First Act

First Act
First Act
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First Act is very likable. The six-part docu-series has the right ingredients. Affecting subject: It looks at a world of lost childhoods, adopted ambitions and empty big-town glories. Expansive access: It follows the lives of child actors – ex and present – in the Indian film and entertainment industry. Homegrown compassion: Deepa Bhatia, director-editor and Amole Gupte, creative producer have an impressive track record of working with children and teenage artists (Taare Zameen Par, 2007, Stanley ka Dabba, 2011 etc). Sense of perspective: The documentary examines parents’ sweaty complicity in this all-or-nothing ecosystem. Diversity of struggle: It explores struggles of Gujarati, Bengali, Maharashtrian, North Indian and Muslim families across class and age divides.

The social range is comprehensive as well: A reality show starlet making a comeback after a long break; a daily-soap actress warding off sleazy rape scenes; an acting trainer along with his slum kids; a dancing prodigy fighting for a chance; a middle-class immigrant couple who pin their dreams on their three-year-old child among many others (At some point they even go to look for the ex-Slumdog Millionaire kid). And more than anything else it’s like watching an episode from Law & Order: SVU which began as “child labour dramas featuring exceptional growth stories”. Questions put to kids and families are sharp but not judgmental about their situation. Well known filmmakers (Gupte Shoojit Sircar) as well casting directors (Mukesh Chhabra Honey Trehan) are heard giving their opinions with conviction. However viewers cannot forget how much blaming themselves these talking heads do because it is always implicit when they speak on this matter that there are no innocents in this dog-eat-dog world.

First Act unfolds like a passion project, no holds barred. The makers are opinionated and they stick to it. In consequence, some of the interviews speak volumes in the way they’re cut and framed. Camera stays on an infant’s face as his parents sadly recount his early “signs” of acting aspirations. A teenager jokes that he always anticipates getting beaten up by his dad after bombing auditions because afterwards he usually gets guilt-edged presents for days. A television director coldly announces that there’s no room for sympathy on set but then chuckles while admitting that he wouldn’t let his own kids come into this crushing world. A dad acknowledges making a mistake by making her daughter skip her board exams, but insists that it was professionally right to do so.”

These moments come by so easily, such that the specificity of the series sometimes reaches a universal note. However, this is not just the price of greatness for parents who project their incomplete dreams and frustrations on their youth; it’s a matter of life and death for them. It’s hard to grasp how they could fail to acknowledge it but at the same time it seems only too familiar. For example, when her daughter protested about her objectionable roles in auditions, coming into view was a passive face of a mother. A parent threatens to quit town if his kid does not repeat certain lines. This documentary is consistently focused on its indictment of human nature. It scans an entire system that rewards – as well as normalizes – abuse as language use. Although six 30-minute episodes have potential to be repetitive or even long-winded, they do underline the fact that art and show-business are exploitative wheels within themselves.

In fact, there is no ambiguity about this toxicity: it is openly voiced out and leaves little room for two-sided debates in such an industry whose specialty lies in looking back rather than progressing forward. Finally we get it; whether he wants to or not the child has been left behind.

Also, however, this attachment which the makers have brought upon themselves becomes fatal for this serials’ failure too. Empathy can be overwhelming to the extent that one may need some violence against its narrative in order to make sense out of it. But most of them seem fake or directed like what happens when people in real life recreate these feelings and actions from their past life experience . In other words, viewers will never see through rye with regards to these journeys. The identity of a hybrid docudrama is neither acquired nor embraced by camera despite its active presence throughout all proceedings.

Mumbai-picnic songs together with corny training montages(a teen trying to lose weight). These conversations sound dubbed hence making us think they are happening in rickshaws and taxis. It looks as though brokers and agents are acting as brokers and agents. But a girl’s late-night ride to the TV and her father searching for an apartment to rent appear as if overdesigned set pieces. A kid consoles his mother using lines that sound scripted.

However, the issue is that it appears too staged for a family voyage from Delhi to Mumbai. Rejections, phone calls from casting directors are associated with sad music. The very idea of producing drama-like exchanges or literature tropes does not allow preserving this integral quality of the series anymore. The lens sometimes shifts from chronicling to approximating, turning First Act into a TV serial dressed up 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. If it’s about children then there is no need to pretend that it is for children.

This do-gooding style unknowingly encourages the structure of the spotlight. The camera is one among many that the young artistes and their parents act for. It’s almost as if they are being encouraged at some level to use this docu-series as a platform to get seen. (One of them eventually gets cast as the younger version of the protagonist in Gupte’s biopic, Saina 2021) They are not so much being followed but rather acting out emotions associated with feeling like they are being followed. It is such a gaze on part of directors which makes them audition for life itself. Who they are depends on how close or distant they want to be from make-believe in their job. As such, their real selves blend into their fictional ones. You never know where their memories end and experiences begin. It is hard to differentiate between one’s trauma and its re-telling.

First act can be justified in a way by considering that maybe it reflects an overambitiousness that results in tragedy. In a world of glorified talent competitions, there is no more room left for themselves’. The documentary makers don’t prevent these children including their parents from assuming artificiality within its domain’. Nevertheless, it often turns out sweetly sour after squeezing lemons.’ Yet there also lies irony behind ‘casting’ stories as a prototype which could easily be identified with’. There may perhaps be something about faking trouble that already exists.’ While it’s another thing all together different curating its reality; you can trust nonfiction to tell us the truth.”

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