Since we Subcontinentals hate each other everywhere all the time, there is nothing new to report there. But it may be useful to try and do a survey of the category that we dislike the most. And I know which variety of South Asian I dislike more than all the other that I disdain to the fullest. The child artiste. The Master Rinkus and Baby Guddus of the silver screen.
Yes, you know those little creatures who come on screen to make us squirm and despair for South Asian cinema. As younger brother of the heroine, as a pathetic waif who sings to the voice of an adult woman (most likely Asha Bhonsle), as invariably the most annoyingly earnest member of the cast, the child artiste is the horror, respectively, of Bollywood, Kollywood, Dollywood and Lollywood.
Sure, sure I know there were some good child actors and actresses out there as well. And I do need to situate Master Rinku and Baby Guddu in a context where even adult actors were wooden-faced and sported blank stares – think Manoj Kumar and Nanda rather than Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi. And I will pause a moment, certainly, and recollect Ray’s Apu in Apur Sansar and Mukul in Sonar Kella, or Rahul in Masoom, and even reach back and remember Rishi Kapoor in Mera Naam Joker.
But all the fine child actors in the Subcon will not be able to undo the damage done by the bad ones foisted upon hundreds of millions of moviegoers all over this great land of ours. The human rights abuse by these kids is on a scale that requires the creation of an RNGO (regional non-governmental organisation) to carry out a monitoring exercise and suggest ameliorative action, including counselling on a mass scale.
Imagine the scene. I forget which film it was, but it goes back to the early 1970s at least. There is this – waif – who has been blind since childhood. And a more unsympathetic sight-impaired you could not find. He is always teary eyed, staring blindly into space (except when occasionally his attention wanders and he actually focuses on something – after many retakes and wasted film stock, the director said in exasperation, “Just can it, they won’t know the difference with an actor as bad as this!”).
Well, so, this child actor, call him Master Ganeshalingam, has been waiting for his sight to be restored. Everything is tried, doctors are visited, voodoo methods employed, all to no avail. The kid just cannot see. Meanwhile, we have the interludes in which the sister (Mumtaz or Sadhana) is wooed by Dharmendra or Vinod Khanna, minister for tourism in the current dispensation. The villain (possibly Shatrughan Sinha, currently minister of health) comes along to abduct Mumtaz or Sadhana. Just to bring the child actor back into the story line, which has meandered to depict the cavorting lovers in Gulmarg, Shatrughan kidnaps Ganeshalingam.
More glycerine wells up in the child actors’ eyes as he is taken away, and from the within the cinema halls of Pilibhit, Purnea, Muzaffarpur, Bareilly and Raipur, a flood of tears emerges to augment the flow of Gangamaa and her tributaries – such is the ability of the North South Asian Hindi audience to weep for lost childhood. But soon the flood of tears will stop, as we all well know. For it is ordained that Ganeshalingam’s sight be restored, and we weep for that moment to come soon.
(Do not, please, complicate matters by asking why a child of Hindu Tamil lineage goes around saying abba jaan.)
The drama is heightened as a grandfather figure, looking very much like Rabindranath in his halo of silver, leads the child up a slope, and shouts (in song) to the heavens a la Moses on the mount, ending with the entreaty to the almighty, “Aaaankh dilaaaa!! Aaaankh dilaaaa!!”
Now comes the worst part of the film. Camera pans from heaven to child. A twisted smile comes to Ganeshalingam’s lips, he looks vacantly skywards, reaches up with an unsure hand to grandpappy, and says in the most icky dialogue delivered in the history of filmmaking in the Occident or Orient, “Abba jaan, main dekh sakta hoon! Abba jaan, main dekh sakta hoon!”
It is terrible, the scene, the story, the acting, and the child. You have to leave the hall, which means swimming through the raging torrent of saltwater emerging from the cinema hall. As you run away, and as the wind dries your clothes and cakes of dried salt flake off your skin, you promise never ever to go see another movie with a child actor.
Three decades later, I still wake up in cold sweat, hearing Ganeshalingam shouting into my ears, “Abba jaan, main dekh sakta hoon! Abba jaan, main dekh sakta hoon!”
Such is the power of badly made Hindustani cinema.