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Are child actors victimised in Bollywood?

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Darsheel Safary
What can you say about a child of eight, a star overnight, when he refuses an award bestowed on him for his brilliant performance in a difficult role on grounds that he was the 'hero' of the film and not a 'child' actor? The electronic media went wild right across television channels the other day closing in on this wonderful little boy whose instant stardom has clearly gone to his head. Darsheel Safary, the wonder kid of Taare Zameen Par, insists that he is the hero of the film so why should he be chosen for the 'Best Child Actor' category by a weekly trade paper for its annual film awards this year? Shoma A Chatterji tries to find out whether the child actor is a hero, a victim exploited by his family and the film's publicity machine, or an unwilling martyr to media-hype...

It is amusing to discover the contradiction. A boy who does not understand what 'jury award' means refuses 'the best child actor' award. Is his response spontaneous? Or did his parents and family doctor it? Why weren't they questioned about the child's decision? Where were they when the boy, whose final exams are round the corner, was being interviewed by every news channel that jumped on the story for its 'man-bites-dog' element of sensation? Darsheel has been the media's favourite lollipop ever since Taare Zameen Par hit the screens across the country. He has been giving television and press interviews left, right and centre, appearing at press conferences and generally having a whale of a time. Shouldn't he be getting back to where he belongs - to his parents and his school and his games of football and cricket? Should he be questioned about whether girls' attitudes toward him have changed? Or, whether he likes girls or not, again and again? By the simple logic of a child's mindset, Darsheel ought to have been thrilled by the twin awards bestowed on him for his first ever film role. But no sir, he is not a normal child. The media has seen to that. He insists by suggestion that he would have been happy had he won the Best Actor award that went to Shahrukh Khan! The media just laps it up in sound bytes that may have overwhelmed you had you not been so shocked at its blatant violation of the simple ethics of letting a child remain a child.

Taare Zameen Par trailer


In 1990, Dilip Ghosh, a FTII graduate, made a documentary on child actors in Hindi cinema called Children Of The Silver Screen. The film was screened at film festivals. It explored the blood and tears behind the chubby faces of people who were once famous as child actors but could not make it when they turned adult. Naaz, who was once famous as Baby Naaz (BOOT POLISH) and was said to be charging more than some stars of the time, said in camera that she came back home to parents who fought all the time and forgot to give her a proper meal. She was never allowed to touch a paisa of her earnings and was thrust into adult roles much before she turned eighteen. Daisy Irani, another famous child star of the Fifties, said that she failed twice in the same class because she could not attend school having to report for shoots at all times of day and night. "My mother took the easy way out - she took me out of school and sent me back to the studios." Her mother would pinch her hard when she refused to cry in sad scenes. "I was allowed to save money in a piggy bank. But my parents would never allow me to open the bank and find out how much money it had. One day, I opened it secretly and was shocked to find just a few coins at the bottom," she recalls. The directors spoiled her rotten and she grew into a studio brat who no one could tolerate but were forced to smile at. After marriage and three kids, Irani says she feels sorry for her mother "because she did not know what she was doing to me, and more so, to herself." Her kid sister, Honey Irani went through a similar grueling childhood till she married Javed Akhtar and later shifted focus to write stories and scripts for films. Baby Guddu, a very successful child actor of the eighties, was pushed into films by a father who claimed to be a 'producer' and a mother who had starry ambitions for herself that failed to come about. "She is brilliant in studies," said the mother to this writer in an interview, "but we have put her in films because she is very talented and we allow her to do this purely as a hobby." Really? Which 'hobby' fattens the parents' bank balance like a career in films do, tell me? What happened to the poor little rich girl no one knows. But this writer remembers the little girl coming back from school in uniform, dog tired at the end of the day, only to be asked to freshen herself up as she had to report for a night shoot.

Times have changed but the reality of the child star / actor / model has not. Hansika who caught the attention of filmmakers with her brilliant performances in television serials and films, was pushed into adulthood as leading lady opposite Himesh Reshamiya in Aap Ka Suroor. No teenage crushes, no disco-hopping or party-dancing, no playing loud music at odd hours, no boyfriend because the word 'adolescence' does not exist in the book of her life. Whether she will make it as leading lady is beside the point. The point is that she has missed out on a solid education, on friendships, on datings and split-ups - things that form the journey from teenage to adulthood.

Darsheel SafaryExceptions are few and far between. Tabassum, once famous as Baby Tabassum who played the lead role in Bimal Roy's Baap Beti, left films to pay attention to academics and ended up with a Masters' from Mumbai University. She was resurrected on Doordarshan many years later and claimed her right to fame as a noted anchor and event manager. Sarika and Sachin began as child actors. As Sarika was struggling to make it as an adult star, her mother allegedly emptied out her bank balance. Sachin began acting as a little boy of four in Marathi films. The credit for overcoming the worst odds and making it big goes completely to both these child actors. Pallavi Joshi and her older brother Master Alankar have never mentioned it but as child actors, it is understood that they went through the grind as well. Alankar went away to settle abroad while Pallavi is now a successful anchor and television actress. Aftab Shivdasani, Kunal Khemu and Jugal Hansraj have grown up from child actors to heroes though they are yet to prove their mettle as top box office draws. Urmila Matondkar is perhaps the only child actor who could make it as a successful star and actress.

In the past, child actors were exploited and victimized by their parents and families. Today, it is the same story with the media adding to the villainy by ensuring that child actors like Darsheel are martyred for a cause that does not exist - media-hype at the wrong time and place that could destroy their lives and careers forever. Somewhere along the way, the sharp line that separated Darsheel Safary, the actor, and Ishaan Awasthi, the character he portrayed in Taare Zameen Par, seems to have faded.

Read more about: darsheel safary, shahrukh khan
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