Back to Reality

updated 03/16/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 03/16/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sitting on the concrete floor of her family's 10 ft. by 10 ft. shack, Rubina Ali grins as she shows off the treasures she brought back from her trip to the Oscars: stuffed Disney characters, a makeup kit—even a pink mini laptop computer. "We lived in very beautiful hotels," says the 8-year-old. "They gave me lots of gifts." Gathering each item from her family members and meticulously replacing them in a bag, Rubina sips tea with a spoonful of butter—a special treat from her stepmother. "I have got used to this fame and this kind of life," Rubina says.

A week ago Rubina was celebrating Slumdog Millionaire's Best Picture win at Oscar parties and splashing in the pool at the elegant Four Seasons hotel. Now she and costar Azhar Ismail, 10—children of the real-life Mumbai slums chosen to play the youngest versions of the movie's scrappy characters Latika and Salim—are back home in Garib Nagar, a neighborhood of shacks housing nearly a million people. There are no toilets, and mounds of garbage crowd the narrow lanes. Azhar's mother, Shameem, whose husband, Mohammed, earns about $75 a month dealing scrap (he caused controversy when he recently slapped Azhar in view of reporters), minces no words: "I am happy so many people are coming to meet us, but I want something to be done about our poverty. Such a brilliant child who has brought so much fame to the country sleeps in a shanty run over by rats."

In fact, the filmmakers have been working hard to aid the youngsters—but helping them is far from simple. Director Danny Boyle and producer Christian Colson are paying for Rubina and Azhar to attend school, which neither regularly attended before the movie, and even hired a rickshaw driver to take them to class. To ensure that the kids finish their education, Boyle and Colson have set up trust funds that they will receive if they remain students until age 18. The filmmakers also plan to pay for new apartments for both families, with advice from experts: A few months ago, Colson said, he wired Azhar's family funds for a new home, but a broker disappeared with the money. "Throwing cash at the problem—that doesn't work," Boyle told Britain's Daily Mail. "It's about investing in the long-term."

Besieged by reporters and curious neighbors, the children's parents are trying to balance Hollywood dreams with Indian reality. Rubina's father, Rafique, is glad he let his daughter act in Slumdog. "Nobody bothered about the slum children before the Oscars," he says. And new toys aside, Rubina hasn't changed. "I have told her that you have to live life like before," he says, "and she has told me that she will live like she always has."

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