A typical day in the suburb
Noon. Mhada, Andheri
5pm. Versova, Andheri
"There are two kinds of struggling actors in Mumbai," says Vicky Kapoor. "The ameer-baap-ki-aulaad, who has his dad's textile business to fall back on, and us, the not-so-ameer ones who have nowhere else to go." He's been waiting to audition for an ad film for over four hours. A thug-like man whistles to him and Kapoor excuses himself. He returns after 20 minutes. He didn't get the role.
"My name is Daljeet. I want to meet the casting director," says a beefy boy in an American accent. It's a busy time at a popular production house and Daljeet has landed unannounced. "Bro, let me see her," he insists, this time in clipped British tones. He is asked to leave. I go after him."Where are you from?" I ask him. "Andheri," he says, this time reverting to his Punjabi twang.
A bustling coffee shop suddenly goes quiet after a casting director with YRF walks in and takes the corner couch. Almost immediately, the sunglasses come out, make-up gets retouched and muscles start to flex. Everyone in that café is vying for her attention. It goes on for a couple of hours, but doesn't result in much. She finishes her coffee and leaves. No one gets the filmi break they were all hoping for.
Welcome to Andheri, the Mumbai suburb that is every struggler's springboard to Bollywood. Hopes rise and sink in every rented apartment housing filmi hopefuls. On any given day, Andheri's coffee shops swarm with ripped bodies and girls in slinky clothes, all hoping to get discovered like Kangana Ranaut did. Markets stock Ranbir Kapoor T-shirts and Sonam Kapoor accessories. Every gali has a gym where can you rub triceps with a minor star. Every locality has an adda where young strugglers hang out. If you dream of the spotlight, it's pointed at Andheri.
Your journey starts at Andheri station. "When I left Delhi, all I knew was that I was supposed to get off at Andheri station," says Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who struggled for 12 years before his Bollywood dream finally came true with Kahaani (2012).
"Andheri station is also your first taste of things to come - the rush, the shove, the long queues and the chaos." For most hopefuls, it's not just a struggle to get to the top, it's a struggle to get by. "You'll see every variety of film struggler in Yari Road, Versova - actors, filmmakers, singers, models," says Nandini Shrikent, casting director at Excel Entertainment. Yari Road is not exactly cheap. "A tiny two-room setup is nothing less than Rs 20,000 per month," says Narayan, a broker for the neighbourhood. "Three to four people share it. So it works out cheaper." At Lokhandwala and Four Bungalows, hot-spots for strugglers, the case is the same.
And it is not unusual to be called at odd hours or to expect a struggling actor to turn up "in the next 20 minutes". "Even in our sleep, we keep checking WhatsApp groups [with other strugglers or casting directors] to see where auditions are happening," says Vicky Kapoor. Most hopefuls set out at daybreak, hopping between studios in Mhada to Shreeji Studio to Aram Nagar in search of that elusive role that will catapult them to stardom, or their next meal. "The struggle is pretty much the same as before - the wait, the disappointments, the self-imposed poverty," says Siddiqui. "Except, we didn't have email or WhatsApp. We relied on word-of-mouth."
Forget scoring a role, in Andheri, even landing an audition is a task. You stand for hours before you can register your name. "Yahan jagah ki hi nahi, roles ki bhi kami hai," says Kapoor. After auditions, he and his actor friends set off to do what most of these guys do in the evening. "Sit at a coffee shop," says Shrikent, who finds this puzzling. "It's not like we cast people over a cuppa."
But the strugglers have a theory. "She might not come, but her assistants could," says Daljeet, who sits at Bru World Cafe, Versova, ordering just a bottle of water, a few times a week. "They sift through the first list. Maybe then, I'll be able to buy a coffee there." Shashi Baliga, former editor of Filmfare, thinks hanging around the designated cafés is definitely worth a shot. "I'm told directors from other film industries do their rounds there too," she says.
Andheri's position as the epicentre of the film struggle is only a couple of decades old. "In the '50s, stars like Suraiya and Nadira lived on Marine Drive because studios like Famous, Ranjit and Roop Tara were around Dadar and Mahalaxmi," says Baliga. Where stars go, strugglers follow. But within a few decades, land prices rose and the film industry packed up and moved north.
"Bandra was the next pit stop," she says. When they were hoping to make it big, Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra and Rajendra Kumar lived at Marina guesthouse opposite Bandra Station and famously ate at now-defunct Pomposh restaurant nearby. This was the time that Mehboob Studios became the go-to place for film shoots. "So it just made sense to live around the studio."
However, the major shove came with the real estate boom in the last 15 years and industrywalas were again nudged further away. They hopped to the marshlands of Andheri, where land, acres and acres of it, was dirt cheap. When Angaar was shot at Adarsh Nagar in 1988, there was only one double-storey building and a chawl there.
For now, Andheri is the centre of it all. Meet some of its residents whose dreams are bigger than their apartments, whose hopes run deeper than their pockets and who'd starve here than enjoy a buffet away from the spotlight.
Amrit Walia, A big girl with even bigger dreamsTill over a year ago, 26-year-old Amrit Walia was living a good life - a high-paying job with a TV channel, 10 minutes walking distance from her posh Veera Desai flat (with a view of the Andheri skyline), two promotions in three years, flexible work hours and a great boss. But every day when Walia passed a building, she'd stop and stare at it for a minute or two. One day, she stood there for over 10 minutes and that day, she quit her job. It was the Yashraj Films studio building and Walia knew that it was time to chase her dream.
Today, one year later, Walia lives in the same flat, but shares her view with someone who also shares the rent. Today, she's a full-time struggling actress. But the Delhi girl is determined to make it. "Someone can always write another Gippi (2013) and like Riya Vij [who played the overweight Gippi in the film], I too can get a break," she says. Walia is not your average skinny girl with legs that go on for miles. She's curvy. "Let's be honest, I am fat. But can't a fat girl be an actress?" she says. But, she knows that she can't be the next top star. "I am not delusional. I just want to act. Lead, parallel lead, friend, etc is fine by me."
Last year Walia's curves almost landed her a big-budget film. "I read a post on Facebook that a big production house was looking for an overweight girl for their next film. I called them immediately," she says. She even met the casting team and was assured that she would get a call in a day or two. "But the call never came. And they ignored my calls."
This was not Walia's first rejection. Around three months ago, she was offered a parallel lead role in a TV show and was even asked to block her dates. "But again, they didn't call back," she says, sipping her third green tea of the day to lose weight. "I've been given hope and then rejected so many times that I've lost count." And that she feels is another reason why she can't lose weight. "Don't you sit with a tub of ice-cream when you feel defeated? I face defeat every day," Walia says.
So every time she gets a call back, she starts working out, but with every rejection, she grieves with greasy food. "It's a vicious cycle. And the funny thing is that with `15,000 that I earn writing SEO [Search Engine Optimisation] articles for companies, I don't have the money to join a gym or even buy an apple. They pay you less than a buck per word!"
For a girl who barely a year ago was partying at WTF! and dining at Indigo Cafe, Walia hasn't stepped out of her house for a cup of coffee in months. "When you're a struggler, you go to a coffee shop for only one reason," she says. "To get spotted. And I can't charm anyone with my looks. So why waste my time and money? Their coffee sucks anyway." She prefers to stay indoors and write, or knock on doors to get a role or two.
"There are many distractions especially when I see my friends shopping. But I know why I quit my job, why I'm struggling to pay my rent." There have been months when Walia wasn't able to pay her share of the Rs 8,000 rent and was almost evicted. "I begged them to let me stay," she says. "Finding a house for singles, especially struggling actors, is next to impossible. I'd rather beg than move out."
Walia, who has been in Mumbai for over four years, is well settled in Andheri and wouldn't live anywhere else. "Not even Malad. It's too lonely there," she says. "Also, this is where I see my kind of people - young boys and girls hoping to get that big break. It keeps me going. And if one day I don't make it, I still won't move out of Andheri," she says. After all, Andheri is where all the drama is.
Bhupendra Kumar Shahi, a small-town boy who hopes to be the first superstar from his gaon
Do I look like a gangster to you? Or a mazdoor?" asks Bhupendra Kumar Shahi, an actor who moved to Mumbai six years ago from Deoria, a small village in UP. "So why is it that usually I end up with such roles? Does poverty reflect on our faces? Hamesha kurta pehna dete hai. Can't I pull off a suit?" Shahi shifts uncomfortably in his chair and looks away. He doesn't speak for over a minute. He takes a big gulp of water and says, "I am not ashamed of where I come from. I am probably the only one from my district who lives in Mumbai."
Shahi is doing a lot more than just living in Mumbai. With absolutely no contacts in the film industry and just a certificate in acting from a school in Himachal Pradesh, he has done small roles in TV shows like C.I.D., Na Aana Is Des Laado and Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya Hi Kijo! And yes, he is also that bald guy in Prakash Raj's gang in Dabangg 2 who gets a solid beating from Salman Khan in the end.
"I got the role through an audition," he says. "I didn't have to fold my hands in front of anyone, I didn't go through any lobby. I got it because of my acting." He refuses to sit in coffee shops to get cast or stand outside gyms to meet celebrities. "I trust my abilities. I know I can act. I don't have to flatter anyone to get a role. When I make it, I will make it on my own abilities."
A resident of Four Bungalows, Shahi can't imagine living anywhere else. "You would think I live here so that I can get to auditions quickly," says Shahi. "But I live here because it's green. It reminds me of my village. And on days when I get too lonely, I just walk to Versova beach and sit on the rocks. The waves give me company." Such is the life of a struggler in Mumbai. It gets lonely, frustrating, tiring and more than anything else, it gets demeaning. "Some casting agents humiliate us, especially the ones who don't step out of a car," says Shahi. "They want actors to butter them, maybe even give them money. My conscience doesn't allow me that, plus I am almost always broke. How do I become a part of their lobby?"
The 29-year-old manages to earn up to `20,000 a month but also ends up spending every penny. But he doesn't see why he should give it up and go back to his village. "That's the problem with strugglers these days. They always have a backup. I have seen my contemporaries switch to production, scriptwriting or even worse, leave the industry," he says. "I don't have an option. This is what I have to do." And he doesn't understand the cynicism. "Didn't Nawazuddin [Siddiqui] succeed after 12 years? Does he look like Hrithik Roshan? Is he a Kapoor or a Khan? He was a simple theatre artist from a small village like me and he showed us that it is possible, if you persevere," Shahi says. "And now I can't turn back. Mumbai is home.
Andheri is where my dreams will come true. A few years down the line, you will interview me for my success, not my failure."
Varun Thakur, a stand-up comedian who wants to laugh his way to stardom
Which he was, obviously. But he was also serious about acting. "I have a big scar on my chin that I got after I jumped off a car like Akshay Kumar did in Khiladi . But unlike him, I landed face-first on a spear near the gate. How much more serious can one get!"
Thakur may come across as laidback, but he is a man with a plan. He doesn't plan on hitting the gym to beef up like the other struggling actors. Nor does he plan on sleeping with anyone for a role. And he won't knock on doors with his portfolio. "I have always been a funny guy and a couple of years ago, I realised that stand-up comedy could make me famous," he says. "Look at Vir Das. He was just a comedian and now, he's a star." So one afternoon, while waiting for an audition call at a Café Coffee Day in Oshiwara, Thakur saw an opportunity.
"I saw a guy in an Ed Hardy T-shirt, wearing sunglasses indoors and I knew I had something there." He spent the next few days at the coffee shop and came up with a "shtick that sticks". "I talk about my struggle as an actor and pick on the stereotypes." He also shamelessly invites the industry people (casting directors, writers, directors) to see him perform, hoping it might land him a role. "Shhh… don't tell anyone."
One might think that he isn't focused on his acting career because of his stand-up gigs, but Thakur sees this as his only way out. "I am not new to this industry. Even after doing TV shows like Sid v/s Varun [he's that dude with curly hair], MTV Rock the Vote and a small role in Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012) [he's that army dude who gives SRK the bomb suit], I still have a long way to go," says Thakur. "At least this way, I am in the limelight, I earn some money and pay off my student loan."
Mohit Das, a 40-something actor who has been struggling for 25 years
When I joined the industry over 25 years ago, you could directly walk up to Yash Chopra and ask for a role. There were no auditions; we were signed for roles on the basis of our rapport with the director or the star," says 40-something struggling actor Mohit Das, who played Kuldeep's friend in Chopra's Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge . "I hung around their office long enough for them to notice me. Originally they wanted me to play one of Shah Rukh Khan's friends, but I didn't have dates to go to Europe for the shoot."
Today, it is nearly impossible for a struggler to even get past security. Das, who has been struggling for over 25 years, has seen the industry get more organised, but also become more impersonal. "Earlier, everyone in the crew used to sit together and eat. We used to discuss every shot, and almost everyone was heard out," he says. "Now, actors don't even step out of their vanity vans, forget taking our inputs. And there is a hierarchy in the way we eat."
For an actor who has done almost 50 films from Ankush  and Pratighat  to Dil  and Angaar , he is still an unknown. No one stops him in the middle of the road for autographs, no one points at him, no one even looks at him. He is just another guy on the street. "And why should they? Would you remember the hero's friend in a movie? But I don't care because I am not chasing fame," he says.
"Fame pet nahi paalta. Paisa palta hai."
In the late '80s, when Das was not even 20 years old, his father told him that he could "either stay at home or pursue Bollywood". He obviously chose the latter and broke away from his family. Homeless and penniless, Das knew he had to rely on his instincts to stay alive. He shacked up illegally in Bandra's Railway Quarters for Rs 15, which he earned by starting an orchestra band. "I told the manager of a hotel that a popular Bollywood singer would sing for him and that fool gave me an advance. With that amount, I hired musical instruments and approached the singer, promising him a large audience," laughs Das. "That night, as I lay in bed with more money in my pocket than I had ever seen, I knew I was smart enough to find a way to break into Bollywood."
Das's street-smart attitude and chocolate-boy looks made him popular with the directors quite quickly. He know which cliques to befriend, which directors to appease and which mahurats to attend. "I didn't have a godfather in the industry, so I had to be everywhere to be seen by everyone," he says. "I have even managed to score a role or two at funeral scenes." That is how determined he was.
But by the mid '90s, a personal tragedy forced him to move back with his family and he almost quit acting for five years.
"When I came back, the industry had changed," says Das. "It had moved to Andheri from Bandra. Even seasoned actors had started queuing outside production houses to get roles. There were auditions and one had to carry a portfolio. The industry had moved on and I had been left behind." Catching up took Das another couple of years and by then it was "too late". He was no longer hero material. "So I started auditioning for character roles. It's also during this time, I moved to Andheri," he says. "I was closer to production houses and studios."
Today, Das drives a Maruti Alto, owns a flat in Naigaon and will be seen the Ranveer Singh starrer, Kill Dil. "I am a struggler and I am not ashamed of being called one. This industry has got me where I am today and I am more than happy."
Follow @hippyhu on Twitter
From HT Brunch, April 20
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch