Long before robots were out there slaying our social lives as alter-egos, whipping up automated pizzas or threatening to wipe out pretty much all of humanity, they were brought to life in sci-fi shows that speculated what humans living alongside AI would look like.
If you’re an Indian millennial, chances are your first brush with the idea of robots working for humans was through Karishma Kaa Karishma, an iconic early 2000s television show.
A remake of the hit 1980s American show Small Wonder, the desi rip-off was based on a typical Indian household thrown into strange situations, thanks to the arrival of Karishma, a robot modelled after a human girl. Occupying the primetime Friday night slot of 8PM, the show chronicled the family of a computer scientist who builds the humanoid and then spends much of his time convincing the world she’s his adopted daughter. In a television landscape overrun with saas-bahu dramas (a genre of drama fiction concerning the relationship between evil mothers-in-law and their hapless daughters-in-law), Karishma Kaa Karishma served wholesome family entertainment that millennials already obsessed with Small Wonder lapped up.
At its core was Karishma, the iconic robot girl portrayed by child actor Jhanak Shukla.
Adorned in a signature red frock with frilly white sleeves and a classic updo (a look that was also a total rip-off of the show’s American inspiration), the doll-like Karishma whizzed through Indian television screens in 2003, quickly becoming a fan favourite and child icon. At the age of 6, Shukla’s portrayal of Karishma had already become one of the most recognisable fictional characters in India, adored for her stoic expression, emotionless dialogue delivery, and ability to save the day.
Almost two decades later, Shukla, who is now 26, has come a long way from her days playing an unfeeling android.
“I don’t remember a lot from that time, but I do remember I was a very emotional child who laughed easily, so it wasn’t always easy to keep a straight face while playing my role,” the Mumbai-based Shukla told VICE.
The daughter of actor Supriya Shukla and filmmaker Harish Shukla, the youngest Shukla said she was destined for the screen right from an early age. “My parents met each other on the set of a TV show, and I’ve spent my entire childhood with them on film or ad sets. Then, one day, a casting director close to my family asked me to audition for an ad. All I had to do was cry, and I got the role.”
Shukla’s first on-screen role was playing a crying child in an ad for ICICI bank.
Soon after that, the offers came pouring in. “My dad got a call saying they were doing an Indian remake of Small Wonder,” she said. Since she was a fan of the hit American show, Shukla jumped at the opportunity without a second thought. “They held an audition to see how I would deliver the dialogues and portray the posture needed for the role.”
She breezed through the auditions and there was no looking back. Even when it led to other kids her age thinking she was actually a robot.
“I remember I was on vacation with my family in Mahabaleshwar (a popular hill station in India) when a young kid came running up to me,” she recalled. “He thought I was a robot and asked if he could see the machine controls on my back, like my character had on the show. This has happened many times.”
Shukla embraced her off-screen identity merging with her on-screen character, even if it wasn’t always ideal. “It wasn’t always easy to play Karishma, but she taught me so much. My entire personality today has been moulded by my childhood experience.”
While Karishma Kaa Karishma was pivotal in making Shukla a household name, her biggest break came after the show’s success landed her an audition for the major Bollywood film Kal Ho Na Ho. Here, she got the chance to play Gia Kapur, and acted alongside industry heavyweights including Shah Rukh Khan, Jaya Bachchan, Preity Zinta and Saif Ali Khan.
“I still remember I used to call Preity Zinta ‘didi’ (sister) because she was 29 at the time, while I used to call Shah Rukh Khan ‘uncle’ because he was in his early 30s,” she said. “Seven-year-old me thought there was a huge difference between them because of their ages.”
The film was a box office rager, propelling Shukla to star status. “When people would see me on the streets, they would gather in groups and even ask me to autograph their hands,” she said. “As a kid, I used to love the attention.”
The film’s success also snagged her two more projects, a Bollywood film called Deadline: Sirf 24 Ghante as well as a Hollywood production called One Night With The King. But despite getting the chance to fly around the country for acting roles, Shukla insists her feet remained firmly on the ground, thanks to her parents and school friends.
“My parents always brought me up in a grounded way and told me I shouldn’t take the fame to my head,” she said. “They even insisted I attend a normal school instead of homeschooling me, where the teachers and students did not give me special treatment. Looking back, I think this helped me have a normal, stable life.”
Though Shukla was showered with fame and fortune in her formative years, her focus moved to other priorities as she grew older. “If you see my interviews as a child, I have always said I wanted to be an actor when I grow up. My parents supported me, but told me to finish my graduation and then do whatever I wanted. But as much as I still love acting, somewhere along the way, I also began to love history.”
And just like that, the child star who seemed destined to dominate the silver screen shifted gears.
Learning about different cultures and dynasties pushed Shukla to pursue a degree in history, which she then topped with a master’s degree in archeology. “Recently, I did an excavation where we spent 15 days excavating near a village,” she said. “We found pottery and coins, which I did a thesis on to determine which dynasty they belonged to.”
While Shukla’s plan was to go on excavations abroad, the pandemic travel restrictions put a spoke in her wheels. So, she decided to pursue an online master’s degree in business administration instead, and is currently running a custom handkerchief business.
“Being around people who kept me grounded pushed me to pursue passions outside acting,” she said. While she would love to get back into acting if offered a good script, she said, she also likes that her life is now much more “chill and stable.”
“People still remember me as the robot girl or Gia Kapur. I don’t mind being remembered as a kid instead of as an adult. In a way, it makes me feel like I never have to give up my childhood.”