March 25, 2009 / 6:40 AM / 10 years ago

Child star turned driver recalls own "Slumdog" past

BANGALORE (Reuters Life!) - Once he was as famous as the child stars from “Slumdog Millionaire,” but Shafiq Syed’s own rags-to-riches story has ended and he now earns $3 a day driving a motor rickshaw.

Having basked in the limelight for his portrayal of a street kid in the 1988 Oscar-nominated film “Salaam Bombay,” Syed struggles to feed a family of five at his home in southern India.

“Today the situation is so bad that if I earn today my family will get to eat something tomorrow,” he told Reuters.

Watching the child stars of “Slumdog Millionaire” in Los Angeles as the film swept the Oscars in February reminded Syed of his own childhood and short-lived fame.

Like the “Slumdog Millionaire” actors, Syed was also plucked from Mumbai’s teeming slums and catapulted to global stardom.

In 1987, and aged 12, Syed ran away from his home in Bangalore with some friends to Mumbai.

With no money to spend in the country’s financial and entertainment capital, Syed sheltered under a flyover near the city’s crowded Churchgate railway station.

“It was so difficult to survive in those conditions and some of my friends returned to their homes after a couple of weeks,” he said. “I was, however, determined not to go back home.”

After struggling to survive for two months, Syed saw a glimmer of hope when he and other kids living in slums and on pavements were invited to participate in a theater workshop.

“Many of my friends refused to join it thinking it was a ploy to exploit hapless kids, but for me the bigger attraction was the promise that I would get 20 rupees (40 cents) and one meal every day during the period of the workshop,” he recalled.

“Finally one day I was told that I was one of the 15 kids who had been shortlisted to act in a movie,” he added.


During the shooting of “Salaam Bombay,” directed by Indian-born Mira Nair, Syed was shifted to a proper home along with the other children.

“I couldn’t believe that I would get to act in a film with big stars and when I informed my parents they also thought I was lying and asked me to come back home,” he said.

After the film’s release, Syed was feted by critics and the media for his strong portrayal of a street kid.

Nair won an Oscar nomination in 1988 for “Salaam Bombay,” her debut film about the life of street children in Bombay, the city now known as Mumbai. The film won the Golden Camera Award at the Cannes Film Festival in the same year.

Syed said after 52 days of shooting of the film, he got about 15,000 rupees ($300).

“I also got to travel in a plane for the first time and stayed in a five-star hotel to attend an award ceremony in New Delhi. I thought the wheel of fortune has finally turned for me and dreamt of making it big in Bollywood,” he added

But the good times didn’t last. The money he had earned began to evaporate and visits to filmmakers for another big break led to nothing. Soon Syed was back in his old home under the flyover.

“All of a sudden I found myself back to square one. The accolades and the media attention that I had earned after the release of “Salaam Bombay” was worth nothing. I was so frustrated that I even tried to commit suicide,” he said.

After trying his hand at odd jobs, Syed finally decided to return to Bangalore in 1995.

He has some advice for the slum kids who acted in “Slumdog Millionaire.”

“It’s good that they have got this huge break, but they should not get carried away and focus on studies so that they can lead a meaningful life on their own when they grow up,” he said.

Editing by Matthias Williams and Miral Fahmy

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