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Rubina Ali: Double life of the little girl from the slum

Less than six months ago a slum kid from Mumbai left India for the first time in her life - bound for Hollywood, to attend the world's biggest movie awards.

Four days later Rubina Ali returned to be met by huge crowds who carried her home cheering and singing in celebration. Her life has not been the same since.

The nine-year-old star of Slumdog Millionaire was plucked from obscurity in 2007 for the role of young Latika and catapulted into the limelight by the film's Oscars success last February.

Now Rubina has become the youngest person in publishing history to write a memoir, with the release of her new book Slumgirl Dreaming, which claims to tell her story. "It was the best way for people to know me", she says.

Her life is currently split between two very different worlds as both an international film star and an impoverished slum child.

Rubina the movie star jets around the globe as far as Paris and Hong Kong to perform for the rich and famous.

Back home in Garib Nagar - "the area of the poor" - she still lives in a one-room shack with six other people and bathes in a dirty drainage pool.

Some claim she was exploited in Slumdog, earning just £500, and media interest intensified when the News Of The World published accusations that her father and uncle had tried to profit from her new-found fame by selling Rubina for £200,000. Then she was in the news again in May when the Indian railway authorities destroyed her shanty home.

Slumgirl Dreaming aims to set the record straight on the speculation that has surrounded her since making Danny Boyle's film.

Of course, Rubina did not write the book herself, although it is narrated in the first person. It was penned by Divya Dugar, a journalist who spent 10 weeks at Rubina's home, piecing together the tales of her life.

Divya explains: "We followed her during the day and took her out to her favourite places like the beach and restaurants and asked her questions about her life. She was speaking about her life, it was more informal than interviews."

Rubina's father also "helped a lot" with the book, which firmly denies the allegations that he tried to sell his daughter.

I speak to the nine-year-old actress with the help of a translator. She is in Paris, with her uncle, promoting her book.

Rubina the movie star is now well versed in talking to journalists. She answers questions with ease and confidence, telling me: "Because of many things my life is better. No one knew me before, now everyone knows who I am."

One obvious change since Slumdog has been the constant presence of reporters.

"After the movie, so many media people have come to talk to me and visited my home and the slum."

Rubina enjoys the attention but no longer has a "blind trust" in people.

This could be largely due to the News Of The World story which she rejects as lies. Divya says: "She has a blind faith in her family, she thinks they couldn't have done anything to harm her."

Rubina's wish to be near her family certainly remains strong. "I want to live with my family. Whatever I do, I want to stay with my family," she says.

But family life appears to be far from perfect. In April, the press reported Rubina's older sister Sana complaining that the success of Slumdog had ruined her family. She said her father had driven her away to live with her grandmother, telling her Rubina was "more precious".

The book claims Sana's move was simply due to a lack of space in their one-room home and, according to Divya, the siblings get along fine.

"Her brother is too young, he just finds it all funny and laughs about everything that is going on," she says.

"Her older sister is very shy, she is the exact opposite of Rubina, and the only reason they argue is that they don't want to share things."

Rubina is now the proud owner of a laptop and numerous gifts including the blue silk dress she wore at the Oscars.

The Oscars were "the most exciting" of all her adventures since she landed the role of the young Latika. It was the first time she had ever been abroad or been on an aeroplane and the eight Oscars won by Slumdog that night changed her life around.

Since then she has modelled during New Dehli fashion week, met the president of the Indian Congress party, appeared - playing herself - in a Bollywood film called Who Has Seen Tomorrow and acted alongside Nicole Kidman in a drink commercial.

"I really liked her, but she was very quiet and didn't speak much. I think she was a bit shy," Rubina says.

Just two weeks ago, Rubina the movie star was in Hong Kong where she was invited to perform some of her songs and now she is publishing her memoirs.

But Rubina, the vulnerable child of the Mumbai slums who recently lost her home, is also ever-present.

She lives with her uncle in his Bandra East shanty although her father does now have a new house nearby and her belongings are scattered between these two homes. City officials have promised to provide Rubina's family with a new apartment but this has yet to materialise.

Life at home is fairly normal. She eats and sleeps with her family in one small room, battling the cockroaches and playing in the dirt.

"Things are the same with my family except I am not denied anything any more, things like chocolates and snacks and I can go shopping now."

She now goes to an English school for disadvantaged children, paid for by the Slumdog production team, but she has kept many of her old friends from Bandra East and she knows who are her "true friends".

"Before some friends used to fight with me but now everybody wants to be friends with me. No one is mean to me."

Rubina has adjusted to the past year's changes remarkably well, but after witnessing the clean streets and wealth of Hollywood, returning to slum life is not without problems.

"The most difficult thing for me now is how dirty it is in the slum but it is my home so it always makes me happy to go back there."

Of course life will never be same because, as Divya says: "She knows a lot more about the world beyond the slum. She has seen what life is like for the rich.

"She has seen the other side of the picture and knows now that life can be better."

Rubina thinks that Slumdog's rags-to-riches story "gives hope". She has a youthful optimism: "Yes, you can get out of the slum. Everyone, my cousins and friends, everyone now wants to try to get into the movies."

Danny Boyle visited Rubina shortly after her home was demolished. She has not seen him since but members of the Slumdog production team are available for her to contact if she needs them.

"I don't know what is going to happen next but I hope that there will be more opportunities and I know I am in a much better position now," she says.

Yet despite all her recent adventures, despite a life of stark contrasts, Rubina is still a nine-year-old little girl who likes dancing, pretty dresses and chocolate.

When I ask her about her ideal movie role she replies, as any little girl might: "I wouldn't mind being a princess. Yes, I would like to act the part of a princess."

 

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