Twelve-year-old Maleesha Kharwa’s Instagram page, which has over 5,900 followers so far, is filled with videos of her twirling, posing for the camera and even painstakingly teaching Hollywood actor Robert Hoffman to speak in Hindi. Ask Maleesha the meaning of her name and she’ll smile and say, “Malum nahi (I don’t know)”. But there’s one thing she’s fairly certain of. “I want to be a model,” she declares and admits it was Hoffman who got her thinking of modelling in the first place.
The Step Up 2: The Streets (2008) actor, who landed in Mumbai in February to shoot a music video, was scheduled to leave on a tour of Eastern Europe to teach dance. But the lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic was imposed just days before his departure. With plans to shoot his music video, which is now on hold, Hoffman was scouting for an authentic “slum” dweller for the video. “The story within the music video takes place in a slum. However, instead of portraying the residents as simply ‘pathetic’, we wanted to portray them as a people of perseverance,” he says, adding that he didn’t want to just pay actors to play the part. “One of my friends told me that she had seen a little girl in a slum who was breathtakingly beautiful, and this was Maleesha. But I didn’t end up hiring her because she was just a bit too stunning for the part and I hired her cousin instead,” says the Aliens in the Attic (2009) actor.
He goes on to describe his first meeting with Maleesha as “something out of a movie”. “There she stood among a group of slum residents just like any other in the city. But her face was so remarkable I don’t know how anyone could have overlooked her before,” he says, surprised that no one had approached the girl for a child modelling gig until now. “Perhaps, it is the whole Indian perception that beauty is in extremely light skin,” he says adding, “Never in my life would I have thought that I would have a compulsion to guide another talent”. For him, there was “no question” that he was going to “open doors” for the ‘slum princess’, a term Maleesha’s followers use to describe her. “The day I met her family I told them that, if they were interested, there was a huge potential for her life to change,” he says.
Maleesha lives in a tent set-up held together by bamboo sticks, and colourful pieces of cloth, by the sea in Bandra, Mumbai, which is just across the street from a store where Hoffman gets his groceries. The only ‘wall’ in her house is covered with curios and souvenir mugs from Goa, a poster of The Avengers and framed photos of her family — her seven-year-old brother Sahil, and her father, who dresses up as various cartoon characters like Chhota Bheem, Motu, Patlu and Mickey Mouse for events. Hoffman says that every night Maleesha’s family sleeps by the water’s edge and have to wake up multiple times on account of insects or the rising tide.
The pandemic has been tough on the Kharwas as well, who have to fight tooth and nail for clean water. “We are not getting enough water because we are not allowed to get clean water to drink or cook from the neighbouring water source,” Maleesha says. But even a few cookies from Hoffman bring the biggest smile to her face. “I want to thank Robert because of whom I am getting the support I need and I am able to dream,” adds the Pali-Chimbai Municipal School student.
Ask her what she likes about modelling and she replies, “I like to pose for the camera and put my hands on my waist,” adding that her favourite hobby is to dance. And her ‘photographer’, Hoffman, adds, “She is so surprisingly natural in front of the camera that I just have to turn on the video camera when she starts to speak and the most incredible messages come out!”
Having set up various social media accounts for Maleesha, Hoffman even started a GoFundMe, for her, which has amounted to $975 so far. “We are trying to reserve some donations for food, clean outfits, and money to travel to castings. I will be leaving India so we aim to get her a phone which also has a nice camera so that she can be in contact and continue high-quality vlogging for her fans,” says Hoffman, who will be returning to Los Angeles, USA, post the lockdown.
Hoffman beams with pride when talking about the humanitarian that is Maleesha, and she has a message of her own which she’d like to share. “I’ve always imagined that if I ever became rich, I would share. I have faced many problems with my house because the municipality always breaks it. So, I have learned to not give up and be resilient,” Maleesha concludes.