09/07/2012 07:50 EDT | Updated 11/06/2012 05:12 EST

One Way to Help Indian Youth? Bollywood


He's small for a budding Bollywood hero but 12-year-old Ajay Tiwari is a natural born ham, and soon he will be appearing on the silver screen.

It's a steamy August day in Delhi, India, and the tiny, airless room is sweltering. The heat does little to diminish the energy and enthusiasm of ten children from the slums of Delhi's Geeta Colony district in their weekly acting class. They howl with laughter as Ajay thrashes and wails melodramatically on the floor, pantomiming a man falling into a river during a theatrical exercise.

The class is part of an innovative project called Kid Powered Media -- the creation of Canadian Alex Heywood. Heywood's career plans lay in the food services industry. In 2007, the chef at the Toronto Indian restaurant Heywood managed urged him to visit India and experience the food first hand. Coming home from the trip, however, it was not the cuisine he remembered but the poverty.

In 2008, Heywood gave up the restaurant business and returned to India. Working on an irrigation project in rural communities, he saw the reaction of local people to the itinerant movie cinemas that travelled in battered trucks from village to village. He realized the power of film to reach out to and educate youth.

He also knew that more than 18 million children live and work on the streets of Delhi.

In 2009, Heywood shot a short film with six impoverished boys. They had never acted or seen a movie camera before, but the pilot was a roaring success. Kid Powered Media was born.

Through acting clubs, and comic books, street-plays and Bollywood-style short films, the project helps the children of Delhi's slums learn creativity, confidence, leadership, and about the issues that affect their lives.

As with the Slum Drummer of Kenya that we wrote about recently, it's a fantastic application of the arts to engage and enhance the lives of urban youth living in poverty.

Across Delhi there are now five acting clubs like Ajay's, involving youth from roughly 11 to 18. Ajay's group is the youngest so far, with all 10 participants around 12 years.

In the slums of Geeta Colony, where Ajay lives, child labour is common, and many children are not able to attend school. Families are large -- Ajay has four sibilings and Babita, another in the acting class, has eight-- yet live in houses small enough to fit in an average Canadian home's garage. The streets are mud and open gutters run with raw sewage.

"For these kids, our classes are the only space they have to be creative, to be crazy," comments Jessie Hodges, who instructs Ajay's class.

The Indian school system is based entirely on rote learning, so for some children creative expression is a startlingly strange idea. Heywood recounts a class where the kids were given the opening line "A girl comes home with a baby elephant," and asked to finish the story. Uncertain what to say, one girl bolted from the room in panic.

Acting and writing exercises not only teach creativity, they provide a subtle avenue to start kids talking about issues like drugs, AIDS, and human rights.

At the end of this day's class, Ajay and his classmates get homework: write about five good and five bad aspects of their community.

Heywood's team will then help the youngsters translate those discussions into the scripts for street theatre performances, comic books and films.

Films are the shiny centrepiece of the project. Employing their new-found acting skills, the youth perform the script they helped write. The sets are the very streets where they live.

These are no boring documentaries. Although only 20 to 30 minutes long, the flicks deliver their message in Bollywood style, complete with fight scenes and song and dance numbers.

This September will see the release of the newest "blockbuster," The Switch. The plot revolves around a magic potion that makes the entire community switch genders -- the men must live as women and the women as men. It's a hilariously devious way to broach gender roles and women's rights.

"People don't like to be lectured," says Heywood. "If you build in comedy and laughter, the message will sink in."

For the premier the children and their families will be invited to a real movie theatre, with a red carpet and fireworks. Then the flick will tour around slum communities throughout Delhi via mobile movie theatre -- a van Heywood's team has tricked out with a stereo sound system and folding ten-foot movie screen.

"The movie is a great way to get whole communities together," says Heywood.

For Ajay, still hamming it up as the class draws to a close, the movie is what it's all about.

"When you do the movie, in your life it is better for you."

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free The Children, and are authors of the new book Living Me to We: The Guide for Socially Conscious Canadians