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No time to love, live and play: Life of child actors

Six-year-old Adah Narang is a popular face on Indian television. Photograph: (WION)

WION New Delhi India Oct 13, 2016, 11.12 AM (IST) Priyanka Verma

Doesn't every child grow up wanting to be the next movie superstar? And yet, there's a downside.

In the words of Nandini Chandra, an assistant professor in Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, "almost all of the child artists had internalised the victimised identity of a childhood forfeited at the altar of cinema." The treatment of children on some of these sets is awful. Still, parents throng to casting calls hoping their child will be the next superstar and eventually jump from adverts to full-time roles in the movies. In this pursuit of name and fame, some child actors come back home after the shoot and bemoan how short their dialogue was, still hungry for the spotlight. 

There are multiple ways in which childhood is commercialised and in doing so the childhood experiences have altered. At a young age, children are still learning to recognise their emotions. They are emotionally very vulnerable. In this state of vulnerability, when they are asked to perform these alien emotions on screen, they might not fully understand the meaning of the situation itself. At times, they get instant accolades and at other times, they don’t. 

Dr Vineta Kaul, vice president of Early Childhood Association, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in India, is reminded of a recent interview of Indian actress Alia Bhatt where Alia traced her aptitude and fame down to her nursery class: "She was asked to recite a rhyme and she did it so well that the principal asked her to come to the front and said that everybody will recite like Alia. And that day she decided that she is going to get all the attention of the world. Now she has been fortunate she has been able to do it. But in this situation what happens is that the child builds up self-expectations which may not get fulfilled at all times."

And that day she decided that she is going to get all the attention of the world. Now she has been fortunate she has been able to do it. But in this situation what happens is that the child builds up self-expectations which may not get fulfilled at all times.

There is a certain sense of fear of children "growing up too soon". With a broader social concern, it becomes important to understand what leads to this change in the "correct" role and place of children with respect to normative ideals of childhood. In these changing contours of childhood experiences, parents play an important role while helping their children to get through the auditions. Upon receiving casting calls, some parents are more than enlivened to bag the role at the cost of their children’s childhood and lead them excitedly to the show business. 

While getting ready to go for an audition, 10-year-old child actor, Ria (name changed) asks her mother whether or not she can wear her brand new sports shoes for the audition. Her mother gave her a pat on the back for being able to choose the right outfit for it is an audition for a sports brand. In response, Ria gets ready and also wears a padded bra under her T-shirt to get that perfect look. Dr Venita ponders, “I am not too sure how voluntary this is. Because most of the time, according to my experience, this emanates from, of course, the producer of the show itself but also from the children’s parents. So the parents’ own aspiration, their own agency is dominating the child’s agency here”.

A lot of times "child actor" is constructed by television and its needs. The symbolic value of being a "child actor" has in a way become a culturally significant phenomenon. The child actor is a symbol of our distraught relationship with children wherein we like to idealise and romanticise the image of the child and yet fear what they are going to grow into, as children's author Jane O’Connor has argued, "the way child artists are demanded and constructed in our culture is symptomatic of the complex status of the child in contemporary society who is defined as being different in all ways to the adult whilst being persistently commodified, sexualized and thus ‘adultified’ in the media". 

Shefali Khurana loves the make-belief life of the set and thinks that make-up makes her look more beautiful. (WION)


At 11.00 PM, in between a tea-break on the shooting set of children's television series Galli Galli Sim Sim, 10-year-old child actor, Rohan (name changed) flipped his fingers and ordered the spot boy to get a bottle of Pepsi and a plate of noodles for him before the director starts the next scene. 

On the other corner of this set, a father prepares his 7-year-old boy and helps him mouth the dialogues. He takes out multiple costume options from their suitcase and gives him his favorite "Salman Khan look". This child is going to be a part of the next scene too.

6-year-old Adi Jain wants to give the 'best take' each time. (WION)


Holland (1986) offers an exhaustive account of the role of advertisements (in the context of the USA) in constructing and maintaining the childhood ideology. He argues that such constructions not only uphold an unequal relationship between adults and children that seem natural, reasonable and completely justified, they also urge us to read something general about childhood and not think about particular children in particular circumstances. Social knowledge of this kind slowly becomes part of our own negotiations with actual children.

While coming to terms with her own exploitation during the early years of her career, Indian child actor Daisy Irani expressed herself, ‘I was so violently put off by the mechanically acting children that were forced into that I hated to see myself on screen hamming it up.’ While Daisy Irani, as she recalls, used to distance herself to enact scenes of melodrama, Master Romi and Baby Naaz (Meena Kumari) would recall their own personal tragedies of how they used to get tears flowing. 

"While child actors may not apparently be ‘doing’ anything they are by their very presence in the film ‘done to’." -Kirby

Kirby identifies how meaning and significance are attributed to the performer simply because they exist in a highly intended or symbolic context. In this sense, the child actor could be placed on Kirby’s continuum in the position of "received acting".  He argues here that the acting is not something done by the child, in fact, the child’s behavior is read as a performance because it is situated in a particular, meaningful context. Instead, he says that children who are selected for appearing on screen have evidently been selected and operate within a symbolic set of representational code. They are choreographed in a manner where everything is controlled from their costumes to specific kinds of lighting and sound effects. Given this scenario, they cannot be understood as "not acting".

While discussing the creative choices made by the director, the set designer, the costume designer, the cinematographer, other actors, the composer to create a context in which the child is simply supposed to appear. Just by appearing they express meaning whatever their actual intention might be.

Adah Narang spots herself in print advertisements. (AFP)


Spanish actress Ana Torrent recalls her acting as a five-year-old child when she was playing Ana in The Spirit of the Beehive and said that what she primarily remembers from the experience is that she was simply asked by the director Victor Erice ‘not to smile’.

This is not true for all kinds of child performances. Some children want the directors to tell them a cue or give them a prompt to perform. They understand the character they are playing and what they have been asked. The tools used by the directors and the actors to get the performance they want eventually make the children learn the difference between film and reality. 

In Jacques Doillon’s film Ponette, a film about the four-year-old girl who is trying to come to terms with the death of her mother, the child psychologist observed this about the child actor Victoria Thivisol: "I can say that she rarely talked about the film, the character she portrayed, the difficulties of learning the text or even about the exhausting process of repeating a scene many times a day. One time she did casually tell me of a technique she used when playing Ponette (in her words) ‘crying for the camera’. She would ask Jacques Doillon to tell her off as long as it was not severely enough to frighten her."

The existing assumptions in terms of commonly held beliefs as to who children "really are" can be very confining and conservative. It becomes important to interrogate the functioning of child actors fulfilling expectations of an adult world and to explore the childhood of the child star as altered by occupational demands on time and mandated interactions with adults. 


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