In a rather disturbing incident, a Hollywood actor seems to have "adopted" an underprivileged minor girl in Mumbai and has been promoting her on Instagram to raise funds for her "modelling career".
Poverty porn and exoticising "third-world problems" of developing nations has always been a problem with many filmmakers, artists, journalists, and even social workers from developed Western nations. Even noted artists have often been criticized for their "savior attitude" and the colonial gaze that often reflects in their work. But Hollywood actor Robert Hoffmann probably did not read the footnotes on "What not to do" when in India (or anywhere else) before he visited the country in February to shoot for a music video.
Hoffman, who is known for his role in the 2008 film Step Up 2: The Streets got stuck in India after it sealed its borders and banned travel following the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But it seems Hoffman found himself a little pet project in the slums of Mumbai - 12-year-old Maleesha Kharwa.
In the past month, the actor has started an Instagram page for Maleesha that he obviously runs himself and has been seeking donations from people across the world so he can fund the girl's modelling career. Hoffman even started a GoFundMe page for the girl with the aim to raise $20,000 (approximately over 15 lakh INR) in order to secure the girl's future and her place in the entertainment industry. The actor claims that his efforts are aimed purely at raising funds for Maleesha so that she can get a better life for herself and her family.
While there is absolutely nothing wrong with philanthropy and helping out those in need, Hoffman's approach appears rather problematic. A look through the Instagram account created for Maleesha as well as the GoFundMe page, written in the girl's voice herself reveal several red flags.
In the GoFundMe page, Maleesha refers to herself as "Slum Princess". The page also contains vivid descriptions and images of her home in a Bandra slum and the pathetic conditions in which she and her family survive.
"Some people call me the "Slum Princess". People ask me how I like living in a slum, and this is always confusing to me because I love my home so much!", the page reads. It adds that she and her family often don't have any money to eat.
The page also points out that Maleesha is seeking to raise funds to finance her modelling career so that she could earn and get herself a new house at a safer, better locality.
"Recently, someone asked me if anyone has ever told me I should start modelling. I was shocked, but they told me that I should really try it because I could make enough money to get a real home and enough food to eat. So, they have helped me to create this page, because they believe that people out there might want to help me if I share my journey."
The page also has a section on "India's poverty" in which "Maleesha" outlines that in India, "things are different than other places in the world".
"It's called a "caste system". There are so many people like me that sleep on the streets all over in India. My country is very overpopulated," the page reads.
Quite clearly, the content of the website was not written by Maleesha herself but by Hoffman. The actor even accepted the same on a private Instagram chat with a user, Aishwarya Subramanyam after she raised concerns regarding the safety of the 12-year-old girl and oversimplification of issues such as the "caste system" of India by foreigners who have limited understanding of its complexities.
The user also raised objections regarding the apparent stress on the girl's modelling career to raise funds instead of essential needs like education.
As per Hoffman, the Instagram page is an attempt to help the girl child. The actor, who often referred to the Maleesha as his "daughter" in a number of his posts on Instagram, said that he was just trying to help the girl and his family.
The Instagram account and GoFundMe page have raised concerns about the girl's safety and potential exploitation. As Subramanyam pointed out, the girl was surrounded by male relatives, her "father, brother and uncle" and seemingly Hoffman himself who shoots the girl and posts the footage online.
After Hoffman responded to her concerns on Instagram, Subramanyam tried to explain to him the problem with a "white man 'adopting' an underage girl from an underprivileged family".
Okay, so update: Robert Hoffman has gotten in touch with me, been polite and indicated that he would like to implement some changes in how he is handling this. In good faith, I am sharing our exchange and I hope he will follow through. Until he does, my posts will remain up.
— Aishwarya Subramanyam (@otherwarya) May 13, 2020
In case Hoffman wanted to help the girl, he could rather get in touch with an NGO. Subramanyam also suggested getting in touch with a woman guardian as well, just to ensure her safety further.
In the end, Hoffman seemed to agree with Subramanyam and said he would implement changes. However, he demanded that Subramanyam take her posts down instantly, which she refused to do.
"As you can see, we are not abducting the child. We would not have been so overt about it," Hoffman wrote to Subramanyam, accusing her demanding an end to his campaign which, he says, was purely intended to help Maleesha and her family.
But Subramanyam held her ground and said she will not remove the posts until Hoffman involved some form of child services or third party consultation to ensure the child's protection. She also added that her intention was not to malign Hoffman but just to hold people accountable for their actions.
News18 tried reaching out to the actor on Instagram but he has not yet responded. As of now, Maleesha's account continues to remain on Instagram. The GoFundMe account has so far managed to raised over $900.