MUMBAI, India – Indian police are investigating claims and counterclaims by the parents of a child star in “Slumdog Millionaire” after a British tabloid alleged the father tried to sell the nine-year-old girl to an undercover reporter.
The accusations further complicated the lives of the families of the slum-dwelling child stars, who have come under intense scrutiny since the movie skyrocketed to Oscar-winning fame and grossed more than $300 million worldwide.
Khurshid Begum, the estranged mother of “Slumdog Millionaire” star Rubina Ali, filed a complaint with Mumbai police on Sunday after News of the World reported that the father planned to put her up for adoption. The British newspaper said the deal was allegedly offered to one of its reporters posing as a sheik from the Mideast.
The newspaper – owned by News International Ltd., the main British subsidiary of News Corp., which also owns “Slumdog” distributor Fox Searchlight Pictures – said the father was demanding millions of rupees, worth the equivalent of $400,000.
“They should be punished,” Begum said after getting into a physical confrontation with Rubina’s stepmother. “No father should dare sell his daughter.”
Police took the father, Rafiq Qureshi, and Rubina from their home in a Mumbai slum to a police station where he was briefly questioned.
Speaking to reporters outside the police station Sunday, Qureshi denied the report, saying he had been lured to a fancy Mumbai hotel by someone claiming they were moved by Rubina’s story and wanted to help her.
“We had gone there to meet them in goodwill,” he said. “But they have made false allegations about me and tried to frame me.”
He said he was promised cash and “were talking of giving more too” if he gave up his daughter.
“But I refused,” he said.
Qureshi said he told police he believed it could be a plot to regain custody by his ex-wife, who left several years ago, only to return and try to play a role in Rubina’s life after the film’s success.
“My children are with me, and I could give my life for them,” Qureshi said. “I will never sell them to anybody, no matter how much money they offer me.”
Police said they were investigating.
“There are claims and counterclaims made by the mothers and the father,” police officer Nishar Tamboli told reporters. “We are probing the matter.”
The newspaper quoted Qureshi as saying that Hollywood was to blame for forcing him to give her up for adoption.
“We’ve got nothing out of this film,” Rafiq Qureshi was quoted as saying. “I have to consider what’s best for me, my family and Rubina’s future.”
The children in “Slumdog Millionaire” were chosen with the local help of casting director Loveleen Tandan. To give the film a realistic view of the Mumbai slums, she and director Danny Boyle decided only weeks before shooting began to cast local kids who were not professional actors.
Rubina and young co-star Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail were discovered on the Mumbai streets by the filmmakers. The film’s adult stars, Dev Patel and Freida Pinto, shot to international stardom, becoming red-carpet regulars during Hollywood’s awards season.
Patel, whose only previous credit was the British teen drama “Skins,” since landed a role in the fantasy adventure “The Last Airbender” from director M. Night Shyamalan. A model, Pinto made her movie debut with “Slumdog” and has scored roles in the next films from Woody Allen and Julian Schnabel (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”).
The younger stars got a taste of Hollywood glamor, too, attending the Academy Awards and joining the filmmakers on stage as they accepted the best-picture Oscar for “Slumdog.”
Following the success of the rags-to-riches tale, some criticized the filmmakers for failing to share the wealth with Mumbai’s millions of slum dwellers. Others accused them of exploiting two of the child stars, Rubina and Azharuddin, 10, who grew up in a wretched Mumbai slum.
The filmmakers’ initial efforts to help their families were thwarted by media attention, the changing demands of relatives and the film’s runaway success. Sudden fame and relative fortune also complicated relations between the actors and their neighbours.
The filmmakers feared that if they gave the families a lump sum, the money would be squandered or extorted. Instead, they set up a trust fund for the two children that was supposed to provide them with a good education, adequate housing and social support.
Last week they also announced a donation of $747,500 to a charity devoted to improving the lives of street children in Mumbai. Fox Searchlight didn’t immediately return telephone calls Monday for comment on the allegations against Rubina’s father.