Magic Lost

tzp2.jpgThink cute film star kid and I’m willing to bet any amount of money that Mr. Ishan Avasthi from Taare Zameen Par pops up instantly inside your head. The eleven year old boy, whose name is actually Darsheel Safary, has been showered with oodles of publicity by our ‘affectionate’ media, much more than what is usually reserved for small boys. Sample this: “Has the attitude of girls changed towards you?” Things just get less believable from there on. But the purpose of this article is not media-bashing. It’s a personal commentary on the life of a child star.

Childhood, as any adult will readily testify, is the most enjoyable part of anyone’s life. As children, we cannot wait to grow up; but once we do, Peter Pan is who we’d really like to be. The petty fights in school, playing in the mud, first crushes and grammatically-challenged teachers… the list of ingredients for a magical life is endless. So, if you had all this in your childhood, I have a question for you: do you wish you’d starred in a box office hit or a hugely popular TV show? Do you wish you’d been the object of adulation of a nation? Before your mind races to a three letter conclusion, just think about it for a minute. To make things easier for you, let me rephrase the question: Do you really wish the people you ‘hung out’ with as a child were all over forty? Do you really wish you learnt life’s lessons on a film set and not in school or college? And at this stage in your life, would you really trade your average childhood for anything else in the world?

I hope I’m making my point clear here. To anyone but the most naïve of people, it should be a foregone conclusion that the world of a child star is not a walk in the park. The other side of the coin is visible even to those who are not a part of the drudgery that is showbiz. Take the example I mentioned earlier. Darsheel Safary is all of eleven, and when TV channels quiz him about girls, I wince to think what must go through his mind. When asked repeatedly, he would naturally resort to concocting some statements based on what he knows they expect him to say. It isn’t long before this façade becomes reality and a class 5 student is suddenly a ladies’ man. And another childhood loses its magic amidst the clamour of lights, camera, action.

But this is not the only negative aspect. More disturbing is the exposure of these bare adolescents to blatant sexuality. Even though this is mostly seen in the West, a good case in point for Indian cinema is Hansika Motwani. If the name doesn’t strike a bell, let me remind you she starred opposite Himesh Reshammiya in his debut film. I cannot imagine what would allow two parents to let their fifteen year old daughter romance a forty year old guy, even if only onscreen. 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 dating and split-ups – things that form the journey from teenage to adulthood. This actress had starred in many TV shows till then and was mostly recognized by people as a cheerful little ‘girl’. The sudden transformation was glaringly awkward and she looked so uncomfortable that I was forced to ask myself whether it was plain greed that had let this happen.

This brings us to yet another, very disturbing aspect of the phenomenon: exploitation by parents. Dystopian as it sounds, you need only read the newspaper for a day to realize that money will make a man do anything. And if your child is making lakhs of rupees for you, then surely you should sign every movie that comes their way? So what if he loses her sense of identity, or even his mental balance in the process? Even Bollywood abounds with examples of child stars who toiled their way enacting scene after scene in the confined sets of studios, while their parents gloated over the ever-fattening bank account. And when they finally tried to get their hands at what they’d earned, the child stars realized there was nothing left.

In the US, there are strict laws to alleviate most of the problems listed above, such as regulation of working hours, the kind of work child stars can do and preventing parents from having complete control over their child’s earnings. In spite of all this, Hollywood has produced some shockingly disastrous adults out of children who were in the spotlight 24/7. Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, Lindsay Lohan, the Olson twins. All famous as children and still famous, though for all the wrong reasons. It just seems to show that there is something inherently wrong with being a child-star.

Perhaps the best way to remedy and avoid any problems is education of parents who have decided to let their children pursue a career in the show business. There need to be strictly enhanced guidelines on how such a child is to be educated while shooting, and how long he can shoot per day. But I think the most important factor is for him to spend a lot of time with kids his age and to be made to feel like a ‘normal’ child in every respect. But while these steps may prevent problems in adulthood, truth remains that there is no substitute for a real, normal, average (call it what you will) childhood.

Siddhartha Gupta