Darsheel Safary is working it on the ramp. The child star of Taare Zameen Par (he won an award for his fabulous portrayal as a dyslexic child in the film) was in New Delhi last week, modelling for a children’s retail brand along with a group of assorted tweens and teens. Gush-gush press reports in every major newspaper informed us that the children “stole the hearts of the audience”.
Also last week, in nearby Noida, class IX student Payal Mathur had her hands full as she danced her way into the Limca Book of Records with a 24-hour non-stop Kathak performance in the presence of her parents and school principal.
And, of course, just days before, the spotlight was on the sorry saga of 16-year-old Shinjini Sengupta, a participant in a reality TV show called Jhoom Macha Le. Following a public rebuke by the judges of the show, Shinjini suffered a paralytic attack and while there is no conclusive medical evidence to show that the two were linked, it led to a national debate on whether it was wrong or right to have children participate in reality shows.
Before I say another word, let me say this: I think children have no place on ramps (and that goes for charity shows where minor celebrity mammas strut about with wannabe celebrity bachchas). I’m equally clear about so-called talent shows for children where an unhealthy competitiveness prevails and ambitious parents/coaches/teachers push child “prodigies” to unrealistic heights. And there’s something more than mildly pornographic about little girls in shiny costumes and full make-up shaking non-existent breasts and butts for television audiences.
So, I welcome the debate that reality shows featuring children have kicked off. Lounge, the weekend edition of this paper featured a cover story headlined, “That’s me in the spotlight” and television channels have been interviewing school principals in Kolkata and Mumbai who are imposing bans on participating in reality shows among their students.
In all the hoo-ha, reality TV has emerged as the chief villain. But are modelling assignments for little children any better? Type “child models India” on Google, and the search engine will return an astonishing 3,010,000 results.
Children as young as three months are getting professional portfolios shot so that they can peddle diapers, baby powder and a host of other commercial products. “No animals were harmed in the making of this film”, is a statutory statement in several movies that use animals. How about the same statement for children?
Then there’s a whole category of “child prodigies”. I’m not disputing that many are genuinely talented. But there are others who are pushed to inhuman limits, made to endure hours of practice, sacrifice precious play time in order to fulfil what to me seems like their parents’ thwarted ambitions. Let’s not forget we were all cheering for a little boy called Budhia and it’s only when he collapsed in a heaving, retching mess following one of his marathon runs that we woke up to realize the horror of what we were doing to him.
We’ve become so obsessed with seeing our offspring shine, that we’re in danger of turning them into performing monkeys. We want, demand and expect exceptional children. Yet, ironically, we live in a time of great ordinariness. We are ready to accept lacklustre leadership, mediocre services, shoddy products (though our patience is running thin), but where our children are concerned, we want nothing short of brilliance.
I’m sure there are a variety of reasons for this. We want to compensate for our own average lives. We want our children to be the stars we are not. We see their fame as our fame, and so on. But underlying all of this is the fact that we now worship at the cult of celebrityhood. In towns, big and small, across India, parents of children as young as six dream of making them little stars; their names right up there on the billboards, grabbing their 15 minutes of fame.
Of course, child stars have always been there: Who can forget the Glaxo and Murphy babies who set up benchmarks in cute wholesomeness? But the rapid growth of brands and media (including specialized parenting magazines and general entertainment TV channels), has seen a feeding frenzy for child stars. Several years ago the receptionist at my paediatrician’s office startled me when she asked if I’d agree to let my then two-year-old appear on the cover of a parenting magazine. She couldn’t get it that I wasn’t flattered or amused.
To parents I want to say one thing: Child stars seldom seem to have happy memories of their stressed-out childhood. The actress Sarika has spoken about her lost childhood, thanks to an exploitative (and now estranged) mother. Last month a 20-year-old Russian model, working since she was 15, jumped to her death in New York. Pretty stories, sad endings.
Childhood should be a time for play, a time to dream, a time to just goof off. It’s brief enough as it is. Reality — with its gritty, hard edge — will take over eventually.
So, why not just leave reality shows, showbiz and competitive record-making to the grown-ups?
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org