Screen god back in role of street urchin: Tim McGirk in New Delhi reports on an Indian 9-year- old's roller- coaster ride from poverty to stardom and back

For one of the starring roles in Bernardo Bertolucci's new film, Little Buddha, the Italian director selected an unknown Indian boy, Raju, whom he found in the dirty lanes of Kathmandu, shining shoes and hustling tourists. Today, nine-year old Raju is back on the street, trying to earn a few rupees with his shoebox.

Raju, who is now living in a Delhi shanty town behind the railway station with his parents and 11 brothers and sisters, has yet to see the film that made him famous. No release of Little Buddha, which opens in London today, is scheduled yet for India. And Bertolucci has not bothered to send him a video.

'Many, many people - foreigners - recognise me, but I haven't seen the film yet,' said Raju. He is a bright, thin boy with an easy smile and impressive self-possession. During his years as an artful dodger on the street, he has picked up good English and enough German, French and Italian to shake out spare coins from even the most granite-hearted tourists.

In the film, Raju plays one of three children - the others are an American boy and an Indian girl - who are discovered to be the reincarnations of a high Tibetan lama. The film crew had already begun shooting on location in Nepal in summer 1992 and they still had not found a child for Raju's part. One of Bertolucci's assistants, Suresh Verma, was strolling in Kathmandu's ancient city when Raju sidled up to him with his shoeshine kit and his smooth patter.

'His family are Rajasthani gypsies. They follow the tourist season. When it gets too hot for tourists in Delhi, Raju and his family all drift up to Kathmandu,' said Mr Verma, who dragged Bertolucci away from the set to see Raju's performance in charming tourists. The director was impressed. 'Let's see you cry or be very happy,' he told Raju. It was easy for Raju, who often resorted to such melodramatics to cajole money from passers-by.

Little Buddha cost more than dollars 25m ( pounds 16.7m). Raju got dollars 15,000 for his part, and was flown at the film's expense to Britain, France and Italy. Raju's parents put his fee in a Nepalese bank account, to which he has no access.

For children plucked off the streets to act in films, the roller- coaster ride from poverty to momentary stardom and then back to poverty again often can be disastrous. Sooni Taraporevala was a screenwriter on the critically acclaimed film, Salaam Bombay, on the life of street children. 'Out of all the kids we used, only one had a happy ending. He was adopted by the cameraman's sister. He now lives in Los Angeles. As for the others, well, some went back to the streets,' she said.

During Salaam Bombay's filming, Ms Taraporevala was stunned to read in the press how a Brazilian street kid-turned-actor named Pixote was killed while attempting armed robbery. 'It was a stark reminder of the way things could turn out if we weren't careful with these kids,' said the screenwriter who later helped set up a trust fund with the film's profits to help Bombay's thousands of homeless children.

Raju would like to pursue his acting career, but in the cliquish Indian film world, most of the roles go to upper-caste children. In the meantime, after his dizzying tour of Europe, Raju has rejoined his older brother, Mantu, 11, in his old gang of shoeshine boys. 'We call ourselves a team - not a gang,' said Mantu. Their new line to tourists is: 'One of my friends is a famous actor. For a few rupees only you can meet him.' Raju knows he deserves better.

Film review, page 25

(Photographs omitted)