“I want a good-looking family," says Sachin Arora. His family includes his wife Akanksha, their son Arjoon (13) and daughter Aleesha (11), and some of their best moments have been in front of the camera.

Stacked neatly on a side table of their drawing room in Ambala, a small cantonment city in Haryana that is about an hour’s drive from Chandigarh, are a number of large photo albums. Each album has been proudly created by Akanksha. There is one dedicated to her first-born, Arjoon, containing every baby and toddler picture of his accompanied by a hand-written and decorated caption, cute, funny or quirky. Aleesha’s album remains incomplete, Akanksha rues; she’s been too busy these past five years keeping up with her children’s packed schedule.

Two of the albums that are pulled out are clearly family favourites. One saw Akanksha rummaging through piles of old family photographs, from her childhood and that of her husband, and matching them with contemporary ones, a sort of then and now. There are almost shivers of excitement about the second album, which has an elaborate ivory embossed cover. It is Sachin and Akanksha’s “second wedding" album, shot over an entire day during a vacation in Suzhou, near Shanghai, in China, in 2010. They discovered a place within a mall that provided elaborate sets, costumes and a photographer to create their “wedding of dreams". So there’s Akanksha standing on top of a grand staircase, looking back, bouquet in hand, her white wedding gown trailing down to the bottom of the stairs. There are the children, elegantly and formally outfitted, posing beside the newly-weds; and, the bride and groom, gazing dreamily into each other’s eyes. “It’s the most fun we’ve had," laughs Akanksha.

This posing and play-acting is now a serious “hobby" for the siblings. On 14 November, they took part in North India’s Next Top Models Junior competition at the Elante mall in Chandigarh. Arjoon won in the 11-15 years category, adding to his already bursting trophy chest. The preparations for it, though, had begun a month earlier, with a four-day grooming workshop in Chandigarh with 2010 Pantaloons Femina Miss India contestant Anjali Raut.

Arjoon and Aleesha with their mother Akanksha. Photo: Rajnish Katyal/Mint
Arjoon and Aleesha with their mother Akanksha. Photo: Rajnish Katyal/Mint

Arjoon and Aleesha had previously worked with Raut in August, when she held a similar training session for 85 participants of the Little Icons competition—a pageant for children in the age group of 3-plus to 15—organized by Anandita Gupta of IndieIcons Media in Chandigarh. This comprised fashion rounds such as the Fairytale Prince and Princess, Funk Factor, Ethnic, and Designer. In the Designer round, the children walked in black and gold designer clothes especially created for them. “The winners were chosen on the basis of their confidence, walk, attitude and communication skills," says Gupta. The elaborate photoshoots held during the grooming session are now part of the Little Icons promotion platform on Facebook. So excitement ran high when Raut invited Arjoon and Aleesha to take part in yet another modelling contest.

Both Gupta and Raut say Little Icons and the grooming workshops for children started after repeated requests from parents. “I always felt that though much was being done with adults, there was no clean, yet fun platform for promoting kids interested in the glamour industry. Kids today are savvy and quite exposed, and their parents willing to hone their skills, but the right platform was missing," says Gupta. Other than the Gladrags Little Miss and Master India and India Kids Fashion Week, which hold annual events, and a few ramp-walking contests, there are few pageants for this age group.

Anjali Raut conducting a grooming workshop for children in the 11-15 age group.
Anjali Raut conducting a grooming workshop for children in the 11-15 age group.

Others, however, believe that taking part in these shows helps build confidence. The parents we spoke to genuinely believe this; they consider these contests stepping stones in the larger dream of seeing their children in the entertainment industry. Akanksha initially had reservations about how safe it would be to have her children’s photographs circulating on a public platform such as Facebook, or of putting them through the “struggle" that this field is infamous for. Gupta, she says, reassured her on this count.

The parents point out that while bigger cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai have modelling agencies where children can be enrolled, opportunities have to be sought out in smaller cities. Which is perhaps why, as Raut says, “the craze and zest is more in the small towns". Little Icons, for instance, had participants coming in from Chandigarh and neighbouring Mohali, Delhi, Ambala, Jalandhar, Patiala, and Solan in Himachal Pradesh; 85 were chosen from the more than 300 who applied, says Gupta. The response was so “unexpectedly amazing", she says, that she wants to now take Little Icons to a national level.

In front of the camera, Aleesha, a class VI student at the local Convent of Jesus and Mary school, poses with a confident, practised air, though a moment of self-consciousness sees both parents excusing themselves from the room to let her feel more comfortable. “(Even on the ramp) I take one point and look at it, not at anyone. I tell my mother also that I don’t want to see her," Aleesha says.

This 11-year-old lives in the same town that Hindi film actor Parineeti Chopra grew up in. They know the family, says her father, over a cup of the green tea he’s developed a taste for during his many business trips to China. And though somewhat shy otherwise, Aleesha is quick to reel off the names of her favourite films, actors and brands—Dil Dhadakne Do, ABCD 2, Anjaana Anjaani; Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan; Burberry, Chanel and Louis Vuitton—“which my father gets for me from China"; and fantasizes about being a Bollywood actor when she grows up. When they’re not squabbling, she and Arjoon goof around with the Dubsmash “mimicking" app on his phone.

Aleesha was the first of the siblings to take part in a fashion pageant, held by the clothes brand Kapsons. She was just 3 at the time. Arjoon took the plunge later, becoming a Kapsons calendar boy, winning a round at the Gladrags Little Masters north zone contest, winning modelling competitions and making his presence felt at Little Icons.

The two still look at it as a “fun" activity, though the possibility of it becoming a future career is growing stronger in their minds, especially for Arjoon. “To reach that high level, one needs to win such competitions," he says, with an air of practicality.

For their parents, it is all about giving them as much “exposure" as possible. Sachin, who prides himself on being a self-made man—he has a factory that makes and exports photo-album covers—is clear that he doesn’t want to keep his children chained in any way. And Akanksha makes an effort to open up the possibilities. Along with their school activities, Aleesha and Arjoon have both attended summer classes held by actor Barry John and dancer Shiamak Davar in Ambala; Aleesha has been learning Kathak for four years; and Arjoon plays the guitar, besides playing tennis seriously. Both, their mother admits, are “so busy throughout the day they have no time for friends even".

*****

At Raut’s 4.30pm class in a sprawling, bare house in Panchkula, Arjoon and 12-year-old HarAnsh Suman are the only two boys. The Aroras have driven a long way from Ambala on a precious Sunday. Others have travelled a longer distance: Six-year-old Siya lives in Patiala and has come to Chandigarh with her father, Manish Kapoor, for the workshop.

At Little Icons, her startling green eyes had won her the “Most Beautiful Eyes" title. “In my time, I participated in my college show and won. I would have been interested in pursuing this, but didn’t get an opportunity. That’s why I want to put Siya in this field," says Kapoor, echoing the reasons given by several of the parents present at Raut’s session. In Patiala, they made sure Siya took part in baby shows and events organized by the National Institute of Fashion Technology (Nift); and with Little Icons, and now the North India’s Next Top Model contest, her father has started travelling with her. “Now I can impose this on her, but later it is her choice," he adds.

A room at the entrance of the Panchkula house has been turned into a studio space for photoshoots, portfolio shots of the participants in different moods—with a full smile, half-smile, dance pose, an “attitude" shot, etc.—stuck on the glass wall evidence of the work that has already been put in. And on the floor of what was meant to be the drawing room, black duct tape etches out the shape of a ramp.

The children, most of whom know each other from the Little Icons show and share an easy rapport, are being taught how to walk and carry on unperturbed if something unexpected happens on stage. They are not altogether polished, but listen keenly as Raut explains the moves. Some of the mothers who have accompanied the children are eager listeners too. “I go home and practise the moves Anjali teaches them," laughs Harjot Kaur, HarAnsh’s mother, who won the Yummy Mummy round at the Little Icons contest, walking the ramp with her son.

A coordinator at a school in Chandigarh, Harjot had to finish an event at her school that day before rushing home to change into a black and gold sari that matched the colour scheme of her son’s ethnic wear before heading to the Little Icons event. That she drives as though in a race-car competition—as we discovered the day we followed her to Raut’s workshop—probably went in her favour. “Mama was full tired there," says HarAnsh. But Harjot has always loved being on stage. Speaking of her college days in the city, she says: “I was all the time on stage, singing, dancing, poetry competitions, debates. I was a winner of many competitions. I was also Miss GCG (Government College for Girls). My husband didn’t like all this, toh chhoot raha tha (I had more or less stopped it), but now he says go for it."

HarAnsh at a park opposite his house in Chandigarh
HarAnsh at a park opposite his house in Chandigarh

His father, Gagan Suman, a lawyer, says he is now supportive, since he understands that choices related to profession are not limited any more. What used to be dismissed as a “cartoon" is a serious career field now, he points out. Given that a serious spinal injury has now restricted his movements, it is up to Harjot to coordinate her son’s extracurricular activities.

There is, nevertheless, a part of Suman that feels HarAnsh may be getting too much too soon. Yet, though he has been threatening to change HarAnsh’s school so he can “face new competition", he is confident that his son can handle any pressure on his own. “This is a bold new generation."

It was only after the Little Icons event that the parents realized that HarAnsh hadn’t told his school-mates or teachers about winning the title there. “Some appreciate me, but some are jealous," he says, his choice of silence a defence mechanism. It was after Harjot sent a message on HarAnsh’s achievements to the school principal on WhatsApp that they were made public in the school assembly and his pictures were included in the school newsletter.

It is clear that Harjot doesn’t want her son to miss out on the opportunities coming his way. “He was three months old jab iska modelling shuru hua tha," Harjot says, taking out files filled with his certificates and photo albums. They dressed him up as baby Krishna for a Janmashtami function. At age 5, he won a Prince Charming title at a local show. And he was Calendar Boy, a winning title, at Little Icons. He got an offer from Zee TV as well, to play the role of the little brother of a serial’s male lead, but that would have required them to move to Mumbai. “That was difficult for us," says Harjot, mainly because of her husband’s injury.

“Now again Anjali is saying Bombay is where the work is, Chandigarh is a small city, she can speak to people there," says Harjot. If a good opportunity comes up, she says, this time she will consider making the move.

At the Panchkula house, Raut leads them into another room to practise for the “personality development" part of the programme, which includes teaching children how to respond to questions such as, “What is your definition of beauty; what would you choose to be born as: rich, famous or beautiful; what’s the one quality that sets you apart?" Each of them had been asked to come prepared with a short introduction, and she helps them polish their delivery. As they come forward to speak their rehearsed lines, it’s hard not to notice the adjectives and phrases that are commonly used: “go-getter", “winner", “successful", “a winner never quits".

“Earlier, people thought being into sports, music and singing at an early age was bad for kids, but today parents are extensively training the kids young in these fields. So why not glamour?" says Gupta. “I firmly believe no one is ever too young to do what one loves and has fun doing."

“The kids get to learn how to handle failure here," Akanksha says. It’s no accident that in their profiles, participants make it a point to highlight not just their acting, singing and dancing prowess, but also their achievements in sport—another field that requires the ability to deal with pressure.

So, while Arjoon is passionate about tennis and plays regularly in tournaments held under the ambit of the All India Tennis Association, HarAnsh says he is a state-level badminton player. “It’s just a hobby though," he emphasizes, one that he has taken up since his father, a former volleyball player, insists that he play a sport. He is clear about what he will grow up to be: a ramp model and a barrister, like his father. “My parents keep telling me to think about what I will be," he explains.

Earlier that afternoon, speaking about the North India’s Next Top Models competition at his home in Chandigarh, Harjot says: “We still have a month before the show. So I was telling him din raat apne man mein yeh hi ghumao ki tumhara show hain, how you are going to present yourself, how you are going to answer everyone. Agar aapko win karna hai, sote, jaagte, it should be in your mind that you are going to win (day and night you should think about the show and prepare yourself to win)." HarAnsh, who fractured his right leg while playing football weeks before the contest, was the runner-up, and it took him several days to reconcile to the fact.

The same drive and ambition is evident in Arjoon, who is trying to decide whether to become a professional tennis player or a model, or, like HarAnsh, try and do both.

*****

All this drive requires a regimented life. HarAnsh’s day begins at 6.30am. After he returns from school, a quick lunch and half-hour nap later, he’s off at 4.30pm for badminton training. At 7.30pm, he returns to complete his homework. Unlike the Arora siblings, he makes time for friends too, cycling in the neighbourhood till late into the night. He also takes part in contests as and when they happen. In the occasional spare time that he gets, HarAnsh scours YouTube for craft channels. “I love craft," he declares with satisfaction as he brings out the craftwork that fills the house.

Back in Ambala, the Arora siblings have a similar routine. They wake up about an hour earlier than HarAnsh, for Arjoon travels every day to Chandigarh to attend school. This is a journey Aleesha may start soon, since her parents are keen that she too get the benefit of the kind of facilities available there, from robotics to photography to radio. There are 2 hours of tennis classes every day for Arjoon, 5-10km runs on the weekends, and tuition and Kathak classes for Aleesha. “From 5.45am-9pm, their days are packed; they are well occupied," their father says.

It’s a childhood different from one their parents lived in the 1980s or early 1990s. And that is at the nub of everything the children are doing, including their participation in the fashion pageants. Living in Ambala hasn’t dimmed the Aroras’ ambitions for their children; it just makes them try even harder. “I want to give them as much exposure till they reach the age of 15 or so. Our times were totally different, we weren’t exposed to anything that much. It was either becoming a doctor or an engineer or a CA (chartered accountant)," says Akanksha. So if Barry John or Shiamak Davar hold workshops in the city, she makes sure she takes them for it. When she visits her sister in Mumbai, she takes them for more workshops. “Her days start at 4.30am," Sachin says. For someone who didn’t know how to drive till fairly recently, she now spends most of her time behind the wheel, going from one end of the town to another, and even to Chandigarh, ferrying the children to their classes, and the tennis and fashion competitions.

“The question, though, will always come up whether we are on the right or wrong road," says Sachin.

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