She is six years old. Everybody calls her Sexy. She talks like a grown-up, accuses her neighbour Buddha (Amitabh Bachchan) of losing interest in her, tells his girlfriend Tabu that he is sleeping with her and demands to see ‘adult’ films. All because she knows that she is not going to be around too long. She has cancer and is dying. Cheeni Kum’s child-adult character draws the right amount of smiles and tears. She also draws some sharp gasps from the audience.
With reel-life children setting new standards of acceptability, real-life parents are worried. “It’s not unusual for children to replicate what they see on screen,” says Tamanna Rao, mother of a nine-year-old boy. She should know. Her son recently proposed to his class teacher after watching Just Mohabbat, a TV show where the starry-eyed lead character, Jai Malhotra, walks up to his teacher with a red rose. “Understandably, our son’s teacher sent for us,” says Rao. “While my husband and I realise that young boys and girls can sometimes be infatuated by their teacher, in this case the emotion was inspired by a TV show,” she says.
“Screen portrayals can sometimes put children under terrible stress,” says Dr Amit Sen, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Sitaram Bhartia Hospital and Research Centre, New Delhi. The screen depicts an action or an emotion that the child hasn’t seen or experienced in real life and this leads to confusion, he says.
“Unless someone tells him that there is a difference between what is projected on screen and what is acceptable in real life, the child will not know where the boundaries lie,” Dr Sen adds. And when that happens, parents can end up with a situation such as the one the Raos had to face.
If it’s any consolation, children are no longer the obsessive, compulsive viewers, which their counterparts in the late ’90s were, says Akhila Sivadas of the Delhi-based Centre for Advocacy and Research, a public interest group that researches on the media.
“But there is something else to worry about. Children are getting into some kind of adulthood sooner now. The entire passage from childhood to adolescence has shortened,” she says.
Some psychologists blame it on ‘adult’ roles assigned to child actors or precocious cartoon characters. Father of a five-year-old, Manak Sheoran had to stop his daughter from watching Shin Chan, a popular animation series.
“The cartoon character was shown to be always making a fool of his parents and getting away with it. We could see our daughter taking tips from him,” says Sheoran. <b1>
Item girls ’n’ boys
To be or not to be is the question again when it comes to dance shows starring children. Take the example of Boogie Woogie, where knee-high children have displayed pelvic thrusts to a whistling audience. Having completed 10 years, the show has launched ‘family specials’ and ‘mom championships’ an endorsement that it’s a show children and parents can sit together and enjoy, the latka-jhatkas, pelvic thrusts and wolf whistles directed at child-performers notwithstanding.
Boogie Woogie’s producer Ravi Behl, however, insists, “All of us Jaaved (Jaaferi), Naved (Jafferi) and I have always maintained that kids should dance like kids and retain their innocence.” He says they don’t encourage children to make obscene dance moves. “It’s choreographers and pushy parents who make them dance like adults,” Behl says.
“Bollywood is the flavour of the day,” agrees Delhi-based dance instructor Bharat Bhushan. “Parents don’t want their children to learn folk or classical dance,” says Bhushan, who has encountered some zealous parents keen on having their child gyrate to popular item numbers like Beedi jalaiye le and Namak ishq ka. “That’s where I draw the line. I like to explain the meaning of the song to children before teaching them the dance steps. How do I tell them about beedi and namak ishq ka?” he asks.
You know what he means when you look at his three-year-old student, Jasmine Gill Singh, who can barely speak her full name, or Ronik Verma, a shy four-year-old. But once on the floor, Jasmine and Ronik can rock to the beats of Dhoom machale a la Hrithik Roshan with practised ease. “I like to dance like Hrithik. I also want to fly like Krrish,” says Ronik.
This desire to fly like Krrish had a boy jumping off from the balcony of a movie hall in Rajkot last year. Earlier, it was Shaktimaan who had children jumping off roofs and balconies, in the confidence that the superhero would rescue them. But then, those were all cases of adult screen celebrities swaying children’s behaviour.
Given chunky slots and age-defying characters, now child stars are taking on the ‘responsibility’ of influencing thought and action. And in the process, they are also leaving a strong impression on enthusiastic parents. Scores of such parents desperately want their children to
. Delhi-resident Dhananjay Mukherjee, whose 11-year-old son dances to the latest Bollywood tracks and imitates Hrithik Roshan’s dance steps, says people should move with the times. He doesn’t think films affect his child.
There might be some truth in that, says Aatish Kapadia, writer and co-producer of shows such as Instant Khichdi, Sarabhai V/s Sarabhai and Baa and Bahoo Aur Baby. “Films might not affect a child as much as television shows, especially talent shows, do,” says Kapadia.
“In a movie, the decision to watch lies with the parent. In the case of television, it’s the child who holds the remote,” says Kapadia. Which is why, it’s necessary to project children “the only embodiment of innocence left in this world” in the truest sense, he says, adding that a child can best send a message across to children.
“So, while we might portray children misbehaving, we also show them being reprimanded for doing so,” he adds. Advertising too is crucial as products are sold directly to children through a child, he says.
How the child receives all these influences directed towards him depends on the parents and teachers, says Dr Rajat Mitra, director of Delhi-based Swanchetan Society for Mental Health. “More and more children are fantasising about celebrities. If that celebrity happens to be a child, they will relate to him even more,” he adds. And Cheeni Kum’s Sexy is just that a child celebrity.
However, if she does impact a child’s psyche, blame it on parents, says Kapadia. “The makers of Cheeni Kum never projected it as a children’s film. Why should parents take their children to a film which is a mature love story?” he asks.
Does Life really imitate art?
Meanwhile, sociologists the world over say media has only a “partial role” to play in influencing action. It circulates styles pervasively, but not action. “Several studies show the effect is limited. A broad social causality cannot be derived,” says Ravi Sundaram, joint director, Sarai New Media Initiative.
In his book, A Cognitive Psychology of Mass Communication, psychologist Richard Harris says “negative social conditions” such as poverty, drugs, parental neglect, and easy availability of weapons contribute far more to violence, and other actions, than media.
Dr Suneel Vatsyayan, chairman of NADA India Foundation that works on adolescent and women’s issues, recalls the case of a 14-year-old girl who came from a broken family. “She started doing drugs after being inspired by teenagers in an English flick. The environment at home only pushed her into the escapism depicted in the film,” he says.
As sociologists and psychologists try to gauge the extent of media influence, especially on impressionable minds, a generation of child-adults makes its presence felt on screen.