On hold for that big break: The world of struggling Bollywood actors
The camera follows Mukesh as he takes long, hurried strides through the twisting bylanes of a fishing village in Mumbai. His crisp pink shirt catches a faint breeze and flutters as he jumps across a black gutter, dodges kids running around, and sidesteps a current of soapy water flowing fast along the edges as his neighbours do their washing-up.
The sun is setting on yet another day of his struggle. The camera following him is not the one he craves - there is no Bollywood director on the other end, just two journalists. Still, he must play the good host, so he asks, "Will you drink some tea?" The photographer nods okay, so Mukesh K Aggrahari, 31, makes two stops, extracting two crumpled 10-rupee notes from his pocket. He buys a tiny packet of tea leaves, and a packet of biscuits. They cost him both notes.
Mukesh K Aggrahari, 31, a graduate with honours from Delhi University, has been a struggling actor for nine years. 'My receding hairline doesn't deter me,' he says. 'By this time next year, God willing, I will have become a star'. (HT PHOTOS: SANJAY SOLANKI & SATISH BATE)
Along the next winding lane is the 150-sq-ft room in Versova that Aggrahari shares with a stock trader. Here, they dream of making it big in the two most characteristic industries in the commercial capital - the money market and Bollywood. "Ask me whatever you want," Aggrahari says, trying to open the packet of tea with his teeth. "Though I think by now you've got a glimpse into how I live." As Aggrahari makes the tea - boiling water in a stained kadhai, rummaging for ginger in three yellowing take-out containers, laying the biscuits out on a plastic tray - he describes how he's been here nine years, ever since he graduated from political science with honours at Delhi University.
How he worked with Mask, a local theatre group in Delhi, in the hopes of honing his acting skills, and even landed a TV role in 2010, but now can't raise the `4,000 a month he needs for rent, can't even afford a bus ride to auditions much of the time. "I live in whatever rooms I can afford. Friends taunt me over small loans I'm still paying back. I walk a lot, because I can't afford transport. But there's no going back for me," he says. "It's aar ya paar (do or die). I came to Mumbai with nothing more than my parents' blessing. And my dream is to become a superstar, a superstar who can act. Money will follow."
Lalit Satyarthi (third from left), a 22-year-old graduate from Agra, says his bathrooms back home are bigger than the rooms he has shared in Mumbai since he moved here to become an actor a year ago. He is now learning to dance, a skill he considers essential for an actor. (HT PHOTOS: SANJAY SOLANKI & SATISH BATE)
It's a well-rehearsed speech, one that gives the impression of having been used often. The elephant in the tiny room is that everyone knows the money may not follow, the roles may not come, youth will begin to fade and the sun will finally set on a fantasy that continues to draw thousands to Mumbai every year.
They leave their villages, hometowns, middle-class flats and plush bungalows. Some are trained actors and practicing theatre artistes, others have done courses in acting, direction or script writing, still others 'just know they have what it takes'.
After all, they've seen it happen. At tea stalls across the Versova-Lokhandwala area in suburban Mumbai - stomping ground of casting agents and the Mecca of strugglers - the same tales are repeated. Amitabh did it. Nawazuddin too. Look at Kangana. You just have to persevere.
Until, sometimes, persevering is no longer worth the effort.
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Last week, model and aspiring actress
allegedly slit her throat in a friend's bathroom. She had been a struggler for more than seven years, and then the struggling had seemed to pay off. She bagged a small role in the National Award-winning movie BA Pass in 2012, becoming that rare demographic within the struggler community that actually makes it into a mainstream release.
Shikha Joshi, who died after she allegedley slit her throat.
Then, in another plotline so familiar in tinseltown, the next big thing never arrived. Years went by and no more roles came her way. At the time of her death, she was 40, in yet another cycle of joblessness, penury and dejection. Joshi wasn't always so. "She was a bubbly person. She would call, text, asking for work," says Inderajit Darshan, assistant director of BA Pass, who spoke to Joshi a week before the incident. "She was upbeat about having recently lost some weight. In fact, I had advised her to revive her contacts and let them know about it."
But living in cramped quarters (
, originally from Delhi, could no longer afford any kind of quarters and was living with a friend) and cutting corners to survive can sap you of all your energy, Darshan adds. "Many aspiring stars end up as spot boys, light boys, assistant directors. They can't go home because they don't want to be mocked. And there is no one they can go to for help. The actors' unions and associations don't do much for the welfare of the junior artiste."
Adding to the odds stacked against them is an increasingly corporate Bollywood that is looking for trained talent even in crowd scenes. "Just like you can't become a journalist without training or a doctor without a degree, you can't become an actor or actress without knowing how to act. Acting is a profession like any other profession and it needs to be taken seriously." says casting director Honey Trehan.
In films such as Gangs of Wasseypur, directors like Anurag Kashyap don't want a single vacant face or untrained demeanour even in the large crowd scenes, adds casting director Mukesh Chhabra. The problem is, this message doesn't seem to be getting across. There are currently 9,000 aspiring actors registered with the Cine & TV Artistes Association (CINTAA). Many have no training - just the willingness to wait 'as long as it takes'.
There was a time when this approach worked. You could wait in lobbies or cafés and hope to be spotted for a pretty face or stunning physique. "Now, there is too much clutter, cut-throat competition, a lot of insecurity," says Trehan. "In an industry where age is not just a number, the pressure can make people depressed and delusional."
At a street corner, a group of senior male artistes gathers by a tea stall every evening. Across the road, groups of female strugglers hang out inside a mall. Above them both loom posters of the latest releases in the adjoining multiplex, glossy stars smiling down from their time in the spotlight.
These groups can no longer afford to hang out at the cafés that local wisdom says are their best bet of being seen. "I bagged a role in Soundtrack after I walked into a café to meet a friend and was spotted by a director," says Rajat Kaul, 31, an MBA and former sales executive at a five-star hotel in Mumbai.
That was four years ago. He has since played a character role and is currently working as a production design assistant, hoping that will be his way in. "Work is happening, slowly," he says. "And I am a patient person. Still, there are also days when I go to the Iskcon temple and relish the two ladles of free khichdi handed out as prasad," he says.
Kaul has been waiting in the wings for six years. "I don't want to waste my time thinking of Plan B," he says. "But my deadline was 30, then it became 32. The new deadline is 35. It keeps getting pushed." "Money is becoming a problem. I'm cutting down on everything," adds Monika Kashyap, 24. She has a Master's degree in tourism, but considers waking up every morning and going to multiple auditions her job. "Like bankers go to a bank and teachers teach, aspiring actors go to auditions. It's no big deal," she says.
Strugglers that can no longer afford to hang out at cafés, or just need a friendly word of encouragement, sip cups of cutting chai at street corners. (HT PHOTOS: SANJAY SOLANKI & SATISH BATE)
Before leaving Bhopal, Monika took a crash course in make-up, and did some theatre. Her focus is clear, she says. "I don't want to be a heroine. I want to be an actress." She's had a scattering of appearances in local ramp shows, as an extra, and in commercials but usually doesn't make enough to meet her grooming and wardrobe expenses.
Abhitash Singh, 30, a former journalist from Bhandup, cannot afford the cafés on most days either. He quit his job last year; 15 days ago, he joined acting classes. His struggle is financed by friends and family, and most of that money goes on his commute, meals and outfits. His days are spent giving auditions, with breaks in between for vada pav and chai. "Sometimes I go to Subway, Bru or Barista, order one coffee or a bottle of water and sit to get noticed," he says. "I am confident I will make it someday. If Nawazuddin Siddiqui can, why can't I?"
Back in the fishing village, Aggrahari says his receding hairline has done little to shake his resolve. After his last gig - a TV serial for which he was paid `1,500 a day for eight months, five days a week, back in 2010 - he has found small roles in 22 films, as a character artiste. "In my next film, Rohit Shetty's Dilwale, my character even has a name - Anthony," he says.
It's now time for his evening walk. As he leaves, Aggrahari plucks a pair of fading sunglasses off a nail in the wall. Taped next to the nail is a carefully preserved premier pass to an Ankush Bhatt movie.
Today he will saunter past the suburb's upscale coffee shops, pubs and restaurants, all buzzing with young professionals unwinding after a hard day at work. "I go there every evening as an exercise, to remind myself of my dream," Aggrahari says. "When I see people drinking, having fun, driving fancy cars, sipping on good coffee I tell myself, this is the life you will soon have."
We aim to be a community: Darshan Jariwala
The new committee was constituted just three weeks ago, but we have a broad vision to bring about the welfare of artistes and bridge the existing gap between the association and them. Our vision is to make CINTAA more relevant to the life of an aspiring actor. Apart from settling payment disputes, negotiating broad working terms and conditions, we plan to roll out acting workshops and orientation classes and a CINTAA app to streamline communication.
What are the association's membership norms?
CINTAA currently has about 9,000 members. Many people get drawn to Mumbai to try their luck. We issue them a work permit for a year, based on video clips or any work they have done. To bring about an overall improvement in the quality of acting, membership norms have been made more stringent since May. Regular membership will now be offered only at the end of the third year. This is not to discourage aspirants, but to give them an opportunity to reconsider their decision at the end of the first two years.
Are there any plans to help aspirants with the psychological impact of their struggles?
There are plans to provide career counselling. We want to offer emotional as well as financial counselling. This is an industry where people earn one day and they may not the next. So they need to plan their finance and secure their future. We are also looking to evolve a mechanism to see if actors can get pensions and insurance benefits. We aim to be a community, not just a trade union.