Pradeep Sarkar, director of Laga Chunari Mein Daag, on location in Banaras, was looking for an actor to fill a two-second role of a paanwala for the title song. So he asked artist Amitabh Ghanekaar if he was one. "I said I am not, but I could pull off being one: we eat paan everyday," Amitabh told Sarkar. "But Sir wanted a trial," remembers the actor, so he applied lime to the leaf knowing that the director wanted to create a visual difference between Mumbai and Banaras, and just got on with it.
To get the argument going, you could say it was the wrong question to ask. Or, perhaps it's just the thing Bollywood would do coming as it does to small towns with a top-down view. Mucchad (moustachioed) aadmi, bhaang, paan, and the use of awadhi are actually the big-city imagining the small town with the help of signage. "When Bollywood makes films on Banaras, they show the ghats. When it's Hardwar, it's widows….They want our stories, but they don't really want us. Then when they take our stories, it's just to show how different we are. Otherwise even for a offbeat story like Banaras, why would they need Urmila and not a Banaras girl?" asks Himani, whose acting career has meant dancing around A-list heroines on the ghats.
You may dream, but you won't do "Benaras – A Mystic Love story was also baba and yoga-centric," adds Balmukund Tripathi, an actor turned-production assistant-turned producer. Balmukund is one of the many actors in the city who has been forced to keep one eye on his art, and the other, on arithmetic. "We all wait to appear on screen. But most of the time we are making ends meet by running errands, getting permission from authorities, acting as crowd-controller." In the Aishwarya-Raima starrer Chokher Bali, he was production assistant arranging talwar-topi for the mujrewali scene. In 8 pm, an unreleased film with Nirmal Pandey, he has five scenes as a reporter. "It's the lage raho hisab kitab. Directors from Bollywood come and go. Rajkumar Santoshi was here location-hunting. We asked him for acting jobs. He promised us nothing."
Chandraprakash Dwivedi of TV serial Chanakya fame, has cast 32-year-old Sujit Goswami opposite Mukesh Tiwari in his new serial. Sujit was Bhojpuri superstar Ravi Kishen's friend in Kanhaiya, but his Bollywood dreams have been scissored at the editor's table: his bit part in Bunty aur Babli was deleted in the final cut. His bike, however, has had a better run. Abhishek Bachchan rode his Bullet in the film. "I was paid 1,000 per day for its hire and extra for fuel," he says. "But with this kind of payment, when I do get married, will I ever be able to buy my wife a Banarasi sari?" A minute later, he smiles at his own cliché. "I had even requested a director to either give me more work or give me more money. 'When your name sells my film, I will. Right now it doesn't,' I was told," he says.
The absence of industry and the closure of mills have made 'art and culture', the route to livelihood for many in Banaras. Many of the actors here are products of the Nagarik Natak Mandali where Ratishankar, actor, and, largely, the manager of every kind of visual image that is put out as 'Banaras', calls the shots. His workshops teach 7-40 year-old actor aspirants "how to sit, stand, walk, talk" or as he says, "input has to be outputted. If you are sowing seeds in the field, you have to go to the market. And if you want to become a hero, you have to learn to climb stairs." In real terms, it's a factory of extras.
But there have been returns. "No more huddling our actors into buses," says Ratishankar. They are now given the status of junior artistes. I got them refreshments. Actors with speaking parts now get Rs 4-5,000 per day." This is not the final figure. Mid-level actors are paid the same — Rs 1-2,000 per day – as junior artistes of Mumbai.
Banaras and Banarasis have fared no better at the hands of the international media as well. As part of a 'New India' series, Canadian Radio came looking for 'unusual subjects'. The family members of Dom Raja who have left the traditional livelihood of burning dead bodies on the ghats, and are now working for Reliance Money and the Nagar Nigam, was their window into small-town exotica. Another example is Deepa Mehta's Water, a film that was prevented from being filmed in Banaras by Shiva Sainik Arun Pathak.
"Unlike Ray and Ghatak who explored the problems of modernity, Deepa Mehta's Water, a western production showed the problems so as to sell it," said painter Arjun Singh of Kala Commune, an art and culture movement of independent artistes. Arjun had worked in Water's art department; his censure is not an endorsement of the Shiv Sena line. Ankur who heads the Commune's films section, says the drawback is that the prevailing theatre culture here is caught between Shakuntala and preparation for Bollywood, or even Hollywood. "We can fight this by strengthening alternatives and presenting our own narratives, our own films."
Many are, however, ready to give co-option a good name – even by quoting a bad film. Ratishankar, for one, is charmed at the prospect. "Wasn't there a scene when Chutki (Konkona) in Laga chunari was praised for telling admakers: chote shehr ko muthhi mein mat lo – apna banao…?' In that crossover, there might be hell to pay. Identity crisis is not a pretty thing.