First Act examines the presence of children in films, series and reality shows. Directed by Deepa Bhatia, who has previously made and edited Nero’s Guests, the documentary about P Sainath, the Prime Video show focuses on full-time professionals as well as aspirants pursing a career in the Hindi entertainment sector.

The six-episode docuseries urges a rethink of the treatment of child actors, most of whom undergo tremendous pressure to snag roles, log long hours at work and compromise on their education to serve as breadwinners for their families. Conversations reveal not only the irresistible allure of stardom but also the rampaging ambition of the children’s families, many of whom project their dreams onto their children.

These include a couple who have moved from Delhi to Mumbai with the sole purpose of launching their two-and-a-half-year-old tot into show business. Their justification for pushing the cherub-faced boy – he has previously said that he wants to be on TV – is barely convincing.

What price, fame, especially when consent is clearly in doubt? Actors who started off as children, including Sarika, Jugal Hansraj and Darsheel Safary, share their experiences. Sarika, who had a well-documented rough time during her early years, questions the wisdom of pushing children in front of the camera.

Filmmaker Amole Gupte debates whether the natural talent of children can be tapped without putting the squeeze on them. Gupte is the documentary’s producer, Deepa Bhatia’s husband and the writer of Taare Zameen Par, starring Darsheel Safary. He is also the director of three films starring children, two of which feature his son, Partho. Neither Bhatia nor Gupte offer a perspective on casting Partho in their films.

Gupte does emphasise designing shoots to minimise the burden on young talent, apart from pointing to a government directive that forbids children from working for more than six hours at a stretch. As interviews reveal, this rule is often violated.

First Act (2023).

First Act has welcome curiosity about the industry involved in supplying young talent, from acting schools (where they are encouraged to shout “I will become an artiste!” in unison) to ruthless grown-up minders. The observational style largely eschews commentary, especially in the early episodes. But the more time we spend with the actors, some of whom started out at the age of three and four, the greater our anxiety about their mental state.

Some of the stories are harrowing. One of the reality show winners who is waiting for an acting break remembers – with a grin – being belted by his father until he lost consciousness after flubbing an audition. A teenager recalls that while she hated performing rape scenes, her parents initially did not raise any objections.

A few of the subjects cry when talking of missing out on assignments. In a neat visual metaphor for the show’s themes, an aspiring actor does a series of back flips, looking exactly like a wind-up doll.

The series appears to have been in the making for a while. Adrija Sinha, who has been in high-profile shows on streaming platforms such as Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors, Guns & Gulaabs and The Railway Men, is still waiting for roles at the time of shooting First Act.

The docuseries covers a fair amount of ground but not all of it was required. There are jarring songs in the background, which create a make-believe effect in what is otherwise a sobering exploration of a showbiz reality.

In later episodes, First Act loses focus and gets repetitive. The show doesn’t take an explicit stand against television, especially reality shows, in creating unrealistic expectations and a fertile ground for exploitation. This branch of the entertainment media alone deserves closer scrutiny, rather than a generalised treatment.

Equally, there could have been a separate documentary on the parents who have chosen to let their children grow up too early. When a mother of a child actor says that it’s her “dream to travel the world”, First Act stops being a documentary and becomes a horror film.