Child's play: How child actors are helping Hindi cinema grow
Child and teen actors are taking over Bollywood, and they won’t be talked down to
A little girl takes a last look at the house she grew up in. Another confesses to murder. A boy breaks down before his obsessive, hard-handed father. A son snaps at his mother in a cramped chawl. And a young boy keeps his chin up in the toughest of spots.
These are just some of my favourite images from Hindi cinema of the last one year or so. Incredibly, they all feature actors below the age of 16. A bunch of talented child and teen actors are gradually taking over Bollywood. I’ve chosen a few — Ananya Dwivedi (Gulabo Sitabo), Inayat Verma (Ajeeb Daastaans, Ludo), Aakshath Das (Mersal, Serious Men), Sachin Chaudhary (Bombay Begums, Pagglait), Lydian Nadhaswaram (Atkan Chatkan) — but the list is huge.
If you grew up in the 90s, you will remember Omkar Kapoor, Kunal Keemu, Sana Saeed and others as the popular child stars of the day. Many of them went on to chart uneven careers as adults. What separates their lot from the present batch? More precisely, how tough — or easy — is life for the young performers of today?
An obvious place to begin is the sheer intensity of the dramatic scenes these kids find themselves in. I’d like to begin with a small, but memorable scene in Bombay Begums. In the Netflix series, Amruta Subhash plays a single mother struggling to raise her son. The boy, played by teen actor Sachin Chaudhary, has been in an accident and injured his foot — something his mother is milking for money. In a fit of rage, she calls him a ‘snake’, a burden on her existence. Sachin is aghast at first, then limps out of the room on crutches. “You should have killed me in your stomach,” he tells her bluntly.
I ask Sachin how he pulled off a tense scene like that (his simmering anger seems to burn up the room). He tells me he didn’t get it right the first time. “I wasn’t feeling angry enough, so I asked Amruta ma’am to scold me as hard as she could.” That did the trick.
Sachin, 14, moved from Jaipur to Mumbai in 2018. He has appeared in films like Atkan Chatkan and Bala, and as young Pankaj Tripathi in Sacred Games. Besides Bombay Begums, he’s delightful in Pagglait, as the young boy tailing his distant cousin. As she moves away from him, he gives a ‘hero shot’ by biting on a cucumber. “I didn’t plan it,” Sachin laughs over the phone. “It just came out in the flow.”
Nine-year-old Inayat Verma impressed in the Abhishek Bachchan track in Ludo. You would’ve seen her recently in Ajeeb Daastaans (2021), in the short film titled Khilauna. Inayat stars as Nushrratt Bharuccha’s spooky younger sister, and provides the film’s final twist. I ask her if she knew where the whole thing was headed (nowhere pretty, even if you hate babies). Turns out, she totally did, and was all the more kicked for it. “I love horror films and this was kind of in a similar space,” Inayat tells us matter-of-factly. Her favourite horror movie of all time? Andy Muschietti’s It.
The Amruta-Sachin confrontation in Bombay Begums is similar to a scene in Serious Men. In the 2020 film, Nawazuddin Siddiqui stars as a Dalit man hawking his son as a genius. He spends the entire film feeding scientific trivia to his boy, who is unable to cope. Near the end, we see Adi (Aakshath Das) go off the edge, compulsively reading out his lessons as he weeps.
As I watched that scene, I was certain those were real tears streaming down from that boy. My guess turned out to be true. “My mother and I have a secret,” Chennai-based Aakshath reveals, sounding much like his character from Serious Men. “Every time I need to cry on screen, she tells me something and I instantly start crying.” But he does not reveal what she says — a mistake Adi makes in the film.
A widely-held assumption about acting is that it stems from personal experience, something child actors seemingly lack. But that’s not the case. Children are often far more perceptive than hardened adults. What they lack in experience is made up for by a freshness of memory.
I was reminded of this distinction while talking to Ananya Dwivedi, who played Ayushmann Khurrana’s youngest sister Neetu in Gulabo Sitabo. Shoojit Sircar’s film ends with a dilapidated Lucknow mansion being sealed off by authorities. As the last of the tenants fill out, we see Neetu standing by for a final look. I nearly choked up watching that scene, having spent my early childhood moving in and out of rented homes.
Ananya, whose family has lived between Kanpur, Lucknow and Mumbai, knows that feeling well. “The pain of letting go of your house, your friends… I could understand what Neetu was feeling,” the 11-year-old says.
Even at their age, many of these kids didn’t start out wanting to be in films. Both Sachin and Inayat came up from reality shows. Aakshath shot for his first cover photo at the age of two (he was later cast as young Vijay in Mersal). 15-year-old Lydian Nadhaswaram came to international fame as a multi-instrumentalist before making his acting debut in Atkan Chatkan (2020). The son of Tamil composer Varshan Satish, Lydian was brilliant in Shiv Hare’s film about a street urchin who starts his own band.
“My character, Guddu, is obsessed with the rhythmic aspects of music,” Lydian says. “It’s something I could instantly connect to.” In a quietly wrenching scene, we feel Guddu’s disappointment as a group of musicians promise to take him in but bail the next day. “I know what it’s like to be rejected as a young musician,” Lydian adds.
It’s clear by now how much these performers care for authenticity. The precocious young girl in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood would find a kindred spirit in Aakshath, who regrets not getting to bang his head for real for a scene in Serious Men. Sachin emphasises ‘feeling for a character’ over superficial gimmicks. He names Joaquin Phoenix and Leonardo DiCaprio — once prodigious child stars themselves — as masters of this craft. “I loved Leo in What's Eating Gilbert Grape,” he tells me.
Sachin: Irrfan Khan, Nana Patekar, Joaquin Phoenix
Inayat: Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol
Aakshath: Shah Rukh Khan, Arya, Vijay
Ananya: Kartik Aaryan, Akshay Kumar, Katrina Kaif
Lydian: Kamal Haasan, Mohanlal, Robert Downey Jr.
This push for realism isn’t decorative either. Sometimes, it can put viewers in the presence of uncomfortable truths. A bunch of films featuring children has centered on violence, abuse, and gender dysphoria. Horror films tend to find imperiled kids as their leads. In March, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) wrote to Netflix India to stop streaming Bombay Begums, acting on a complaint that the show portrayed minors inappropriately. To anyone who’s watched the show, the complaint barely made sense. Instead, it seemed to stem from the same discomfort of watching children in extreme or unfamiliar situations.
The kids I spoke to for this story said they are up for any kind of challenge. Their parents are game too — provided scripts are shared in advance and transparency is maintained. If a scene or shot starts to feel fishy, they are willing to back out. “I don’t agree to anything I don’t feel comfortable with as a parent,” Ananya’s mom says. While many monitor their child’s viewing habits, others are more forthcoming in their approach. “I let him watch all kinds of cinema,” Sachin’s uncle and mentor tells me. “Children are generally aware of most things in life, so it’s best not to hide them.”
What the guardians seem agreed on is the standard of pay. Unlike before, child actors are hired on contract, with fixed remunerations. “The pay is good,” one parent says. Schools are willing to work around shooting schedules; if there’s an exam clashing, exceptions are made. Online classes have reduced the pressure of running to sets in school uniforms. Since the lockdown, film sets have avoided kids under 10, though television shoots were on.
As I spoke to these kids, I was thrilled by the love and passion they showed for their craft. I was speaking to thorough professionals, I told myself. It was only towards the end of my conversations that I realised my mistake. These are just kids, I figured, and though they may enjoy or understand acting deeply, they are still just starting out. Except for Sachin, none of them have decided on a future career in movies. “I want to pursue my first passion – music,” Lydian says. “I want to go for IAS,” says Ananya, and my heart breaks a little. Like any well-meaning film lover, I was pinning my hope on these kids. But it’s best to just let them be.