On a recent Saturday, Bankesh Yadav, 19, and Vijay Verma, 21, walked side-by-side across the white marble floor of the performance room at R.K. Films and Media Academy in Karol Bagh. To their left hung pictures of the legendary Indian actresses Madhubala and Meena Kumari, and to their right stretched a row of mirrors.
When the two acting students reached the stage, five of their peers greeted them with three words: “Welcome to Hell!”
Thus began a scene in which the students, playing the deceased, tried to outsmart their instructor, who played Yamraj, the Hindu lord of death. <b1>
While “Hell” in this case referred to the setting of the unfolding script, the students could just as well have been describing the industry they want to enter: film and television acting. Former actors and industry experts say beginning actors must be able to stomach years of small, low-paying roles, not to mention the politics of an industry that typically values connections as much as — if not more than — actual talent.
Despite these obstacles, interest in acting — fueled by new releases such as the summer hit Jaane Tu — continues to grow among young people, said Swati Ghallot, senior counsellor at the Asian Academy of Film and Television in Noida. This has led to the recent opening of acting schools in and around Delhi, a city not typically associated with on-screen entertainment. These schools have at times struggled to place their students in industry jobs, thus casting doubt on whether Delhi-based training programs can launch successful careers.
There are between 15 and 20 acting schools in the NCR, roughly four of which emphasize practical instruction in film and television acting, said Deepak Bansal, an administrator at R.K. Films.
Most of these were founded within the past five years, said Naresh Sharma, director of the Rohini-based Centre for Research in Art of Film & Television, or CRAFT. Some, including R.K. Films and CRAFT, are less than two years old.
The newer schools have had mixed success in placing their graduates. CRAFT, which opened in July 2006, offers yearlong courses for 10 students each year. All of its graduates have moved to Mumbai and found small roles in television serials or feature films, Sharma said.
Of the roughly 50 acting students that have graduated from R.K. Films — which also opened in 2006 and offers two- and six-month courses — no more than three work in Bollywood.
The rest remain in Delhi and freelance, and Bansal said the school does not carefully track how many have found work.
In the past five years, roughly 500 students have completed the three-month and one-year courses offered at AAFT, which opened in 1993. Between 350 and 375 have landed jobs in the industry.
Both Bansal and Ghallot said some graduates elect not to pursue professional acting because they view it mainly as a hobby.
Still, most do express an interest in launching a film or television career. The mixed placement numbers, then, have prompted speculation that such courses are a waste of time and money.
“Many are fly-by-night confidence tricksters that fold up after a few days or weeks,” said Barry John, an actor and director who in 1997 founded Barry John Acting Studio in Delhi before moving it to Mumbai in March 2007. “Acting schools in Mumbai are closer to the action and to teachers who are more experienced and qualified.” Dinesh Khanna, a teacher at CRAFT, said many of his students would not be able to enter the industry in Mumbai immediately after completing one of his courses, largely because they lack professional experience.
“They are simply freshers, beginners,” he said. “They think after doing this sort of six-month course they will be able to go somewhere like Bombay and try to do serials, cinema and some modeling.” But his course is geared toward providing only “basic knowledge” of the industry, he said.
Bansal conceded that new schools such as R.K. Films “need to gain more experience in this industry” in order to improve their placement numbers. But he said individual students will ultimately live or die by their talent and commitment.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” he said.
Mumbai or bust?
While most students at the Delhi schools pine for Mumbai, some are not able to make the move after completing their training, perhaps because they need to finish up university degrees or fulfill family- or job-related commitments that
require their attention.
Those that stick around must navigate a small market, and acting school directors disagree on whether enough local jobs
exist to sustain them.
“We tell them, ‘Don’t waste your time here. This city is not the right place,’” Sharma said. “It’s good for theatre, not for film.” He said graduates from the National School of Drama, a stage-oriented training institution established in 1959, fill the few on-screen acting jobs available each year.
“It is a fact that Mumbai is the hub for film and television production houses,” said Vikas Puri, business head at Barry John, who noted that it makes sense logistically for students to study in the same city in which they hope to work. Moreover, he said, production houses prefer to recruit from a local talent pool.
But others say they expect more Delhi-based on-screen opportunities to materialize as India’s media boom yields new regional films and television channels. “The film industry in India has gotten decentralized as opposed to centralized,” Bansal said.
What’s more, the crowded market in Mumbai has already forced production houses to look elsewhere for shooting locations, and Delhi presents an attractive alternative, Ghallot said. “The industry has started moving toward Delhi/NCR for shooting,” she said.