Director: Deepa Bhatia
Writer: Deepa Bhatia
Cast: Adrija Sinha, Ronnish Maini, Yuvraj Shastri, Nidhi Shastri, Akbar Ali Ansari, Hetal Gada, Ekta Mathai, Saloni Daini
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
First Act is easy to like. The six-part docu-series has the right ingredients. An affecting subject: It explores a culture of lost childhoods, borrowed ambition and the fickleness of big-city fame. Expansive access: It traces the lives of child actors – current and former – in the Indian film and entertainment industry. Homegrown compassion: Director-editor Deepa Bhatia and creative producer Amole Gupte have an impressive track record of working with children and teenage artists (Taare Zameen Par, 2007, and Stanley ka Dabba, 2011, to name a few). A sense of perspective: The documentary examines the sweaty complicity of parents in an all-or-nothing ecosystem. The diversity of struggle: It follows the journeys of Gujarati, Bengali, Maharashtrian, North Indian and Muslim families across class and age brackets.
The social range is comprehensive, too: A reality show starlet returning from a hiatus; a daily-soap actress fending off seedy rape scenes; an acting teacher and his slum-dwelling students; a dancing prodigy battling for a break; a middle-class migrant couple pinning their hopes on their 3-year-old, and so on. (At one point, the whereabouts of a faded Slumdog Millionaire star are investigated). And, most of all, there’s the subtext of a true-crime drama: It conveys the carrot-and-stick legalization of child labour posing as rousing underdog stories. The questions to the kids and families are pointed, but they stop short of judging their circumstances. The talking heads within the industry – popular film-makers (Gupte, Shoojit Sircar) and casting directors (Mukesh Chhabra, Honey Trehan) – express their concerns with awareness and insight. But their inherent culpability is never lost on the viewer. It’s a dog-eat-puppy world, and nobody can afford to speak from a moral pedestal.
First Act has no qualms unfolding like a passion project. The makers have a stance and stand by it. As a result, some of the interviews speak volumes through the way they're cut and framed. The camera lingers on the face of an infant while his parents woefully describe the early “signs” of his acting aspirations. A teenager playfully confides that he looks forward to being thrashed by his father after failed auditions, because he is usually plied with guilt-edged gifts in the following days. A television director ruthlessly declares that there's no budget for sympathy on a shoot, but grins while confiding that he would never let his own kids enter this oppressive setting. A father admits that he made a mistake by forcing his daughter to skip her board exams, but maintains that he was correct “as a professional”.
These moments haunt so casually that the specificity of the series often acquires a universal tone. Parents projecting their incomplete dreams and frustrations onto their kids is not just the price of greatness here; it's the currency of survival. Their denial is hard to fathom but also disturbingly relatable. For instance, a mother’s passive face comes into focus when her daughter complains about the vulgarity of the roles for which she auditions. A parent threatens to leave the city if the child doesn’t recite his lines. The documentary is single-minded in its indictment of human nature. It scans the length and breadth of a system that normalizes – and rewards – the grammar of abuse. The running time of six 30-minute episodes runs the risk of repetition, but it reiterates the exploitative wheel of art and show-business. The toxicity is spelt out, leaving little room for ambiguity in a field that thrives on leaving behind rather than moving forward. Lest we don’t understand that lingering shot of the child's face, the interview cuts to a casting director who verbalizes the message: “It's the parents who want a better life; the children are only a vessel.”
However, the makers’ attachment to the subject is also the undoing of the series. The empathy is so strong that they resort to beating the narrative into submission. A lot of it feels staged and directed, as though actual people were recreating feelings and moments from their own lives. It’s not a fly-on-the-wall look at these journeys. The camera makes its presence felt without embracing the identity of a hybrid docudrama. There are corny training montages (a teen trying to lose weight) and Mumbai-picnic songs. Conversation in rickshaws and taxis sound dubbed. Brokers and agents seem to be playing roles of brokers and agents. A girl’s late-night commute to the TV set and a father’s hunt for a rented apartment look like overdesigned set pieces. A kid consoles his mother with lines that feel written.
A family’s journey from Delhi to Mumbai is staged, but the problem is that it tries to look natural. Sad music floods rejections and phone calls. This performative tone – the story-making, carefully-composed exchanges, fiction-like tropes – hampers the integrity of the show. There are times when the lens goes from chronicling to approximating, turning First Act into a TV serial disguised as a documentary. Even when a family breaks down, their tearful huddle looks straight out of a heart-is-in-the-right-place kiddie movie. A film about children need not pretend to be a children’s film.
This bleeding-heart style unwittingly feeds the anatomy of the spotlight. The camera becomes one of the several cameras the young artists and parents act for. It’s almost as if, at some level, they are encouraged to use the docu-series as a platform to get noticed. (One of them is eventually cast as the younger version of the protagonist in Gupte’s 2021 biopic, Saina). They’re not being followed so much as simulating the emotions of being followed. The makers’ gaze is such that it urges them to audition for life itself. Their relationship with the make-believe nature of the job defines who they are. Consequently, the line between their real and reel personalities collapses. It’s hard to tell their experiences from their memories. It’s difficult to distinguish between their trauma and the retelling of it.
One way to rationalise this style is to acknowledge that perhaps it reflects the tragedy of dreaming too hard. There’s no room left for themselves in a world of glorified talent pageants. The makers don’t stop the children and their parents from adopting the artificiality required in the field. They simply squeeze the lemons into bittersweet lemonade. But there’s something to be said about the irony of ‘casting’ stories as an accessible prototype of themselves. There’s something to be said about manufacturing turmoil that already exists. It’s one thing to trust the truth of non-fiction; it’s another thing to curate its reality.