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  Opinion   Columnists  16 Sep 2023  Krishna Shastri Devulapalli | Why don’t we get our children?

Krishna Shastri Devulapalli | Why don’t we get our children?

Krishna Shastri Devulapalli is a humour writer, novelist, columnist and screenwriter
Published : Sep 17, 2023, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Sep 17, 2023, 12:00 am IST

The show I came to after abandoning Jailer was Who is Erin Carter?

One of the characters in the film is a boy of six or so, who plays Rajinikanth’s grandson. Due to no fault of his, I found the little guy utterly unbearable. (Image: DC)
 One of the characters in the film is a boy of six or so, who plays Rajinikanth’s grandson. Due to no fault of his, I found the little guy utterly unbearable. (Image: DC)

As an honorary Tamilian, to fulfill my cultural obligation to Rajiniknath — another honorary, if slightly more famous, Tamilian — I watched Jailer the other day at home. I didn’t last long. While I could write a piece listing out the many reasons for my premature exit, I’ll stick to the one that’s germane to this one: the kid.
One of the characters in the film is a boy of six or so, who plays Rajinikanth’s grandson. Due to no fault of his, I found the little guy utterly unbearable. He was obviously written by someone who miraculously attained adulthood by never having gone through childhood himself. In the name of humour and quirkiness, the child is made to say things that don’t sound anything like a kid, even a highly precocious one, would or could say in real life without getting his ears boxed. (Go ahead, Society for Prevention of Imagined Cruelty to Fictitious Children, cancel me.)

The kid, we are told, has a YouTube channel of his own, and posts videos on it every day. And his able assistant/cameraman in this endeavour is his indulgent grandfather. The child’s mother and grandmother are not just okay with this but are passive enablers whose main job seems to be tolerating the boy’s patently unfunny quips. And this is all supposed to be terribly cute. If I have to explain why this is so many kinds of wrong, then I guess this piece, too, is going to be as pointless as most of my others.

The show I came to after abandoning Jailer was Who is Erin Carter? What stunned me in this otherwise mediocre show was the performance of the child actor, Indica Watson, who plays Harper, the pre-teen daughter of the protagonist. In this by-the-numbers show, Watson’s depiction of trauma induced by her disturbing if hazy past, and uncertainty that stems from being in the care of an unreliable parent, is something to behold. Buddha-like one minute, inexplicably immature the next, an equal-parts mixture of vulnerability, strength and utter believability, she is all things children are. And for this we have to give the writer almost as much credit as young Ms Watson’s formidable thespian abilities.

As luck would have it, soon after, I watched a film called Are you there God? It's me, Margaret, based on Judy Blume’s landmark 1970 middle-grade novel of the same name. It was filled with flawless performances by a host of child actors playing, can you believe it, very convincing children. In contrast to Indica Watson’s moving performance as a child grappling with trauma, Abby Ryder Fortson plays the eponymous Margaret, a child in a normal-ish family going through normal-ish growing pains, with charm and understanding. One would think the latter is an easier character to essay. It isn’t, actually. Both are hard. Because the very act of being a child is hard. Period. And we, who were all once children, seem to have forgotten this if our popular culture is anything to go by.

That a movie in which a primary school student is not just allowed to run his own YouTube channel but encouraged by his caregivers has made hundreds of crores without a single person caring tells us more than a little about our great culture.

Jailer’s depiction of children, unfortunately, isn’t an anomaly. Has anyone seen a mainstream Indian film or show in which they have believable characters who happen to be children? How often do we get to watch a film in which a child has been written with sensitivity without the sentimentality, with humour without the inappropriateness, with empathy without the patronizing? (You can’t say the Apu Trilogy or Malgudi Days. How long can we rest on those wonderful depictions of childhood?) Let’s be honest. If we must rack our brains to come up with ten films in a country that makes thousands every year, I rest my case.

Of late, we’ve made it a habit to come at the bottom of several indexes. Yes, yes, there isn’t a shred of truth in them and they are all the work of vested interests who want to undermine our greatness. But if there was such a thing as an Understanding Children Index, I think we Indians (or is it Bharatvasis?) would come pretty much at the bottom of that one, too. As parents, caretakers and adults, we veer between allowing children to think they are superhuman, and cater to their every whim, or see them as subhuman and send them to Kota knowing full well they could become a statistic.

Why is that we don’t seem to get children? In art, literature, popular culture, and, most importantly, in real life, why do I keep getting the feeling we are missing the point? Is it because most of our ancient literature – our current yardstick for everything – was centred around the sacrifice of young ones to maintain the status quo of brittle old men? And how that was seen as noble.

I wonder what it would be like to be a child in our wonderful land today. Are they all desperately searching for that elusive being they have heard of, read about, and referred to every now and then as the one who is going to make sure everything is okay, but never seen: the grown-up?

Tags: indian films, child actors, depiction of children, sensitivity, realism, indian cinema, popular culture, childhood in india, cultural understanding, jailer