India’s Slumdog Fireflies

Pop Culture

India’s Slumdog Fireflies

Illustration: Mandar Mhaskar


he 89th Academy Awards are done. The red carpet has been rolled back and kept in the storeroom until it is time to exhume it next February. Hollywood’s biggest actors and filmmakers, who had gathered under one roof for a night of toasts, upsets, grandstanding, and utter confusion, have gone back home in their limos. And after a magnificent night, an eight-year-old who stole the show (and subsequent headline) will likely go back to reality in Kalina.

It will last for a while though. Sunny Pawar, the tiny star of the Oscar-nominated Lion, will bask in the afterglow of the film and his Oscar appearance for a short period before it begins to wear off.


Pawar came to Hollywood’s biggest night dressed in the most adorable tux and a smile that possessed the power to melt hearts (even Donald Trump’s if he had one). He claimed the night with his unbridled innocence and refreshing honesty. Pawar, who had never faced the camera before his debut in the film, essayed the younger version of Saroo Brierley, a young Indian boy who gets separated from his family at the age of five and is later adopted by a couple in Australia.

Pawar, who hails from Kalina, a low-to-middle-income Mumbai suburb, came to know about the film when a casting team visited his government school one day. Beating over 2,000 kids from all over the country in the auditions, he made it to the final three. As luck would have it, one boy dropped out and paved the way for Sunny Pawar being chosen for the role, thus beginning his life-changing experience to star in a big-ticket Hollywood release, despite not knowing English.

After the release of Lion, the newcomer was instantly catapulted into public consciousness due to his powerful performance. Suddenly, Hollywood couldn’t get enough of him. He was making appearances at every talk show, breaking the internet for his signature “thumbs-up” gesture, and being toasted for his lovable bromance with co-star Dev Patel.

This was it. The boy from Kalina had now become Hollywood’s breakout star.

The press was quick to make headlines out of their incredible journey while Hollywood continued praising their abundant talent and strength.

At the Oscars, Sunny’s new-found stardom seemed to have reached its climax. He reprised with his characteristic charm, the role of Simba in Lion King with host Jimmy Kimmel. Selfie requests poured in throughout the night from Hollywood’s wide-eyed A-listers. Sunny Pawar had the night of his life at the biggest stage in the world.

The question is, would this be the highest he’d soar?

In a way, his rags-to-riches story is reminiscent of the journey of two other Mumbai slum kids. Rubina Ali and Azaharuddin Mohammed Ismail were both handpicked from Bandra’s Garib Nagar slum to star in Danny Boyle’s blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire over eight years ago. The film made stars out of Dev Patel (who is now Hollywood’s go-to guy with an Indian accent and also plays the grown-up Saroo Brierly) and Frieda Pinto, but it was the two kids whose performances we really remembered.

Slumdog Millionaire, which went on to win eight Oscars, brought both the nine-year-olds Rubina and Azharuddin into the public eye. The press was quick to make headlines out of their incredible journey while Hollywood continued praising their abundant talent and strength. For the two former slum kids, life had changed for the better. They moved out of the slums that they were likely destined to inhabit for the rest of their lives, went to better schools, and now have significantly improved prospects.

89th Annual Academy Awards - Red Carpet

After a magnificent night, eight-year-old Sunny Pawar, who stole the show (and subsequent headline) will likely go back to reality in Kalina.

Courtesy: Getty Images

But these are kids that have peaked at a very young age. Shorn of the glamour that their brown skins once held for Hollywood, the two will hopefully go on to lead fulfilling lives – but the shadow of the insane fame that they once garnered possibly hangs over everything they do. Just the way Pawar’s fame will govern every little thing he does from here on.

In the next few months, Pawar will likely be invited as the annual day chief guest of every local school. He will be called upon to guest-judge Dance India Dance and make an appearance on Kapil Sharma’s show. He will most probably inaugurate a couple of corporate trusts and vocational/sports training programmes for slum children like himself. After the lights go out though, he will likely have to remind everyone that he was once cute and famous. Ten years from now, his Tinder bio might read, “I put the Lion in Lion King” or “Jimmy Kimmel was once my wingman.” Twenty years from now, his mother might ask his prospective bride if she knows who Nicole Kidman is and show her pictures of the famous Hollywood actress and her son from a faded scrapbook.

Rubina and Azharuddin were hardly seen in any film after Slumdog Millionaire. In India, after all, the two look like any other Indian teenagers. Today, they lead fairly nondescript lives, popping up on our newsfeeds in periodic listicles like “The Slumdog Kids: Five Years Later” and “Here’s What Rubina Ali from Slumdog Now Looks Like”. Once the arclights fade, Sunny Pawar might just be on the same path.