05/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Film in India Shines an Unflattering Spotlight on the Children

Earlier this week, I attended my first two screenings at the Indian Film Festival Los Angeles: the L.A. premiere of Firaaq by actress and first-time director Nandita Das and the much-anticipated global premiere of Sikandar released by Big Pictures (as in Anil Ambani/Reliance, of Dreamworks deal fame). I am guessing that the flicks were paired back-to-back because they both deal with Muslim/Hindu related cultural-political conflicts in India. However, their underlying themes resonated with another topic that has consumed the media lately -- how the youth and children of India fare (or don't fare) in the midst of political and cultural conflicts at large, and in the microcosm of the home.

Firaaq follows stories of peoples' lives after the 2002 riots in Gujarat, India which resulted in the death of 3000 Muslims. All of the film's characters are profound and well-actualized but it is arguably the 'side story' of a little boy -- who saw his family burned alive and is orphaned as a result of the riots, that is unforgettable. He is also the lynchpin between a couple of the plots and ultimately the conceptual and literal 'close-up' at the film's culmination.

Sikandar -- for the purposes of American audiences -- takes a sort of Slumdog Millionaire path in its story of the profound trials facing youth in Kashmir. By this I mean to say that -- in acting style, screenplay, production and ending -- it has a tone and feel that is palatable to the mainstream. The film chronicles the story of a boy who finds a gun on the way to school. It shows how the gun changes his life -- at first for the better (helping him conquer his schoolyard bully oppressors) then for the worst as he becomes enmeshed, as an inadvertent political pawn, in the dangerous regional conflict. Like many movies of the genre Sikandar portrays the loss of innocence alongside the dirtiness and pollution of violence and warring factions. Sikandar himself is an orphan whose parents were killed by militants. He just wants what all boys his age in the rest of the world want: to play soccer. The jarring opening shot of another boy kicking a soccer ball loaded with a bomb gets the film's message across loud and clear.

And if you haven't heard the message lately, it's that the situation is dire for many of India's children. That may sound like a Sally Struthers plea to some media-numbed pop culture hounds, but if the latest coverage is any indicator, it's just a sad fact. This week, global readers shuddered when they heard that the father of Slumdog Millionaire's child starlet Rubina Ali was attempting to sell his daughter off to the highest bidder. Such extreme tales of Hindi Hollywood child star suffering make 'the Coreys go to re-hab' or 'another Lindsay Lohan meltdown' look like the self-absorbed self-sticking rotten bubblegum they are. And that's not the end of the story. Another child star from Slumdog Millionaire (after being greeted in his hometown with post-Oscars fanfare) was later beaten by his father.

The aforementioned are tragedies brought to life the film industry's screens and coverage. It's nice to see cinematic exposure (potentially) do something positive and civic-minded for the world, for a change. Certainly this is nothing new to people in the India and the rest of the world who have had their cameras on the shot, so to speak for a while now. We just sat up and noticed because of a little something dubbed "the Slumdog effect." Of course other directors have explored this connection as well.

Mira Nair's Academy Award nominated film Salaam Bombay -- a tale of 27 slum kids shone a similar light on the cruel situation during the '80s. The director ended up setting up a trust for the kids in the film which included medical treatment, housing, education and counseling. Similarly, we've all heard that Danny Boyle has set up a trust for the kids of Slumdog Millionaire. For most of us Hollywood is raw escapism from the toils of our every day life. One can only imagine what this escapism means -- as a real-life experience -- for slum kids-turned-actors. And then there's, of course, the dismal 'return to reality.'

While watching Firaaq, a film I thought was particularly good, I couldn't help feeling for Mohan, the little Muslim orphan character (who could?). Though I'm not a particularly maternal woman, it did bring out my maternal urges. And though it was only a film, I felt a great desire to sweep in and take the kid in my arms and save him. I suddenly understood and even related to all those celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Madonna whose foreign adoptions are mocked on SNL and in the tabloids as addictions. The festival goer next to me could barely contain her gasps and pity noises every time the orphan boy appeared on-screen. And the director didn't even play this up as much as she could have in the production.

Having grown up in Los Angeles, I am usually wary of giving the film industry more power than it already believes it has. But when I personally hear/watch this many film-related tales of Indian child suffering in a one-month period, I think the global film industry and/or its media machine is (it's rather obvious) trying to tell us something. It doesn't need to be emblazened accross a lunchbox, nor does it need to be positive per se to be a zeitgeist...and long-time-coming media-fueled zeitgeist this is.

Exploitation is naturally a concern, which is why, the Angelina and Madonna adoptions set off our radars, no doubt. Still, I don't think we can judge how someone (with tremendous power) chooses to actualize his or her solution to the problem. Nor is there a single solution -- be it adoption or setting up trust and education funds, etc. But filmmakers can keep on making compelling works like Firaaq and putting them out there for audiences to absorb and address as they see fit.