The news that the father of one of Slumdog Millionaire’s child stars was accused of attempting to sell his daughter to the highest bidder in the United Arab Emirates is not the first time that a big Hollywood film has stirred up a storm by casting an impoverished child from a Third World country in a featured role.
As you may recall, in late 2007 Paramount had to move four boys out of Afghanistan after casting them in The Kite Runner. The studio flew the children to (of all places) the United Arab Emirates after it became clear that a culturally inflammatory rape scene might put the young stars in danger if they remained at home.
“People who are not from the slums of India will do anything. One can only imagine what some parents might have done in this country if word had gone out that a studio was looking for extremely thin kids to cast in a film.”
At this point, one has to wonder how much punishment Hollywood needs to take and inflict before filmmakers learn that casting poor kids from Third World countries in the name of authenticity is fraught with peril. But I talked to several casting professionals and while they are aware of the dangers of seeking out ethnic authenticity, they defended the practice.
San Francisco-based Sarah Kliban was among those who worked on Kite Runner. She was brought in because nearby Fremont is home to an enormous Afghan community. (Others were searching in London, New York, and elsewhere around the world.) Kliban says a quest for authenticity is better than tilting the other way. When she worked on Memoirs of a Geisha in 2005, she was told to cast such a wide net that even Filipinas should be considered to portray Japanese women. To her, that attitude represented an astounding level of cultural insensitivity.
Particularly in the post-9/11 world, Kliban says, the Kite Runner filmmakers were determined to be culturally respectful. Searching in the U.S., she says, “We got kids who looked the part and could act. It was a language issue, mostly. No one ever sent a memo saying we are determined to have a kid who’s a native speaker... but it became really important.”
Kliban says that attempting to be completely authentic in casting this type of film is “very, very idealistic.” Even dealing with the Afghan community in Fremont, she admits there were times when she didn’t feel safe—and that had nothing to do with the film’s sensitive content. “All these people in the region wanted to be the liaison to the Afghan community,” she says. “We got threats on a regular basis.”
Ironically, perhaps, the casting for Slumdog Millionaire had nothing to do with seeking authentic native Hindi speakers; originally the script had the children speaking English. But the Los Angeles Times reported that casting director Loveleen Tandan told director Danny Boyle “that Indian children who spoke English were so uniformly well-off that she was unable to find the wiry, undernourished kids whom Boyle had seen running around Mumbai's slums.” The dialogue for the children was rewritten in Hindi and Boyle found his actors in those slums. In fact, Boyle said excluding children from the slums felt “morally wrong.”
Boyle understood, however, that the children would need care after the movie was finished. As controversy over the young stars boiled up in the days before the Oscar ceremony, Boyle and producer Christian Colson said in a statement that the production paid for the children to go to school for the first time, that it was covering their basic living costs (including health care and emergencies), and had established "a substantial lump sum" payment for college tuition that will be distributed to the young boy and girl "when they complete their studies." But none of this diverted the media from covering the children. There were reports and photographs of young star Azharuddin Mohammed being beaten by his father soon after he returned from his appearance at the Oscar ceremony. Now come reports of the alleged auctioning of Rubina Ali. (Representatives for Fox Searchlight and Danny Boyle declined to comment on the recent claims.)
Margery Simkin didn’t work on Slumdog Millionaire but she has done a great deal of work casting children, dating back to the 1980 movie Fame. She acknowledges that dealing with children in film is always rife with questions. But Simkin adds, “You don’t go into a job and say, 'Let’s exploit these kids.’ You think it’s going to be handled with sensitivity and you think it’s going to be an opportunity for them. You’re looking at it after the fact.”
I pointed out that child-selling is not unheard-of in poor countries and asked whether the filmmakers should not have anticipated what desperate parents might do. “I have news for you, my darling,” she replied. “People who are not from the slums of India will do anything.” In fact, she says, that includes mommies and daddies right here at home. “One can only imagine what some parents might have done in this country if word had gone out that a studio was looking for extremely thin kids to cast in a film.”
When Hollywood plucks disadvantaged young unknowns to star in movies, Simkin continues, it isn’t simply a matter of fulfilling a director’s vision. “You think, maybe there’s a kid I can help. Maybe we could do some good.” In the case of Slumdog, “maybe people will be more conscious that this world exists.” She says some kids are able to pay for college, gain confidence, and reap real benefits from working in a film.
While Simkin hasn’t dealt with children from Third World counties, she did cast unknown teens in the 2007 film Freedom Writers, which starred Hilary Swank as an inspiring teacher of at-risk children. “I spent a great deal of time and effort to impress on these kids that this was probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she says. Some of them didn’t listen to her warning that they couldn’t depend on easy money from an acting career. But Simkin isn’t convinced that she bears responsibility for that.
A few weeks after film was released, however, one of the unknowns whom she had cast was shot and killed. And Simkin says she thinks perhaps this young man attracted unwanted attention because of his role in the movie. “Do I feel guilt sometimes? I do,” she says. Simkin talked with the actor's mother and grandmother, who told her that the opportunity to act had been a gift for him. Still, she wonders. “Should he never have been in that movie? I don’t know. But it’s not a simple, black-and-white answer.”
Kim Masters is the host of The Business, public radio's weekly show about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.