Back in November, when Slumdog Millionaire was just starting to heat up, I interviewed director Danny Boyle for a feature in Entertainment Weekly. At one point, we chatted about the challenge of hiring and directing three small local children who spoke only Hindi. One, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar (who plays the youngest Jamal), comes from a middle-class background, while the other two, Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Ismail (who play the youngest Latika and Salim), are from Mumbai slums similar to those depicted in the film. Boyle mentioned that he and the producers, cognizant of how a movie like Slumdog could change the kids’ lives for the worse if proper care wasn’t taken, had set up a trust fund for Ali and Ismail, accessible only if they enrolled in school — a first for both of them. “They’d never been to school,” Boyle said. “So they have to stay in school until they’re 18. When they reach 18, and if they’ve passed all their exams, a quite substantial sum of money — extra money [on top of their salaries] — will be released to them.”
Boyle wasn’t presenting this in a Look at what a good, moral Westerner I am! See how I take care of the less fortunate! kind of way. Rather, he was explaining a course of action that, to me, seemed logical, responsible, and just. But now, an article printed in Britain’s The Telegraph earlier this week has stained those good intentions with accusations of exploitation. In the story, Ali and Ismail’s parents accuse Boyle and producer Christian Colson of stiffing their kids out of a decent wage, alleging that their payment for a year’s work was “less than many Indian domestic servants.” This article comes on the heels of earlier reports that many Indians are taking offense with the title of the movie. Consider the flames of the inevitable Slumdog backlash duly fanned.
The movie’s distributor, Fox Searchlight, as well as Boyle and Colson, all have responded to the Telegraph story with statements, asserting that “For 30 days’ work, the children were paid three times the average local annual adult salary,” and that the families have been given funds to cover “basic living costs, health care, and any other emergencies.” A subsequent Reuters news clip shows the father of one of the kids back-pedaling on the accusations, but is it possible the damage is done? The kids’ lives are now disrupted, with camera crews busting into their classrooms. Moreover, concerned that such public talk of money could make Ali, Ismail, and their families a target for local Mumbai criminals, Searchlight has moved them into private housing. For now, it seems this mess isn’t as out of hand as what happened with The Kite Runner kids in 2007, but how does the situation sit with you, PopWatchers? Who, if anyone, is at fault here? The media for stirring up drama? Searchlight? The Parents? And does the controversy affect how you feel about Slumdog?
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