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When a slum girl got really lucky

Last updated on: July 23, 2009 

When a slum girl got really lucky

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How does a slumdweller end up on the flashy Oscar red carpet? Well, you simply sign up for Slumdog Millionaire, and watch your luck turn when the film goes on to win multiple Oscars.

Rubina Ali, who played Latika in the film, has gone on to star in an advertisement with Nicole Kidman and also pen her autobiography -- at only nine years of age.

We present an excerpt from the book, where Rubina recounts the behind-the-scenes filming of Slumdog. Here's her story:

Filming began in December 2007. It was a very hot day and we took a bus with Parvesh, Azhar and his mother. At last we would be shooting, after many days of auditions.

We were taken to the same place where auditions had been held. Loveleen [Tandon, co-director] and Danny [Boyle] would be waiting for us, we were told. When we reached the studio, we met another boy named Ayush, who was also our age. He came from the suburbs of Mumbai, though, and his father was not poor and he did not come from a slum. The only thing we knew about the movie was that it was about slum kids. We had no idea yet about the role we had been chosen to play.

Loveleen took us around the studio, showing us where to find the food stalls, the toilets and the resting area. Everyone was treating us with so much respect, it seemed like we were important people here. Then she explained to us what they wanted us to do.

'So in this film there are going to be three main characters: Jamal, who's the hero, his brother Salim and the heroine, Latika. You three are going to play these characters when they were children. Ayush, you're Jamal, Azhar, you're playing Salim, and Rubina, you're Latika. Do you all understand?'

'Yes, yes, got that.'

'The scenes will be easy -- you've already rehearsed a lot of them during the auditions. We'll ask you to do the same things again, but this time there'll be a camera there too. OK?'

OK? It was more than OK! The three of us couldn't wait to get started in a proper shooting setting. We were introduced to a few other people. I particularly liked Natasha. I wanted to be friends with her as she was the make-up artist, and she could probably teach me all about doing up the perfect face, just like in the movies. She was very helpful as well. Loveleen, of course, was also always around and trying to make sure we were comfortable.

'If you have any questions or if you need anything at all, just come and ask me.'

'What are we going to do first?'

'First of all we're going to do some camera tests, and then we'll start with a very happy scene. Rubina and Ayush, you have to show that you are very close. It's the start of a very pure and beautiful love that will bind you together for life, although you don't know that yet.'

The start of a very pure love, I didn't understand what she meant, but at least it was not love with Azhar! That would have been almost impossible.

Excerpted from Slumdog Dreaming by Rubina Ali, published by Random House India with the publisher's permission, Rs 195.


Image: Rubina Ali

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'I've never drank so many bottles of Coca Cola or eaten so many ice creams in my life!'

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I was excited and wanted to explore. I had never been to a studio before. There were so many people checking lights, some were struggling with wires, and other were running around waving their arms and talking loudly. When I found myself standing in the middle of the set, dozens of cameras and lights around me, I felt a bit nervous and scared. Until Danny Uncle said, 'Action!' Then everything seemed to fade away into the background. It didn't bother me that so many people were observing me.

When I wasn't in a scene, I watched Ayush and Azhar. That was when I started to realise that even they had important roles, but I was the heroine of the movie. It wasn't long before the three of us were best friends. Between takes, we'd run around asking the cameramen questions and cashing each other in and out of the sets. We were curious and wanted to know about everything from worries and lights to make-up brushes. It was great fun on sets and everyone was really nice to us. People kept asking, 'Do you need anything? Would you like something to eat?'

I've never drank so many bottles of Coca Cola or eaten so many ice creams in my life!

I also spent a lot of time with Natasha. She'd show me her make-up and let me try things out. She had so many exciting things: various colours of lipstick, things girls put on their cheeks and eyelids.

Whenever Danny Uncle had five minutes free he would come and play with us. I liked the hand game, where he put his hands in front of my face, palms down, and I had to try to hit them before he pulled them away. In the end we always burst out laughing.

When we had to shoot a scene, Loveleen always carefully explained it to us before we started. Actually it was very easy; we'd rehearsed the scenes over and over again during the auditions. In any case, no one screamed at us even when we did forget out lines, or if we started giggling halfway through a dialogue.

Danny Uncle always tried to make sure we were at ease. 'Are you feeling tired? Do you want to have a little rest before we carry on?'

Image: Loveleen Tandon and Rubina Ali

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'We had to keep doing the same things over and over and over'

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Sometimes it used to be a little hard, sometimes it was tiring. Like the scene with the rain, which was a lot less fun than in the rehearsals. This time there was a kind of machine hidden behind the set from which water came out fast and continuously, just like natural rain and I got completely soaked!

The day we shot the scene it was late and I was very tired already. Ayush and Azhar had taken shelter in an abandoned shack. In the film I had to stand out in the open, a little away from them, without moving. Then I had to crouch down and draw patterns in the mud with a bit of wood, while the rain fell and soaked me, looking miserable until they made some space for me in the shelter. When I felt the first drops landing on my head I got a real surprise -- the water was freezing! Then the drops turned into a really heavy downpour, like monsoon rains. It was falling down so hard I had to struggle to keep my eyes open.

'Cut!'

When I heard that I ran over to the assistants, who immediately wrapped me up in a big towel to get me dry. Azhar and Ayush were still sitting comfortably in their hut, laughing at my dripping face. I thought it was all over but then Loveleen said, 'That was very good Rubina, but we're going to do it again, OK?'

Oh no! I could've done without that! Even though cold water was falling on me, my eyes were closing and I just wanted to go to sleep or be in the happy position of Azhar and Ayush.

We did that scene over and over. I was feeing very cold. Whenever Danny Uncle shouted 'Cut!' I would run over to a little electric heater they'd put next to the set. Then, when I was holding out my hands in the hot air and just starting to unfreeze, I'd hear Danny uncle shout: 'That was really good! Ok... let's do it again!

After a while I could understand a few words of English and I knew what he meant. But I'd pretend not to understand so I could stay by the heater a little longer.

That was the most difficult scene of the whole shoot. Once when someone was closing the toilet door, my finger came in between. But there was a doctor on the sets who put a bandage on it. In slums kids keep falling and getting hurt so it didn't bother me that much.

The other scenes were much easier. Me, Ayush and Azhar were particularly good at doing the external scenes in Dharavi. It is spread out in a huge area; there are so many people and workshops. It is quite easy to get lost there. When they asked us to run through the narrow alleyways in Dharavi, the cameras had trouble keeping up!

Dancing barefoot in the middle of a dirty puddle, running between cows and people in a lane that was not very wide: all of this was just what we were used to, me and Azhar. It was like playing hide-and-seek outside our own homes -- except that we had to keep doing the same things over and over and over until Danny uncle was happy with the take.


Image: A scene from Slumdog Millionaire

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'The toilet scene was one of the funniest scenes we shot'

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Really, the things they wanted us to act out were just everyday life to us. Rubbish full of rats and cockroaches, little shacks and open drains everywhere -- that was how we lived. Unlike the hero of the film I've never collected rubbish, but Azhar had done it, to make a few rupees.

And the public toilets Danny uncle showed in the film, the little wooden huts raised on sticks over disgusting filth, well they were really there in Dharavi. The scene where Jamal gets locked in the toilets by his brother Salim and escapes though a hole dug into the ground was one of the funniest scenes we shot. In this scene, Ayush (Jamal) is ready to do absolutely anything to get the autograph of the film star Amitabh Bachchan, his great idol -- even if it means he has to jump into mound of waste.

When Loveleen briefed Ayush about this, he didn't like it at all. No way was he going to jump into a pile of shit! Me and Azhar thought it was hilarious, we had a good laugh when we heard what he had to do. We were also happy that we didn't have to do a scene like this. But Loveleen quickly told our co-actor not to worry.

'Don't panic, Ayush! Want to know exactly what you're going to land in?' She looked at us, still laughing at Ayush's bad luck.

'Yes...'
'Chocolate!'
'Really?'
'Yes, litres of chocolate!'

At first Ayush didn't believe it. Then he got really excited. In fact we were all licking our lips. All of a sudden, me and Azhar were quiet. Now we wanted to have a scene just like this.

You should have seen them getting the mixture ready on the set! The assistants poured kilos and kilos of chocolate into a big pot with butter and mint, then they mixed it all up for hours over low heat. The whole studio had this sweet yummy chocolaty smell and I just wanted to jump right in and eat the whole lot. In the slum, I eat candies but mostly they are fruit flavored, and sometimes chocolate sweets. This mixture looked and smelled so nice I couldn't help but stare at it and hang around next to the pot.

'Mere muh mein paani aa raha tha,' I told everyone later.

When the mixture was ready, we begged Danny to let us taste it. Looking at us, he agreed at once to let us have a taste.

'Come on, it's my round! Everyone can have some!'

We ran towards the pot, screaming. All the cast and crew were also there to get a bowlful. Mmm, it was delicious! Even Danny liked it; I saw him licking his fingers before getting back to work.

'Right, ready everyone! We can't let it get cold!'

I would have given anything to be Ayush just then. Ayush was delighted, of course, and giving us looks as he prepared to fall into that yummy chocolate.

We found a good place in a corner to watch the scene, so we wouldn't miss a thing. Ayush was waiting, crouching over the hole that was supposed to be a toilet bowl. He was having trouble keeping a straight face.

'Camera!'

Ayush looked down though the hole, and then he acted a bit hesitant but as if it was something he had to do, if he was to get his favourite star's autograph. He started to pinch his nostrils as he'd been asked to do.

When we saw Ayush holding his nose, Azhar and I were laughing so hard. Then Ayush began making terrible faces and we had to struggle to keep quite. It was terrible because the scene was complicated to do and everyone -- including Ayush of course -- knew it was supposed to be done in just one take. If they had to do it again because of our nosy laughing, Danny would be really upset. Azhar and I put our hands over our mouths, so no one would hear us.

At last Ayush jumped right in, splashing chocolate all over the cameras.

My stomach was hurting and I was having difficulty breathing, we were laughing so much and trying so hard to control it. My hand stayed tight over my mouth until Danny shouted 'Cut!' and then Azhar and I exploded into loud, mad laughter. We just couldn't stop.

Ayush stood there with that chocolately liquid dripping off him, waiting to be told what to do and not daring to move. He looked so funny it made us start laughing all over again. In the end Danny said, 'Good, that's great!'

Ayush was very relieved. He started to giggle as well, and started licking himself like a little cat, offering us also but 'Eeehh' we all went now. That was my funniest memory from the shoot. I still laugh whenever I think of the day. When I saw this scene on the screen it looked so real.


Image: A scene from Slumdog Millionaire

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'A bit of shouting wouldn't have done Azhar any harm'

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By now we had been filming for nearly two weeks. Danny had soon realised that five days wasn't going to be enough for all the scenes with us. Shooting in the slums had turned out to be more complicated as there were many people surrounding the cameras. The heat made everything take longer too, because they had to cool the cameras down several times during the day using bags of ice. All this meant that, even though we were there from morning till night, we could never actually film for more than two or three hours a day.

Strangely, one of the best scenes -- and my father's favourite -- was the one with the train. It sounded so very simple: the three main characters, Jamal, Salim and Latika, are running away form a horrible orphanage as the man in charge wanted to make them handicapped and send them out to beg, which is what happens to the other children in the orphanage. The bad guys are chasing them, and they run along the railway tracks so they can jump onto a moving train. Jamal and Salim manage to get on board, but Latika is slower than the boys and she doesn't make it. She manages to grab Salim's hand, but at the last moment he lets go.

The train they used for the filming was a real one. When I saw it, I was really scared. It wasn't the idea of running alongside the train that frightened me, but the idea of holding the hand of someone who was on board! What if I slipped and fell? Loveleen tried to reassure me:

'Don't worry; the train will be going very slowly. Nothing bad can possibly happen to you. There are many people here to make sure that you don't get hurt. You just have to run quite fast and concentrate on what you're doing.'

Danny talked to us for a long time before we had to act out the scene, making sure we all understood exactly what to do. It was a bit more complicated for Ayush and Azhar, they had to actually climb onto the train.

Azhar just wanted to get on with it as quickly as possible; he thought it was all great fun. When he saw that I was frightened he started teasing me. 'Chapati, darr lagta hai train se?'

It was always like that. Ever since we'd started filming, Azhar had never missed a chance to clown around and tease me. Usually we both managed to have a good time, but he couldn't help irritating me just for the pleasure of seeing me get annoyed -- and sometimes it worked!

'Hey, monkey-face, you're going to mess it all up!' The stupid names he called me always drove me crazy and I was so angry at times. Azhar's mother never told her son anything. She was there every day, but she never said a word. She just sat there drinking cups and cups of chai the whole day. Meanwhile, Danny sometimes told Azhar to behave when he messed about on the set, though he never shouted at him.

'Calm down, Azhar. You can mess about when we've got the shot,' he would say.

In my view, a bit of shouting wouldn't have done Azhar any harm. In any case, I always gave a good fight if he picked on me.


Image: A scene from Slumdog Millionaire

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'Azhar wasn't too happy with the mirchi scene'

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This train scene was just like the one day show in Bollywood movies. I was lucky with it, it only took one take. Though, I was a bit scared when I saw a real train, I was just thinking about one thing: what if Ayush leaves my hand or if I slip away.

Before the beginning of the scene, I had made it a point to be very nice to Ayush. Everyone was trying to tell me that it wouldn't be too difficult and explained the security measures undertaken for my safety. They explained and even showed the train moving, as they wanted to convince me that it is not dangerous. It turned out that running along a train was easier than I thought. But running with chappals was a bit uncomfortable. I was totally out of breath by the end, which gave Azhar something else to tease me about.

But I took my revenge with the mirchi scene. To teach a lesson to Salim (Azhar) who bullies everyone and threatens to drop the baby in the movie, Latika -- in other words, me -- had her revenge, as did I in real life. I was so amused.

The idea of my putting mirchi in Azhar's underpants made him a bit quieter than usual. He was not too happy about this scene. While the assistants were getting the scene ready, Ayush and I teased him mercilessly: 'Azhar ke pant mein mirchi!' 'Hey, Azhar, you like hot food? Feel like a bit of chilli?'

Everyone was laughing except Azhar, who kept on complaining and asking Loveleen, 'Yeh mirchi bahaut garam toh nahi hai na?'

'It's all right, Azhar, we've picked very mild chillies. You'll hardly feel a thing, honest.'

At last everyone was in their places. The other child extras lay down on mats, all close together. Azhar lay down in the middle looking rather worried.

'Quiet please, camera's rolling!'

Everyone had to pretend to be asleep, but a few were still giggling.

'Ssshh children, no messing about, the camera's rolling I said!'

We all found it hard to stay serious. Even Azhar couldn't help giggling. It took a while before there was completely silence. In the scene Latika gets up, tiptoes over to Salim's mat, carefully slips the little red chillies in his pants and quickly goes back to her place to wait for the burning to wake up Salim.

While I was doing all this, I had to act very chalu, then loudly burst out laughing when Salim starts to yell. It goes without saying that I didn't have to pretend, and the others didn't either. When Azhar jumped off his bed shouting with pain, all the children woke up and started to laugh and point at him quite naturally. Azhar jumped up, naked, ran like crazy towards the bathroom, and grabbed the water pipe to cool himself down between his legs, while all the other actors laughed and shouted: 'Chillies on his willy! Chillies on his willy!'

It was in the script to laugh but we all really laughed till we cried! And I must say Azhar acted like he was in pain brilliantly. You should have seen the faces he was making, with his mouth wide open and his eyes rolling in all directions. I still haven't stopped teasing him about it.


Image: A scene from Slumdog Millionaire

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'I loved dancing to the Ringa Rigna song'

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Finally we had a dance sequence and all my practice with Rukhsar came handy. I loved dancing to the Ringa Rigna song. I felt in love with the song the very first time I heard it and after listening to it a few times I even knew the words. Danny did a lot of takes as he needed different angles. But I didn't mind -- it was the opposite in fact. I could have gone on doing it forever.

I had to sing and dance on the railway tracks for this number. I was singing and dancing to the song just like a Bollywood actress. I was thrilled to have a song of my own, in addition to acting in the movie. I was thinking, 'Even the crowd will sway listening to this song and looking at me.'

While I had been imitating different actress for so long, now I had a song for myself and it was completely different! That evening when I went home, I rushed to my cousin's place to show her the moves I had to perfect. Rukhsar was as excited as me. She came and stood next to me at once to copy the steps. My uncle and aunt laughed as they watched us dancing in the middle of the room.

Ten days later we shot the film's final song, Jai Ho, at Victoria Station. Now I had two songs to my credit!

My cousins were fast to learn my new dance steps. We spent lots of evening doing them. Every night when I got back from filming I'd tell my family the story of that day's scene. My little brother Abbas really enjoyed the one with the chilies. Just the thought of anyone having his trousers full of mirchi made him go crazy laughing. He thought it would be a really good prank to play on the other slum kids. As for Abba, he couldn't believe that I had done the train scene in just one take.

But what impressed everyone the most was when I told them I'd met Anil Kapoor. He is a superstar in India, has made dozens of films, and I've seen loads of them, in the cinema and on television. Now my family was all convinced that I was really acting in a big movie.

In this film, his role is that of Prem, the host of Kaun Banega Crorepati. As the filming took longer than expected, Danny started working with the adult actors side by side, so I got to see Anil Kapoor act. Sometimes we'd meet older Jamal and Latika as well, who were played by Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto. Me, Ayush and Azhar use to observe the way they were acting. I really liked them. Frieda Didi was really nice to us. We cracked jokes and I particularly liked to observe while she got ready for her scenes.

I saw Anil Kapoor in real life for the first time on the set of the TV game show, which had been put together so there were seats for the pretend audience. When the cameras were focusing just on the middle of the set anyone could go and sit there to watch. It wasn't just me -- everybody wanted to see Anil Kapoor! But he didn't know me. To him I was just another extra. He didn't know yet that I also had an important role to play.

That day I didn't get an opportunity to ask for his autograph, but I hoped I'd get another chance. Just seeing him was really amazing! Back home everyone kept pestering me with questions. 'Anil Kapoor, kaisa lagta hai?'

'Mast kya?' 'Rubina, tu ne Anil Kapoor se baat ki?'

My father and uncles were particularly impressed. They had grown up watching Anil Kapoor's movies. One of my father's favourite was Mr India. In this movie, Anil Kapoor gets a gadget through which he can become invisible to people.

'You are certainly meeting great people. You seem to be living the life of a real star!' my father told me.

Image: The cast and crew of Slumdog Millionaire
Photographs: Pradeep Bandekar
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'Back in the slum, I found it hard to adjust for a few days'

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It was true. Filming was like a dream and I never wanted it to stop. There wasn't a single day that wasn't amazing fun.

After we'd all been working together for three weeks, Danny called us all in to talk to us. Loveleen translated, for the last time we thought we would be seeing him, in a while.

'The shooting is over, children; we've got everything we wanted. I've got to concentrate on the grown-ups now. Thank you, you've been wonderful!'

I'd known this was going to happen, but I'd hoped it wouldn't happen this soon. For a month we'd put everything into this film. We'd gotten used to life on the sets. It was weird to think of leaving Danny Loveleen, Natasha and the rest of the crew. Everyone had been so kind and nice to us. I couldn't help feeling incredibly sad at the idea of leaving it all behind. I would also, of course, really miss being in front of the camera and treated like a star. 'Don't look so sad! Don't you want to see yourselves on the big screen?'

'Yes!'
'You wait and see -- you'll be amazed!'
'Hum kab milenge?'
'Of course we'll all see each other again! We haven't finished shooting the film yet and then I'm going to stay in India a bit longer. I promise we'll see each other a lot.'

It was hard to get back to the slums. Things weren't the same. I missed eating ice cream and chocolates and drinking cold drinks. The people at the studio had been really nice. Back in the slum I found it hard to adjust for a few days.

A few days after this, Parvesh came to the slum to pick us up. 'Danny wants to see you. I think he's got a surprise for you.'

I was thrilled to see my friends and Danny Uncle again. And a surprise, no one had never given me a surprise. I was wondering what it could be.

We went again to the India Take One office and were greeted by a Santa Claus. It was 24th December that day, and one of the technicians had dressed like a Santa for us! I have just seen Santa on TV. At home we didn't celebrate Christmas, it was just an ordinary day, but I'd heard about a day when children were given presents. Me, Ayush and Azhar also had presents today, thinks like colour pencils, candies and some toys, and we had a good time I love playing with Danny uncle and also the way he smiles all the time.

Even for New Year, we were called in by Danny Uncle and he offered us more presents. This time, I got some toys from which you can make mountains on the beach and some glow-in-the dark stickers. I was so thrilled as only rarely does anyone give us gifts, and that too toys. I was so happy and Danny uncle hadn't forgotten us and that we mattered to him.


Image: Azhar, Danny Boyle and Rubina
Photographs: Reuters
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