It’s the latest beauty pageant in India, an online ‘superstar contest’ in which the winner will get a one-lakh modelling contract. But eligibility is restricted…to babies only. It’s the Huggies Superstar Contest 2009, and Huggies, the popular diaper brand, has invited photographs and videos from ‘cute and cuddly babies’. The winner will feature in its commercial campaigns.
“It’s a celebration of childhood,” says Kedar Lele, head of marketing and sales at Kimberly Clarke, the company that markets Huggies. “Parents feel proud when their baby features in our advertisements,” he adds. The Rs 1 lakh reward for the winners is a new feature this year. “It’s more interesting for parents when it’s lucrative,” admits Lele.
But for Shilpa Budhraja (27), the mother of one-year-old Jayaditya who was ‘adopted’ by Rakhi Sawant and her fiancé Elesh Parujanwala on NDTV Imagine’s Pati, Patni Aur Woh, money was not the attraction. “I thought the show was a big platform for my son,” she says. She is happy now that “everyone knows who Jay is because of this serial”. Jayaditya has previous work experience — he acted alongside Virender Sehwag in an oral polio campaign when he was 40 days old. A documentary and another TV serial are in the offing for this seasoned actor.
Making seasoned actors of babies is the forte of Dr Symran Mirpury, a Mumbai-based pediatrician who is also a well-known baby model-coordinator. Newborns are her patients and she has sourced baby models for brands like Johnson & Johnson, Amul and Huggies. “Casting the baby for the movie Heyy Baby was a big break for me,” she says.
“The trend of casting newborns was not that prevalent five years ago. Now I get emails from parents telling me how cute their baby is and that I should recommend them for ads,” says Mirpury. Her database includes 25 to 30 babies aged one to five months, while the number of child models above this age runs into “thousands”. Mirpury takes a cut of approximately 30 per cent on every child cast.
Mirpury reveals that the price depends on the baby’s background. ‘Stand-by models’, usually from chawls, get Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000 per shoot, while ‘main models’, generally from affluent families, are paid Rs 10,000. “But now parents of popular baby models demand Rs 25,000 to a lakh.”
One could argue that this constitutes exploitation of the children. But Lele defends Huggies marketing strategy saying, “There is absolutely no commercial exposure of the child. Our aim has been to depict children in their natural play environment without the pressure to perform.” The sets have a large playpen, he asserts, with multiple cameras to capture the babies’ natural moments. They are also permitted siestas and only babies “comfortable with the camera” are chosen.
Mirpury, who was hired to monitor the babies on the sets of Heyy Baby and Salaam Namaste, remembers a mother who brought her newborn on set with a wet umbilicus that could have led to a fatal infection. She asserts, “I ensure that my newborns are not made to work for more than an hour a day.”
Unlike the infants on Pati, Patni Aur Woh who were on camera for more than a few days.
Is it good for the babies, barely a few months old, to be under the constant glare of cameras? Nikhil Madhok, vice-president marketing, NDTV Imagine, believes it is the parents’ prerogative: “They have their child’s best interests at heart. They should believe in the concept and be satisfied with the arrangements. They are under no compulsion to put their child on camera.” But is it that simple?