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Two Owls land on the Red Carpet

By Julie Armstrong & Lily Chun     2/26/09 6:00pm

On Feb. 22, under the fading Hollywood sunlight, two Rice premeds made history. After beating out reporter-videographer teams from across the nation in mtvU.com's first Oscar Correspondent Contest for college journalists, Baker College senior Faheem Ahmed and Sid Richardson College junior Anish Patel, both Rice-Baylor scholars, flew to Los Angeles as one of the competition's top three finalist teams on behalf of the Rice Thresher.

Getting there

Although he made a significant cameo in the second of the two videos the team submitted to the contest, Patel filled the role of cameraman for the duo, while Ahmed, a Thresher staff writer, did the talking. Both have experience in front of the camera through Rice Sketch Comedy, and Ahmed has additional experience with the Rice Players and the breakdancing Rice Breakers.

In the last few days of the competition last week, the two garnered enough online votes to give them the grand prize: press credentials on the Red Carpet. Whether hunkered down in Fondren Library or bored in class, Rice students got them there by clicking the online "vote" button interminably on mtvU's Web site.

"We all know Rice kids are smart," Laura Whitley, reporter for television station KTRK, Houston's local ABC affiliate, quipped outside the university's ivy-covered brick sign off Main Street, in a story that aired after the making of the team's second video. "But now they've shown they're funny, too."

One commenter on mtvU's Web site noted that in both of their videos for the contest, the two had done what none of the other teams had thought to do to such an extent: They had involved the very students who had supported and voted for them instead of just explaining that they could excite and represent their fellow students on the Red Carpet. By promoting themselves through the humorous parody of the now-Oscar-winning song, "Jai Ho," from the movie that would win Best Picture, Slumdog Millionaire, Rice's team cinched the win.

The Red Carpet

Once Ahmed and Patel arrived at the Academy Awards, they took to the carpet and interviewed the likes of Tina Fey, Zac Efron and Robert Pattinson.

"Because we'd both seen The Wrestler, I asked [Pattinson], 'Who would you be afraid to fight in the ring?'" Ahmed recounted. "He said Reese Witherspoon, because he'd be afraid to smack her around too much. Then, since he played a vampire in Twilight, I asked him what other supernatural creature he'd like to play. 'Satan,' he said."

But the A-listers and glitterati were not the best interviews, said Ahmed. Instead, that honor went to the kid stars of Slumdog Millionaire.

"[The kids] were transported literally from the slums of India to the Red Carpet, almost like a real-life version of the movie, and they were so excited to be there," he said. "They jumped around and taught us dances and stuff. Their excitement was easily reflected in how we were feeling, because it was the first time there for all of us."

On the other hand, Ahmed said his worst interview was with a veteran of the spotlight, Anthony Hopkins.

"First of all, I was super intimidated, and I kept feeling like he was going to eat me like Hannibal," Ahmed said. "Secondly, he seemed in a rush, like he was just too cool for school. I asked him two questions, and then he had to go."

But perhaps the most memorable moment would be the strangest one. Ahmed said Heath Ledger's family accepting the award for Best Supporting Actor proved to be "memorable."

"His sister started talking about Heath, and everyone was quiet," Ahmed said. "Then out of nowhere, some douche who couldn't wait until she was finished started yelling, 'We're broadcasting live from the Oscars! Slumdog Millionaire just won for Best Picture!' or whatever. Everyone was like, 'What the hell?"

Despite the interruptions, Ahmed said he and Patel still enjoyed getting to be on the Red Carpet.

"It was badass - a super cool experience," Ahmed said. "It's cool just to see that these people look exactly the same. They're really nice, down-to-earth people. A couple of them are probably really pompous, but in general, they're great. And the Academy! The Academy is full of hardworking, amazing people - they're really the unsung heroes of the Oscars."

Rise to fame

Although the journey from Rice to the Red Carpet is not quite as monumental as Jamal's rise to fame and fortune in Slumdog Millionaire, Ahmed and Patel have a few things in common with the serendipitous character played by Dev Patel; namely, their story spread fast. From SABAsearch, a blog of Houston's South Asian community, to the Houston Chronicle to ABC news, their story spread through the city.

The Internet spread it even faster. Before Rice News had added the winning duo to the "Who Knew?" campaign roster, a Canadian blog had run photos of them at a press conference in L.A., taken by a photographer from Michigan. The next day, their story was picked up by The Times of India, the most widely-read English newspaper in the world.

Ahmed said many members of the press recognized him and Patel because the president of the Academy had mentioned them in a press conference. A few even congratulated them for their work in Slumdog Millionaire, of which they were not a part.

"Lots of girls kept walking up to us and saying, 'Great job, fantastic work,'" Ahmed recalled. "We'd just look at each other and say, 'Yeah. Thank you so much.' But when we had to elaborate, we would tell them [that we weren't really in the movie.]"

Even their parents got involved in the minor media frenzy. In a Feb. 18 interview with Patel's hometown newspaper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, his father, a pediatrician, said he had told the budding camerman, "I don't mind you going to Hollywood, but keep your target on medical school."

Regardless of their future, the two will see this past experience as one of the highlights of their journalism careers, and certainly one of the least expected. But it may be possible that this was written all along. In an early interview, Ahmed had proclaimed jokingly that he and Patel would win. With a reference to Slumdog Millionaire, he explained, "It's the year of the Indian."

How right he was.

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