First Act Review: Haunting

The lives of the kids Deepa Bhatia portrays in the series are bleak, with small periods of sunshine when they get picked for an ad or serial, punctuating the longer periods of struggle, observes Deepa Gahlot.

Before every film, there’s a disclaimer saying no animals were harmed during the making of the film. But there’s nothing for children, says a casting agent.

First Act, the six-part docuseries, directed by Deepa Bhatia, asks this question but also, who will protect the child from pushy parents burdening their offspring with the weight of their own thwarted ambitions?

There are rules and guidelines in place but production companies are always in a rush to complete the day’s quota, particularly for daily soap shoots.

They are aware that they could drive a child to exhaustion and the accompanying parent will not protest because they need the work and the money.

Bhatia has interviewed former child stars like Sarika, Jugal Hansraj, Parzan Dastur and Darsheel Safary.

Only Sarika speaks of being kept away from school and being overworked. For the rest, it is more about the spotlight and leaving them baffled at the change of people;s attitudes towards them.

The case of Slumdog Millionaire child actor, Azhar, is tragic. He was walking the red carpet at the Oscars one day, and the next, instead of superstardom, he was left in the darkness of oblivion.

The series goes on to current times and the gruelling rounds of auditions, rejections and disappointment that is the lot of many of the children, who are herded from one studio to the next by a parent, either for financial gain, or the reflected glory of stardom.

A two-and-a-half-year-old toddler, who playfully points to the television and says he wants to be on it, leads his parents to give up their lives in Delhi and move to Mumbai, to pursue a showbiz career for their child.

The boy, too young to understand what is going on, is made to memorise and rattle off lines at auditions, the hungry-eyed parents just waiting for him to hit the jackpot.

Bhatia managed to get these and other people to participate in the series, when they must be aware of how bad it would make them look. Like the father who drives his son, like a circus ringmaster, to do more and more back flips, cracking an invisible whip.

If the boy does not make it, the family will remain mired in proverty.

The teenager looks shattered every time he is rejected at an audition because he has disappointed his father.

There is the mother, who takes her son and daughter to auditions and shoots for small parts in television soaps because without the kids’ earnings, the family cannot survive.

Young women, who got breaks and came within reach of their dream, now languish in the twilight zone of the almost famous, when their careers came to a halt or they were relegated to bit parts.

The ones Bhatia focuses on are not the privileged, creamy layer of juvenile talent that is not driven by financial need.

The kids in First Act live in dingy, suburban apartments, travel to shoots by train and autorickshaw, and do not have much of a chance to get out of the rut.

With their education interrupted (one father forces his daughter to skip an exam for an audition, and she loses a school year for a part she does not even get) or discontinued, they do not have anything to fall back on if screen work stops coming.

Parents are conned by unscrupulous agents, like the one who demands money for inclusion in a WhatsApp group for information on auditions.

An overly cheerful coach teaches kids to dance with suggestive moves.

Bhatia does not go into the sordid side of exploitation, but there is always an unspoken threat.

Famous child stars in their time, Honey and Daisy Irani, are not included in the film, but Daisy has spoken in the past of sexual abuse.

There may be another mainstream Bollywood world of pampered and protected child actors but the lives of the kids Bhatia portrays in the series are bleak, with small periods of sunshine when they get picked for an ad or serial, punctuating the longer periods of struggle.

The zombie-like face of the toddler mechanically repeating his introduction is haunting.

The damage inflicted on him by his parents is not even punishable; they are supposedly doing it for his own good.

First Act streams on Amazon Prime Video.


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