Thanks to Danny Boyle's Jai Ho Trust, Rubina Ali has a shot at a better future, even if the past still bristles
Tariq Engineer (MUMBAI MIRROR; March 5, 2017)

Nine years after Slumdog Millionaire, Rubina Ali is just catching her breath. Since being selected from over 300 slum children and cast as the young Latika, Rubina has won an Oscar, had a biography written about her and travelled to Los Angeles, Paris and Hong Kong. Before that, she'd never left Bandra. She continued to live in a slum but then her house burned down in 2011 and she lost all her Oscar memorabilia. She moved to a new house with her father Rafiq and stepmother Munni. There were reports of another movie but nothing happened and she still doesn't know why. Her father allegedly tried to sell her. She distanced herself from him and moved to Nallasopara to live with her birth mother, Khurshid. They didn't get along and she left again. Now she lives independently and is studying Arts in her first year of junior college.

It's enough to make anyone's head spin and yet Rubina seems to have her head screwed on just fine. We met her at a McDonalds in the suburbs a few weeks after she turned 18. Dressed in a white top and blue jeans and sporting dark glasses, she looked every inch a modern young lady. The only thing that hasn't changed about her is her smile. It is still as bright and charming as it was in all the pictures in which she is clutching her Oscar. The movie business is replete with stories of child actors who have succumbed to the pressures of fame, but Rubina has escaped that fate, though there has been collateral damage.

“When they [my parents] were in my life, they did not look after me so well,“ she says. “They would fight over me and whatever I was getting. They would pull me this way and that way. I have told my family, you are happy in your lives, let me be happy in mine.“

She is able to be independent thanks to the Jai Ho Trust, which was set up by Boyle, or Danny Uncle, as Rubina calls him, to provide for her and Azharuddin Ismail, her fellow Garib Nagar slum resident. It was through the trust that Rubina was enrolled in school. “The Trust has supported us in a very good way,“ she says. “It seems like they want the best for me. They think mostly about my education because even if I don't make it in acting, education means I can do anything in life.“

The importance of education has been drilled into her by Boyle, who comes to visit the two of them about once a year. Rubina has told him she wants to act in movies and asked him to cast her in his next movie. According to her, Danny Uncle has agreed but he has told her that for now she needs to think about her education first. “From my heart, I can say Danny Uncle is like a father to me,“ Rubina says. “He has given me so much. Even my own parents have not done so much for me. Normally, once a movie is over, people forget about you. I think if it was anyone else, none of this would have happened.“

Boyle also arranged for the Trust to buy her family a flat, though her dad and stepmother currently occupy it and are refusing to leave, something that bothers Rubina. “If it is in my name and I am not living there, then you need to leave,“ she says. Danny Uncle has been an influence on her attitude here too.When he found out about her family trouble, she says he told her, “`if your family is like this, you don't become like that. You stay positive and don't think negatively. Even if someone does something bad to you, stay positive. If you start thinking negatively, it will overwhelm you and you will become negative too. You are not like that so don't become like that.'“

Rubina talks wistfully about the time immediately after Slumdog, when she drew worldwide attention to Garib Nagar. It's clear that she misses the adulation. “If Slumdog hadn't happened, nobody would be interested in me and nobody would be saying Rubina, Rubina, Rubina,“ she says. “That time there was such a big crowd. When I left the house, everyone would know. Now, of course, it has cooled off but people still recognise me and know about me. That makes me feel very good. When I know people are talking about me, it is a different kind of feeling.“

The other constant in her life has been Islam. She performs namaz five times a day, reads the Koran and fasts. “I want Islam and my lifestyle,“ she says. “It can't be that I will give up namaz to do a movie or that I give up movies for namaz. I can manage both. I don't like the idea that one should only live a particular life. Everyone should be free to lead their own lives. Why should anyone judge anyone else?“ She's also glad to be independent, even if she didn't expect it to happen so young. “It feels good because I am doing things on my own and nobody is there to judge me and tell me not to do something. I have learned a lot over the last few years about how to manage things in my life and to read people.“

Before you think she sounds too grown up, Rubina reveals she is obsessed with selfies. So much so that it is the only feature on a cellphone she cares about. In fact, she wants to upgrade to the latest model of her cellphone because it takes better photos. “My friends tease me a lot, especially when I post photos on Instagram because all I do is take selfie, selfie, selfie and upload them,“ she says with a laugh.

In hindsight, the fire that burned down her house in Garib Nagar foreshadowed her clean break with the past. She even lost all the copies of her biography, which was published in 14 languages. She thought about asking for more copies but says “I don't have that much interest in reading my own story so why get more copies?“ Now that she has turned 18, Rubina's portion of the Trust will be dissolved in a few months and the money handed over to her. When that happens, she will be completely independent for the first time in her life. Nirja Mattoo, one of the Trustees, believes Rubina is ready to take control. “We have been counselling and mentoring her all this time and now she has become very strong emotionally,“ Mattoo says. “Nobody can shake her up and take her for granted.“

While Rubina's future appears brighter than she could have imagined, and she has plenty of friends, there is still a part of her that craves what she has lost. “If I am honest, then there is a little part of my heart that feels the absence of my family,“ she says. “When I see other families who are happy, then I wish my family was like that. If my family had stayed together, I think my life would have been even better. But there is nothing I can do. I can't change my life.“