Should A Film Like Pihu Ever Be Made?
The ethics of using children in films
Pihu is the name of a feature film that centres around a little girl of two named Pihu who is trapped in her flat and does not know what to do. The unique premise of a 2-year-old alone in her house, trapped, left everyone aghast. The film was on the 2nd position on IMDB’s chart of most anticipated film of 2018, and was trending on Twitter and Google Search. Pihu, directed by National Award winning director Vinod Kapri, is produced by Ronnie Screwvala’s RSVP and Siddharth Roy Kapur’s Roy Kapur Films. The film will release in cinemas on 16th November 2018.
The story is unusual, true, the questions it raises are not only scary but raise powerful ethical questions about the use of little children to enact roles they do not even understand. The girl who plays the role of Pihu is also just two years of age. Reports say that the director had to build a close rapport with the little one for her to imbibe what she was expected to do, when and how. The unique premise of a 2-year-old alone in her house, trapped, left everyone aghast when the trailer was released earlier this week.
Please note that Pihu is not a horror film with a creepy kid you would never wish to set eyes on ever again. It is a very sad story of this little two-year-old who has no clue that her mother lies dead on her bed. She opens the fridge to find something and locks herself in by accident and cannot make her way out. She switches on the oven, switches on the toaster and does every imaginable thing a little kid left alone can be expected to do. She even climbs over the banisters of the balcony when her doll falls off to the ground some floors below. It is really a scary film.
But what scares me the most is the misuse and abuse of a little girl of two who ought to be out playing with her dolls and having cakes and butter or being cuddled in her mother’s lap being subjected to enact things she does not even understand. How did the parents of this child permit their child to participate in this horrific experiment in the first place? How did responsible filmmakers like Ronnie Screwvala’s RSVP and Siddharth Roy Kapur’s Roy Kapur Films agree to fund this project and go ga-ga over its trailer? What exactly is the director trying to project? That the parents of Pihu are negligent? Or, that modern housing places children in situations neither the kids nor their parents are able to control? The director has no clear answer.
Some films feature child characters put in violent situations. This can range from crude language to extreme horror (e.g. torture, gore, etc.). As an example, Child's Play and its sequel has plenty of those scenes. It looks like a paradox that children can be actors in movies that are definitely not for children.
Is Pihu, then, a case of child abuse? I would consider saying “Yes.” Is this a case of child abuse? If yes, who was the abuser-the parents, or the producers and director? All of them are perpetrators. The parents had violated the rights of the child to a fair life by trading her for the role in exchange for money. They had actually participated in the persistent abuse of their own child by facilitating it through a third party. The director was abusing the child by denying her the basic recognition of being a human being by exhibiting her and using her as a money-spinning commodity and also as an easy ticket to foreign film festivals.
It appears that the electronic media of television has been constantly playing the role of this fair owner. In January 2007, Vineesh, a six-year-old girl, was seen answering questions right across the news channels about how she saw her father kill her mother. After the initial confusion, the little girl seemed to enjoy the media attention and faced the barrage of questions aimed at her. It was as if she was merely being asked to repeat her name, the name of the school in which she studied and so on. Danish, a small boy, was asked to keep repeating the experience of having witnessed his father killing his mother while Sharad, almost on the verge of trauma, with head bent, narrated how his mother had her husband killed with the help of her lover.
The legal reality is that there is no regulation on the over-exposure of children in the media. But Article 39 of the Indian Constitution that addresses itself to child abuse states that "young children are not to be abused and are to be protected against moral and material abandonment." The various Child Welfare Acts provide for the prevention of cruelty to children and also for the care, welfare and rehabilitation of abused children. But the law against cruelty (Juvenile Justice Act, 1986) can only be resorted to with the approval of an officer of the state government permitting for moderate punishment.
The National Policy for Children, 1974, states: "Children shall be protected against neglect, cruelty and exploitation" but few are even aware of these provisions, including the legal, judicial and executive machinery, appointed among other things, specifically to prevent, monitor and execute action against such cruelty.
(a) The best interests of the child should be a primary consideration in such decisions;
(b) Opinions of children should be heard and valued;
(c) Child development, not just survival, should be ensured; and
(d) Each child should be able to enjoy his/her rights, without discrimination.
Madhupa Bakshi, head of mass communications at a Kolkata-based managementand media institute, says, that on the one hand media over-exposure "will drive ignorant parents to push children to impossible feats like the father in Calcutta who allegedly battered his son to death because he was not satisfied with his performance in table tennis." She also notes that the media could create fear about excesses in society in children themselves. Asks Bakshi: "Should the media have chased the little girl who survived the Nithari killings to question her ad infinitum? Little children now ask why a man has to eat children?" This leads one to ask whether the media is creating a fear psychosis where it should actually be creating confidence, says Bakshi. "Such media excesses with children happen regularly in the US. But then, the media there also has counseling sessions, like Oprah discussing the evils of expecting too much out of your children and FM radio psychoanalysts advising adolescents how to tackle unhealthy attention. Where do we have such back-up support from the media here?"
There is hope however, at the end of the tunnel. Kavita Ratna, Director of Communications at The Concerned for Working Children (CWC) in Bangalore, informs us about 'The Media Code to Realise Children's Rights, 2006'. CWC developed this code of conduct through the experiences of children and children's groups in India and also from experiences recorded by international organisations working for children, including some inspiration from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The objective is to give children a say in defining the media, to outline children's rights-based standards so that children as citizens are creators of media in society, and to provide a tool for monitoring of children's rights violations by the media or by civil society groups.
The violation of children's rights by the media, whether through insensitive reportage, misrepresentation or denial of space for children's opinions on various issues, is the focus of this media code. The code aims to cover the existing gap between the functions of the media to educate, entertain and inform, and its responsibility to recognize and respect the rights of children as (i) producers of media, (ii) users of media and (iii) subjects of media. It is intended to be a tool with which children can demand their space in the media. It is dynamic in that it is meant to continuously evolve through a process of debate and discussion.
Finally, the code is conceptualized as an affirmative protocol, not as a prescriptive guideline.
However, before one ends this, one must emphasise that Pihu was officially selected for prestigious international film festivals which include Vancouver, Palmsprings, Iran, Morocco, Germany. The film went on to win “best film” at Morocco. It was also the opening film at India’s largest - International Film Festival of India, Goa (2017) where it received rave reviews. What more can one say?