By Sascha Zastiral
A young boy living in an Indian foster home is on his way to world fame as a movie star. But his life story would make an interesting film in itself.
Anjani Tiwari, the foster home’s director, looks at the clock on the wall next to his desk. He picks up the telephone receiver, calls the school, speaks briefly and hangs up again. "Salim left there a while ago," he says and shrugs his shoulders. The little terrorist is taking his time as usual.
Salim’s charm is a daily topic. Tiwari directs the Salaam Balak foster home in Delhi’s Paharganj neighborhood, and the 15-year-old boy in his care has been on the road to stardom for a year and a half — ever since the short film "Little Terrorist" was nominated for an Oscar, with Salim in the lead role.
Director Ashvin Kumar spent a long time looking for the right actor. His 15-minute film tells the story of a Pakistani boy, Jamal, who plays cricket near the Pakistani-Indian border and accidentally shoots the ball over the barbed wire fence. When he tries to retrieve the ball, he’s fired on by Indian soldiers. He escapes to a nearby village, where he’s taken up by the brahmin Bhola, a member of Hindu society’s uppermost caste. Bhola provides shelter to the boy from an enemy nation and hides him from the border patrols.
The cinematic message is simple: Humanity triumphs over age-old enmity. And many now agree that Salim is headed for Hollywood.
Of course the media hype surrounding Salim was tremendous in a country as film-crazed as India. When Oscar night finally came, "Little Terrorist" received no award — a drama about social tensions in northern Ireland won instead. But things didn’t quiet down in Paharganj.
From a Delhi slum to stardom
"Little Terrorist" received prizes at film festivals in Tehran, Ghent, Montreal and New York. Kumar hired the boy again to make a 90-minute thriller. The new film, "The Forest," follows a couple from Delhi who get chased through the jungle by a man-eating leopard; Salim plays the son of a policeman.
Now he’s on the verge of a serious film career, but even his brief biography seems fit for the big screen. At age five he lost sight of his parents during a religious procession. An employee of the Salaam-Baalak foster home saw the crying child and brought him to Tiwari. Salim didn’t know his own address. He also couldn’t describe where he lived. Days were spent looking for his relatives in the labyrinthine historical center of Delhi, but Salim remained in the foster home.
Two years later Tiwari recognized a church in one of the boy’s drawings. They drove there together and found his parents. Salim returned to his family, but his relatives were living in extreme poverty. Instead of going to school, Salim had to collect trash on the street along with his six brothers and four sisters. When Tiwari found out, he went back to get him.
Salim’s current home in Delhi’s rough neighbourhood of Paharganj isn’t glamorous, either: High stacks of trash sit on the dusty through road in front of his foster home, improvised electricity cables hang dangerously low above the narrow alleys, and chickens scuttle across the cracked concrete. In Delhi, a city of 14 million people, this area is known as a hotbed of crime. Thefts, armed robberies and stabbings happen every day. The murder rate rises with the oppressive summer heat — the temperature sometimes climbs above 45 degrees centigrade (113 degrees Fahrenheit).
And right in the middle of it all is the New Delhi Railway Station, the most important train station in the city, full of homeless kids. Director Mira Nair — who describes the lives of such children in her world-famous film "Salaam Bombay!" — has financed four foster homes for them, three for boys and one for girls. She’s provided shelter and hope for more than 800 children who have been driven out of their homes or who have run away. It was among these kids that director Kumar discovered Salim’s talent for acting.
Making it big in Bollywood
By afternoon, most of the children have returned from school. Some do their homework in the common room, which doubles as a bedroom at night; others make paper mâché masks or practice lines for a play. The children from the Salaam-Baalak foster home regularly perform plays they’ve written themselves at Delhi’s popular street theaters as a gesture of gratitude toward their famous sponsor.
A boy in a school uniform steps into the room. He smiles, runs a hand through his black hair, places his hands on his hips and introduces himself — "I’m Salim!" He’s two hours late. His excuse comes with a nonchalant smile, one that displays his impeccable white teeth. "Sorry!"
When the hype started, he didn’t even know what "Oscar" meant. "Ashvin explained that to me," he says. But now his relatives are proud. "I showed them newspaper clippings. They could hardly believe there was a picture of me!" He wants to "make it big" soon, he explains self-confidently. He wants to be the great hero in one of India’s epic three-hour-plus dramas of action, romance and music.
Asvin Kumar thinks the young actor has an excellent chance of success. "The Forest" will be shown in cinemas in the fall, and the director is already working on his next project, a film with the working title "Road to Ladakh" and a role written just for Salim. "Salim’s life will soon change even more," the director says. "He’s going to be offered roles from Bollywood — I’m sure of it."
Still, for the moment, Kumar urges Salim to go slow. "He should concentrate on school. That’s more important for now." The school is private, and Kumar is paying for it. "He has to speak English well if he wants to be successful."