Meeting a homeless “Millionaire”
I’d heard of Rubina Ali in my earlier visits to the Gharib Nagar shanty colony outside Mumbai’s suburban Bandra station but had never had the opportunity to meet her. It took a raging fire through the colony to finally bring me face-to-face with the child star of the Oscar-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire”.
On Friday night, after a long day out in the field covering various stories, I was finally on my way home. Suddenly I got a call from a friend about a major fire in the slums close to Bandra railway station in suburban Mumbai. I immediately called my colleague, Mumbai-based Reuters photographer Vivek Prakash, who lives quite close to where the fire had broken out. While Vivek rushed to the spot, I reached there shortly after. An inferno was burning in place of the small fire I’d imagined it to be.
I had spent several afternoons roaming around in these slums that were now burning. The fire had engulfed several hundred shanties, as the residents watched helplessly their lives’ savings go up in flames.
The crowd had turned agitated and hostile. The media was at the receiving end of their anger against the police and fire personnel who they accused of reaching the site too late. Luckily, I spotted one of my contacts who helped me get closer to the slums, while Vivek captured pictures from another vantage point. After shooting for a few hours, we decided to call it a day. We had been shooting late into the night and it was exhausting.
After a short nap, I went back to the slums. The fire had been extinguished. But all that it had destroyed in its wake would only become evident in the light of day. As I waited for the sun to rise, the thought of “Slumdog Millionaire” star Rubina Ali suddenly struck me. A girl from the Mumbai slums, Rubina had been picked up by acclaimed Hollywood director Danny Boyle to play the younger version of lead character Latika in his award-winning film. I remembered being told she lived in Gharib Nagar. I started looking for her.
After an hour of fruitless searching, I suddenly ran into young Rubina sitting under a blanket near the gutted ruins of her shanty. She and her whole family had spent the entire night on the railway platform nearby. As the fire raged close-by, they’d scavenged through the ruins to find anything that may have survived the ravenous flames. But nothing was left. As Rubina told me, “All my memories of this place were gutted in a few minutes”.
Among the many things that Rubina lost, were the precious photographs from that evening in Los Angeles where she’d walked the red carpet with her co-actors and Hollywood celebrities to witness the 81st Academy Awards at the iconic Kodak Theatre.
I spoke to Rubina and her mother for a few minutes before I started to take their pictures. I was amazed at the little girl’s courage and grit. Despite losing everything in one night, Rubina epitomized every bit the never-say-die attitude she’d brought to life on the big screen.