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Aura of a new world

Children's entertainment has been segregated from that of the adult. It has, consequently, become imaginative, filled with unbelievable creatures and even people. K. HARIHARAN on this genre of films in the context of the Children's Film Festival in Hyderabad.

"Anjali" appealed to the audience, irrespective of the age group.

EACH year when a Children's Film Festival takes place in any part of the globe, the constant refrain is always the woeful lack of infrastructure and funds for making and sustaining a healthy children's cinema movement. Production houses and distribution channels would be called upon to play a more active role in the dissemination of children's programmes, both in education and entertainment. Soon the discussion will digress to lack of sponsorship, inadequate cinema theatres, lack of good scripts and finally the burdensome education system, which gives the poor child virtually no breathing space. Some would go on to even say that children are basically not interested in children's cinema. They can reel off statistics about how children did not turn up for a particular film and how viewership for children's TV programmes on X, Y and Z channel is so poor, in fact I once met a Disney executive who lamented the fact that Indian children were so backward that even the most successful animation films like ``Alladin'' or ``Lion King'' were disasters in India.

Now what does one say to that? Definitely this is not the time to call in a child psychologist or bury ourselves in academic discussions on the merits and demerits of Freud versus Skinner versus Piaget. First, we need to put the concept of children's entertainment into a proper context. Has society always produced and lived with children's entertainment from time immemorial? When we sift through traditional cultural productions, be they dance, drama or literature there is nothing in them that is specifically aimed for children. Children seem to have understood, participated and enjoyed all narrative discourses in whatever form available, along with their parents and other adults. Performers on the other hand, most of them adults, again and being part of the same milieu could communicate to everybody present with enormous ease. Entertainment was truly universal until the arrival of a bizarre terminology called Target Audience. The name itself sounds so aggressive, as ruthless as consumerism, the system that produced it.

Consumerism needed so many garbs and disguises to package an enormous surplus production that became the assembly-line industrial logic of the 1940s and 1950s. A large amount of that production was indeed targeted at children in a variety of foods, toys and clothes. Most of the products were really luxuries but they had to be mingled with and marketed with the others as essential commodities. With rising standards of living in each household came decreasing time for quality attention to one's own children. Huge campaigns were required and conceived to tug at the heart and the purse strings of the busy parent. Consumerism usurped anything and everything. From the surreal classics of Aesop's Fables; the colonial critiques of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and R. L. Stevenson's Robinson Crusoe, to even the philosophic Buddhist Jataka Tales, all of them were converted into children's stories. The anger and protest against man's plundering of nature as seen in an H. G. Wells novel or the psychological drama of a Lewis Carroll in his Alice in Wonderland are trivialised into simplistic images in a cheap comic book. Even the animated entertainment film form created by Walt Disney to relieve many an adult American trapped in the depression of the late 1920s ended up becoming the flagship of the children's entertainment genre. What gets confirmed in the process, as an absurd axiom is that children need to be targeted separately and they cannot understand complexities. So when you address children, say it simply or even stupidly if necessary.

And there begins the notion of children's entertainment and education. It segregates adult entertainment as something distinctly different and then proceeds with the assumption that the adult world is dull and serious when it is actually loaded with sex and violence. Consequently the child's world of entertainment was designed to be completely fantastic, out of this world, totally imaginative, filled with unbelievable creatures and people. Actually it has ended up being another way of rendering sex, in terms of gender discrimination and violence, in terms of insensitive action. One look at a Cartoon Network episode and this is amply evident.

On many occasions I have felt sorry while visiting a home where the child has to adamantly watch a cartoon network programme if the mother has to shove morsels of food down his throat. This Pavlovian addiction gets magnified when the merchandising of the cartoon characters starts entering into every nook and corner of the house, be it the lunch box, the school note book or the bathroom towel. I am not against animation films but what concerns me is the brainwashing of the buying public into believing that they are only for children. And every sensitive person understands that most cartoon films on the network are highly idiotic to say the least. In fact this calculated targeting of a captive audience has left most communicators totally clueless as to what is programming for children.

Writing a script for a children's film or TV serial has come to mean creating a lot of comic scenes, a few slapstick chases, a picnic song, a small adventure with some animals thrown in for diversion and finally a moralistic message. The tragedy is when most adults write; the attitude in the script is one of addressing a moron. If the writer comes up with something very sensible and contemporary it is immediately shot down, as too difficult or as seditious material not meant for children's consumption.

So the western model of adult entertainment by being totally different and exclusive has virtually created children's entertainment as the other mode. The small upwardly mobile nuclear family is now separated by two TV sets. One for the adult and another for children. Sitting in one room, the parent now wants to monitor the other TV set through a complex of security locks that can block off many programmes and allow only those which are permissible. The child now spends a lot of time trying to hack the codes and enjoy the forbidden fruit. Do we really need this mutual exclusion just because the sponsors of consumerism have decided so? Fortunately for most of us in India the situation has not reached such a desperate position. Most of our films are still watched by everyone as part of family entertainment. ``Sholay'', ``Hum Aapke Hain Koun'' or ``Padaiyappa'' is seen and understood by every child in the theatre. The cinema house is still basically a social space for mass congregation. The child is brought up in the collective enactment of larger heroic narratives, valorising icons of goodness personified while debating complex issues of nationhood, law and economic disparity through melodramatic tales. Do we feel the need to preserve this collective understanding of our society?

Yet one feels there is something wrong in the way children, and what is childlike, get portrayed in our films. At the outset, children are rarely seen in our films or even in western films as characters of any consequence. This is despite the fact that a sizeable chunk of our viewers come from the age group below 15. And when they are shown they are either precocious brats or philosophy-spouting saints. Sometimes they come in as sidekicks for the hero or the heroine but most of the time they are insignificant characters going through an earth-shattering crisis while appearing in flashbacks. Those significant years, which Amar, Akbar, Anthony or a Nayakan spent as children, moulding their characters are taken for granted. What happens if such stories were created? The main problem we will be told is that there are no stars in that age group. And if we do create one he or she is bound to grow out of it soon. What absurd trauma is this in the name of stardom?

In all fairness one must admit that the Children's Film Society India, though not a prolific producer of children's films, have made films which are certainly commendable. Filmmakers like Sai Paranjpye, the present chairperson, have dared to challenge the conventional stereotypical scripts about children and embark on newer styles. Several films that they have made take children seriously and as part of a modern ethos. Films like ``Halo'', ``Kabhi Pass Kabhi Fail'' or ``Crocodile Boy'' are bold attempts at seeing children as participants in a fast changing, not-so-innocent world. Their distribution system is also unique and precise. Their films do get released and are seen by vast numbers of school-going children all over the country in various language versions. By and large these children come from the poorer corporation schools and watching a film like this amid their peers is by itself a very healthy and enjoyable experience. These children also get to see some great international films about children after being dubbed into an Indian language. The films get shown right round the year in early morning shows at inexpensive auditoriums with no publicity or media hype attached. I strongly believe that it is anti-social to segregate children's entertainment away from their family as a separate category. A film or any cultural discourse should appeal to every member in the audience as equals. Films like ``E.T.'', ``Anjali'' or ``My dear Kuttichathan'' are good examples of such possibilities. This responsibility of sharing such cultural information is as much the responsibility of the parent as it is of the artist. With the growing empowerment of the child today through rapid high-tech education it is time that we as adults, incorporate children as significant characters of a larger narrative. Already one can see a major shift in the age group that is managing business houses right across the world. They are children in their late twenties who are executing important corporate decisions while facing enormous stress in what could be modern world's peak of development. Children from small towns in Andhra Pradesh are competing worldwide for grandmaster titles in chess. With greater advancements in technology this age bracket will only come down further. Are we, as today's adults, ready?

If the proverb of the child being the father of man is to be taken seriously then by all accounts the poor little patriarch certainly gets the least attention. And the poorer the society the more miserable is the child's condition. But all that lack of attention and poverty does not seem to deter the young child from boldly participating in the routine of daily life. Nature seems to have built such enormous resources of courage into the little heart that only the so-called wisdom of adulthood can eventually destroy. So every time one sees a bold and courageous man or woman you can be sure that the child in that person is still alive.

The writer is an alumni of FTII, Pune and has made "Thangaraj Enge", the first children's film in Tamil. He has also set up the first and only Indian Film Studies department abroad, at the University of Pennsylvania.

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