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13-year-old Maleesha Kharwa’s journey from slums of Mumbai to the cover of a fashion magazine is proof that dreams can come true

11:10 PM Apr 16, 2021 | Deepali Singh

Long, luscious hair cascading down in soft waves over her shoulders, sparkling eyes and a smile that can light up a room — there’s something strikingly confident and charming about Maleesha Kharwa. The 13-year-old slum-dweller who dreams of becoming a model and dancer when she grows up, was The Peacock Magazine’s cover girl in October last year. Since then, the teenager who has 1,32,000 followers on her verified Instagram account, has been the subject of many a news article and more. Recently a short film documentary titled Live Your Fairytale by Jas Sagu and Arsala Qureishi was released, that highlights the life of Maleesha and her friends, her endearing relationship with her father Mukesh – a clown impersonator at children’s parties – and her seven-year-old baby brother.

Dreams unlimited

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Maleesha was all of five-years-old when the sight of Priyanka Chopra sashaying down the ramp at a fashion show — something that she watched on YouTube — made such an impact on her impressionable mind that she decided that this is a world she wants to be a part of. For a young girl living on the rocks near the Sea Link at Worli, this would have seemed like a far-fetched dream but destiny had other plans.

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Hollywood actor Robert Hoffman, of The Step Up 2: The Streets fame, who was scouting for a girl from the slums for his music video while on his visit to India, happened to meet Maleesha and her cousin sister. Although he did not end up taking her in his video, he was so taken up by her charm and confidence that he decided to start an Instagram page for her, to help her realise her dreams. “When he asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up, I told him I want to be a model and a dancer. He said he will help me out,” she recalls, adding that the actor is really friendly and they had a lot of fun together while he was in the city.

Strike a pose!

Ace designers Shane and Falguni Peacock have featured some of the biggest names in showbiz on the covers of their magazine but there was something about Maleesha that caught their attention when they happened to come across her pictures on the internet. They decided to shoot her for the October 2020 issue of their magazine. The charity-based issue was an initiative of Peacock Foundation, that strives to bring about a change, drive social initiatives, champion noble causes, uplift lives, and empower the marginalized communities in India.

Sharing their experience of working with the 13-year-old, the Peacocks say, “Shooting with Maleesha was an experience of a lifetime. Until we shot her, we’d only heard about how chirpy and ambitious she is. But when we finally shot her for the cover, we knew that here was a girl who had big dreams and put in honest efforts to make it happen, despite all the odds. Having Maleesha on the cover was a little step from our end to bring her closer to her dreams.”

Describing her experience of shooting for the cover as a fun one, Maleesha says she was extremely happy to do it. That million-dollar smile in place, the pictures show the young girl having a blast in front of the camera. The clothes do add to the charm but it is her effervescent personality that really shines through. 

Keep it fashionable

The standard seventh student’s Instagram account shows her in candid poses, sometimes with her friends and often, solo. Although the page is handled by Robert, she insists that she has a say in choosing the pictures. While her followers can’t get enough of her long wavy hair and her gorgeous smile, Maleesha finds her eyes her most attractive feature. What about clothes? “I like wearing dresses, specially in red colour,” says the child model who is learning dance from her role model ‘Alisha didi’. When it comes to who she finds fashionable from Bollywood, she picks Madhuri Dixit Nene and Disha Patani as her favourites.

Showbiz calling

Along with modelling and dancing, the teenager says she is also open to acting. She might not have gotten the chance to feature in Robert’s music video, but he did end up introducing her to Arsala – the associate producer and writer behind the pathbreaking movie Angry Indian Goddesses and musician Jas, co-founder at Blow Broadcast. Live Your Fairytale documents some raw, unscripted moments from Maleesha’s life, which the filmmakers believe showcase the young model’s perceptive and optimistic personality.

Says Arsala, “Her story is a metaphor for hope, manifestation and the power of dreams in ‘New India,’ and a ‘New World’. She is deconstructing the motifs of a fairy tale, and recontextualising what constitutes a fairy tale in the present century. A more empathic world is possible if all of us work together in manifesting its destiny selflessly with passion and integrity.”

As for Maleesha, she loved the fact that it was all natural and organic. “My friends and I really enjoyed being a part of it,” she adds. Paving the way for equality and economic freedom in her family, this little girl is aware that she is an inspiration for many others. Does she think girls can do whatever they want if they set their mind to it? “Yes, they can!” she concludes the interaction with her beatific smile. Looks like Maleesha’s fairytale has just begun.

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