As Sunny Pawar basks in Lion limelight, Rubina Ali recounts glory of Slumdog days

Seema Sinha

Mar 05, 2017 12:28:33 IST

Although most of the world will mainly remember 89th Academy Awards ceremony for the disastrous announcement of the wrong winner for Best Picture, for many of us here, in India, the highlight was a young man who took to the red carpet for the first time.

After spending weeks rubbing shoulders with Hollywood royalty, the little star – eight-year-old Sunny Pawar, who starred in the Oscar-nominated Lion with Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman — is back home in Mumbai. And someone who can completely relate to him and his family experiencing this new-found fame, is 18-year-old Rubina Ali.

While Sunny was found after a massive search in schools and over 2,000 audition tapes, the eight-year-old star of Slumdog Millionaire Rubina, was plucked from obscurity in 2007 for the role of young Latika and catapulted into the limelight by the film's success as Danny Boyle’s blockbuster swept eight Oscars at the 81st Academy Awards in 2009.

As Sunny Pawar basks in Lion limelight, Rubina Ali recounts glory of Slumdog days

At the 2009 Oscars, from left: Ali (Young Latika), Lonkar, Ismail (Young Salim), Chheda (Middle Jamal), Ayush Khedekar (Young Jamal) and Ashutosh Gajiwala (Middle Salim). AP Photo

'Feels good that kids from India are being talked about'

“Sunny is being talked about just the way we were, it feels good that more and more children from India are going for the Oscars," says Rubina, who has now grown into a pretty teenager, although traces of the child we saw in Slumdog remain. "And again, he is not a rich kid but a slum dweller like us. It feels great. It is definitely a proud moment for India."

Rubina also shares in common with Sunny, his co-stars Patel and Kidman. “I haven’t seen Lion but I know that Dev and Nicole are part of the film and I have worked with both of them. Now I am very curious to watch the film,” says Rubina, who did a commercial with Kidman and Arjun Rampal for a soft drink immediately after the 81st Oscars. Shot in Udaipur, the ad film was directed by Shekhar Kapur. Rubina then jetted around the globe, from Delhi to Hong Kong and Taiwan for fashion and stage shows. In 2009, she also travelled to Paris to promote her biography, Slumgirl Dreaming. That same year, there was some talk that she would be starring in a romantic comedy, Lord Owen’s Lady, with Anthony Hopkins, but the film never got made.

Memories of Dev Patel and Freida Pinto

While Freida Pinto, who rose to fame with Slumdog, had connected with Rubina once when she was in India, the teenager also has many fond memories of Dev Patel, who she saw with his mother and Sunny at the recently held Oscar ceremony. “I saw Dev Patel with his mother; I liked his new look, but he was looking much older. He used to be so cute when we were filming Slumdog. He would take me around in his arms, feed me goodies... I would spend a lot of time with him and Freida. Dev bonded with us kids big time. Freida was very mischievous! We would play indoor games with them and Danny Sir. I had such a great time at the Oscars that I want to go back there. But currently I don’t have any offers. People don’t know what I am up to...” says Rubina, and sighs.

Rubina (centre) in a production still from Slumdog Millionaire

Rubina (centre) in a production still from Slumdog Millionaire

A life-changing event

Eight years have passed and Rubina still can’t get over the experience: the Danny Boyle film that turned her life around. She appears extremely excited about the journey and talks about it as if it had happened just yesterday.

“My life underwent a complete change. I was living in the slums. Nobody knew me, I would be loitering the whole day with my friends in my colony aimlessly. But after the Oscars, people started recognising me wherever I went. Even now, many people know my name which is a great feeling,” she says, and reminisces about the day she was told that she had to fly to Los Angeles to attend the Oscars.

“I distinctly remember my father calling up to say that I have to go to the US. I was so thrilled. I was also a bit nervous and scared. I went for shopping and the media followed me. When I sat in the plane and it took off, I was fast asleep but when the plane was landing, I was terrified due to the turbulence and I thought it was going to crash like how they show in movies! When we returned from LA, there were several policemen and bodyguards around us at the airport holding guns... It seems like yesterday. The whole area where I lived in Bandra was jam-packed, there were so many media people chasing us. People were falling all over each other, people were standing on rooftops to catch a glimpse of us and yet photographers continued to click us!” says Rubina excitedly.

Help from Jai Ho Trust

Through his Jai Ho Trust, Danny Boyle ensured that Rubina and her co-star, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, were given proper education, housing and were provided for financially.

“Every month we are given allowances and they would increase the amount every year...from Rs 7,000 to 8,000 to 9,000. They have given me a flat in Bandra West. They are taking full care of our education, including fees and books. The house will be transferred in my name in few months time as I have already completed 18 years of age,” says Rubina.

At the time when she left for the Oscars, she was nine but she was in Class I, studying in an Urdu medium school. The Trust got her enrolled in an English medium school, and with her hard work, Rubina managed to get double promotion, two times. “I am still overage for Class XI and I feel bad about it, but at least I reached college... or I would still have been in Class IX. Danny Sir was here last month and he was very keen on knowing about our progress. He was happy to know that now I am in college. He is a great guiding force and keeps telling us as well as the trustees that we should remain focused when it comes to our education and future,” she says.

Happy to be the 'Ringa' girl

"Love, fame, respect, I got it all," says Rubina, telling us how people still call her "the 'Ringa' girl in a yellow frock".

She continues, “Had Slumdog not happened to me, I would have been nowhere. I wouldn’t have got any further education. I would have just wasted my time and my family would have lived a life of penury. Probably I would have got married by now. I was living with my grandmother, I would have continued loitering with my friends. I wasn’t going to school then. I would just sit with my friends near the railway tracks, pick up almonds that dropped from the tree. I would have been stuck at that Garib Nagar colony of Bandra East. With the experience, I feel my life has become meaningful and purposeful. People say that the world is a small place — instead I feel that the world is so big that you can explore it endlessly...”

All grown up: Rubina is now 18. Photo by Sachin Gokhale/Firstpost

All grown up: Rubina is now 18. Photo by Sachin Gokhale/Firstpost

Future plans

After acting in a widely acclaimed sleeper hit in her childhood, obviously Rubina  dreams of being an actress. Like most teens, however, she is a little confused about what comes next. Next year, she will have to appear for the Class XII board exams.

“I want to become an actress and I have told the trustees that I want to take up acting classes. They may talk to Anupam Kher for getting me enrolled in his institute, Actor Prepares. But I am not very sure at this moment because I don’t know how many hours I will have to give to the class each day. I live far away, then going to college, taking up extra classes for my Class XII board exams... I am a bit confused now. I would like to complete my graduation for sure. And if acting doesn’t work out, then I will take up teaching. I am deeply inspired by the teachers who have taught me and helped me grow in life. But I will first complete my education and then decide,” says Rubina.

And no points for guessing the actresses Rubina looks up to: Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone, who have made inroads into Hollywood. “They have gone from Bollywood to Hollywood, which is very inspiring. I have already been to Hollywood, so I should aim at what they are doing,” says Rubina.

According to Professor Nirja Mattoo, a member of the Jai Ho Trust, the monthly allowance given to both Rubina and Azhar will now be discontinued. They will now be given a lump sum amount to pursue any career, skills or business, and the house, which is currently in the name of the Trust, will soon be transferred in their names as both have turned 18. “Both Rubina and Azhar are keen on taking up acting as their career, so we will help them hone these skills. Azhar is also interested in setting up a business in fruits. We will help them set up their future but now their fixed monthly expenses will be stopped,” said Mattoo.


Lion breakout star Sunny already has his next film lined up. Sunny will star with Demi Moore and Freida Pinto in Love, Sonia which will be out later this year. It's another hard-hitting one, about a young girl's escape from a international sex trafficking ring. However, Sunny's uncle Raviraj feels that the Indian government should step in to help with the family's welfare “especially since he has got so much pride to the nation”.

Lion star Sunny Pawar. File photo

Lion star Sunny Pawar. File photo

Raviraj feels that all the accolades will benefit Sunny only if the Indian government does something for his education and future. “We belong to a small caste (sic). Sunny and his siblings' education expenses should be taken care of. The family should be supported," he says. "Sunny is getting proposals from Hollywood and Bollywood and he is interested in doing both. We will start talking to the makers when all the media interactions and celebrations get over."

Says Sunny's mother Vasu, "Sunny grew up watching Bollywood movies. He loved acting and always wanted to be on television. But I used to tell him it’s a different world. It would be very hard for people like us to get into the industry."

Dev Patel, in an interview with Daily Telegraph, had to say this about Sunny: "He’s our little mascot on this movie (Lion). For him, he’d never been on a plane before or seen a Hollywood film and now he’s leading this big movie. He’s so beautifully innocent and that’s why you get such a beautiful performance from him. He’s just really enjoying it."

Updated Date: Mar 05, 2017 12:28:33 IST

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