By Santoshee Gulabkali Mishra
Mumbai: Glitzy, heady, fast-paced… there are many ways in which the creative world of cinema, television and the stage arts is often described. Under the bright arc lights, however, there exists a dark reality – of punishing hard work, abuse, gender bias and insecurity. Despite the threats and vulnerabilities, children have always been an integral part of the glamour industry – although today there is a vigorous ongoing debate on whether it is ethical to jeopardise the childhood, education as well as the physical and mental well-being of the young ones.One of the most iconic faces of innocence onscreen, Daisy Irani, who stepped in front of the camera when she was just two-and-a-half years old, may have had golden run during the golden age of Indian cinema – 1950s-1970s – but the pain of living with neglect, physical and emotional violence, and crippling fear, was also a part of her existence for over two decades. In this no holds barred one-on-one with Santoshee Gulabkali Mishra, Irani shares her story and adds her strong voice to the issue of child labour in the entertainment business.
Q: You are among the few iconic child stars India has produced. How did you step into the Hindi film industry?
A: I was born in a joint family residing at Grant Road in Mumbai. My mother, Perin Noshid Irani, made us move to Bandra, a suburb. My grandparents ran an Irani restaurant and my father used to travel to Grant Road for the restaurant business. We were living in a huge bungalow in Bandra so my mother decided to rent out a portion of the property. Our tenant list included personalities like music director Hemant Kumar. Many film people used to visit him and one among them was actress Moushumi Chatterjee’s relative, a filmmaker who was Hemant Kumar’s namesake. He saw me playing in the veranda and was taken in with my chubby cheeks and curly hair. When he approached my mother with the idea of working with me she immediately agreed. I was just two-and-a-half-years-old. Kumar was making, ‘Taksaal’, starring Nirupa Roy and Balraj Sahni. He was desperate to cast a male child actor and I was selected for the role.
Q: How did you manage to pull off the role of a boy?
A: [Laughs aloud] Honestly, I was hardly in a position to understand what I was doing or wearing. My mother instructed me to talk and behave like a boy. I didn’t do it, I’d be punished. I was scared. I never really understood why I was being asked to be like a boy. A few months later, I became the talk of the town – apparently, I was the male child star everyone was waiting for![Chuckles] Many filmmakers, like Satyen Bose, Ashok Kumar and B.R. Chopra had already planned their films but did not take them to the floor because they wanted to work with the ‘male’ child star. [Laughs again]
My mother realised she had a good business in hand– with her trademark autocratic attitude, she started signing the contracts with moviemakers. I, however, had a tough time. Learning dialogues wasn’t easy; I was lucky that senior actors helped me out. If missed lines there was always punishment awaiting from my mother.
Q: What was it like shooting; did you work night shifts?
A: I used to be so petrified [of facing the camera] that I could not speak a word. My mother and producer used to take me out in a big car and intimidate me. I was told to do whatever the ‘director uncle’ asks. For scenes where I had to cry I was beaten with wires and pinched. They did this after throwing a blanket over me so that there were no marks on my body. Before I could understand whether this was right or wrong,out of fear, I became a disciplined child artist. Night shifts were a part of the schedule. There were many times when I used to fall off to sleep even before reaching my home.Sometimes we didn’t return until the wee-hours or even till noon the next day. There were no fixed hours.
If a child has extra charisma, that can be always encouraged. It can be an extra curricular activity of the child and these kind of activities should be encouraged. But if the children are literally forced to work and earn then it's a crime. No one has the right to take away the rights of children and deprive them of their childhood, "
It's very sad that children have to work like this in the entertainment industry. In fact it's such a pathetic position that children are being used by parents whereas it is their duty to look after them.
Advocate Farhana Shah
Q: If you were working so much, when was there time for school or fun and games?
A: [Laughs aloud] Each day I was packed off for shoots and my mother guarded my every move. I could not even think of school or games. While the senior actors prepared for their role or were busy with rehearsals I was asked to sit in a room. Even small childhood joys like ice-creams, chocolates or sweets were not allowed. I was constantly supervised; there w so many elders who had ready ‘advice’ on what I should eat. They told me that they can't afford me falling sick for even a day.
When I went to Delhi, after ‘Hum Panchhi Ek Daal Ke’ (1957) was nominated for the National Award, I realised I have missed school. I met Chacha Nehru (Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru) at the function and my mother asked me to speak to him. I pronounced a word wrongly and he asked me about my school and education. He wrote a letter to a school and gave it to my mother. I was admitted in Class Four at Rose Manners Garden School in Santacruz. I failed thrice and finally withdrew; I would be 10 years old then.
To compensate, my mother arranged for private tuitions. I had 28 tutors – to perfect my speech, diction and everything else needed to succeed in movies. I somehow learnt to speak in English and then my mother had started focusing on my sibling, Honey, who was also budding child actor.
[When I left school] I lost the opportunity to re-shape my life. I could have been a teacher, a painter or may be nothing; but at least my childhood would have been mine. Nowadays, when my children and grandchildren celebrate my birthday, I ask for a cake with a garden fencing, Cinderella, Santa Claus… and they laugh at my demand. I love it when they pamper me because I only laboured as child, never got to live as one.
Q: When did you give up acting?
A: When I started growing up, there were significant changes in my body but my mother would insist on padding me up from my breasts to the stomach.Things only went on like that for some time. I got work till the audiences could be fooled no more and then I was jobless. I was happy to come out of my mother’s clutches but not she. I think she always liked the glamour, lights, camera and action in life. Maybe that was her approach but it cost me and my siblings dearly; it wasn’t a fair deal or decision.
I got married at 19 and decided never to put in my children in this industry. After my husband's death I started working in the television industry in the 1990s. My three children contributed to running home but I never asked them to be a part of show business.
Q: What do you feel about the growing trend of children, especially girls, being roped in for television reality shows and soaps?
A: The glamour attracts the parents who often coax or force their child to be in front of the camera. The elders probably understand the ‘demands’ of a reality show or acting in films but they ignore it. However, having said that, I also think that the scenario has changed for children. They rule the sets today. I hear they often throw tantrums like stars. The days of slogging round the clock are gone,but if they are entering the entertainment industry at the cost of their education I would strongly call for stricter rules for engaging child actors.