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Really Sony TV, you’re asking four-year-olds to participate in your reality shows?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 01-08-2017 Rajyasree Sen

Don’t be provincial and passé and send your four-year-old child to school. Instead, listen to Sony TV and enlist your child in a reality singing show. All that your four-year-old, let me repeat it again and spell it out clearly—your FOUR-year-old, needs is to have “Desire, Discipline and Determination, as well as they should adapt to all dance styles and circumstances”. Wonderful. What could be more fun for a kid who hasn’t even started school, after all? Nothing like a little cut-throat competition, being pitted against other children who may be as old as 13, and being told they are not good enough to qualify and then being rejected in front of an audience and having this telecast on international TV?

This is not me painting some bizarre child torture sequence. This is what Sony TV Super Dancer 2017’s advertisement for auditions seems to be asking for. That children between 4 and 13 years of age enroll to audition for the new season of the show. And let’s keep in mind that these children, some of whom can barely string a sentence together, need to be able to “adapt to all circumstances”—which I suppose includes Shilpa Shetty Kundra and choreographer Geeta Kapoor telling them that their “salsa technique needs to be spruced up” and they need to smile more and move their hips better.

What amazes me is how there has been no hue and cry over this call by a premier TV channel to enroll little children in their “mega audition”?

Just in case you think nothing horrendous happens in these reality competitions, let me dispel this misconception. I have seen little girls, who seem to be barely 4 or 5, wearing makeup and gyrating to Mera Piya Ghar Aaya O Ram Ji while their parents and the judges beam proudly. A couple of years ago, on a kids’ singing reality show, a young blind boy kept practising his singing since the morning. His audition was in the evening, by which time he’d lost his voice. He went on stage, couldn’t sing, was rejected by the judges and broke down on stage. Only to have the TV channel record his breakdown and telecast it as part of the show. Because nothing makes for as good TV as watching a young, blind child weep copiously, unable to come to terms with rejection. The video of this moment is available on YouTube. There are many more examples, one worse than the other.

It is fair to presume that none of these children, when they turned 3, told their parents that the next year their goal was to become a reality TV star. The parents made this choice for their kids. And kids being kids will first listen to their parents, and second start enjoying the adulation. Till they get rejected. And then have a meltdown, understandably. This of course discounts all those children who simply have to do what their parents want—as we all did when we were four years old.

Suddenly, director Shoojit Sircar’s tweet — “Humble request to authorities to urgently ban all reality shows involving children. It’s actually destroying them emotionally and their purity”—has started making even more sense.

There are of course fiction shows on TV which revolve around children. Just last week, I reviewed that puerile show, Pehredaar Piya Ki which showed a young 10-year-old boy marrying a much older adult woman. There’s Balika Vadhu and Udaan. And umpteen other shows on television with mature storylines which have child protagonists or supporting actors ranging from the age of 2 months to 12 or 13 years at most. Who is monitoring how much these kids are working or where the money they’re being paid, is going?

It seems no one is. Other than their parents, who anyway need to be viewed with suspicion when you realise they believe their kids are the quickest route to earning a fat packet.

How do I know this? Because I have heard horror stories from producers of fiction and reality shows involving children. That the parents were the first and last word when it came to these children. That most of the children worked as long hours—sometimes close to 12 hours—as the adults. And that none of them went to school and were supposedly tutored on set or their parents claimed that the school had given them leave.

I wrote to Cine & TV Artistes’ Association (CINTAA) asking if CINTAA has any guidelines and rules for the employment of child artists—in TV serials as well as on reality shows? And if there was an age limit and a limit to the number of hours a child can work? And if there are any guidelines, how are these guidelines implemented?

CINTAA mailed back to inform me that they only laid down guidelines, “but to the best of our knowledge the compliance is almost negligible. We have brought this to the attention of all Producers Associations, Broadcasters and the concerned Ministry as well but till date there has been no response from anyone”. Wonderful, isn’t it?

These are some of the rules for child artistes, some of which state the obvious. And all or which fall outside the purview of the law. So, at the end of the day, none of these guidelines matter.

Child Artiste

3. The production house should make arrangement and provide proper amenities like quality food with fruit and clean water on time and separate room facility with attached toilet. The Producer should also make arrangements for children to study on the sets in spare time in between the shoots.

4. Parent/Guardian/Caretaker of the children should be allowed to remain with the children during shooting.

5. In case of reality shows a child who is eliminated in the round from the show due to his/her weak performance compared to his counterparts in the show, be not subjected to adverse/harsh comments by the judges of the show, otherwise the child may feel humiliated and go into depression.

7. No child artistes should be replaced without any genuine reasons, if so then their guardians/parents should be informed one month in advance.

8. The child should not miss school for more than 10 days in an academic year, on account of work.

9. The working hours and working conditions for child artistes must be in strict compliance with the rules and guidelines prescribed by the Women & Children Welfare Ministry.

10. Child-friendly makeup and lights should be used during shoots.

11. There should be no violation of child rights such as doing away with lunch break and policy against child abuse should be maintained.

Payment for children

Children below the age of 18 years are legally not allowed to operate bank accounts or sign legal documents such as contracts. Therefore, the payment made towards their participants should be in form of fixed deposits.

A minimum of 50% of the payment must be set aside for children in fixed deposits or bonds that mature when they reach the age of 18 years. Out of the 50% given to parents/guardians the balance payment of school fee for that particular academic year should be cleared thus ensuring continuation in the school and indirectly assisting parents. The child’s parent would naturally be the formal guardians unless a case is made that it would be against the best interests of the child.

That none of these rules can be enforced and most are being flouted and that CINTAA is aware of this happening, is obvious from their statement. I don’t know who in their right minds, other than deviants, would enjoy watching a child dance in a promiscuous manner and then follow it up by being told they weren’t good enough and have to now go home? What joy can this possibly bring, especially when you know that most of these children are foregoing a normal childhood and education, so you can have some fun TV to watch while you’re eating your butter chicken and naan at home with your own children? If the children are truly talented, they can wait till they are a little older to display this talent on television. Really. There’s less damage to them and to viewers, if a little restraint is exercised. The judges of these shows may miss their fat checks, but that’s about it.

It is absurd that the woman and child welfare ministry will not stop such shows. I don’t place too much store on the parents, since they seem to view their kids as cash cows. Which is why, maybe the only way to stop them is for advertisers to show some responsibility and refuse to advertise on these shows, or for channels to take a stand and say that they’ll forego their TRPs and their base instincts and not exploit kids by asking them to enroll or participate in such shows, till they are at least teenagers. And that too with a counsellor on set and while meeting other requirements of school timings and so on.

But for that, we’d require advertisers and channels to take a stand which is counterproductive to their bottomlines. And we all know that will never happen. Till such time, a slow clap for the producers of Sony TV Super Dancer for showing us how not to treat children.

You can read the utterly exploitative audition requirements here

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