We got an unsolicited email last month, from a mother offering her two-month-old twins (photos attached) for any feature that our publication might be planning. This was before the amendment in the child labour act allowing kids to work in the audio-visual media; by now every director/producer in the country must have received the mail. To accurately reflect the real world, I realize the entertainment world needs children as much it does adults. (Would Pather Panchali exist without Apu and Durga?) I’m also sure that many kids revel in the play-acting and the adulation that comes with it, but is it good for them in the long run?
There are multiple issues involved. First is the experience of dealing with emotions and situations alien to children. In an interview, actress Sarika once talked about life as a child artiste, which is how she started out at age four. She talked about working continuously, missing out on school and being the one putting food on the table. She spoke matter-of-factly, though anyone who knows the story will remember what an exploitative ogre her mother was and how she made off with Sarika’s money. But it’s the actress’ comments on how harrowing acting is for children that have stayed with me. Viewers don’t realize what child stars undergo, she said. Along with happy scenes, they encounter sorrow, death, horror; situations that no child is equipped to deal with. “It may be make-believe but you can never be the same after you’ve been, say, suspended out of a window of a highrise by the bad man,” she said.
The second issue is coping with guardians who see you as a golden egg. While some
kids may genuinely like performing (though I don’t see any kid enjoying it non-stop), in cases, like Sarika’s, it’s the exploitative parents who push the children. Either because they find them adorable and think others must too or so that they can pay their bills without working themselves.
The third hurdle is the fierce scrutiny and judgment of the public. Linda Blair, who played the protagonist of The Exorcist, said she didn’t understand the profanities and obscene gestures made by her character while shooting, but was certainly affected by people treating her like a pariah when the movie came out. “People behaved as if I had been actually possessed by a spirit... I wouldn’t let my child do it,” she said. Things get worse once the magic run ends. Because as soon as the children begin to grow up and change, the public—feeling cheated by their normality—begins to denigrate or worse, ignore them. Unable to cope with obscurity, the erstwhile stars spiral downhill, often towards drugs and dissipation. That’s what happened to Home Alone’s Maculay Culkin. Call it Love’s (child) Labour Lost.