IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Kids of 'Slumdog': Where are they now?

Dateline follows up on the littlest cast members of "Slumdog Millionaire." Where are they now? Not where you might think. NBC's Keith Morrison on the child stars' lives since their Hollywood moment.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

It's becoming a crowded place, this planet of ours; six point seven billion of us now -- more than one billion in India alone.  It’s a crush of humanity, perhaps no more evident than in Mumbai.

So imagine the improbability of two young children plucked from the squalor and obscurity of Asia's largest slum finding themselves walking the red carpet at the Academy Awards, basking in the glow of international adulation. And for the first time, people are catching an eye-opening, if sometimes artificial, glimpse of life outside the slums.

If it sounds like something out of a Hollywood movie, and well, of course, it is. It's the unlikely yet true tale of Rubina Ali and Azhar Ismail, the two child stars in the critically-acclaimed film "Slumdog Millionaire" who actually did come from the slums.

The film is the disturbing and ultimately uplifting story of a boy who rises from Mumbai's slums to be a winning contestant on an Indian game show.

Rubina played the childhood friend of the young hero, Azhar, his Wiley older brother.

"Slumdog" earned eight Oscars and has grossed more than $32o million at the box office.

The child stars were welcomed home from Hollywood as heroes, and it seemed that their lives would be forever changed, rags to riches.

But it hasn't quite turned out that way.

Today, Azhar and Rubina, both 10 years old, are back with their families in Mumbai's sprawling Bandra Slum.

With their dizzying Hollywood ride behind them, they have returned to a sadly familiar life in the shadow of a bustling railway station.

And people are wondering, how and why did they end up back here? A place steeped in the stench of garbage and sewage... where the crush of other humans strips away even simple privacy.

The heat is unrelieved.

In an effort to cool off, children dive into fetid pools strewn with waste between massive sewer pipes.

Earlier this month, we wound our way through a dark, narrow maze, webbed with electrical wires and laundry to find Azhar's house -- a cramped, makeshift hut. The home had tin walls, a plastic tarp for a roof.

Azhar was back to sleeping on a small home-made bed set on a dirt floor.

He's a typical kid. He watches cartoons on a rundown TV, rides a bike given to him by a fan. Dances, goofs around with friends, and once in a while goes out with them to buy candy.

And, as you might guess, he's a natural ham.

It was an uncle who took him to the casting call. Azhar thought, maybe I'll see a movie star.

Azhar (translated): I didn't have any acting experience. But I thought that if the movie happened, then I would meet some actors.

And he did! So, perhaps it wasn't so surprising that after the shoot, his expectations rose.

Azhar: I thought that after the shooting was done, I would become a movie star.

Azhar pulls out a crumbled “Slumdog” movie poster signed by film director Danny Boyle.

Azhar: Those people, Danny Boyle's people, they took care of us well. They did everything very nicely.

The money the parents say their children were paid didn't last long. They say Azhar got the equivalent of $2,400 dollars... Rubina just $710. The filmmakers say it was substantially more.

Whatever the case, in light of the film's success, the parents say it's not enough.

Azhar's father: So Danny Boyle should understand that these children earned him fame, awards and money. They were sold out for nothing!

From Azhar's hut, it's a three-minute walk thru a warren of decrepit shanties to Rubina's house. It's a sturdier building than Azhar's, but is prone to streams of sewage flooding its floors.

Unlike Azhar, Rubina is reserved, even shy. Mostly she stays in, plays games, hours on end, on her cell phone.

Rubina: There is filth, there are broken places. But I'm happy here.

Her days blend into one another, her life is much the same as so many others here.

The filmmakers say they've been working to improve the children's lives from the start.

During a news conference in February, director Danny Boyle said that even before the film became box-office gold, filmmakers had sent the kids to school and set up a fund called the Jai Ho trust.

Danny Boyle (at news conference): The two kids from the very poor backgrounds, we've put into school. Because they have never been to school before. It's amazing watching them grow now.

Boyle: Our plan is to keep them in school until they are 18 and when they reach 18 there's quite a large sum of money that will be released to them then.

We first caught wind of the kids back in the slums from footage shot by a Reader’s Digest reporter in March. Azhar's parents said Boyle had told them nothing about a trust fund, let alone how much money was in it.

Azhar's mother: I have no proof that money has been kept in a trust fund. If they have kept money for us, we should be told about it.

Since then, they say they've learned the trust will hold $50,000. But they have their doubts.

Mistrust is evident on both sides. The filmmakers say their concern is keeping the money safe for the children.

Boyle: If we give them a lot of money now you know, which the film could afford to give them, it won't do anything. It'll just vanish.

And the filmmakers recently announced a donation, $745,000, to Plan India, an organization that helps slum children in Mumbai.

Boyle and the movie's producers declined our requests for an interview, referring us to Noshir Dadrawala, one of the trustees recently assigned to manage the fund.

Noshir Dadrawala: To ensure that they do not drop out of school, we have set up a procedure whereby the monthly stipend and all that we give to them will depend upon their continuing their education.

He also says the trust is working with the families to provide better housing for them.

Dadrawala: These processes are still in the pipeline. The conceptualization has been done but the actual implementation will take its while.

But time just ran out for Azhar's family. A few days ago, local government officials demolished their hut and others around it. The unauthorized homes, they said, were built on land set aside for a public garden.

It's just the latest in a series of troubling events for the families since fame came their way, in part fueled by intense tabloid coverage.

One reported that Azhar's father kicked and slapped him.

Another set up a sting and claimed Rubina's father offered her up for adoption for about $280,000.

That sparked an ugly public fight between the girl's mother and stepmother. The father says he was set up and police have cleared him.

The Jai Ho trust has since hired a social worker to watch over Rubina and Azhar.

Dadrawala: We have seen pictures of Rubina crying in public and she was very traumatized and we felt that she needs this kind of help to help her emotionally and psychologically.

When it comes to the troubles that child actors often face, Paul Petersen has seen it all.

Paul Petersen: This is a repeat of of the historical reality behind hiring children off the street to participate in a business that can materially alter your life.

A young actor in the Donna Reid show back in the '50s, he's now the founder of a child star advocacy group called a Minor Consideration.

Paul Petersen: Life does not imitate art in this case. What they have done is thrown a wrench into lives that were quietly desperate and now are gonna make them very loud and desperate.

Peterson says the filmmakers failed to consider the predictable consequences of hiring kids who have no skills to cope with sudden fame, and who are now extremely vulnerable.

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: Now that they've gotten them into this situation, is it their responsibility to make sure they're taken out of it?

Peterson: Excuse me, it's a $300 million picture. Get the family out of the slum. Give this child a chance. I'm telling you, there are a lot of people in this movie who have had a significant change of address. These children should, too.

But for the time being, the children are still in the slums, even with the best of intentions, their lives upended, futures uncertain, innocence gone.