Deepa Bhatia, known for her exceptional work as an editor for films like Taare Zameen Par (2007), My Name Is Khan (2010), and Student of the Year (2012) has stepped into the director's chair with First Act, a Prime Video docu-series that explores the world of child actors in the Indian entertainment industry. In discussing the series, she spoke fervently about how she believes in walking the talk, and her commitment to ensuring a safe and nurturing environment for young talents.
In a candid conversation with Film Companion, Bhatia delved into her experiences working with children on film sets and emphasising the need for industry-wide changes to better accommodate and protect child actors.
Here are edited excerpts from the interview:
What inspired you to create a docu-series on child actors in India?
My husband Amole (Gupte) has been making films with children, and most of our work has been in that area. I've always produced his films for him and been closely involved in the process. Over many years of continuous interaction with children, with their parents, talking to casting directors, talking to aspiring parents who sometimes bring their children to meet them — I’ll be at a party, someone will say, “My child wants to act, et cetera, et cetera.” We got the sense that a lot of it is often the parents' dream. You cannot have a five or six year old child who knows what he wants to do or what she wants to do. One part of it was this whole aspect of aspiration, which I sensed was largely driven by the parent community. The other aspect was, of course, being part of film shoots over the years and understanding, just seeing how sets are and how much importance we give to children when we are working with them. Do we really prioritise their well being? It began with these two aspects.
I said, “Okay, I've got to delve a little deeper and look at what really happens on an average film set or average television set, an average reality show set.” That's how I began.
Did your collaborations with your husband (Amole Gupte), given that he features children in his cast, shape your idea of how film sets should accommodate child actors?
I think that his (Amole Gupte’s) is a very ideal, very child friendly environment. When we did Stanley Ka Dabba (2011), it was the first time we were producing our own content, and we had a way we wanted to work with children. We would shoot from Saturday to Saturday. Not a single child in that film ever missed a day of school. There was no schedule. They were never given lines to mug up. It was always in the workshop format. You talk, you discuss, and you work in collaboration with that particular child. The result of that was so evident when I began editing Stanley Ka Dabba.
Even with Saina (2021), where there are so many children, because all the scenes and the training sessions, we talked to the kids, and we asked them, “Do you want to be part of this film?” Then we shoot in an environment that is relaxed, we take children who stay in that area and they are just doing what they do every day. They play badminton.
In Stanley Ka Dabba, my own son, Partho (Gupte who played Stanley), has woken up on Saturday morning like, He's like, “I don't feel like going today.” So, Amole is like, “Okay, don't come. I'll go and do something else.” I remember there was a beautiful child, Walter D’Souza, from Holy Family School. He was playing the part of Partho's benchmate. He came for the first few days, and then he said, "my cousins have come from Goa and I don't feel like coming for a few Saturdays." Amole said, “Don't come. No worries.” He just wrote a scene where both of them are fighting over their elbow room because one is left handed, one is right handed, and his partner is changed by the teacher. So, Walter got the break that he needed and he came back.
I'm just saying that is what I learned watching Amole, that let's really keep children at the centre. I've now become so clear that there's no other way of doing films with children. But we tend to treat them like adults on sets. We tend to treat them like regular workers, which they are not. They're children.
Can you elaborate on how you approached the shots and staging in the docu-series?
We had very candid conversations with the parents. When I'm listening to what the parent is expressing, and I'm observing what the child is feeling — and children's faces speak a lot — it's evident, like, if a parent says that he (their child) told me he wanted to be an actor, the child somehow knows that's not the case (in that moment). I think that expressions speak a lot, but so do our experts in the show. I haven't minced my words when I feel something is not right, and nor have any of the people whom I've interviewed. They are very clear about what is right and what is wrong, you know what I mean? It's not actually rocket science. But I think somewhere as a society, I think we are a very patriarchal society where often children don't have so much right to speak up, to express themselves. As a result, we tend to forget to ask what they want to do or what they feel or what they think. They're just carried along with the decisions of the adults. Even if you look at just the way we parent our children, it's not just, again, about child actors, it's just our society. You threaten, you bribe, you force, you bully. These are not the best tactics of parenting. I think that overall, my hope was that we cast a light on all of this. It becomes very evident when you see the show that where parents go wrong, even where the industry sometimes falls short. Because, anytime you want something done — you are bribing, threatening, or cajoling. All of these things are not okay.
I believe there should be a comfortable environment and the child will emerge. That's the right way to do it. That's the way the west also does it. If you see their rules, they don't shoot for more than four or five hours with children. They have breaks, they have tutors. I think there's a need to really enforce these things and really push for them.
The docu-series suggests a critical examination of parental decisions. How do you navigate the fine line between showcasing the issues with nuance, and blaming parents outright?
I don't think anyone can be blamed for anything that they do. I'm not in their position. There's no question of blame. That's why there is no blaming. I've been with these families over three, four years. It's a long road together in some sense. So it's only after very consistent observation that I would portray something — after a very consistent relationship and watching something periodically, repeatedly. I promise you there's much more that — there's so much more that I have seen and observed in terms of the industry, the dynamic, the way we get things done. I have a lot more material, actually. We want to be indicative and want people to understand it's not about anything else. It's about sensitising. If you watch Anand Patwardhan’s documentary, and if there's a family that is praying for a male child, at that moment, it's not about shaming that family. It's about capturing the moment to reflect what is needed to be understood and seen. I think to that extent, that was the way I looked at it. I looked at it as if I'm looking at this tapestry of families and children, and I'm looking at a tapestry of how the industry is working.
I've been on many, many sets, I would just go and observe, even without a camera. I’ve got a very strong sense of how it's working and it is only then that this is being reflected in the show. There's also the issue of sensitivity, so all of this is carefully curated. I promise you, every decision has been mulled over so many times before.
I have met many parents. I don't even want to go into the darker zone. Frankly, I would avoid it. But it's like there's a lot of real darkness there in terms of things. I think the idea was to capture where we go wrong, where sometimes parents go wrong, where they go right and serve some kind of a lookbook. How can you look at this situation and improve it? The aim is to make this better. That's really the goal.
I think that's where we should be aiming to step up. If you make sure that children are there for those limited hours, you make sure that they're not pushed, make sure that you handle them with a lot of gentleness, and that their timings are respected, their school hours are respected. Automatically, the change will come. It's because we don't do that that the parents are forced to make children miss school. I would say a lot of onus lies even on us, right? I would have never ventured to make this series if I had not done the kind of work that we've done.
In your exploration of this world what surprised you the most about the people involved?
I was actually surprised at how so many people don't have a sense of right and wrong. The cameras are there. What I'm trying to say is that you are aware that you are being shot, right? So that means, it's like, you're not even pretending sometimes — you don't have a sense of right and wrong. Sometimes you sit, and a father will just whack a child — and in life that is considered acceptable. That's why we raise our hands on our children. My thing was that there's no hidden camera on anybody, right? We are with you. We are shooting continuously. You have the camera on you, yet sometimes you say certain things or do certain things, meaning you don't have the guard of right and wrong. And that gives me the creeps. That frightens me because I think when a camera is on you, you watch your actions. Despite that, there are certain things that happen.
One thing that struck me is that children are so resilient. They're so lovely. I'm constantly advising them what to do, what not to do at this stage, having done this journey with them, I'm very protective and I'm like, if a particular kind of thing comes — we are trying in our own way to directly or indirectly impact their lives in some way so that there's no negative sort of experience going forward. But having said that, they are just lovely and they are so resilient. I feel in the darkest times, their spirit and their feistiness is what I get so amazed by. They're not daunted by anything. They are so keen to support their families and their parents. They (children) think like a team, which sometimes stresses me out, but I get that their hearts are generous. I literally pray every day for the best, and I keep looking out for things that will improve their lives, or that will make things better.
What were the biggest challenges you encountered while making this docu-series, both in terms of storytelling, and on a personal level?
I think on a personal level, it's hard to find balance. I think I really suffered through doing that because I didn't know how to be correct in terms of a certain sensitivity that was needed in handling this. I was constantly checking in with Amole, and with other people to just make sure how much is necessary to communicate. So I think the challenge was to do this show cautiously, sensitively. I think that way Amazon was such a big help. The team at Amazon Prime were in tune with how we should be doing this. We never had to lean towards anything that we were not comfortable doing. I'm really thankful to them, first of all, for picking this up and letting me make it this way.
I had never edited a series, or directed a series. I've done documentaries, of course. That's a different space. There's not a lot of reference to that in the Indian context. So, when you don't have a reference, you say, “okay, how does this happen?” I just discovered it as I was working on it, and there were many more characters that I had that I dropped or changed. You can't cover every story. So, craft wise, those were the challenges that you had to decide what you want to portray. There are many people I've shot extensively that are not actually in the show.
Those kinds of creative challenges were there. How much will the series hold and how much can I convey with as much integrity as possible? I wanted to do the show with as much integrity as possible, so I think these were the three things to make sure it's sensitively handled, to make sure that, as a filmmaker, there's a certain integrity in my making it. I think then making sure that it's just narratively held because it's over six episodes, that's something which was new for me also. That way, the editor in me helped because that was a hat I could wear and quickly figure out how to structure and how to tell the story.
What is your hope for the future?
I think my first call to action will be to the industry that we really need to follow the rules that are laid down in terms of shooting hours, in terms of breaks, in terms of tutors, in terms of not allowing children to be missing school for days and days together for a daily soaps or for a film shoot. I think there are a lot of requirements to make sure that there's a proper environment, a set environment where there's space for the children when they are off and not shooting, enough space for them to play, take a breath, get themselves recharged.
I love this industry. I love where I work. So I think that a good environment can be created. If parents are more feisty about protecting their children and realise that children are not workers (that would help), because this is no different from getting them to work in the firecracker factory. It has to be like a hobby. It has to be looked at as a free time occupation, like a Saturday show.
They are children. This is their age to play, to grow, to blossom. They cannot be cogs in a wheel.