No child's play

Bollywood Trends

No child's play

Budding actress Zoya Hassan raises funds for an NGO working with underprivileged children. She has starred in three theatre productions and made her film debut in For Real, which is set for a nation-wide release next month.

She won the best actor award at a Singapore film festival for her role, beating the likes of seasoned performers like Natalie Imbruglia. And Zoya is just eight-years-old. Most child actors in Bollywood these days strut around with biodatas that sound just as impressive.

They’re immersed in dance, theatre or modelling, before being picked to star in films. Heroically, they manage to keep with up with their academic commitments. On interacting with these child-professionals, one finds that many of them are intelligent, articulate and well-rounded. “Working with Aayan was a blast! I had a lot of fun. He’s smart, focused and loves acting,” says director Vikramaditya Motwane, about Aayan Boradia, the youngest cast member in his coming-of-age film Udaan.  

Most child actors belong to urban India where early intellectual development and increased awareness amongst kids is becoming common because of the internet, television and a host of other factors. Vikas Bahl, Chief Creative Officer of UTV Motion Pictures, says, “Children are exposed to so much more today, which makes them ambitious. If you look at child actors at auditions, they’re very clear what they’re there for — to grab the opportunity that lies before them.” Vikas has just turned director with the yet-to-be released, Chillar Party, featuring a group of ten children.

In India, parents have always played a part in influencing their child’s career decisions. Their role is even more pronounced in the film industry, especially with female and child actors who are constantly chaperoned. In fact, the overbearing star-mother (or father) is a Bollywood cultural stereotype that has been around for decades. Industry insiders feel that the current generation of child actors’ parents are quite often middle-class, educated professionals, and contribute to the new work ethic and focused approach.  

Independent Casting Director Avani Parikh says, “Parents accompany their children all the time and go out of their way to prepare and coach them.” Adds Vikas Bahl, “They are enthusiastic and ambitious for their children, and are genuinely interested in helping them make it big as actors.” Vikas, who chose a bunch of first-timers over many experienced child actors, says he was blown away by their confidence levels, which is more often then not, determined by parental support.

“We see a mix of children. Some are fascinated by acting, and there’s another set that is at auditions because their parents dragged them there,” discloses Avani Parikh. Vikramaditya says Aayan Boradia’s innate interest and ability in acting landed him the crucial role of the protagonist’s half-brother in Udaan. “There are too many mothers observing their child’s every move and prompting them through every take, that’s just not right,” he says.  

In the past, a career in the film industry was considered lowbrow by a majority of middle-class Indian families, especially for women. But over the years, a career in showbiz has turned into a much-coveted, desirable option.

This has increased competition manifold even amongst child actors, and as a result, the best, most talented and focused of the lot, rise to the top. “For just one audition call, we get hundreds and hundreds of profiles. I know child specialist agents with a list of 4000 children, who are all hoping to land that big job,” says Avani Parikh. Avani, who also handles commercials says, “For most of the children who act in commercials, Bollywood is their ultimate dream.”

“Undoubtedly, there’s a lot of competition,” says Vikas Bahl, who auditioned about 9,000 children for his film Chillar Party. “Even after the selection, we had to make sure the children were treated equally, they were all paid the same fee too.”

Darsheel Safary was one of few lucky children who beat all competition to bag the role of a lifetime with Aamir Khan in Taare Zameen Par. He is a Mumbai kid who was picked from a Shaimak Davar dance class, where many casting directors and producers scout for fresh talent. The movie catapulted him to overnight stardom and his next film Bum Bum Bole made Safary the highest paid child star.  

However, the Rs 3 lakhs, widely believed to have paid to Darsheel, is not much for a lead actor in an industry where even a single hit can jack up a star’s price by crores. They may be immensely talented and professional, but child actors in Bollywood are yet to earn the remuneration and respect for their craft, that stars like Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Abigail Breslin have earned in the West.  

Darsheel was the first child star in India to be nominated along with leading adult actors for the Filmfare best actor award in 2007. Not many were surprised when he failed to bag the honour, despite a great performance. However, both the lead actors of For Real, eight-year-old Zoya Hassan and 14-year-old Shriharsh Sharma Churai won the best actor in the female and male category respectively, at a Singapore film festival. Director Sona Jain says, “Both my stars held their own against adult actors, I jumped with joy.”  

While recognition is hard to come by, so are good roles. Besides, working conditions of these children remain inadequate. “We still have a long way to go. There is no real niche for child actors, neither there are many films that purely cater to children,” says filmmaker Vikramaditya. He feels that despite the much-talked about corporatisation, most of the industry functions the way it used to in the past. “Including the way we shoot,” he adds.   
With Bollywood shoot schedules remaining as chaotic as they have been for decades, life is not easy for child actors, who strive for much more than their predecessors. Fortunately, the current crop of directors, many of whom are exposed to Western practises, take extra care of their child actors. Sona Jain says, “In the West, they have on-location checks to ensure that the children complete their homework, are tutored and get enough rest. I have been trained in America and I maintained those standards on my shoots,” she says.  

Conventional industry wisdom says that working with children is an occupational nightmare and an explicit no-no for first-time directors. Vikas Bahl disagrees, “Everybody warned me not to work with children in my directorial debut, but it was nothing less than perfect. I never faced any tantrums; they were very professional and we wrapped up the shoot four days in advance.”

Like middle-of-the road cinema and an audience developing a taste for surprises, Bollywood child stars too are slowly but surely coming-of-age. 

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