Society

Child stars on the big screen

These are the youngsters etched in the memory of anyone who watched Tamil cinema in the 90s. For nearly two decades ago, while their peers were struggling to understand the laws of science and mathematics in earnest classrooms, these child artistes were facing the studio lights and cameras. With some of them getting famous at the incredible young age of three, they lived a surreal life, and one very different from that of their friends: long days on film sets, hob-nobbing with the biggest stars of the day and the inevitable avalanche of attention associated with being part of the film industry.

Then, they grew up.

Many of today's biggest actors, from Kamal Haasan and Sridevi to Simbu and Hansika, started their film careers as child artistes. However there are even more people who were celebrities as children, but eventually moved away from the film fraternity to pursue different interests.

Nevertheless, no matter what direction a child artistes’ career trajectory takes, the on-screen characters of the actors of the 90s remains in the memory of contemporary audiences: perhaps because those were simpler times, with fewer productions, and hence bigger stars.

Today, these kids of the 90s are all grown up. Curious about their career paths, we find seven such youngsters to interview, and see what they’re up to now.

Name: Mahendran

Claim to fame: Naatamai (1994)

Career Graph: Started acting at the age of three

Seetharam V always wanted to be in the movies. He kept trying, but things just didn’t fall in place.

He was determined to make his son, then just a 11-month-old baby, live the life he so yearned for. He did odd jobs, including working in a cycle shop and tailoring, to support his family, but his dream was always to see his son on the big screen. “My father didn’t know Tamil well then — we were Telugu-speaking people — but he would go to all studios and ask for opportunities,” recalls ‘Master Mahendran’, as he’s popularly called. It was outside one such movie studio that Seetharam happened to meet director K.S. Ravikumar, whom he got introduced to via a friend.

Although he couldn’t communicate fluently in Tamil, his earnestness appealed to the filmmaker. In two months’ time, three-year-old Mahendran — accompanied by his father, of course — went to Kushaldas Gardens for a “meeting with the director.”

It went off well and, in a couple of months, they were all off to Gobichettipalayam to shoot for  Naatamai. Mahendran has vague memories of the shoot. “I was surrounded by Sarath Kumar, Vijayakumar, Manorama and Ponnambalam — all big film artistes — for a panchayat scene, but I just kept staring at them. I remember KSR sir squatting on the floor and narrating what I was supposed to do. Whatever he acted out to me, I just copied it.” For Mahendran, that panchayat scene marked the beginning of what was going to be a promising journey in the film industry. Since then, he has worked with many big stars — including Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan — as a child artist. “I did four films with Rajini sir, from whom I’ve learnt a lot. And Kamal sir is a guru for any child artiste.”

All this on-the-sets work did take a toll on his schooling. “Till my ninth standard, I didn’t pass a single test,” he cheekily states, “But my school was quite aware of the fact that I was a child actor and that I had commitments.”

Anybody who’s grown up watching Tamil films of the 90s would remember Mahendran and the twinkle in his eyes, and he continues his association with the industry till date. He’s a hero now;  Vizha, starring him in the lead role, was released a couple of years ago.

It had him portraying someone who plays the  thappu instrument at funerals and was based on the short film Uthiri, which featured him as well. “The short film, which bagged the second place in that season of the popular show Naalaiya Iyakkunar, was appreciated by the likes of K. Balachander and Kamal Haasan,” reveals Mahendran.

Up next is  Marudanda Seemailae, an urban Chennai-based film. “I love my beard and have always sported it, but I’m taking it off now for this project. Let’s see how people react when they see me like this.”

Name: Anand Krishnamoothi

Claim to fame: May Madham (1994), Sathi Leelavathi (1995)

Career Graph: Started acting at the age nine

Anand does not drive. Owning to bad driving skills, he is a regular user of the city’s public transport system. A child star, with an uncanny resemblance to his younger days, taking autos and buses every day? “Oh yes, people still recognise me from what I did as a kid,” says 34-year-old Anand, casually.

When Anand was nine years old, he was acting in school plays. By the time he was 10, however, he had already shot to prominence as the little boy from Anjali, who first makes friends with the mentally-challenged child, thereby influencing all his peers. “At that point, I didn’t give it much thought. It was all fun, but then one thing led to another… Maybe the director {Mani Ratnam} saw something in me, because he called me back for Thalapathi.” 

A slew of movies followed:  May Madham, Sathi Leelavathi, Aasai, Thalaivasal. Most recently, after a long on-screen hiatus, he made a cameo appearance in the 2009 Kamal Haasan starrer,  Unnaipol Oruvan, as the IIT dropout-turned-hacker. Just a cameo appearance? “I was already around the sets, doing technical work as the sound engineer of the film,” explains Anand.

Acting, he says, was incidental, but not something he now wants to pursue professionally. Anand prefers working behind the camera: he was the sound editor for  Vishwaroopam, he handled the dubbing work for  Kalyana Samayal Saadham and was the sound designer for  O Kadhal Kanmani. “As a skill, acting is something I’ve never let go of — it comes in handy even when working behind the camera.” But sound work is not all he wants to do behind the camera. The child artiste who worked as an assistant director to Balu Mahendra and attended film school at the University of Bristol says, “I wrote and directed episodes for Vijay TV’s  Dharmayutham. If I want to get into more writing and direction, I need to devote a good deal of time to it. But right now, the sound work is keeping me very busy.”

Name: Shamlee

Claim to fame: Anjali (1990)

Career Graph: Started acting at the age of one

When she goes out, people still remember her as the girl from  Anjali.  Shamlee — or ‘Baby Shamlee’ as she’s still called — has been facing the camera since she was a year or two, having starred in many memorable films in the South.

Though she’s done several films, it is  Anjali that stands out for Tamil cinema fans. “I have a lot of memories from that shoot,” she recalls, “My hair had to be messy all the time, I had to wear bad shoes and walk around and I used to hate it.”

Since the film featured many other children, shooting was done at a leisurely pace. “I met Mani Ratnam recently and he told me about how I’d take a nap after lunch during shoot, and then start work again,” says Shamlee, who is actress Shalini’s sister.

Even today, when she watches the film on TV, she’s intrigued about the ‘little cute kid’.

She grew up playing strong roles —  Malootty in Malayalam had her playing a child who was trapped inside a bore-well — and doing films that featured animals. Yes, animals. “As a child, I’ve done crazy things in films… I’ve worked with elephants, carried a snake in my hand and acted with monkeys,” she elaborates.

Today, Shamlee — post a filmmaking course in Singapore — is all grown up and eyeing Kollywood in a big way; she has already bagged two big projects, one opposite Vikram Prabhu, and the other opposite Dhanush. “I kept getting offers but I thought the timing was good now. For now, I’m concentrating on acting. I am interested in film production, but I want to gain experience before getting into that.”

Name: Ann Alexia Anra

Claim to fame: Avvai Shamnughi (1996)

Career Graph: Started modeling at age three

Ann’s mother never wanted her to enter the film industry. But  Avvai Shanmughi, the hugely popular 1996 comedy, came her way when she was seven and shot her to stardom as a child artiste. “You have no inhibitions as a kid, but when the movie released, I was always spotted every time I went out; so much of my family’s privacy was lost. It was pretty intense.” 

So though she’s been around the industry and getting offers for lead roles since she was 15, her mother was not keen. Instead, she’s been engaged in a slew of creative ventures: writing for the magazine Southside, dabbling in sailing, taking part in Miss Chennai 2007, teaching ballroom dancing at Danzaa, starting a candy apple business called Original Sin to cater to friends, manufacturing leather bags and organising weekend sales, making documentaries… all this, while managing a real estate company she started when she was 21. “I’ve been working since I was a kid, so I can never sit idle. For me, it’s more fun than anything else.”

Now, most of her time is spent handling social media and marketing for the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music. She also handles casting and does modelling for ad shoots. “I wanted to work in the media, which is why I do all this. But now, I am not too confident to act as an adult in the industry because I never did theatre or anything; though I’d like to see if I can still act,” says the artiste of Malayalee-Telugu lineage.

Name: Kalyani Suresh

Claim to fame: Alli Thandha Vaanam (2001)

Career Graph: Started anchoring a TV show at the age of 7

As a kid, Kalyani featured in 198 ads. “From Arun Ice-cream to Chennai silks to Pothys… you name it, I’ve done it,” says Kalyani. A classical dancer who started performing when she was three-and-a-half years old, Kalyani was spotted on stage by a director, who found her “very bubbly and chirpy” and asked if she’d host a TV show: Kids-Q on Jaya TV. 

From there, she was invited to audition for the 2001 film, Alli Thandha Vaanam, when she was eight years old. She is still fondly remembered as the little girl who starred opposite actor Prabhu Deva in the catchy number ‘Kasu Kasu’. “After that, I did many Tamil movies like  Jayam and  Ramana, three Malayalam movies and even a Hollywood film called Backwaters.” When she was 15, she was offered the lead role in the Tamil remake of Rani Mukherjee’s first film,  Raja Ki Ayagi Barat, titled  Prathi Gnayiru 9.30 to 10.00. “That’s the thing with entering the field as a child actor, you don’t understand the importance of choosing a big banner and working with established artistes. I was just excited to do the project because I loved the character. But then, the film didn’t come out well and that backfired on my career.”

After that, she says, though she received calls from big production houses to star opposite big actors, there were many “compromises” expected from her. Compromises? Is she alluding to the infamous casting couch? “Oh that’s putting it too politely,” she says, bitterly. “I didn’t like the approach of the industry after that. So I decided to quit.” However, six months after, she received a call from Vijay TV with an offer — to anchor Super Mom. “That was super fun because the anchor was given a lot of importance,” she says. Since then, she’s been seen on the silver screen anchoring different shows and starring in serials like  Pirivom Sandhipom, Thayumanavan and currently,  Andal Azhagar

Now married and living in Bangalore, 25-year-old Kalyani says she enjoys playing the role of a laid-back wife while there, because every alternate week, when she travels to Chennai for her shoots, it’s a lot of exhausting work.

Name: Egypt Dinesh

Claim to fame: Nila Kaalam (2001)

Career Graph: Started acting at the age of 14

When Dinesh was 13, he won a state-level certificate for a play he scripted and enacted. “But I only did that to impress a girl I liked. Though I was passionate about acting, I swear I had no idea I could act.” 

In 1997, he took part in The Little Theatre’s street theatre production where children from Corporation schools were invited to act. The play,  Nadodi Makkal, was directed by Kalai Rani of Koothu-p-pattarai, who was also the trainer for the children selected to star in  Nila Kaalam. She recommended Dinesh give the auditions a shot. Out of the 50 people selected for the role, 10 were chosen for the training session. “The first time, I wasn’t selected because I forgot the dialogue. But Kalai Rani ma’am believed in me and wanted me to audition again.” Then, he trumped the audition and went on to star in the 2001 film. “Everyone — friends, neighbours, shopkeepers — called me ‘Nila Kaalam’ after that. It even happens now sometimes,” chuckles Dinesh.

Post the film, he was invited to act in the Vikram-starrer,  Samurai. “I was selected at the audition, but didn’t take up the role because I was in class 10. I wanted to finish my education.” After college, he was unsuccessful despite the number of attempts he made to bag a role. In 2009, he was again selected to star in a movie, to be directed by a woman director. Unfortunately, the producer’s mother passed away, and the movie was scrapped. After that, Dinesh lost interest.

In 2010, he joined The Little Theatre as an accountant and the following year, found himself in the spotlight again when he starred in the play Atita during The Little Festival. Since then, he’s been involved in stage plays — acting, set design and set fabrication — and is part of the production house’s Medical Clowning initiative. “I am interested in acting and starring in films, and am willing to experiment with any role offered to me. But I don’t know how to go about it anymore.

Name: Ranjini Hariharan

Claim to fame: Nila Kaalam (2001)

Career Graph: Began acting at the age of 9

As a nine-year-old, it was Ranjini’s long locks that got her noticed. She’d given her pictures to a model coordinator, and was soon approached for a shampoo advertisement. “I already knew classical dance, and that helped during the auditions.”

From there, she did her first movie,  Nila Kaalam, followed by  Pandavar Bhoomi, Thendral and  Naan Kadavul. “I used to travel in buses and share autos when I was in MOP Vaishnav College. I used to take the 24A route and you won’t believe how the college boys ragged me then! It was a little embarrassing, but it was still a good feeling.” After college, she worked in a bank for two years, but all the while kept juggling her interests: modelling, anchoring, singing Carnatic music and teaching classical dance.

Last year, she got married and moved to Hyderabad to be with her husband. Ranjini now pursues her passion: she works as the dance teacher at the Silver Oaks school, runs a dance academy in the evenings and continues taking music classes for her students in Chennai over Skype. Still, her fame follows her around. “A lot of my modelling pictures, from Chennai’s textile showrooms, have been used here as well. My students, when they went Deepavali shopping, took those pictures and brought it to school to show me,” giggles the 24-year-old. 


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Printable version | Jul 19, 2021 7:48:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/child-stars-on-the-big-screen/article7873221.ece

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