Best pic frontrunner faces exploitation charges

The rewards of being an early awards favorite are many — but so are the perils, as those behind Oscar best pic nominee “Slumdog Millionaire” learned this week.

On Thursday, director Danny Boyle and producer Christian Colson issued a statement refuting accusations that the film exploited two child actors, Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Ismail. Fox Searchlight and international distribs Fox Star and Pathe also issued a corresponding statement supporting the “Slumdog” team.

Boyle and Colson said the kids were enrolled in school for the first time after filming, and a fund had been set up to cover their education, as well as their basic living costs, health care and any emergencies. If the children stay in school until they are 18, they will receive another lump sum.

“Since putting these arrangements in place more than 12 months ago, we have never sought to publicize them, and we are doing so now only in response to the questions raised by the press,” Colson and Boyle’s statement said.

Searchlight and Pathe, along with Fox Star Studios in India, said they are looking into additional measures to protect the two kids in light of the press exposure. “We are extremely proud of this film, and proud of the way our child actors have been treated,” the statement said.

Saga began earlier this week when British newspaper the Daily Telegraph carried a story quoting parents of the two saying the children were underpaid.

In Hollywood — where “Slumdog” has picked up every major award so far — the rumor mill about the Telegraph story went into overdrive.

Mudslinging is nothing new in the Oscar race, aided by the Internet and explosion of bloggers.

As one awards consultant put it: “Being a front-runner is a disaster because you’re the one to be taken down. But people are so passionate about this movie, it feels like no other film will catch up.”

Contest for best picture in 2001 saw “A Beautiful Mind” come under fierce attack when allegations were raised that John Nash, upon whom the movie was based, was an anti-Semite, among other things. “Mind” went on to win the best picture Oscar.

Some believe Denzel Washington’s chances for actor in 1999 were hurt by the controversy surrounding “The Hurricane’s” sympathetic portrayal of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.

The questions regarding the child actors aren’t “Slumdog’s” first scrape. When the movie opened in India last weekend, organized protests made headlines around the globe. Not mentioned was the fact that the film scored the fourth best opening ever in India for a Westerntitle.

Also, Boyle was drilled about co-director Loveleen Tandan, an Indian filmmaker and casting director who worked on “Slumdog.” Some bloggers suggested that Boyle didn’t give her enough credit, a point both he and Tandan refute.

“Slumdog” is an unqualified hit at the domestic box office. It has grossed $58.7 million to date, and shows no signs of slowing down. Most box office observers believe it will reach the $100 million mark. Overseas, it has taken in $28.5 million to date, turning in stellar early performances in England and other European territories.

Pathe has international rights, other than India, where Fox Star is handling the film.

“Slumdog” won the Golden Globe for best drama, as well as top honors from SAG and the PGA.

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