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In a new series, FC Critics Survey, every few weeks we ask a handful of film critics one question. This week we ask –  what’s the best performance by a child actor in a film?

Parth Bhalerao in Killa – Rahul Desai, Film Companion

I’m not a big fan of the way Indian filmmakers write/direct child actors. Kids ‘recite’ adult lines (as opposed to conversing); even their reactions are adult interpretations of young emotions. A rare film that got it right was Avinash Arun’s Marathi-language Killa – small-town school kids in their own little world, the camera just an incidental intruder. Even here, it’s not the protagonist (Archit Deodhar, as Chinmay) that stood out for me. Little Parth Bhalerao, as the naughty one named Bandya, steals the show. Bollywood enthusiasts will recognise him as the ‘pocket rocket’ who outperformed Amitabh Bachchan in Bhootnath Returns. Shirt half-tucked out, untidy shorts, a penchant for mischief (with a poor dog) – Killa’s Bhalerao nails the airy, distracted look of the boy who is always singled out by wary teachers. Aayan Boradia as little brother Rohan in Udaan comes close in terms of (non) performance. In a parallel universe, I can imagine the two boys skipping their way into adulthood – feeding off each other’s contrasting energies.

Urmila Matondkar and Aaradhna Srivastav in Masoom – Suhani Singh, India Today

My earliest memory of crying while watching a film goes back to Masoom and Anjali. And I blame the kids alright. I  was a kid myself when I first saw Shekhar Kapur and Mani Ratnam’s affecting films, both centred on a family dealing with the sudden entrance of a child. I thought that Urmila Matondkar as Pinky and Aaradhna Srivastav as Minni were wonderful as the naughty siblings whose presence in the drama emphasizes on the importance of acceptance. Pinky, Mimi and Rahul (an equally impressive Jugal Hansraj) talking over each other in the backseat of the car is still one of my favourite happy endings. It’s been a while since I last saw Anjali so it’s hard to single out one child actor in a film inundated with so many talented ones but Shamili as the titular character with developmental issues just breaks your heart. It’s also the film where I’d discover Ratnam’s genius with songs with “Anjali Anjali” still fresh in my mind.

Kunal Khemmu in Zakhm, Archit Deodhar in Killa – Rajeev Masand, CNN News 18

Some of the names that come to mind instantly are Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone, Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, and Jonathan Lipnicki in Jerry Maguire.

But I want to pick two incredible performances closer home. The first is Kunal Khemmu in Zakhm. The depth of his acting at that age was truly staggering. He plays a young boy who resents the fact that his mother has this unconditional love for a (married) man who can’t offer her the same. Just watch him in that song Galli mein aaj chand nikla to see how maturely and beautifully he conveys the complexity of a kid who hates the man responsible for giving him the tag of an illegitimate child, but so full of love for his mother who wants nothing more than to spend a few minutes every once in a while from that man. It was such a deep, emotionally honest performance for that age. 

The other is Archit Deodhar in the excellent Marathi film Killa. He plays an 11-year-old named Chinmay who is adjusting to life after his father’s recent death, and to the move from Pune to a small coastal town in the Konkan region where his mother has been transferred in her government job. It’s what you describe as a pitch perfect performance – how he conveys that feeling of being an ‘outsider’ in a new school, acting out in angry outbursts at his mother’s cooking, lashing out at the neighbors. It’s one of the most moving performances by a child actor anywhere. I remember this performance and this film staying with me for days after I’d watched this film. 

Geethu Mohandas in Onnu Muthal Poojyam Vare – Vishal Menon, Film Companion

Before she became one of our most exciting filmmakers Geethu Mohandas carried an entire film on her shoulders, and she wasn’t even old enough to go to school. In director Raghunath Paleri’s Onnu Muthal Poojyam Vare, she plays a four-year-old who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a man over the phone. What sets this role apart is how she’s never asked to be cute. She’s given more complex tasks instead having to balance the loneliness of a bored single child with the excitement of having found a father figure herself. The scene where a scared Geethu runs to hide under the piano, having dialled a wrong number, is impossible to forget. Almost as much as the film’s heartbreaking ending. 

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