'Slumdog' in Mumbai: ‘My eyes couldn’t believe it’

They awoke woke before dawn, determined not to miss out on the excitement unfolding thousands of miles away. And when – in scenes which echo those in the film – the good news turned to more good news and then even better news, they danced and sang and cheered.

In the teeming neighbourhoods of Mumbai where Slumdog Millionaire is set, crowds of children and adults gathered around television sets to cheer for the local stars who had made the transformation from the narrow, filthy alleyways to the silver screen.

Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, 10, and nine year-old Rubiana Ali, both from a slum in the Bandra district on the outskirts of Mumbai, were flown to Los Angeles for the ceremony. Azhar lives in a shack of plastic tarpaulins and mouldy blankets, while Rubiana shares a tin-roofed lean-to with her parents and her six brothers and sisters.

But yesterday they were stars, masters of a different universe. “My eyes couldn’t believe that I was seeing Rubina in America,” said Saba Qureshi, Rubiana’s best friend, who watched the action on one of the few local televisions.

Sohail Qureshi, Saba’s father and Rubiana’s neighbour, added: “It seems like happiness is falling from the sky.”

The movie’s success was celebrated with fervour in India, with the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, offering his congratulations and saying that “the winners have done India proud”. Initially, however, the movie’s focus on India’s widespread grinding poverty and the fact that its director is a foreigner stirred considerable controversy. It would not be good for India’s image, argued many commentators.

Some social activists organised demonstrations to protest against the residents of poor neighbourhoods being referred to as “slumdogs”.

Perhaps surprisingly, among the movie’s warmest fans have been those people who live in the poorest, broken neighbourhoods of India’s swarming cities and who can testify to the realism of the poverty portrayed.

Yesterday, in a run-down Delhi neighbourhood known as Coolie’s Camp – comprising about 350 tiny homes squeezed in next to one of the city’s more expensive areas – residents learnt of the film’s success and were pleased it had secured international success. Many had watched it, either on DVD or at a local cinema.

“It’s a film that shows the reality. It’s different from other films,” said 25-year-old Ajay Singh. “The things in the film are real and other movies do not show this. I’m very happy this film has got recognition.”

Deepak, 22, who gave just one name, said: “It’s a film worth watching for its reality. Other films are from a different world, a different Delhi, a different India.”

Yet no one believed the movie’s success or its focus on India’s poverty would change their own situation. “This film will become an icon, but the grass roots issues will be lost,” said Yaswant Singh, a hotel worker. “Even if the politicians come here, even if the NGOs come here, they just come for a short time and then they go away.”