W Power 2024

Maleesha Kharwa: From Mumbai's shanty to content creator

Kharwa was struggling for basic amenities while living in a shanty at Mumbai's Bandstand when Hollywood actor Robert Hoffman discovered her. With help from him and a lot of perseverance from Kharwa, she is turning her life around

Naandika Tripathi
Published: Mar 21, 2024 04:26:53 PM IST
Updated: Apr 8, 2024 01:57:32 PM IST

Maleesha Kharwa: From Mumbai's shanty to content creatorMaleesha Kharwa, Model and content creator Image: Mexy Xavier; Stylist: Karishma Chouksey

An avalanche of fans lining up outside Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s house, Mannat, is a usual sight at Bandra’s Bandstand in Mumbai. But hardly anyone noticed another star growing up across the street.

It took a pandemic and a Hollywood actor to realise her potential.

Life was about to change for the teenage girl, who was one among the 50 percent of Mumbai’s slum occupants. She lived in a shanty near Bandstand, with no proper access to basic amenities like water, electricity and a washroom. Besides, the constant fear from municipal officials made survival more tough with their repeated attempts to displace the huts. The Covid-19 pandemic proved to be a blessing in disguise for Maleesha Kharwa and her family after American actor Robert Hoffman got stuck in the city for five months due to the lockdown.

To utilise his time in the city, the Step Up 2: The Streets actor decided to work on a music video and was looking to collaborate with slum dwellers to portray their perseverance. That’s when he met Kharwa and her extended family. Hoffman was startled to see Kharwa’s confidence and charisma in front of the camera. It left him wondering how anyone could have overlooked such a beautiful face. He knew that she had the capability to make it big, but needed help with accessing basic rights to education, food and shelter. That’s when Hoffman decided to support her and extend help in pursuing her dream of becoming a model and dancer.

Maleesha Kharwa: From Mumbai's shanty to content creatorAfter getting permission from Kharwa’s father, he set up her Instagram and YouTube pages, which today have 450,000 followers and 88,700 subscribers. The overseas actor started a fundraiser through GoFundMe, which has collected $22,053 till now. These donations are used for Kharwa’s food, education and shelter.

The teenager started gathering eyeballs after Hoffman posted her videos in which she was seen giving a tour of her house, talking about her aspirations, and also teaching Hindi to him. Kharwa’s big, starry-eyed dreams, buoyant spirit and winning smile got her an opportunity to feature on the cover of The Peacock magazine. There was no stopping her ever since. Another turning point in her life came when luxury Indian cosmetics brand Forest Essentials chose her as the face of its Yuvati campaign celebrating young Indian women.

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She recently moved out of the hut she previously inhabited to a rented one-room kitchen flat, and now she doesn’t have to walk miles to fill up water cans or use the public washroom. “I got my first salary from Instagram after going viral. When my manager [Hoffman] handed over ₹35,000, I couldn’t believe it or even realise how big the amount was,” says the 16-year-old over a WhatsApp video call. It was a big moment for the entire family, as no one has earned this much at once.

Kharwa lives with her father, younger brother, uncle and cousins. The family hails from Kalol, Gujarat, but they’ve lived in Mumbai all their lives. Her father works for an event management company and dresses up as cartoon characters for children’s birthday parties. “My father was in a lot of debt. People used to repeatedly call him to get their money back. He never told us anything, but I understood his situation,” adds Kharwa, the youngest member on Forbes India’s W-Power list. Kharwa’s income has helped her father pay off his debt, and now he’s capable of lending money to others in need.

“Maleesha, in the most innocent and authentic way, has always consistently shown this compulsion to give back and take care of other people,” Hoffman tells Forbes India. “We’ve developed something called ‘Maleesha People’ which we will be announcing in some months. We’re going to have an open submission, and anyone from all over the world can send their story. Let us know their vision and how a little help can assist them in achieving their dreams.”

Kharwa is gearing up for her class 10 board exams, scheduled to take place in March. She studies at a government-run non-profit. After gaining popularity, people insisted that she enrol herself into a private school. But she says, “I’ve studied at the same school since grade one, and all my teachers are quite good. And I also feel I should not forget where I eventually come from.”   

(This story appears in the 22 March, 2024 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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