Santosh Mehta*

    There are many stars in Indian films who began their careers as child artistes and went on to become distinguished actors and actresses. They include Daisy and Honey Irani, Tabassum, Sarika, Sachin, Jugal Hansraj, Urmila Matondkar and Padmini Kolhapure to name just a few.

    Following in their footsteps are a bunch of new child artistes who are beginning to make an impact on Indian cinema. They are Aswin
Thamphy, Baby Swetha, Master Vishwas, Benaf Dadachanji, Gargi, Shilpa Navalkar, Yogita Deshpande, Saubhagya Chandan, Sajil Parikh, Yashodhan Joshi, Master Vijay Raghavendra, Bapi and Atisha Furtado among others. They are winning the hearts of millions of movie goers by their impressive performances in Hindi as well as regional films. Baby Swetha, Master Vishwas and Aswin Thamphy and Benaf Dadachanji have made a name for themselves by bagging national awards in the recent past.

    The Government of India introduced special awards which are given to the best child artistes every year. For the first time in 1968 the child artiste award was given to Baby Rani for a Tamil film.

    During the national film awards function in New Delhi recently, President K.R. Narayanan gave away the best child artiste award for last year to Aswin Thamphy for his work in the Malayalam film Jalamarmaram. Aswin essayed the innocent faith of a child in the existence of a mermaid and his confident strides to provide it with a safe environment.

    Born in 1991 to a school teacher mother and an accountant father, Aswin is a primary school student in Thiruvanthapuram. Receptive, intelligent and smart in games, he was first noticed by G.S. Vijayan, the director of Saphalyam who was casting for the role of Kannan, a central character in the film. Although in his debut role, Aswin portrayed the character with such confidence that he became the cynosure of the viewers. This resulted in his winning the Best Child Artist award from several forums including the film Critics, Chalchitra Prashakha Samithy, Asianet, Mathrubhoomi and the Film Fan Club. Consequent upon the success of Saphalyam, Aswin was entrusted with the role in Jalamarmaram, among many others.

    In Jalamarmaram Nirmal, Usman’s eight-year-old son immediately identifies the chemical factory as the enemy of the people. As his mother gets involved in the mass movement against the factory, Nirmal finds solace in the fantasy world of mermaids who peopled the fables his father narrated to him.

    The turning point in the narrative occurs when Nirmal goes to a carnival and finds a mermaid who lives in a palace under the river now threatened by pollution.

    From now on, the narrative shifts between the real and the fantastic as the little dreamer tries to live out his conviction that, in order to live on, the little mermaid needs a clean environment.

    Ten-year old Baby Swetha is studying in class four of Chennai’s Holy Angels’ Convent. She has already acted in more than 50 commercials, ten tele-serials and seven feature films. She has just done a Tamil Film, Manam Virumbudne Unnai with Prabhu and Meena.

    Swetha’s performance in the Tamil film Malli is very impressive. When she saves the goat and tears her own skirt, her act of kindness moves the audience. She received the best child artiste award for her work in Malli for her vibrant performance of a young child’s pure bonding with nature and her trauma at environmental degradation.Master Vishwas is only 12 years old, a student of eighth standard in Navodaya Vidyanikathana, Bangalore. He has acted in eight films with his character in Kraurya being the major one. His films include Keerthi Tanda Puranigalu, Mana Mechida Sose, Chinna Nee Nagutiru, Jaana, Halunda Tavaru, Ravi Teja and Putnanja besides Kraurya.

    He has been learning Bharatnatyam since the age of two years and has given many performances in and around Majeshwar as a member of his dance troupe.He has also performed in many a ballet in Bangalore. Besides acting in television serials, Vishwas is also a good dubbing artiste. It was for his sensitive portrayal of a child, traumatised in an adult world devoid of love and understanding in Kraurya that won him the Best Child Actor award in 1995 .

    Benaf Dadachanji is a fourth standard student in St. Annie’s High School in Mumbai. She has modelled in many advertisements. Benaf had won the award for Best Child Artiste in the international children film festival in Hyderabad in 1995. She received the award for her work in the Hindi film Halo for her charming and natural performance.

    In 1999 and 2000 also two child artistes received national awards for their performances. Do child artistes need any special training? And how are they selected by film-makers?

    According to Rock Demers, a Canadian filmmaker whose film Dancing On The Moon was a big hit at the Hyderabad film festival, child artists need specific training once you find, children who correspond exactly to the characters in your script. The only difference according to him is that they need more takes than their adult counterparts, about 20 per cent more. He finds working with children a satisfying and an enjoyable experience.

    Rajshree, whose Rebel bagged a national award, also found working with children interesting as well as tricky. She says : " I have selected Yashodhan Joshi for my film "The Rebel". He is 13 years old and studying in school nowadays. I had screen-tested at least 20 boys for the rebel’s role—professional child artistes from Mumbai, teenage actors from theatre groups, even boys I met on the street who happened to have the right look. But they were not suitable for my film. When I screen-tested Yashodhan, it was like magic, perfect." But Yashodhan was facing the camera for the first time for my film. He was initially a little awkward, but once he got the feel of the character, there was no hitch at all, till the last day of the shoot.

    Rajshree says that a lot of children are natural actors. One of the reasons for this is that inhibitions have not had enough time to settle in. While training is not always needed, sometimes it helps a child to be more effective as an actor. She enjoyed the work of the child artistes in Shekhar Kapoor’s Masoom and Mr India.

    Sai Paranjpye has her own experiences to talk about. For her recent film Bhago Bhoot, she screened a hundred children in various schools and finally selected the cast for her film who did a wonderful job. Recounting her experiences she says- "these child artistes are very sensitive specially when their parents are in trouble. When I was shooting for my film my main hero, Nanu, was upset because his mother was in jail. So I had a tough time handling him."

    Women film-maker Mitra Sen has also made a film on children. Her film The Little Red Dot was very well appreciated at several international film festivals. She says, "When I made my film on children I had screened at least 200 children in various schools and selected 20 children out of them. Some of them were not good in delivering dialogues while some were not comfortable while facing the camera for the first time.But working with these children was inspiring and educative. Because once they understand what you want, they give you the best and there is no question about time and other things because their involvement is total."

    Who knows many of these promising child artistes when they grow into adults may follow the footsteps of their predecessors of another era. Filmlovers will remember that Urmila Matondkar, Jugal Hansraj, Daisy Irani, Baby Tabassum and Baby Khushboo had entered bollywood as child artistes and later bloomed into fine adult stars.

*Film Critic