A World Away: ‘Slumdog' Celebrations Fill Mumbai's Crowded Slums

In the narrow lanes behind the Mumbai train tracks, the slum's first Oscar party turned into a raucous celebration of two hometown heroes, complete with Bollywood dance moves and squeals of joy from old friends.

Every time the big-eyed girl who calls this slum home appeared on TV, her friends gawked, beamed, shouted — and danced.

Rubina Ali, 9, was plucked from the tin roof shack she shares with her parents and six siblings in this squalid Mumbai slum to star in "Slumdog Millionaire," the darling of this year's Academy Awards.

Her friend and neighbor, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, 10, was also chosen for the film, and both were flown to Los Angeles to watch "Slumdog" nab eight Academy Awards, including the Oscars' highest honor for best film.

Crowds gathered around the few television sets in the slum and it took barely a minute for word of each award to spread through the slum's winding lanes.

"It seems like happiness is falling from the sky," said Sohail Qureshi, a neighbor who said he had watched Rubina grow up.

The Bandra slum could not be farther from the Hollywood glitz, stretch limousines and designer dresses of the Oscars.

Azhar lives in a lean-to made of plastic tarpaulins and moldy blankets. Rubina's home is perched above an ocean of trash. Dirty train tracks and a clogged highway form the slum's borders.

Hordes of journalists descended on the neighborhood Monday. TV tripods straddled the thin stream of sewage outside Rubina's home while rows of satellite trucks idled outside a usually sleepy tea stall.

"Normally, no one talks to us and no one comes here, but now everyone is here," Mohammed Ismail, Azhar's father, said before a bouquet of flashing bulbs.

If the Oscar excitement brought a sheen of glamour to the community, it vanished Monday shortly after the final award was announced.

The journalists left, the dancing stopped and life pressed on as always. The sweatshop men hunched over humming sewing machines. Squatting children relieved themselves by the train tracks. Mothers washed their dishes in murky water.

"I am poor," Fakrunissa Sheikh, 40, said inside her lean-to next to Azhar's.

About 65 million Indians — roughly a quarter of the urban population — live in slums, according to government surveys. Health care is often nonexistent, child labor is rampant and inescapable poverty forms the backdrop of everyday life.

Although everyone from the local butcher to the prime minister called the Oscar coup a proud day for the country, "Slumdog Millionaire" was hardly a phenomenon with Indian audiences.

"Hit in the West, flop in theEast," read a front page headline in DNA's Sunday newspaper. The film was a tough sell in Indian movie theaters because it was largely in English, featured few giant stars, and skimped on the dance numbers.

Many people here also objected to its gritty portrayal of India, as well as its title, which some took as derogatory. The film sparked protests in Mumbai and at least one north Indian city by slum residents who said the movie demeaned the poor.

"No one can call me a dog," Sheikh said Monday. "I work very hard."

A widow and mother of seven, Sheikh is a housekeeper who said she earns 600 rupees (US$15) a week.

She said the movie has been good for the families of Azhar and Rubina, but that her days are as difficult as ever.

"Look at my house," she said, pointing to the walls made of rags and the mud floor covered with a thin plastic tarp. "What has changed?"

The "Slumdog" filmmakers said they wrestled with the complications of working with children from impoverished families. Danny Boyle — who won the Oscar for best director — and producer Christian Colson decided to help Azhar and Rubina by securing them spots in Aseema, a nonprofit, English-language school in Mumbai.

Rubina's parents were thrilled with Boyle and his team.

"Whatever a parent could have done, they have done much more than that," Rafiq Qureshi said during the run-up to the awards.

Neighbors said they were nothing but happy for the child actors.

"It's Rubina's fate," said Mohammed Muzzammil, 22. "We don't want anything from her success."

Rubina's best friend Saba Qureshi wants something, however — lots of stories and pictures from Los Angeles.

"My eyes couldn't believe that I was seeing Rubina in America," said Saba, who led her sisters in Bollywood dance numbers throughout the morning. "She looked like an angel."

"When she comes back," Saba said, "we will have the biggest party."

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