Review: Moments of Truth by Roshan Taneja
“Hmm…so actors undergo training too? This is the first time I am hearing this. We just memorize the dialogues and deliver them. What else is there to do? Meena Kumari asked the young Roshan Taneja, at a studio where they were confined for hours because of the incessant rains. It was the late 1950s and Taneja had just returned after training as an actor in New York and was attempting to establish himself in Bombay.
It was a question he was used to and he had a ready answer: ‘Just like a musician, or a painter, who need training and riyaaz, inspite of their inborn talent, similarly actors need to be trained to polish and enhance their craft’. When Meena Kumari was still not convinced, he demonstrated how method acting worked. With the help of a friend, he showed her the five Ws of acting: Purpose, Motivation, Place, Time and Relationship.
Taneja recounts that Meena Kumari nodded her head in surprise. The incident, which comes at the start of Roshan Taneja’s memoir, sets the tone. The author introduces the reader to various facets of acting and of training to be an actor.
Born in Kulachi, now in Pakistan, Taneja had an idyllic middle class childhood. Shifting between Kanpur, where his father worked, and Kulachi where his grandparents lived, his life was full of the little joys of appreciating nature, playing with abandon, celebrating festivals like Dussehra with its accompanying Ram Lila, which ignited his interest in acting. After the Partition, Taneja’s family settled in Lucknow and he became a student at Delhi University. While in Delhi, Taneja’s love for acting grew and he was active on the theatre scene. After graduating, Taneja, who wanted to train as an actor, discovered that there were no training academies for actors in India. He wrote to eight institutes that offered acting courses in the US, got a scholarship, and set off to NewYork, where he immersed himself in the art of acting. The Neighbourhood Playhouse School of Theatre, founded in 1928, had already become a leading theatre training institute. There, under the guidance of Sandford Meisner, Taneja learnt the intricacies of the art and craft and about the various perspectives on acting. The techniques of method acting were a revelation to Taneja. Here’s a description of the Stanislavski system, the precursor to method acting:‘What makes a truly moving performance?’ Stanislavski discovered that the really great performers functioned in a realm completely divorced from most of the actors. They seemed to be ‘waay’- hypnotically immersed in their character and circumstances of the play. They had forsaken those well woven mannerisms which indicated intent to an audience, but never their feelings’.
In practice, the ‘method’ is nothing more than a personal perception applied to the art of acting. Acting is the art of the self; the supreme revelation of the self. It is the ‘self’ that feeds the actor and ‘self’ which is fed by the actor.
After four years in New York, Taneja returned to Bombay. An actor trained in New York, he was an oddity. After some years of struggle and of doing bit roles, he found his niche through a series of coincidences and landed the job of teacher of acting at the newly set up FTII. Thus began the most important phase of his life. It was at FTII that Taneja trained many actors who went to establish themselves in the film industry: Subhash Ghai, Jaya Bhaduri, Shatrughan Sinha, Danny Denzongpa, Mithun Chakraborty, Asrani, Paintal… The list is long and illustrious. In the early years of FTII, acting was a two-year course and the class comprised 10 male and 10 female students. By the late 1960s, the hugely popular course began drawing thousands of applicants. The auditions happened at four centres -- Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, and the list was whittled down to 1000 individuals, who were then asked to come to Bombay for the final auditions. Taneja narrates some funny incidents and you cannot help but think that these auditions were perhaps a precursor to the talent shows popular on TV channels today.
In 1976, Taneja shifted to Bombay and started his acting school, where he trained a number of actors, including almost all the star sons who were launched in the 1980s. The list of actors that Taneja has trained reads like a who’s who of the Hindi film industry.
Read more: No acting school can guarantee success
Roshan Taneja wears his achievements lightly and his memoir is refreshingly candid. Reading this book will definitely enhance your movie-viewing experience.
A film buff and an avid collector of trivia on pre-Liberalisation India, Satya Prakash is Founder Partner of The Beach, an advertising agency. He lives in New Delhi.