At first glance, the scene at the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurudwara in Mumbai on Tuesday seemed like a re-enactment of the funeral scene in Madhur Bhandarkar’s 2005 hit film, Page 3, in which socialites gather to mourn the character played by Soni Razdaan. Not all the glamorous TV stars present at the gurudwara may have known actor Pratyusha Banerjee (best remembered for playing protagonist Anandi in the show Balika Vadhu) well. But unlike in the Page 3 scene, a close look would have reassured the observer of the sincere grief of those gathered here. All the factors mentioned as possible reasons for Pratyusha’s suicide were probably only too familiar to them.
On April 1, Pratyusha was found hanging from the ceiling fan of her house by her boyfriend Rahul Raj Singh, a television actor and producer. In the absence of a suicide note, there is no clear indication of what drove the 24-year-old to end her life. While Pratyusha’s mother has pressed charges of abetment to suicide against Singh, accusing him of abusing her, cheating on her and taking money from her, Singh and his family have in turn alleged that Pratyusha was depressed due to a financial crunch. The actor had been unable to achieve the same kind of popularity after quitting Balika Vadhu in 2013 and was last seen in the reality show Power Couple in 2015.
But the reign of daily drama on television has made stardom a little more attainable for many. “Television is all about characters and we like to work with newcomers because they don’t come with any extra baggage of past characters,” says producer-director Rajan Shahi, who claims to have launched about 40 fresh faces in the past 10 years. “When people saw Hina Khan in Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, for years people knew her only as Akshara. An experienced actor might have a certain image which might not be conducive to the character.”
The journey to Mumbai
Talent hunts and casting agents scouring small towns in search of fresh talent ensure that many starry-eyed youngsters land up in Mumbai every year. The Mumbai small-screen industry is peppered with stories of actors who, like Pratyusha, came from small towns and rode the TRP waves for a few years, before falling back on reality shows and acting in obscure films or TV serials. “Most new actors have little knowledge or understanding of the industry and are thrown here because their parents have been watching these shows on television and they feel they can do it too. Or because of the easy access to the medium,” says veteran actor Amit Behl, who is also the joint secretary of the Cine and Television Artistes’ Association (CINTAA). “But it is easy to break under the pressure.”
The struggle starts from the moment of the decision to try one’s luck in Mumbai. Sitting in his plush apartment in Borivali, Shashank Vyas, who played Anandi’s husband Jagya in Balika Vadhu, says “I am from a middle class family in Ujjain. My father worked at the Zila Panchayat and my mother was a homemaker. When I came to Mumbai to be an actor, I lived for five days in a gurudwara for ` 40 per day, before shifting with a co-student at an acting academy that I had joined. I must have given about 275 auditions after moving to Mumbai.”
For a small-towner, the city of dreams is often as alien as the sets. “At home in Lakhimpur Kheri, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, I was only allowed to wear salwar-kameezes,” says Parul Chauhan, who got her big break in 2007 when she was selected to play Ragini, one of the lead characters in Sapna Babul Ka… Bidaai on Star Plus. “When I came here, at times I couldn’t stop myself from staring at girls in shorts and dresses. I begged my brother to buy me a pair of jeans.” But when dreams turn to reality, the first taste of success is not always as sweet as anticipated. “The first few months after I started shooting Balika Vadhu I wasn’t happy,” says Vyas. “I felt the pressure to perform well. I had no experience as a professional actor. One day I called my father and said I didn’t want to do it.”
Actor Parul Chauhan, who played Ragini in the show Sapna Babul Ka... Bidaai, at Versova, in Mumbai. “If an actor is known to be a dedicated worker, at least give her a chance to work again. Do a look test. If there is a mature role, give experienced actors a chance,” she says. (Vidya Subramanian/HT Photo)
All work and no play
Between the eagerness to prove oneself, the hunger for more, and the way the TV industry is organised, most actors end up working for inhuman hours, though few complain at the time. Recalls Parul: “There were times when we would shoot for 24, 48 or 72 hours. There would be a break for an hour or so in between in case we wanted to go home for a shower or to sleep on the sets. We would be exhausted, we would fall ill, we would faint, our faces would get puffy from lack of sleep, but I didn’t mind.”
Payments are on a daily basis, so if you don’t work, you don’t earn. With the intervention of CINTAA, working hours have now been restricted to 12 a day, at least on paper. But Divyanka Tripathi, better known as Ishita of Yeh Hai Mohabbatein, remembers being a “365-day, 24-hour artiste” on her first show, Banoo Main Teri Dulhan. “While shooting for that show, I had a slip disk but I continued to shoot because my contract didn’t mention any leave. Now I am more careful about my contracts,” she says.
By and large though, contracts are “one sided,” feels actor Shilpa Shinde, “meant to safeguard the interests of the producers.” The actress who shot to fame as Angoori Bhabi in the comedy show Bhabi Ji Ghar Par Hai, recently quit the show over differences with the producer. Added to the exhaustion of shooting, is the monotony of playing the same character for hours every day. Most producers and channels sign an exclusivity clause with lead actors to prevent them from taking up any other major project during the tenure of that show. And shows can carry on for years. While the exclusivity clause does bring more money for the actors, it also means no variety at work. Most actors who tried to break the cycle and seek success in films, have failed to make it and have had to return to television, often with less success than before.
In the shadow of a star
“Actors live in a bubble. Playing that same character every day for hours means the character may begin to grow on them. There is little time to meet and interact with anyone outside the unit,” says Delhi-based psychiatrist Sunil Mittal. Add the pressure for TRPs and Mittal says “an actor may lose his or her ability to judge reality. The insecurity about the popularity of the show and therefore one’s own popularity may lead to anxiety and depression, and, in severe cases, could even make one suicidal.”
Relationships too often end up as collateral damage. “It is common for young actors to slip in and out of relationships,” agrees Behl. Says Mittal, “Everything in an actor’s life – fame, success, money – is transient and so is the nature of their relationships. Since they are spending hours with co-stars, away from other people, it is easy to form relationships with people one is spending so much time with and grow distant from others. If both partners are from this highly competitive profession, there can also be jealousy and one-upmanship which is detrimental to relationships.” The mantra to survive, according to actor Meghna Malik, is to be clear about what you’re getting into. The actor who is remembered for her role as Ammaji in Colors’ Na Aana Is Des Laado and is presently playing a suave Delhi lawyer in the TV show Dahleez, says, “You know what you are signing up for. It is a factory. It is labour. It is not a work zone, it is a war zone.”
It is indeed a world of extremes. After a show wraps up, actors may find themselves with no work. After shooting all day, there is suddenly nothing to do. “I have seen the highs and lows,” says Divyanka. “After Banoo Main Teri Dulhan, I took a break because of the slip disk. Then, when I started looking for work, producers didn’t want Vidya (her character in Banoo Main Teri Dulhan) again. At that time no actor had made a comeback. I did two comedy shows. But after that there was again a period of no work. There have been times when I have had to sell off junk to feed my dog or accept small print ads for a few thousand rupees to pay the EMI for my house,” says Divyanka. Lack of work also means that the adulation dwindles. Parul talks of the time she went home after Bidaai went on air and people broke the front gates of her house to get a glimpse of her. Today, not many recognise her as she sits chatting at a cafe in Andheri. “But I am hopeful,” she says. “I know now that the life of an actor is short-lived. A person who is a fresh face in one show becomes old in the next. And producers and channels always want someone new. But the industry is changing. Shows like Bade Achhe Lagte Hain, Parvarish and Kuchh Toh Log Kehenge have had mature actors in lead roles. Many actors are making a comeback, which is encouraging.”
Meanwhile, CINTAA has decided to get senior actors to address youngsters on how to handle the highs and lows of the profession. “We realised someone has to do some hand-holding,” says Behl. Pratyusha is not an isolated case of a person losing hope. According to a World Health Organisation estimate, by 2020, depression will be the biggest killer in the world. The fragile and transient reality of the actors’ lives only make them more vulnerable.