The suitability of television content for children is a hot debate, with many finding it too violent. Ironically, on Bengali television, shows with a child protagonist, are ruling the roost as far as TRPs are concerned. Bhootu for instance is one of the highest-rated shows on Bengali television now. From daily commuters to vegetable sellers, everyone is glued to the television set at 9 pm to watch this child ghost.
Twelve-year-old Priyantika Karmokar has won hearts as Rudrani. Set against the backdrop of ancient India, the show tells the story of Raja Sobur and Rani Mala’s daughter Rudrani’s survival. Another show, Dashi, inspired by legendary playwright Vijay Tendular’s Kamla, revolves around human trafficking. Dance Bangla Dance Junior, which has contestants below 12 years of age and a pair of child hosts, too is a hit with the audience. Contestants Ananya from Bangalore and Ayush from Madhyamgram, have a strong fan-following on social media. It goes without saying that child actors are taking the Bengali television world by storm, be it mythological shows, comedies or reality shows.
If Bhootu’s mischievous ‘magic tricks’ are endearing, Potol’s innocence too is melting our hearts. Archana Chakraborty, 58, housewife, puts her daily chores on hold to watch Potol Kumar Gaanwala, a seven-year-old singing prodigy (a girl who dresses like a boy), who is trying to forge a bond with her musician-father.
Director Srijit Roy of Bhootu says that viewers are bored of the regular saas-bahu sagas. So, a show with a child protagonist is a breather. “You make any show with children, and you will have some followers. When we were planning Bhootu, we wanted to do something out-of-the-box,” he says.
Six-year-old Arshiya Mukherjee, who plays Bhootu, a ghost, isn’t scary. In fact, Bhootu helps the tenants who come to live at her house. Arshiya, who looks even more adorable in oversized shirts, has become a rage on Bengali television. From award functions to inaugurating Durga Puja pandals, this tot is certainly the biggest star attraction everywhere.
Arshiya, however, is unaware of her growing popularity. She is yet to understand why journalists come and interview her almost every day. “I play around the set. I like shooting,” she smiles. Joining Bhootu is Halum (Srija), another child actor, who is in no mood to leave Arshiya’s hands. Halum is younger to Arshiya and is too shy to talk to us.
Srijit informs that whenever a child is part of a show, children at home too start taking interest in the show. “Once a child starts watching such a show, the adults follow suit, which increases viewership,” he says.
Scriptwriter NK Salil, who wrote the initial episodes of the Bengali daily soap Bhakter Bhagaban Shri Krishna, says that one needs to understand the psychology of children before writing the dialogues. He also says that it’s important to write the dialogues in colloquial language, given the children’s (child actors who play Lord Krishna and Balaram) understanding of the language. “Before the shooting began, I was researching and learnt that children attract majority of the audience. We shot a special rice ceremony episode of Lord Krishna and it was a big hit,” says Salil, who has written dialogues of films like Minister Phatakesto and Love Express.
Dashi director Amit Sengupta says Shyamoupti, the young protagonist of Dashi, understands her character well. “The show has a serious subject but Shyamoupti’s innocence is helping us develop the character,” he says.
However, psychologists show concern over child actors’ declining interest in academics. Despite most directors claiming that young talents are given considerable time to study on the set, Kolkata-based psychiatrist and life coach Dr Siladitya Ray says he has many clients (read child actors) who complain of declining interest in studies once they resume shooting. “The parents are making the children puppets at the cost of academics. After some time, the child loses interest in studies and gets inclined towards other means of entertainment. Surprisingly, parents are okay with children making money,” he says.
But the child actors say that have no problem balancing academics and shooting. Hiya Dey aka Potol, whose favourite subject is English, shares that she even studies with her make-up on. Her five-year-old co-star Sinchana, who plays Tuli, is quick to add that her favourite subject is mathematics.
Arshiya’s mother Bhaswati Mukherjee informs that she brings books to the set and whenever the little one is not shooting, she makes her study. Director Swarnendu Samaddar of Potol Kumar Gaanwala informs that he makes sure the child actors get to study in between shots. “We have doctors on call. All the actors are like teachers to them. We also have toys for them to play on the set,” he says.
Master filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who had worked with children in a number of films, used to treat them as adults. Sammadar, who believes in Ray’s philosophy, says, “Children are like clay and you can mould them into any desired shape,” he says.
A few days ago, a photograph of Sinchana (Tuli hates Potol because she believes her father, Sujan Kumar, prefers Potol) was doing the rounds on social media and people had commented that such an outburst of negativity by a child should not be shown on television. It affects other children too. However, in real life the two are inseparable on the set.
Debaloy Bhattacharya, the creative director of Phoolmoni, a show which focuses on the relationship between a woman and child from the slum, says that the desperate need to generate high TRPs compels makers to project a child as a villain.
Housewives Ila Kundu and Anu Chakraborty agree in unison that the negative portrayal of Tuli is unhealthy for children. “I don’t let my children watch Potol Kumar Gaanwala because of Tuli. She is so negative,” says Chakraborty.
Dr Siladitya Ray says that today’s children are aggressive, courtesy television, films and advertisements. He also says that there’s tremendous impact of the negative characters on the minds of the children. “These characters majorly affect a child’s psyche. The impact of audio-visual is enormous and it leads to restlessness, short-attention span, and visibility disorder,” he says.