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Harshali Malhotra of Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Parth Bhalerao of Killa: Meet Bollywood’s child stars

2015 has been a good year for children in both mainstream and regional films. Here’s a look at some of those who delivered sterling performances on screen.

Written by Rajkrishnan Menon , Sankhayan Ghosh , Premankur Biswas , Garima Mishra, Shaju Philip | Mumbai |
Updated: September 27, 2015 8:15:43 am
harshaali malhotra, bajrangi bhaijaan, kakka muttai, parth bhalerao, ramesh, vignesh, harshaali, entertainment news 2015 has been a good year for children in both mainstream and regional films. Here’s a look at some of those who delivered sterling performances on screen.

The Coin Collector
Nikhil Sahni, 11

It’s difficult to track down Nikhil Sahni. After school, he could be anywhere on the ghats of Varanasi. Or just like his character, Jhonta, the spirited pint-size orphan who collects coins left by pilgrims by diving into the Ganga, he could be in the water. Son of Pappu Sahni, who owns two shops on the ghat and runs guided boating tours, Sahni is oblivious to the kind of success Masaan has met with in urban centres. He doesn’t understand the laurels that have been heaped on his debut film at Festival de Cannes this year. All he knows is that his dream of acting in at least one film in his life has come true. “I feel good when people say this child was in Masaan,” says Sahni, who has been collecting coins since he was three years old, earning about Rs 30 a day.

nikhil sahni Nikhil Sahni – Masaan


For generations, his family has made a living from the river — by rowing boats during the marriage season, or by teaching swimming to young students and selling puja-related material. It was his uncle, Jyoti Lal, who alerted the young boy about an audition for a film. “About 150 boys auditioned, five were short-listed. The others were used for group activities,” says Pappu. But even for the natural, the 45-day shoot was hard work. “We were shooting at Nandeshwar Ghat where the water is quite deep. So, whenever we were supposed to dive and come up with the coin, we used to dive with the coin in our mouth at the start itself,” he says.
Even though Sahni loves to dance, he wants to be an engineer when he grows up. “I like maths and English,” he says.

Director Neeraj Ghaywan was impressed by Sahni’s instinctive performance. “It was clear that Jhonta will not be cast from Mumbai. It required the rustic and earthy energy of the place. Mumbai kids fake cuteness and that annoys me. It was the toughest casting of Masaan as it took more than 25 days of auditioning. Nikhil bowled me over by his natural energy. The scene where he talks to Pathak in the hospital still gives me goosebumps,” he says.
prashant pandey and

Holding Fort
Parth Bhalerao, 15 & Archit Deodhar, 14

When one finally meets Parth Bhalerao and Archit Deodhar, one’s impressions about the duo — greatly influenced by their roles in the National Award-winning Killa (Fort) — take a 360 degree turn. The boys are nowhere close to the characters they essayed in the film. Killa is the story of a city boy Chinmay, who is yet to come to terms with his father’s death and finds it hard to adjust in a small town, where his mother gets a job transfer. He meets Bandya, an orphan, whose carefree outlook towards life, brings a change in him.

parth bhalerao Parth Bhalerao – Killa

Unlike Bandya, Bhalerao is an introvert off-screen, quiet and balanced, while Deodhar is talkative and mischievous. “I looked up to Parth as a senior actor. After all, he had already acted in a few Marathi films and Killa was my first film,” says Deodhar.

Bhalerao is, indeed, a “senior” child actor. In 2009, he did his first Marathi film — Khalti Doka, Varti Paay (Upside Down), followed by Tukaram (2012). In 2014, he shared screen space with Amitabh Bachchan in Bhootnath Returns. This year, he won a special mention for Killa at the 62nd National Awards. “I’ve acted in school plays since I was 10 years old. My drama teacher told me to audition for Killa. I did and was selected. Someone on the sets of Killa gave my name for Bhootnath. I went to Mumbai for the audition and cracked it,” says the budding actor, who has finished shooting for Marathi film Disco Sunnya. In his free time, Bhalerao loves swimming or playing with his pet parrot. The class XI student at SP College aims to study animal psychology afterwards. But acting is also on the radar — he is a part of a theatre group, Collage Creations, as well.

Similarly, Deodhar, a class IX student at SPM English School, has participated in several inter-school theatre competitions since he was six. He too, heeded his drama teacher’s advice and auditioned for Killa two years ago. Staying in a remote village during the shoot for the film was an eye-opener. “Here in Pune, we crib about the smallest of things, but there I met people who are very happy with the little they possess. I learned a lot from observing them,” says Deodhar, whose upcoming project is the Marathi film Saha Gun (Six Marks).

Avinash Arun, director, Killa, can’t stop praising the two. “I never treated them like kids and gave them a free rein. I would ask them to do the scenes as they understood it and the way they would improvise would bowl me over again and again,” he says.

Little star,
Big dreams
Harshali Malhotra, 7
Bajrangi Bhaijaan

Four years ago, when Kajal Malhotra walked into a kidswear outlet in a shopping mall in Delhi, she couldn’t have imagined what destiny had in store for her daughter. The shop was conducting a child modelling contest and Harshali, then three, was placed first. The next day she was at a farmhouse to shoot a commercial for the brand. It was the start of Harshali’s journey, from a child model for various high profile brands to this year’s most recognisable child actor, thanks to her performance in the Salman Khan superhit, Bajrangi Bhaijaan (BB). “People in school sometimes call me Munni. They ask me to do my famous step from the movie,” says the young girl, who aspires to be a “superstar”. Her mother recalls the first time Harshali expressed her desire to become an actress. “She pointed at the big screen and said she wants be there,” she says.

Harshaali malhotra Harshali Malhotra – Bajrangi Bhaijaan

There were two other girls shortlisted to play Munni in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, but it was Malhotra who impressed Khan almost instantly. “Make me a superstar like you,” she’d apparently said. Khan had grown so fond of her during the course of shooting the film, that he still calls up to check on her, and offer “valuable career suggestions”. After BB, Khan has suggested she only sign films that give her a substantial character to play. “As of now, she will only do films that offer her something solid, or do prestigious brand endorsements. She won’t act in TV since their schedules take a toll on her studies,” says Kajal, who wants to keep her daughter grounded. “When people in school ask me about my film shoots, I simply say I’m not allowed to talk about them,” says Harshali.

In 2009, film director Dr Bijukumar Damodaran was shooting Veettilekkulla Vazhi (The Way Home), and was scouting for a five-year-old to play the role of one of the primary characters in the adventure-drama film. Damodaran is a district medical officer (homeopathy) in Kasargode and the winner of two National Film Awards as well as two Kerala State Film Awards. He screened several boys but most parents refused to send their son to shoot in chilly Ladakh. The filmmaker then decided to cast his own son. That was how Govardhan, then six years old, came into Malayalam cinema.

Now a seventh standard student at Adoor in Pathanamthitta district, Govardhan doesn’t recall much about his debut film. “My father took me to Ladakh and I was taught what to say before the camera, the dialogues were recorded live during the shoot. Later, while watching the film at the theatre, I realised what the film was about,” he says.“The choice of my son for Veettilekkulla Vazhi was accidental. But in the next two ventures, Akasathinte Niram (Colour of Sky) in 2012, and Perariyathavar (Names Unknown) in 2014, I had Govardhan in mind while I was writing the script,” says Damodaran. For his performance as the son of a scavenger in Perariyathavar, Govardhan won the best actor award at the 33rd Fajr International Film Festival in Tehran. “I also won Rs 3 lakh as the prize money,” he says.
At locations, Govardhan says, the crew is friendly and helpful. “Some of them even showed me how to act, particularly in the last two films. I tried to perform more seriously,” he says. “Govardhan has the ability to turn into a character in front of the camera. Of course, to have his father as the director must have helped him feel at ease before the camera too,” says Damodaran.

Smells Like Teen Spirit
Riddhi Sen, 17, Surangana Bandyopadhyay, 15, Rwitobroto Mukherjee, 16, Dhee, 19
Open Tee Bioscope

Riddhi Sen walks into the south Kolkata cafe eight minutes late, extremely apologetic. “There was a terrible jam,” he says. But his Open Tee Bioscope co-stars, Surangana Bandyopadhyay, Dhee, and Rwitobroto Mukherjee relentlessly tease him about his starry airs, now that he is a pin-up star.

(l2r) Dhee, Riddhi, Surangana, Rwitobroto, Rajarshi
It has been nine months since the release of Open Tee Bioscope. The film documents the lives of five north Kolkata teens in the 1990s, who are waking up to love and adulthood in the times of cable revolution. “The film spoke to a generation intimately,” says Sen, who also has a lead role in the forthcoming Chauranga which won the Best Film award in MAMI festival this year.

While coming-of-age tales are not new, child actors are still expected to be simultaneously innocent and precocious. “But things are changing now. In Open Tee… there is a kissing scene between Riddhi and Surangana. We are most sexually charged in our teenage years , why shouldn’t a film about teenagers address that?” says Dhee, son of Bengali pop star Shilajit.

Educated, aware and confident, they are a far cry from wide-eyed child stars shepherded from one set to the other by ambitious parents. Sen, son of noted theatre actors Kaushik and Reshmi, auditioned several times before bagging the lead role. Dhee is part of Kolkata’s vibrant music scene: “I plan to play with my band and keep acting too. I don’t think I will have a problem juggling the two.” Bandyopadhyay, who comes from a family of government employees, was spotted by director Anindya Chatterjee in the popular children’s talent show, Dance Bangla Dance. “I am a trained Bharatnatyam dancer. I had no intentions of pursuing an acting career,” she says. Mukherjee, the son of a renowned character actor, Shantilal Mukherjee, wants to train professionally as an actor. “I know that a lot depends on luck, but I have faith in my talent,” he says.

Director’s Special

Ramesh, 15 and Vignesh, 12
Kaaka Muttai, 2014

“It’s usually difficult to handle kids, no?” asks Iyshwarya Rajesh, 25, who played the mother of the two child actors who are the life and soul of the Tamil film Kaaka Muttai. She quickly answers, and also contradicts, her own rhetoric: “That’s what I thought, anyway. I was concerned that they may be naughty and indisciplined. But Ramesh and Vignesh surprised me. They are mature, they understood the situation every time they faced the camera and approached their work like seasoned professionals.”

kaka muttai

She’s talking about Ramesh, 15, and Vignesh, 12, who live in Kasimedu, on the outskirts of Chennai. Their film, Kaaka Muttai won the National Film Award for the Best Children’s Film along with the Marathi film Elizabeth Ekadashi while the duo shared the award for Best Child Artiste. “At first, we didn’t realise how big a national award is. Ramesh and I took a flight for the first time to go to Delhi and received the award from the President. People explained to us later about our achievement,” Vignesh says over the phone from Chennai.

The children credit the director, M Manikandan, for helming the film with a delightful lightness of touch. “He didn’t want us to act”, Iyshwarya says. “He simply urged us to react to the story situations in the most natural way. He told us that each one of you have your unique, inimitable style and that he wouldn’t want to interfere.” Manikandan, who also wrote and shot Kaaka Muttai – his debut feature – handpicked the cast and only started filming after a month-long rehearsal. The director spotted the two when he was location scouting about two years ago. He had been photographing the area and everywhere he went, a group of children followed him. Manikandan shot their photos too and later convinced the parents of these two children to let them act. “I wanted everyone, the children especially, to be familiar with the process. The two were a bit nervous at first but soon got used to being part of a film shoot,” adds Manikandan. “You can say we are director’s actors,” says Vignesh. “Mani sir enacted the difficult scenes, even as he handled the camera. We watched him and learnt as we went along,” Ramesh says.

Kaaka Muttai is about two brothers who live in a slum in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, who yearn to taste a pizza. The film premiered at the 39th Toronto International Film Festival on September 5 last year. After its release in June this year, the film, made on a modest budget, received widespread critical acclaim apart from being a box office success. It was co-produced by actor Dhanush and distributed by Fox Star Studios.

Fame may be their newfound friend but for the two, acting and stardom can wait. For now, their priority is school. “I won’t get leave,” says Vignesh when asked if he would do another film. And what if he does? “I’ll go act. But I will have to ask my parents first,” he says.

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