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Why it is not child's play for Bollywood's child actors

Late night shoots, skipping school and mouthing adult dialogues. A law needs to be implemented to regulate the working conditions of child artistes in television and cinema

Do we really spare a thought for our child artistes? Not really, not even the government gives them a thought. Filmmaker Amole Gupte, chief of the Children Film Society of India (CFSI), wrote a letter to the government and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights requesting that a law be implemented on working conditions of child artistes in television and cinema. It’s been months since the letter was sent, but there’s been no reply from the government.


Filmmaker and Children Film Society of India chief Amole Gupte has written a letter to the government that a law needs to be implemented on the working conditions of child artistes

Implement rules
Says Gupte, “There is a law for child labour, but one needs to have a law for child artistes like there is in European and other Western countries. I would like the rules to be like the Animal Welfare Board today — you don’t get a certificate if the rules are not followed. I am grateful to Maneka Gandhi for getting this rule implemented. Until there is a law, nobody is going to listen.”

Gupte adds, “There have been instances when a child actor was made to ride a camel in the desert and water and biscuits would be passed to him. You claim to make a film on children, but in reality you don’t really care. In small screen reality shows, children are made to work for 12 hours.’’

He adds, “Child artistes should not be allowed to shoot for more than four hours a day and must shoot only on holidays. I have had self-imposed rules. I have made two films and worked with more than 2,000 children, but they have not missed even a single hour of school.’’

Counterview
Director-choreographer Ahmed Khan however does not share Gupte’s views. “We should not make films with children at all then. I remember when I was cast in Mr India, my school principal threw a fit. He just didn’t allow me to shoot. Besides, I could not cut my hair because of continuity issue, but it was my father Yusuf Khan who came to my rescue, as he was a jockey. My principal used to go to the races and that helped me,” he recalls.


Ahmed Khan

When told that the show he judges, Dance India Dance — L’il Masters, has children shoot from 9 am to 9 pm, Khan says, “The child only performs for about two-and-a-half minutes, the rest of the time he is relaxing. They get proper breaks from time to time.’’


On the sets of an earlier season of DID L’il Masters

Khan, who has been a child star, does see a change. He said, “The change that I now see is in the parents; they have become professional. They instruct their children not to not talk to some people on the sets, which was not the case when we were child artistes.”

Nothing childlike
Another area of concern is of children mouthing dialogues that don’t really suit their age. That is not new to the film industry. Writer Udaya Tara Nayar says, “The dialogues of yesteryear child actors such as Daisy Irani, Master Mayur and Master Alankar were simply not what a child of their age would speak. They were nowhere close to reality and certainly not ideal for children. Junior Mehmood, probably, was considered to be one child actor who got the most mature dialogues in the 1960s.’’

Junior Mehmood has acted in 265 movies in seven different languages
Junior Mehmood has acted in 265 movies in seven different languages

Junior Mehmood, who makes Marathi films today, adds, “I was gifted, so maybe the way I presented it appeared mature. Otherwise I don’t think I ever had dialogues that were more mature. There is hardly anything for kids in films barring a Taare Zameen Par. I don’t really remember any other films, but yes, I do see oversmart kids on TV. I don’t think they can last long. Today the child is no longer a child, he is like an adult so is treated like one, which I think is sad. I did miss out on my childhood as I used to be surrounded by adults all the time. But there was always a cricket kit in my car. That innocence is not there anymore. I do agree that we didn’t have the facilities that the children of today have but there was a lot of love and care.’’

Saloni Daini, who became popular with the role of Gangubai in the reality show Comedy Circus, mouths dialogues which don’t suit her age. But her mother Samyukta gets upset when such allegations are made against her daughter.
She says, “It is not fair to the child. She is so talented. Why don’t people talk about that instead of finding faults?’’ However she did agree that there are few occasions when mature dialogues were given to her, and she made the director change them.’’

Baby Guddu was a popular child artist in the 70’s and 80’s
Baby Guddu was a popular child artist in the 70’s and 80’s

Breadwinners
When told that the CFSI chief Amole Gupte wants the government to cut down on the working hours of children and not allow school to give children long leaves for film or television shoots, Junior Mehmood said, “It is a good thing, but I really don’t know if those children are interested in studying or they spend so many hous working because he or she may be the breadwinner.”

Mehmood adds, “I got into films because of curiosity. My brother used to be a photographer and I started work as an extra and earned Rs 2 per day. That was in 1966.’’

Even Saloni’s mother agrees. She says, “My daughter worked in a reality show and shot two episodes in a week, but we did end up spending nearly 12 hours on the sets as there are other factors involved that add to the delay of the shoot.’’

Time control
Ruhanika Dhawan who plays Ruhi in Ekta Kapoor’s serial, Yeh Hai Mohabatein, shoots after school. Her mother Dolly says, “My daughter only shoots from 5 pm to 9 pm in the evening and it is the contract we have signed with Balaji Telefilms. She studies in an IGSC school and they don’t allow any holiday. But I have seen other children shooting for longer hours and parents not complaining. I am glad that Amole Gupte is trying to bring in some regulation with working conditions of child actors.’’

Ruhanika Dhawan with Divyanka TripathiRuhanika Dhawan, who plays Ruhi with Divyanka Tripathi. Dhawan essays the character of Ishita in the TV show Yeh Hai Mohabbatein

Khan says that parents pressurise theirchild to perform and succeed, which is a bit too much and it angers him sometimes. Some parents have also visited Gupte and complained to him. According to them, more than feeling hungry, the children want enough rest and sleep. Gupte cites an example of a failure which troubles him even today. He said, “I remember the parents of a blind child from Indore taking part in Sa Re Ga Ma. The shooting was in an non A/C studio and he was supposed to sing in front of Suresh Wadkar who he considered his guru. The child’s turn to sing came only at 2 am and the 11- year-old couldn’t perform.’’ There are several cases of children sinking to depression after failure.

Setting guidelines
Swati Popat Vats of Early Childhood Association has drawn out a draft for children working in films and television serials. The association intends to meet various film associations and wants them to implement it. Some of the points ECU has highlighted are child artistes should not miss school for more than 10 days in an academic year for work. A copy of the contract signed with the entertainment company should be submitted to the school and the ECA.

Thus, the school is aware about the terms and conditions, and can check whether the child is being taken advantage of. Child artistes should not be made to work for more than six hours in a day. They should work strictly between 10 am to 5 pm. An expert in child development issues should be part of the unit. Child–friendly make-up and lights should be used during the shoots, so that it does not harm the child’s eyes or skin. There should be no violation of child rights such as doing away with the lunch break. A policy against child abuse should be in place. The child should not be involved in lewd songs.
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Gupte adds, “There should be a clause where a child should be not be allowed to get close to people. Affection can be expressed through eyes. One does not necessarily need to hold or cuddle a child. A safe distance needs to be maintained. A child needs to be escorted and not left alone in a vanity van. There is a sick world out there and we all
know it.’’

Exploitation
There are others such as documentary filmmaker Dilip Ghosh who made the award-winning film, Children Of The Silver Screen, who feels there is no proper internal governing body that looks into the working of children in cinema
and television.

Ghosh says, “There is no particular law or association looking into this. The concern towards children seems to be missing as even parents are not bothered. Children also tend to get starry eyed. I have seen parents push the children over a limit. I agree that one cannot avoid having children in a film but they are being overburdened by shoots as well as studies.

I was shooting a commercial for a toothpaste which was to be dubbed in many languages and it had to done by a child. The eight-year-old kid couldn’t get it right and after about the 25th take, he screamed saying, “I cannot do it.” The mother came rushing to me saying, ‘Sorry sir, my child is wasting your time. I will make sure she gets it right.’”

Ghosh recalls how she screamed at the child. Upset over such behaviour, Ghosh threatened to drop the child from the role if she behaved badly with the kid. “It was sad to see how parent slave drive their kids to the point of insanity,” he adds.

One has been an eyewitness to how a three-year-old child was made to cry for a scene in a film starring actor Sanjay Dutt. With Dutt holding the baby in his arms, a chocolate was given to the child. Just when the camera got rolling, one of the assistant directors of the film snatched the chocolate from the baby, which resulted in the baby crying and the director got his shot.

Parth Bhalerao, 15, who featured in Nitesh Tiwari’s film Bhootnath Returns feels that children under 14 should not be made to work for long hours. He recalls an incident with him and other child actors in his Marathi film Khalti Doke Varti Paay.

Parth Bhalerao with Amitabh Bachchan during the promotions of Bhootnath Returns
Parth Bhalerao with Amitabh Bachchan during the promotions of Bhootnath Returns

He says, “We were made to drink tea and some energiser to keep us awake. We used to shoot till 4 am. In Bhootnath Returns, I would shoot for 12 hours. My school was more than happy to give me leave.’’

Tiwari says, “While the intentions are noble, we need to look at it from two different point of views. It’s possible and practical to stick to such regulations if you are making a film with kids minus big names. We did that in Chillar Party. We shot it mostly in summer vacations and as we had 10 kids, we scheduled it in such a way that no kid had to work really hard. But we could do it because the script allowed us to do so. Not all scripts will allow you such flexibility.”

He adds, “What happens when you have a star in your film along with a kid? If the kid shoots only after school hours or during vacations or only for five hours a day, how would the dates and more importantly, the economics work out? It might lead to a less efficient scheduling and more number of shooting days which has a direct implication on the cost of the film.

As such, there is a dearth of films for children and if the economics too don’t make sense, then I am not sure how many producers would be willing to make such films. We might end up in a situation where children’s films will be restricted to only a particular type of genre or without any stars playing a prominent role in them.”

Gupte has already addressed about 1,000 school principals with the plea that children should not be given holidays for shootings; he is now planning to write to them, too.

Expert speak
Dr Harish Shetty, psychiatrist says: “Children growing up in the 70’s and 80’s had fewer opportunities and were seldom seen in films. Parents then would want their children to fulfill their dreams by becoming engineers or doctors. Now the canvas has expanded and the small screens have multiplied. Each parent wants to see themselves through their wards under the arclights. The economic model on which it runs is devoid of compassion as deadlines have to be met, pruned budgets have to be managed. The child is a casualty where long working hours, gruelling schedules and unreasonable demands violate the rights as well as affect the health. The pressures on the kids from small towns are worse. They are  toys or robots in many cases.’’ The guidelines provided by Amole Gupte needs to be implemented soon.

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