Determined to make the rags-to-riches drama “Slumdog Millionaire” as authentic as possible, director Danny Boyle reworked his film’s first act, casting Hindi-speaking children from Mumbai’s slums in two lead roles. Now his choice to put the impoverished 7-year-olds into the film has sparked a growing controversy that is threatening to overtake the movie’s global goodwill.
The dispute over the production’s hiring of the children comes on the heels of “Slumdog Millionaire’s” 10 nominations for this year’s Academy Awards. The film, which recently collected the top prizes at award ceremonies for the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild of America, is considered a favorite to win the best picture Oscar.
Boyle, producer Christian Colson and the film’s distributors issued a statement Wednesday disputing several media reports that “Slumdog Millionaire” took advantage of the children, who star in the film as the youngest Latika and Salim.
The film follows two orphaned brothers -- Salim and Jamal -- and their friend, Latika, over the early years of their lives. Each character is played by three different actors as they progress from childhood to their teens. The brothers clash not only over the girl, but also over what paths they should follow. The law-abiding Jamal, determined to reconnect with Latika, finds himself on India’s version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” where his remarkable performance captivates the nation.
Articles in Britain’s Daily Telegraph and India’s Hindustan Times, quoting relatives of the actors, said Rubina Ali (the youngest Latika) and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail (the youngest Salim) were both poorly compensated for their original, monthlong acting work and have not shared in the film’s financial windfall; other media outlets and Internet sites either have repeated or linked to the allegations. The Telegraph article says Ali earned about $1,000, while Ismail was paid about $2,400. (According to a World Bank report last year, 75.6% of India’s population lives on less than $2 a day.) Fox Searchlight, Boyle and Colson have declined to say what their actual compensation was.
The boy who played the youngest Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) comes from a middle-class family, and the older children in the film are also comparatively well-off, Fox Searchlight says.
In their statement, Boyle and Colson said the production took special care to look after the children’s welfare, paying for their elementary and secondary schooling (neither child had been educated before) since last June, covering their basic living costs (including health care and emergencies) and establishing “a substantial lump sum” payment for college tuition that will be distributed to the young boy and girl “when they complete their studies.”
Distributors Fox Searchlight and its India counterpart, Fox Star Studios, along with “Slumdog Millionaire” sales agent Pathe International said in a separate statement, “The welfare of Azhar and Rubina has always been a top priority for everyone involved in ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ . . . For 30 days’ work, the children were paid three times the average local adult salary. . . . We are extremely proud of this film, and proud of the way our child actors have been treated.”
Boyle, Colson and Fox Searchlight head Peter Rice said in interviews that they never wanted to publicize the financial assistance they were providing to the two children, fearful it might make the children more vulnerable to any kind of predators. “I am really worried about the kids, and the way they are being dragged into this,” Boyle said. “The spotlight is on them.”
Added Rice: “First people say, ‘You’ve exploited the kids -- you didn’t pay them.’ And then now you’re publicly saying these two little kids have a lot of money.”
As originally written by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, “Slumdog Millionaire’s” first third was in English. But the film’s casting director, Loveleen Tandan, told Boyle that Indian children who spoke English were so uniformly well-off that she was unable to find the wiry, undernourished kids whom Boyle had seen running around Mumbai’s slums. So the dialogue for the youngest three children was rewritten into Hindi, and Boyle and Tandan, who also is Boyle’s co-director, went into the slums to find actors.
“It was a difficult moral question,” Boyle said. “Do you exclude kids from the slums? If you exclude them, then it feels morally wrong. But if you include them, it raises another set of moral questions -- how do you care for them after the movie is finished?”
Colson said that he and Boyle considered offering to remove Ali and Ismail and their families from Mumbai’s sprawling slums, but decided it was better to try to “ameliorate the lives they are living,” Colson said, “and put them in schools that work with underprivileged kids” while paying for their most pressing financial needs. When “Slumdog Millionaire” won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the $15,000 prize was put into Ali and Ismail’s trust fund, which will pay for their college if they stay in school.
Now Fox Searchlight wants to bring all nine of the film’s young performers to the Oscars, scheduled for Feb. 22.
“They’re all desperate to come,” Boyle said. “But then you have to worry about exposing them -- even if it’s just a flash -- to this world.”