Even for the youngest actors in India’s film and television industry, there is fierce competition and high expectations.
In the Mumbai suburb of Andheri, Riya Solanki holds a whiteboard with her name, age, and phone number on it. The room has no windows. The whitewashed walls, which are deteriorating due to dampness and time, are lit by dim studio lights.
Jocky, the casting director for the chocolate commercial she is auditioning for, coaxes Riya into saying, “I need more energy from you, more mischief, and more excitement.”
Riya is at the upper end of the age range of eight to fifteen-year-olds invited to the casting call at 14 years old, and it shows. She needs to get that big break soon, as she only has a few commercials and brief television appearances under her belt. There is a lot of competition, and winnings can be good money.
The Indian film industry produces more than 1,600 films annually and is worth more than $2 billion. The television industry is an even larger player in the country’s entertainment sector, with approximately 154 million households watching 788 channels.
Top grossing movies
Children have become central characters supporting entire plots and, more importantly, earning money at the box office thanks to a recent flurry of successful films centered on kids.
These kids pretend to be adults with tight schedules and a lot on their plates by playing with big budgets and high stakes. There is a limited tolerance for incompetence, multiple retakes are common, and shoots last for hours.
The president of the Early Childhood Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring high-quality care for young children, Swati Popat Vats, states, “The treatment of children on some of these film units is abysmal.”
There have been reports that young children were fed sugary drinks and coffee late at night to keep them awake. Because that may be the only time that the major Bollywood stars are available to shoot with them, shots take place at midnight or one in the morning. During a dramatic scene, a young child may be pinched to make him or her cry.
However, in the hope that their children will one day make the transition from advertisements to full-time roles, parents flock to casting calls.
For the past ten years, Amarnath Kochhar has been working as a commercial casting coordinator for children, and he says he gets at least 15 to 20 children’s resumes and photos every day.
Despite the fact that the median monthly income of an Indian household is $264, these advertisements can pay anything from $80 per day for a newcomer to $800 per day for a child star. However, for many parents and their children, it’s not just about the money that ads are a great way to make money. The ultimate objective is unadulterated, pure fame.
In search of fame
With the third-biggest broadcast business on the planet, and a prospering working class fixated on their number one shows, everyday cleansers and unscripted television are the doorway to moment acknowledgment and praise in India.
Balika Vadhu, a show about child marriage that premiered in 2008 on the entertainment channel Colors TV, was packaged as a dramatic soap opera. The show, which starred Avika Gor, an 11-year-old actress, became immediately popular. Avika became a household name across the country, and the practice of using children as main characters was established.
Spandan Chaturvedi, a six-year-old actor who plays a bonded child laborer in Colors’ latest socially relevant film Udaan, is vying for Avika’s throne.
She travels with her father for two hours each day from the distant suburb of Ulhasnagar to Mumbai’s renowned Film City, where the show is filmed, in the heart of the city. She moves quickly around the set at the end of a long day, so it’s unlikely that the journey and subsequent shoot have worn her out.
However, when it comes to work, the childish frivolity is immediately put on hold. She says, without smiling, at the end of being photographed: During that final shot, I had my eyes closed. You ought to take another one, I believe.”
A star-studded team
A leading child actor on a daily soap can make a lot of money, earning as much as $486 per day on set and working 25 days a month on shoot schedules.
Ironically, this group of young superstars is fetishized as the epitome of childlike innocence. They are instantly recognized and have tens of thousands of Facebook followers who track every episode and promotional event.
However, the climb to the top is long, and the television industry’s treatment of young actors has gained special notoriety.
The mere mention of television offends casting director Mukul Chhabra, who is based in Mumbai. I will not be involved in those shows in any way. It’s totally cruel the way that those kids are made to work.”
Superheroes and students
Palak Dey, who is eight years old, is working on another scene on set as it gets close to nine p.m.
There are as yet a couple of hours to go before her 12-hour shift closes at two AM, however she’s now feeling tired. ” She tells her mother, “I don’t want to shoot, I’m sick,” using the universally recognizable tone that children who want to skip school use.
However, it is only a brief tantrum. After taking a 20-minute power nap, Palak is back on set mingling and requesting that the makeup artist touch up her blush. She is aware that there are no off days on screen.
She returns after the shot and, eager for the spotlight, laments how short her dialogue was.
Mamata, her mother, exclaims with pride, “It’s not a lead, but she’s the youngest character and a lot of focus is on her.”
Although the schedule can be challenging, her school is very accommodating when she misses classes. They are aware of her fame because she has been acting since she was four. The teacher simply fills her notebooks and sends them to us if they are unfinished. Fortunately, she is an excellent student.
Parents frequently repeat phrases like “understanding schools” and “outstanding students.”
Dev Joshi, 14, is from Ahmedabad, a city 525 kilometers north of Mumbai. While he is enrolled in a school in his hometown, he has spent the last two and a half years shooting for his show Bal Veer in Mumbai for 20 days a month. In it, he plays a young superhero who lives between the human and fairy worlds and frequently saves children from harm.
According to his mother, Devangana, “I end up doing almost all of his projects and assignments, and sometimes I get his friends to take photos of the lessons for the day and send them to me.”
His school, as usual, understands, and the show allows him to return whenever he needs to take an urgent exam.
“A source of revenue”
The cost of not receiving a formal education is high. In addition to the money he makes from the show, he frequently appears in public as his well-known character and charges anywhere from $1,215 to $2,430 for a performance in Mumbai.
He has always desired fame. He requires four or five bodyguards for some of these performances. We had to get out of a school science fair once in a police van because the crowd got so rowdy.
In 2011, guidelines for on-set behavior were issued by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR). These, among other things, are: the absence of child-appropriate or distressing roles, the preservation of school hours, restrictions on the number of shooting hours, and the presence of a child care professional on the production unit are all examples of this.
However, there is little awareness of, let alone adherence to, these guidelines.
According to Gajenda Chauhan, president of CINTAA, an artists’ association that works to protect the interests of actors in film and television, a surveillance committee makes surprise visits to television sets four times per month to ensure that child actors are not mistreated. He claims that the committee has not discovered a single instance in which these guidelines were broken.
Be that as it may, a maker on a show with a cast dominatingly included kids talked, on state of secrecy, of his watchfulness at the developing prominence of this pattern. ” As a result of being forced to mature before their time, these kids miss out on a normal childhood. I would never allow my own two children to come into contact with a set.
He continued: It is evident that parents are either attempting to turn their two-year-old into a source of income or pursuing an unfulfilled ambition of their own.
One of the NCPCR’s recommendations was that a minimum of 50% of a child’s payment should be set aside in fixed deposits or bonds that mature when they turn 18 as a means of combating the latter issue. However, the majority of parents are unaware of this rule, and several channels appear to disregard it.
A few of the young actors in India tell their stories.
Arjun Sara: The one-stop shop
Sara Arjun undefined, according to her father Raj (Karen Dias), “Sometimes we carry her [to work] while she’s still sleeping.”
Nine-year-old Sara Arjun requests her dad’s telephone from his pocket. ” Be assured that I will not take another selfie. She says, “I just need to make sure I look good.”
However, she is dissatisfied with what she sees; smoothing out the stray strands of hair that had fallen out during her gymnastics class.
She balances fourth grade school with a full-fledged film career by attending vocal classical training, drawing and art classes, classical dance classes, and Tamil language classes during the week.
Sara has made nearly 150 commercials since she appeared in a short film just before she turned two, promoting everything from housing loans to coffee beans. However, when she was just four years old, she got her big break when she was cast in the award-winning role of the daughter of a mentally ill man in a South Indian version of the well-received I Am Sam movie from Hollywood.
Her father, Raj, who is also an actor, exclaims, “Since then she’s the go-to girl whenever casting directors are looking for a beautiful girl who can act as well.”
Raj insists that, despite a busy schedule, the family wants Sara to keep some sense of childhood, which is one of the reasons he gives for keeping her away from TV shows.
She doesn’t have to attend many auditions these days because she has become a household name in the immensely popular regional cinema of southern India, where she makes anywhere from $8,100 to $16,200 per film. However, life on film sets is still hard.
Raj elaborates: We sometimes carry her while she is still asleep, put her in the car, and only wake her up when we get to the set. She uses the vanity van to brush and shower.
An iPad filled with movies, particularly those starring her favorite actors, Amitabh Bachhan and Angelina Jolie, helps cut down on the long pauses between shots.
Sania, her mother’s former dance instructor, is now a full-time companion on set instead of a teacher. For lengthy shoots, the entire family frequently joins in.
Sara laughs off her parents’ comments about the difficult scenes she has had to shoot because she is acutely aware of the industry’s need for toughness. My mother was concerned about a scenario in which my skirt caught fire, but I insisted without hesitation. She states, “The director on set didn’t bother me at all.”
She does, however, acknowledge that the day of filming she just finished, which began at six in the morning and ended at ten in the evening, may have been exhausting.
Still, she says that when she gets older, she wants to be a “film all-rounder”—an actor, a director, a photographer, and everything else but production.
With a perfectly executed, imposing toss of her hair, she says, “I don’t like to waste money like these producers do.” But it won’t be hard for me to hire someone else to do that part.
Kapoor Sadhil: exhibiting divinity
Undefined Sadhil Kapoor: “He had fans come from all over the world to meet him,” Sadhil’s father, Kunal [Karen Dias], says.
Kunal Kapoor, the real estate agent who is the father of Sadhil, recalls, “He had fans come to meet him from all over the world.”
“One time, a 60-year-old woman from the UK came just to see him, and she waited on set for six hours until we arrived to shoot,” according to the script.
Sadhil Kapoor would go to work every day for the rest of his life, then wait up to two hours in a vanity van while a prosthetic rubber trunk and floppy ears were attached to his face. After that, he would shoot for six to seven hours before removing his artificial trunk, which would take another hour.
Sadhil, who was six and a half years old at the time, had made it big by playing the young Hindu elephant god Ganesha on Devon Ke Dev Mahadev, the most popular mythological show on Indian television.
Because he had previously performed the role of Hanuman, the monkey god, portraying divinity came naturally to him. However, this was primetime viewing, which elevated him to a completely new level of competition.
On his first show, he made just $16 per day, but just a year and a half later, he was making ten times that amount.
However, there are times when the line between actor and character becomes blurred. A family from a nearby city who had come to see him fell at his feet in prayer and wept with joy. Naturally, Sadhil felt uneasy, but Kunal explains, “We’ve told him to make them get up and hug him instead when that happens.”
Since he was the only child in the production, half days or holidays from school became the norm due to 10-hour shoot schedules almost every day of the month. Father and son worked on set for three days straight for one particularly difficult scene.
Before the prosthetics were perfect, the makeup department had to do a lot of testing. His young face’s fine hairs would occasionally be ripped out in the process.
However, Sadhil recalls his time there with fondness. I had a great time shooting for the show because everyone loved my character and I got to speak Sanskrit properly. The nine-year-old, who has just finished auditioning for a commercial for a biscuit brand and seems optimistic about his chances, grins. “Thankfully, there was a portable air conditioner where I could cool off,” even though the trunk was extremely hot and sweaty.
After hanging up his trunk and ears, Sadhil has been working as a chat show host on Disney India for the past few months. There, he had fun conversations with some of the country’s most well-known actors, comedians, and sports stars. He wants more, though, and when he grows up, he wants to be an action star.
“We’re thinking about bringing his more youthful sister into the business soon yet she’s still only four-and-a-half,” grins Kunal. ” We will wait another year until she reaches adulthood.