It’s an entry worthy of a buff action hero. Sporting gelled hair, Ray-Ban sunglasses and a striped T-shirt, Sanjay Avhad, 37, brings his growling Royal Enfield to a halt on the dusty Film City Road in Goregoan.
Then, standing amid a horde of 2,000 plants, he tucks his hands in his pockets and says, “This is my business.”
Avhad has been a greens supplier since 2002, renting out real and artificial plants to production houses for use in films, TV serials and advertisements. Born and raised in Nashik, the Class 10 dropout came to Mumbai in 1993 “to see the filmi duniya”, the world of cinema.
“I had heard that even those who were not educated, like me, could make a fortune in Mumbai,” he says. “A friend in the city had told me that there was a lot of money in Bollywood, so I decided to join the film industry.”
That same friend, a line producer, suggested that he set up a plants supply business, because there were just a handful of such suppliers for Bollywood back in 2002.
With help from his brother, a Mumbai policeman, Avhad started out with 500 plants in the 500-sq-ft rented space on Film City Road that he still occupies.
In a few weeks, he was approached by a friend of his brother, a production manager on a big-budget film being made by Sanjay Leela Bhansali — and that’s how Avhad’s potted wares ended up populating the gardens of courtesan Chandramukhi and brokenhearted Paro in Devdas (2002), helping his business take off almost as soon as it had started.
Today, Avhad supplies plants to about 20 projects a year, his biggest hits including Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Baghban (2003) and Vidya Balan-starrer Parineeta (2005).
With rates per day ranging from Rs 50 for a money plant to Rs 300 for a medium-sized Gulmohar tree, he now earns about Rs 15 lakh a year.
All around Avhad, hidden in bylanes off Film City Road, New Link Road and Veera Desai Road in Andheri, are hundreds of other such small businessmen feeding the city’s megawatt, billion-dollar dreams industry.
These faceless establishments help complete the picture, each in their own tiny way, supplying everything from plants and dresses to horses, giant fans for fake wind and rain and bottles of fake blood.
“These suppliers play an integral role in making Mumbai the Cinema City that it is,” says Madhusree Dutta, founder and executive director of Majlis, a city-based centre for rights discourse and inter-disciplinary art initiatives.
Since 2009, a team of about 50 people — mainly faculty and architecture students from Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture and Environmental Studies—have been working with a core team of five members of Majlis to document the work lives of these suppliers and tradesmen as part of a four-year project titled Cinema City.
The project seeks to highlight the influence of cinema and the visual and performance arts on Mumbai’s social life, architecture and real estate.
The project will culminate in early May, with an exhibition at Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art featuring works specially created by artists such as Atul Dodiya and Anant Joshi and screenings of films by Aviijit Mukul Kishore and Hansa Thapiyal on the ties between Mumbai and cinema.
“A large chunk of people who come to Mumbai from small villages and towns in India want to become Shah Rukh Khan,” says Dutta. “Of course, very few succeed — and many of those who do not find other ways to be associated with the glamourous world of Hindi cinema settle for various menial jobs around cinema-making.”
Adarsh Nagar and Film City Road are where many of them eventually settle in, battling delayed and denied payment, extortion demands from the underworld, rising competition and even verbal abuse on the sets, all so that they can stay connected and make a living in the world of their dreams.
In 2010, as part of the Cinema City project, the team created a rough map of these establishments. A year of field research followed, with students visiting the suppliers, their trade union offices and even the homes of struggling actors.
“The map shows that Adarsh Nagar in Andheri and Film City Road in Goregoan house most of these suppliers, because that’s where all the big film and TV production houses are based,” says Rohan Shivkumar, deputy director of the Kamla Raheja institute. “These are fascinating neighbourhoods where cinema plays an integral, yet hidden, role.”
‘My dream was to be an actor’
Abdul Wahab, 42
Greatest hits: Wahab supplied 100 steel barrel drums for an action sequence in Shah Rukh Khan’s Don (2006), and handcarts for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s upcoming, as-yet-untitled film.
Key challenges: Increased competition from new props suppliers
Wahab’s props godown is barely visible in its narrow lane off Film City Road. Walk in, though, and you enter a maze of pickle jars, rotary dial telephones, handcarts, cycle rickshaws, even a plough — all heaped one upon the other in his 2,000-sq-ft store.
Wahab rents these props out to film and TV production houses at rates that range from Rs 5 (for a pickle jar) to Rs 100 (for a handcart) per day.
Wahab buys most of his props from scrap dealers; others are handed down to him by relatives and friends. A staff of two manages the restoration and repairs and the transportation of these props to and from the sets.
“This business is a perfect example of the unorganised aspects of Mumbai’s entertainment industry,” says Wahab. Most prop suppliers don’t even have an itinerary of the things they own; and they are usually paid months, sometimes years, after the movie they contributed to has been released.
“Sometimes… often… we are not paid at all. And there is nothing that we can do about it,” says Wahab. “Create a noise, and you lose customers and your business dies. It’s better to just write it off.”
Wahab says he initially wanted to be an actor, “but I never got a good role.”
So he began working in his brother’s prop store in 1992. But the business has now become too crowded.
“A decade ago, we used to earn up to Rs 1 lakh a month,” he says. “Now, because of the growing competition, we make only about Rs 30,000 a month.”
‘It’s a tough, unpredictable business’
Amit Misra, 33, Costume and dress supplier
Greatest hits: All costumes for junior artists in Hrithik Roshan’s Agneepath (2012)
Key challenges: Delayed payments, erratic flow of orders, harsh deadlines
An item girl in a blue ghagra-choli stands between an Arab dressed in a white dishdasha and keffiyeh, and a policeman in full uniform.
These mannequins are Amit Misra’s advertisement for his 1,500-sq-ft costumes store in Adarsh Nagar, Andheri.
From sequined harem pants to bikinis, low-cut blouses covered in bling and moustaches of various shapes and sizes, you’ll find it all in his shop.
With a staff of eight tailors and a number of additional freelancers on call, he has most of the costumes stitched in-house, renting them at prices that range from Rs 450 for a policeman or nurse’s uniform to Rs 10,000 for a fancy sari and sherwani, per day.
The Mumbai boy and Class 10 dropout started his business in 1998, after working as an assistant in a similar shop for eight years.
He now earns Rs 7 lakh a year.
“It’s a tough and unpredictable business,” Misra says.
“Sometimes, we work non-stop for days, then have no work at all for months,” says Misra.
“You have to grab every opportunity that comes your way and meet even the most unrealistic deadlines or risk wasting all your material and effort and losing the project.”
And even if all goes well, adds Misra, you still have to be prepared to wait months, sometimes years, to get paid.
‘We buy horses in identical pairs, for stars, stunts’
Jeetu Verma, 43
Greatest hits: Imran Khan-starrer Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na (2008); upcoming Sanjay Dutt-starrer Son of Sardar
Key challenges: Lean monsoon and summer months
Behind a large hoarding on Film City Road, a rusty gate leads to a large stable that houses 18 handsome horses — arranged in nine near-identical pairs.
“For each feisty horse we buy, we find a mild one that looks the same,” says trainer and proprietor Jeetu Verma.
Thus Pooja, a gentle white mare, can be ridden by the lead actor of a film, while her lookalike, Karan, can serve as the stunt horse, galloping, leaping and jumping over obstacles.
Verma supplies horses for films, TV serials and ads, and to events and weddings, charging Rs 2,000 for 12 hours. Another Rs 400 is paid to the attendant that accompanies each horse to make sure it is treated well.
Established in 1952 by his father, Verma now runs the stables with the help of a manager, Vicky Singh, who takes over when he is accompanying his horses on an outstation shoot, as he is currently doing in Patiala, Punjab, for the making of Sanjay Dutt-starrer Son of Sardar.