A version of this story first appeared in the March 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
MUMBAI, INDIA — “More than a dream, it was fantasy come true,” recalls Tanay Chheda, 17 — a child star of Slumdog Millionaire and now a student at Connecticut’s Choate prep school — of the film’s eight statuettes won at the 2009 Oscars, including best picture and best director for Danny Boyle.
The film, a kinetic tale of reaching for game-show riches amid the Mumbai slums, cast six young actors to play Jamal (Dev Patel), Jamal’s brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and love interest Latika (Freida Pinto) at different ages. Says Boyle of Fox Searchlight’s efforts to fly them all to the Oscars: “Some of the kids don’t know their birth dates, so getting them a passport was a nightmare.”
Upon landing, the kids were whisked via armored car to Brooks Brothers for fittings; hours later, they were on the red carpet, fielding cheek pinches from the likes of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. (For Chheda, it was Miley Cyrus who made the biggest impression: “I was a crazy Miley fan,” he laughs.) But controversy accompanied the film’s triumph as the two poorest children, Azharuddin Ismail and Rubina Ali, returned home amid reports of abuse, bulldozed shanties and infighting among opportunistic family members. (One tabloid said Ali’s father tried to “sell” her for $400,000; he denied it.)
“We were aware we would have to make provisions for the children,” says Boyle, who admits the backlash caught him off guard. Boyle designated Ismail and Ali, both now 15, as beneficiaries of a trust with an emphasis on completing school. Ismail is clear that the trust is making a difference: “I used to live in a slum. Now I live in a nice apartment and go to a good school.” While the director concedes there are concerns ranging from the kids’ attendance to what will happen to the money they’ll receive for finishing their education, he is proud that, for now, they’re “benefiting hugely.”
“Wow! Look at how you’ve grown!” That was one phrase heard again and again as the young actors excitedly reunited for the first time in over four years for a THR photo shoot in Mumbai on Feb. 19. Ayush Khedekar (unforgettable as the outhouse-diving Young Jamal) couldn’t make it due to ongoing school exams, and was photographed separately the next day at his home.
From left: Tanay Chheda, 17, photographed in Wallingford, Conn., and Ayush Khedekar, 13, took a break from exam studying. Both actors played young Jamal in the film. Click the photo above to take a closer look into THR’s reunion with the Slumdog Millionaire kids.
What also struck everybody — including the actors’ family chaperones who accompanied them for the shoot — was how the two child actors had grown to somehow resemble their elder versions. Ismail and Ali were now in their early teens and face-to-face with their college-going co-actors Ashutosh Gajiwala (Middle Salim) and Tanvi Lonkar (Middle Latika). Standing almost as tall as Ashutosh, the shy Azharuddin seemed to have changed the most from his impish version in the film. Rubina and Tanvi showed off similar sunny smiles, with both girls exhibiting a flair for fashionable clothes.
Photographer Colston Julian‘s office in Mumbai’s buzzing Bandra suburb was soon a hive of activity as the actors went for makeup and wardrobe while being briefed on how the afternoon shoot was planned. When they were told that the shoot was for THR‘s Oscars Issue, the memories came flooding back to their voyage to Hollywood in 2009. “You know, when we went to the Oscars, that was also around this time — in fact this very week — in February,” remarked Tanvi’s father Ganesh Lonkar, who accompanied his daughter to the Oscars. “It’s amazing we are now having this reunion at this time!”
Posing against a striking yellow wall in a nearby alley, Tanvi performed like a professional for her solo portrait session. While she has worked in two soon-to-be-released South Indian films, she is also practical about her career choices: “I am studying psychology in college and hope to work in that profession. As for a career in films, you really can’t plan that. I mean, it was sheer chance that I got cast in Slumdog Millionaire.” Ashutosh attends one of Mumbai’s prestigious colleges, St. Xavier’s, studying mass media “and hoping to also get a law degree.” He is still passionate about acting and dabbles in theater. Tanvi — who first aspired to be an astronomer as a child — goes to Wilson College, another well-known institution.
Azharuddin and Rubina have been going to school as beneficiaries of the Jai Ho Trust set up by Boyle. The trust also ensured that the two kids and their immediate family have homes to live in after they moved out of their slum dwellings. Rubina was recently featured in a Spanish documentary short film, La Alfombra Roja (The Red Carpet), that chronicled her life after Slumdog Millionaire.
Perhaps what ended up as the highlight of the THR shoot was a session in Mumbai’s famous local trains. Planned during off-peak hours, which meant less than the usual teeming crowds, the shooting crew and actors boarded a compartment and blended in as passengers over a short journey. The actors were then transported to the final location of the day: As the golden sun set on Mahim Creek, offering a dramatic view of Mumbai’s new architectural marvel, the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, the actors posed for one last group shot.
“This has been an amazing day, spending all this time together after so long. It was like we were shooting the film again,” said Rubina.