The career trajectories of child stars in Bollywood

OTT opens up more opportunities for child actors in Indian cinema

Cinema

June 18, 2021

/ By / Gurugram

The career trajectories of child stars in Bollywood

23-year-old Darsheel Safary, who rose to fame in Taare Zameen Par in 2007, last starred in a film in 2012's Midnight's Children

The lack of coming-of-age stories in the Indian entertainment industry often makes the transition from innocent roles to serious, adult characters difficult for child stars.

While decades ago, child actors were often seen as accessories or cute stand-ins for the bigger stars, with audience attitudes and a shift towards an interest in more realistic content, child actors are becoming invaluable assets to the film industry.

A recent example is 9-year-old Alan Kim’s performance in the Oscar-winning film Minari (2020), which won him a Critic’s Choice Award and BAFTA nomination. Notably, critics praised the film’s “presentation of authentic childhood.”

Similarly in certain Indian films, child actors have managed to surprise audiences and often outshine even the established adult leads, such as Darsheel Safary’s award-winning performance as a dyslexic student in Taare Zameen Par (2007), or Partho Gupte, who won a National Film award for his role in Stanley Ka Dabba (2011). Yet, these artists rarely go on to have successful careers as adult actors later on. With the exception of some stars such as Sridevi, a combination of poorly chosen roles and declining audience interest results in many child artists pursuing different paths as they grow up.

Especially in the case of actresses, transitioning from cute roles to a ‘sexy’ image is often difficult to navigate, and may not appeal to the general public.

“People want to see new faces, but when you are seeing someone grow up onscreen, that sense of freshness goes missing. It’s not just entirely about the audience, but the producers aren’t willing to cash in on actors who are always in front of the screen, because you tend to see them as children,” Navein Darshan, a senior entertainment journalist and movie critic, tells Media India Group.

Darshan believes that Indian audiences are usually more open to seeing previously adored child actors comeback in adult roles when enough time has passed.

“If you are casting a guy who is 17-year-old to play a college student, but you saw him as a kid 3 or 4 years back, this film has a greater possibility of not clicking with the audience. So that’s a reason why most of the child artists, like Ayesha Takia or Hansika Motwani, take a break before making their full-fledged debut as a lead character. I have spoken to multiple child artists who have turned into mainstream actors, and they also prefer the same method,” he added.

In Hollywood, child actors often have a plethora of options to fill the gap of roles during their awkward adolescence stages. Several Indian programmes catered towards children made child artists such as Jhanak Shukla from Karishma Ka Karishma (2003) household names at the time. But television shows specifically oriented towards a pre-teen or young adult audience such as Hannah Montana, Gossip Girl, or 13 Reasons Why, have simply not been made by the Indian entertainment industry.

According to movie critics like Darshan, this is a stark reflection of the conservative culture of Indian society.

“We either have content strictly for children or for grown-ups 18 and above. We don’t have great content for teenagers. Indian society, and the Indian parental system in general, does not encourage their teens discovering their physical changes, sexuality, values externally, but that’s how adolescents learn about themselves and the world,” says Darshan.

The lack of a good support system for Indian teenagers adds to filmmakers’ insecurities about representing realistic issues of adolescents on screen, for apprehension that it will not have mainstream appeal.

“If you want to cover the wider bracket of a family, you will have to reflect their views, the ones they align with. So filmmakers either stick to the same stereotypes or present a glorified form of reality because they have a fear that their projects wouldn’t click well with audiences across the country. That is the reason why we don’t have shows that achieved immense critical success like Sex Education (2019) or proper high school shows, and why we don’t get proper representation of that age group here,” Darshan explains.

However, with the rise of OTT platforms in India in the past few years and shifting demographics, attitudes are changing, allowing for more continuous growth of child actors. These have been a mixture of hits and misses. Netflix’s 2019 show Typewriter, for example, seemed to be marketed as a Stranger Things-style small-town horror story, featuring school children as the main cast. However, Aditya Shrikrishna, a movie critic, thought that “One of the problems with Typewriter is that it rations the screen time of the children…it would have been great to have them at the centre [of the plot].” Although producers still seem hesitant to bring kids to the forefront of mainstream productions, experts believe the scene is changing, especially since the younger generation makes up most of India’s population.

OTT shows like Netflix’s Selection Day (2018) and Typewriter (2019) are increasing opportunities for young actors to shine

“There is great scope for growth here, because the OTT platform has exposed parents and those above 40 to content which was not available five years back. It wasn’t possible for someone sitting in Chennai or Mumbai to access a Spanish television show like Money Heistfor example, to see a wide range of cultures. Inclusivity is the key for growth and acceptance, so when they are seeing people from multiple cultures they get more used to this representation of teenagers on screen,” says Darshan.

OTT cinema is slowly and very efficiently venturing into the Indian market, and this is extending to regional languages apart from Hindi as well, which allows for more equal representation for child stars. Darshan gives the example of the Amazon Prime hit, The Family Man (2019), which, despite featuring brilliant stars like Manoj Bajpayee, manages to highlight the talent of the younger members of the cast as well.

“It exposes a lot of untapped potential, so that now the ones who are unnoticed on the silver screen or stuck in lame serials or advertisements are getting the spotlight through OTTs, so there’s definitely space for it. Usually in the national award nominations too, whenever there is a child artist category, we know who’s going to win the award because there isn’t much of a competition there, but now there is a chance that the game will change entirely,” he says.

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