We are instinctively cruel to child actors. This is evident from the name of the most famous of them all. Macaulay Culkin starred in the 1990 blockbuster Home Alone, before going on to become best friends with Michael Jackson. In 2018, Culkin asked online audiences to vote for a new middle name that he would legally use, and they immediately went for the most ridiculous, with an overwhelming majority declaring that his middle name should be the same as his existing name. Culkin went gamely along, and now the actor is legally called Macaulay Macaulay Culkin Culkin.
That’s harsher than a paint can to the skull, I reckon.
Then again, at least we know his name. First Act, Deepa Bhatia’s docu-series on Amazon Prime Video, is about children struggling to find footholds in the Hindi film and television industry—children who dream desperately of having names familiar enough to be defaced. Over six half-hour episodes, we watch innocent youngsters being fed dialogues, dressed up in autos, bribed with games, pushed to their limits—all for auditions that mostly go nowhere. This is a cinematic, compelling series I would recommend to every actor (especially those who recently starred in The Archies.)
A family relocates from Delhi to Mumbai in order to find work for their curly-haired son—not yet 3. A mother pays extortionate agents to allow her pre-teen daughter on to WhatsApp groups for auditions. A single mother takes her children across Aram Nagar, a Mumbai neighbourhood with many production houses and casting agents, going door to door to see if any auditions might just be taking place.
Dreaming, however, is its own entertainment—or that’s what we tell ourselves. One superlative sequence really stayed with me. In their room away from the auditions, a brother and sister realise their cable TV bills haven’t been paid so they can’t watch television. Therefore, they decide to start playing “TV-TV!” The sister sits with the remote while the brother pretends to be different TV channels. Later, she pretends to be actor Alia Bhatt while he plays a photographer who has come to do a photoshoot. She strikes a pose and he frowns, says that the angle isn’t right, asks his mother to hand him a 50mm lens instead. Click click click. In their room away from the auditions, they really are kids.
Even when children do get past the auditions and land acting work, most of it is unseemly. Most of it has to do with violence and abuse. An acting coach prepares 9- and 10-year-old kids for a scene where they shoot a man point-blank at a tea-stall. A 13-year-old girl delivers an impassioned monologue about infidelity and abusive relationships. Young girls are frequently made to play victims in sexual assault scenes. “Most of the time,” says a bright girl fortunate enough to have bagged some on-screen work, “I was kidnapped.”
Bhatia, an award-winning editor and film-maker, cuts away from the assault scene being filmed on a set and moves instead to the faces of the onlookers—to the bored light-men and vacant sound assistants, to whom all of this is sadly commonplace. The series is a moody one, showing us work on set, and montages of auditioning young aspirants, but also intimately acquainting us with their desperation, their dismal home lives where they are conditioned to feel that their next audition could change their life. Or else…
In many cases, it’s the parents who—convinced their child could be famous—push them, while the children don’t know better. A gifted dancer speaks reverentially about owing everything to the father who has driven him, but then describes the father beating him up after a failed audition. It’s appalling, but this is a deeply humanist film/series and Mehta is not out to vilify this father. The father is a man who sells flutes on the street, deep in debt and guilt, aware of how unfairly he has pushed his son, yet unable to stop pushing.
There is no excuse for this behaviour, but judging and moralising against the father itself indicates the viewer’s privilege, where we have the wherewithal to make less appalling choices and fairer decisions. This father, who sobs when speaking about the son he beats with his flutes, is a profoundly tragic figure.
Most sets mistreat children. They’re made to work illegally long shifts, wait for hours on end, and little thought is given to their mood and temperament. A television director candidly states that the “No animals and birds were harmed in the making of this film” disclaimer can’t be applied accurately to children. “So much has changed,” says Sarika, who started out as a child actor. “The way we shoot films has changed, the way we do sound has changed… This should be the first thing to change.”
Fame also proves impossible to outgrow. A once-chubby girl who was the toast of reality shows where she told inappropriate jokes is now unable to find work that isn’t about being “fat and funny”. Child stars, of films from Slumdog Millionaire to Taare Zameen Par, remain vaguely recognisable—squint and you’ll remember some iconic scenes. Having tasted the limelight early in life, they are spending the rest of their lives chasing the hit. Which is all good and valid, as long as its what the children themselves want. All one of these kids wants is plastic blocks.
Christmas week is the ideal time to rewatch Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone, one of the quintessential Christmas movies about a vacationing family that leaves its child behind. The film is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.
Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series. He posts @rajasen.