The thing with casting a cute kid in your film is that it could go from ‘aww’ to ‘really?’ in a second. Here’s a look at Kollywood’s latest lil’ big adventures…
By Mani Prabhu
It has almost become ‘procedure’ now. Every time a popular film featuring a child actor happens to hit the theatres, our audience tend to go all-out, raving about the overflowing sweetness of the kid in the limelight – more so if the little one is paired up with one of Kollywood’s stars. A handful of such films in the recent past had potential cutesy stuff to offer. Though these films ended up having quite some unabashed bonding moments, the sugary splashes in some of them didn’t work as much intended because of some uninspired screen-writing. That these moments majorly panned out with simply an eye for saccharine emotions, without convincing motives or character arcs, made it further difficult for us to empathize with the star-kid duo. That’s a different article, but this piece is about the portrayal of the child actor on-screen. To put it differently, the way the child is asked to react before the camera, the dialogue that is written for the kid, the emotions he/she is expected to elicit… you get the picture, right?
Consider for instance Atlee’s attempt at cop-masala ‘Theri’, which had Vijay sharing screen space with the five year old Nainika. For once brushing ‘realism’ aside, let’s delve into the more relevant question, “Did the intended ‘feel-good’ cheesiness in the little girl’s dynamics with her dad work?” From what I saw in the theatres, it rarely did. A couple of moments did start off as sweet to the point of mushy, but was quickly blunted when the kid was made to oversell her cuteness. A five-year old scoffing at her teacher for developing a liking for her single dad might look cutesy on paper, but does it reflect the same way on screen, especially when you are going to make the girl talk like a ten year old? What to make of the little kid frolicking into dangerous situations to demand justice? Are grade one kids completely fearless in their innocence, despite their impetuousness? Kids, irrespective of their age, complain and throw tantrums for no reason. Consistently putting your film’s kid in happy and borderline-fairyland situations and projecting her as an angel from heaven makes it easy for us to smell the contrivance and naturally, extends our disconnect.
And it’s not about Theri alone. Surya’s Pasanga 2, which was supposed to be a kid’s movie for adults, had a bunch of eight-year-olds behaving like crabby teenagers. On a perfection scale of 1 to 10, they were either 0.5 or 9.9, with no signs of anything in between. Why do a set of children behave like saintly creatures while a few more get on our nerves with the ease of a hamming villain? Are they introverts? Are they affected by ADHD? Are they just spoilt pranksters? Questions only kept mounting, as Pandiraj went no-holds-barred in dispensing advice, some of which were mouthed by cute seven-year-olds. Again, this is not an issue with these two films alone. It’s about a pattern, where the kid’s apparent cuteness or on the other end of the spectrum, the kid’s maturity levels appear so phony and artificial, that they put us off almost instantly. They stick out as sore thumbs in scenes which otherwise reflect some sort of novelty or the other.
Balancing it right
All these bring us to the all-important question ‘what determines whether a child character works or not, on-screen?’ Agreed, the character-expositions and the sequences that the film-maker writes for bringing out the soul of the kid-adult relationship have a huge bearing on the emotional impact, but what also matters, and often ignored, is the way these child characters are made to behave on-screen. You can write the most brilliant scene on paper, and then totally ruin the moment by writing feigned cutesy lines that make the audience frown rather than go ‘aaww’. With today’s kids constantly belying their age and maturity, the trick then becomes one of balance – where the intelligence in their portrayal is smartly balanced by their inherent impulsivity and naivety, which clearly sets them apart. This means using a manner and vocabulary that is specific to the child’s age – not one with the intention of overselling their emotions.
From the eyes of the little heroes
And we have two exceptional master classes on this, both by Mani Ratnam, which demonstrate how it’s done with subtlety and charm. The man wrote not one, but a bunch of child characters in flesh and blood, and translated them flawlessly on screen almost twenty five years ago with Anjali. With almost the entire film revolving around children – their likes, dislikes and sensibilities – the slightest lapse in writing or directing would have meant disaster. But Mani aces it in his own style by pulling us into the screen and making us think from the kids’ perspective. Their everyday apprehensions, their complex emotions, their silly fights – everything is depicted with an air of ingenuousness, in a way we could relate with. None of these moments are blown to the point of sappiness. And none of the characters come across as one-dimensional. They get mad, they create serious havoc which transcends cuteness, and they show their indifference as blatantly as possible, but despite all that, their innocence wins our hearts. The film-maker revived the magic once again, a decade later, with Kannathil Muthamittal through the characterization of Amudha. Writing an oxymoron of a child character – an angel and a little monster at the same time – and not going overboard with both the facets is no mean feat, but then, he pulled it off, yet again.
Apart from Mani Ratnam, two more young directors seem to have got a feel of the craft recently. Mani Kandan subverted many long-worn cutesy cliches, by refusing to oversell a naturally delightful moment in Kaakka Muttai. Gautham Menon gave us a gem of a moment in Yennai Arindhaal, when Sathyadev used the phrase ‘gone away’ to break the news of her mom’s death to the seven year old Isha. Though it’s obvious that today’s seven-year-olds would never buy into such euphemisms, how else would you explain the concept of death to the kid? The writer in Gautham cracks this scene by not resorting to any age-inappropriate dialogues for Isha. She just keeps staring at a distance, and then for a moment, shifts her teary gaze to Sathya, looking deep into his eyes. She might be knowing what it all meant, but how else would a second grader express her disillusionment about the sudden turn of events? A majority of our mainstream film-makers might not share such lofty ambitions, but they could learn a trick or two about staying away from the extremes – the melodramatic overkill or the underwhelming misrepresentation – of childhood charm.