given me everything, but working on this movie it has clearly underlined my thought."

'Love school'

Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar plays the middle version of Latika. She insists that Danny Boyle loves Mumbai regardless of what the critics say.

Slum children in Mumbai
There is debate in India whether the film reinforces Western views
"He does not have any wrong views about our city. He always compliments this city. He always says this city is the best."

Certainly it appears that despite the merits or otherwise of capturing raw poverty in Mumbai, Azhar and Rubina's lives are in the throes of change, thanks to the exposure they had during the making of the movie. They now say they "love their school".

They now also have big dreams.

Azhar says he wants to be the next Salman Khan and Rubina would like to become as big a star as Preity Zinta, both leading Bollywood actors.

If they succeed, life will imitate art in another rags-to-riches story.

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