No cinema for children
On the occasion of Children's day, here's a look at how Tamil cinema has fared in making films for children, and writing roles for kids, over the years
Veteran filmmaker Govind Nihalani once said, "There needs to be separate theatres and screenings for 'XXX' rated films, so that one can peacefully have children's films made for children."
Reiterating this statement at the audio launch of Pasanga in 2008, Kamal Haasan, who made his own film debut as a child artiste in Kalathur Kannamma, added, "Treat adults as adults, and kids as kids. This is not a statement against the censor board alone, but also the filmmakers and the audience. Don't play the culture card for everything."
The recently released Ezhumin, which spoke about the need for self-defence training for children, was marketed as a children's film. The film's director, VP Viji, says, "Ezhumin had positive reviews, but failed to click with the audience. Cinema is a business and we can't make films for children when parents prefer to watch those that are advertised as family entertainers, but have strong violence and sleazy songs."
While child artistes have been a mainstay in our films, their characterisations have been quite varied. We have seen examples of kids saving the day in films like Shanti Nilayam, Mazhalai Pattalam, and Raja Chinna Roja. There have also been films where serious subjects like terrorism (Kannathil Muththamittal) and mental illness (Anjali) were seen through the eyes of children. However, a common criticism about the portrayal of children these days is that the treatment of kids is becoming very one-note. Prime examples include Nainika playing the precocious daughter of Vijay in Theri or young Manasvi playing, well... the precocious daughter of Nayanthara in Imaikka Nodigal.
While there seem to be fans for this 'cute' and 'age-defying' behaviour, there is no denying that this depiction of cuteness has its share of detractors.
Ajay Gnanamuthu, the director of Imaikka Nodigal, says, "I think that is how most of the kids are these days. I can only make films based on what I have seen."
While that makes sense, it is also imperative that filmmakers balance the intelligence in their portrayal with a child's inherent naivety. Good first steps would be making children speak in a vocabulary specific to their age and not overselling emotions. This was explored well in Gautham Menon's Yennai Arindhaal, where the kid exposed to bad news at a young age, reacts in a way that is both age-defying and child-like at the same time.
Talking about the portrayal of children in films, Chennai-based psychiatrist Lakshmi Vijayakumar says, "Age-appropriateness should be kept in mind, but one should also look at how vulnerable children in the audience will react to it. If the child has faced trauma, will they be comfortable watching the same? Also, children are smarter now, not because they are more intelligent, but because they have higher exposure. When they get to see unnecessary things, it will have a negative impact."
Echoing her sentiments, 27-year-old actor Mahendran, who has won awards as a child artiste, says, "Children these days don't act within the limits. There is no innocence in their roles."
Though Mahendran himself played a few 'matured' roles as a child, he asserts that he also got roles that allowed him to be the child he was. "Child actors nowadays are not getting roles that allow them to explore other facets of their acting, apart from being either 'matured' or 'cute'," he adds.
It is not just children's films that need major introspection. Tamil cinema has largely left the young adult genre unexplored. Slotting teenage-based stories into only the romance genre (as in the recent hit, 96) doesn't bode well for the generation's outlook. There is a huge chasm in our industry when it comes to coming-of-age films that are dime-a-dozen in world cinema.
A Tamil film that stands out in this particular genre is Vijay Milton's Goli Soda. They too have their share of romantic angles, but it does not define their character.
Another rare example is Poovarasam Peepee (2014), whose director Halitha Shameem says, "When I went to various festivals, I used to be in awe of the films made for children across the world. This is a space that needs more films. To be honest, even I haven't made a pure children's film."
The paucity of films for young adults has also pushed many child actors into oblivion once they cross the 'cute age'. "I had to take a four-year gap because I didn't get any roles for my age," says Mahendran, who adds that with the spurt in digital platforms, the time is ripe for more children's films to hit the market.
However, these films will work only when parents understand that their tastes do not govern the choice of their children. "The prevalent misrepresentation of kids is to attract the adult audience, who find children acting natural to be flat and dull," says Viji, who reveals that his next project, again a children's film, will have extra commercial elements to cater to a wider audience.
The first South Indian film to win the National award for best Children's film was My Dear Kuttichathan in 1984. It took Tamil cinema 30 more years to win its first-ever award in that category with Kaaka Muttai in 2014. However, in comparison, Tamil cinema has always had excellent child actors. Kutty Padmini was the first-ever recipient of the National Award for Best Child Artist, for her role in Kuzhandaiyum Dheivamum (1965), and Tamil child actors won the award an impressive nine more times. That says it all, doesn't it?
(With inputs from Ashameera Aiyappan, Mani Prabhu)