“Slum Kids” of India are the new Hollywood stars

One more kid from Mumbai slums reached Hollywood and became blue eyed boy by stealing the red-carpet at Oscar awards. He has become the most popular child star of the awards season. Though he could barely speak English, Sunny’s bubbly, charismatic presence more than made up the communication shortcomings, with the cooperation of the entire film crew. Sunny was selected from around 2,000 talented children in a hunt in schools all over India, culminating in the final auditions held in Mumbai and Pune some one-and-half year ago. Sunny Pawar reclined in the limelight at the 89th Academy Awards ceremony where he won accolades from the audience having some of the world’s greatest actors after re-enacting a scene from The Lion King with host Jimmy Kimmel.

Sunny is cast in the role of a young Saroo Brierley, who was stranded in a train which catapulted him hundreds of kms away from home to busy Kolkata. There, he lived on the footpaths, before a young Australian couple adopts him. The elder version of Saroo was played by Dev Patel in the film. Dev Patel who became famous after working in popular film called “Slumdog Millionaire”.

Sunny is class 3 student of the “Air India Model School” where he is good in studies. His father former government office sweeper, and mother Vasu a home-maker and stay in a slum in Kalina in the western suburbs of Mumbai, near the airport. Despite his meek background, Sunny and his father went pin to polls for his auditions in Hollywood movie. One after another Sunny got two Hollywood movies but he has so far got no offer for Bollywood movies. This exactly happened with Rubiana Ali and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, both 9 years old, starred in an Oscar-winning motion picture Slumdog Millionaire. Their lives made the gossip columns and headlines in our country — and overseas.

Azhar was reportedly slapped by his father when the boy after having begging fatigue after returning back from the Academy Awards in Hollywood, refused to give an interview his father had apparently promised. Meanwhile, Rubiana was supposedly in the middle of a custody tug-of-war between her biological mother and the stepmother who raised her. These children overnight became famous by grabbing every headline and being in lime light but now no one knows where they are or what they are doing. The various political parties promised to look after those two Slumdog children — including the movie’s director, Danny Boyle — might benefit from the experience of the Salaam Baalak Trust, which was formed to look after the kids who were part of another Western-financed movie made in India.

Set up by the producers of Salaam Bombay, the trust looked after the welfare of 27 slum children who were part of Mira Nair‘s film about Mumbai street kids, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar 20 years ago. With several thousand dollars raised at the film’s premiere, the trust provided the children with an education and a safe place to live, as well as medical treatment and counselling. But despite the best efforts of the trust, most of the children took to petty crime.

Hansa Vithal, the only girl in the Salaam Bombay group, has married and now lives in Bhayandar, a western suburb of Mumbai. Meanwhile, Shafiq Syed, the lead child actor of the movie, led a roustabout life for years before ending up as an auto-rickshaw driver in Bangalore. He roamed the streets of Mumbai, knocked on the doors of producers for nearly eight months, but luck did not smile. In 1993, he returned to Bangalore and began life anew. Now he has three children who are studying. He is also writing a screenplay and hopes it will get made into a film someday.

When a slum child becomes famous and earns money, all sorts of challenges encounter them. With whatever they earned managing life ahead becomes challenge because all of sudden many unknown relatives start claiming the funds. There are very few NGO’s who try to ensure that resources and efforts are spent on education.

There are many NGO’s like Salaam Baalak, Kids with Cameras, set up to look after the eight children of prostitutes featured in the 2004 documentary Born into Brothels, fared much better with its wards. The children were taught to take photographs and sell them. The kids have earned over $100,000, which goes directly to fund their education. Two of the children have gone on to study in the U.S. Still, the kids have to make the choice themselves to better their lives. Some of them have great difficulty doing so. One of the girls has apparently fallen back into the darkness the film was trying to save her from. Local police say she was once rescued from the Sonagachi red-light district, the focus of the documentary, and housed in a juvenile-welfare home until February 2006. But soon after she was released, she returned to the trade.

Slumdog director Boyle and the film’s producer, Christian Colson, have said that resources will be made available to pay for Rubiana’s and Azhar’s education until they turn 18. A “substantial lump sum” as well as housing will also be given to the children when they complete their studies. The producers have also arranged for a rickshaw to take the children to a non-profit English-language school, Asheema, for the next eight years, just to make sure they attend. Already there are signs of new affluence in the kids’ slum dwellings.

According to India’s most recent census, the country has 115 million kids out of school. Many millions of them, it can be inferred, make their lives in the teeming and desperate streets. And they have no film protectors to help them. The horror has no end for them. But the children, who are picked by these Hollywood filmmakers, should be given good future and counselling to lead a better life. Hope Sunny Pawar makes better future and sustain with all odds when light, camera and sounds are off.

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