It may seem like I’m on a one man crusade to trash Slumdog Millionaire, after all I keep running stories like this. But I’m not. I’ve said my piece and I’m perfectly content to leave it at that. It’s not my fault that the strange reports about Danny Boyle’s not-as-uplifting-as-advertised movie keeps showing up in my inbox.
This latest bit of news is really the worst so far. It was only a few days ago that I saw Danny Boyle on the talk show circuit, chatting about how they recruited the movie’s child actors directly from the slums. There he claimed they’d paid them handsomely and completely changed their impoverished lives. Except… some say otherwise.
The Telegraph reports that Rubiana Ali and Azharuddin Ismail, who play the youngest versions of Latika and Salim respectively, were paid the equivalent of low wages and left sitting in the squalor of Mubai’s slums. According to their story, Ali for instance earned only $710 dollars, for an entire month of work on the movie. A movie with a $14 million budget, a movie which has made hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide.
And keep in mind here that these two kids aren’t minor parts of the film. Both Rubiana and Azharuddin have significant, and incredibly important places in Slumdog. They’re a major part of the film. Yet this report claims they earned at best, around $1000 for doing it. According to the Telegraph, in India their wage was not even equivalent to the amount usually earned by domestic servants.
Danny Boyle’s crew did find them places at a local school and the two kids receive a stipend every month to pay for books. There is also a trust fund, which they will receive if they're still in school when they turn 18 (though the kids' parents told the Telegraph they have received no information on the trust fund). In the meantime, the children are still stuck in the slums; in fact the Telegraph claims Ismail is now completely homeless after his family’s shack was demolished, and they now live under a tarp. Rubiana lives in a hut next to an open sewer.
Fox Searchlight has disputed the Telegraph’s report, claiming the kids were paid three times what an average adult makes in India, while refusing to disclose specific amounts. With all the corruption and difficulty in Mumbai, maybe the amount doesn't matter. Maybe there was simply no good way to get them out of this situation. Except isn't the entire premise of Slumdog that winning a lot of money can change a slum-kid's life? Oh wait, that's only a movie. The trust fund is great, (if it actually exists), but it doesn't change their living conditions right now.
From the moment that we hired them and long before the press became interested in this story, we have paid painstaking and considered attention to how Azhar and Rubina's involvement in the film could be of lasting benefit to them over and above the payment they received for their work.
The children had never attended school, and in consultation with their parents we agreed that this would be our priority. Since June 2008 and at our expense, both kids have been attending school and they are flourishing under the tutelage of their dedicated and committed teachers. Financial resources have been made available for their education until they are 18. We were delighted to see them progressing well when we visited their school and met with their teachers last week.
In addition to their educational requirements, a fund is in place to meet their basic living costs, health care and any other emergencies. Furthermore, as an incentive for them to continue to attend school a substantial lump sum will be released to each child when they complete their studies. Taking into account all of the children's circumstances we believe that this is the right course of action.
Since putting in place these arrangements more than 12 months ago we have never sought to publicize them, and we are doing so now only in response to the questions raised recently in the press. We trust that the matter can now be put to bed, and we would request that the media respect the children's privacy at this formative time in their lives.
- - Danny Boyle and Christian Colson
The welfare of Azhar and Rubina has always been a top priority for everyone involved with Slumdog Millionaire. A plan has been in place for over 12 months to ensure that their experience working on Slumdog Millionaire would be of long term benefit. For 30 days work, the children were paid three times the average local annual adult salary. Last year after completing filming, they were enrolled in school for the first time and a fund was established for their future welfare, which they will receive if they are still in school when they turn 18. Due to the exposure and potential jeopardy created by the unwarranted press attention, we are looking into additional measures to protect Azhar and Rubina and their families. We are extremely proud of this film, and proud of the way our child actors have been treated.
- - Fox Searchlight Pictures, Fox Star Studios, Pathe International