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Your turn to win

Eight lessons for life, from those who took on Bollywood, the toughest industry in the world, and came out shining. The world’s biggest film industry is probably also the world’s hardest place to succeed. Thousands try, thousands fail and thousands more take their place.

brunch Updated: Jul 13, 2013 16:53 IST
Amrah Ashraf
Amrah Ashraf
Nawazuddin Siddiqui,Richa Chaddha,Mohit Chauhan

Nobody said it was going to be easy. Dreaming big and following that dream will probably be the biggest test of your life. There will be blood, sweat, tears, naysayers, critics, roadblocks and moments of self doubt so deep you’ll wonder if you can possibly stay afloat.

Bollywood hopefuls know this feeling well. The world’s biggest film industry is probably also the world’s hardest place to succeed. Thousands try, thousands fail and thousands more take their place. Only a handful rise above the rest. And their journeys are as inspiring as any you’ll see on screen. Here are some of them, lessons that hold good for your dream too. Let those who made it show you how to get to the top, step by inspiring step.

Level 1
Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Actor: There Will Be Trouble Ahead. Stay Strong, Stay Focused

The first day I cried in Mumbai was when I didn’t have a single paisa in my pocket and took R50 from a friend. It was not the first time I was penniless and it was definitely not the first time I was borrowing money. But that night, as I pocketed that crumpled note, I began to cry. Five years in Mumbai and I was still homeless, penniless and completely out of work. There was not a friend left in the city I had not borrowed from.

I belong to a family of farmers from Budhana, UP. Ninety people would live in one house and I have seen the darkest days of poverty. So not eating for a day or two or three was never a problem. That was never my struggle. In Delhi, while practicing theatre, I worked as a watchman. Life was tough then but I was always driven to follow my dream – acting.

I moved to Mumbai with R3,000, a packet of biscuits and the assumption that I had friends there to bank on. I reached one friend’s house and tried to give him a hug. He shrugged me off and said, "Rent ka paisa?" That day I realised that in this industry, your friends are also not your friends. I remember begging another friend to let me stay at his room. He said yes and asked me to be his cook. I didn’t mind the job till the day I realised that I wasn’t struggling to be an actor. I was struggling just to stay alive. I moved out of his house with rock-solid determination that day. I was going to make it, I told myself. But unlike in a movie where the hero’s life changes in minutes, mine didn’t. That night, I just went to another friend’s house for shelter.

In some way, you can call my life a comedy of errors. When I got my first break in Sarfarosh (1999), I was asked to be on-set at 7am at Filmistan. I woke up at 4.30am and walked from Four Bungalows to Film City [easily 15 kilometres] in my chappals. I reached by 6.30am, only to realise I was at the wrong set. I ran again from Film City to Filmistan because I had no money to even take the bus. I didn’t get another movie for years.

Yes, life is terrifyingly difficult sometimes. There were many times when I wanted to leave. But where could I go? I had to make it. The only other choice was to die in oblivion and that I wasn’t going to do. I did so many odd roles – dacoit informer in Jungle, a waiter in Shool, a pickpocket in Munna Bhai MBBS and a local goon in Ek Chalis Ki Last Local. I took roles just to survive another month. But I never gave up. I just wanted to succeed.

My 12 years of struggle ended with Kahaani. Suddenly I was famous. People would recognise me; my name now had some weight. The last scene in Gangs of Wasseypur, where I shoot Tigmanshu’s [Dhulia] character was the culmination of my struggle. When I was enacting that scene, what I saw in front of me were the 12 years – the hunger, rejection, disgrace and tears – and I fired countless rounds. That smirk on Faisal Khan’s face was in fact Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s arrival.

1 Don’t leave anything to destiny – find a way to chart out your own destiny. Rewrite it if you have to.
2 Everyone struggles. So don’t take it personally. Just work hard and hope that you meet the right people at the right time.
3 Rejection is a part of life. Don’t let it bog you down. Find a way to deal with it.
4 Drop your ego. It will only give you more pain.
5 Once you succeed, remember how hard you worked to get there. That will motivate you and also keep you grounded.

Level 2
Richa Chaddha, Actor: Don’t Try To Please Everyone

I was always certain of one thing – I wanted to act. And I did everything that I needed to do to be good at my craft: theatre, workshops, modelling, knocking on every door and waiting for it to open.

And I also heard it all – sweet talk, criticism and unwanted advice. People told me to get a boob job, get rhinoplasty, lose weight and be more "presentable". I was told to fit the "Bollywood" template by almost everyone. And for a while, I did try and mould myself to everybody’s expectations. But nothing came of it. I faced rejection left, right and centre for months and years.

I don’t belong to Mumbai. I don’t come from a family that has any inclination towards glamour or Bollywood. My mum’s a professor at Delhi University and my dad is a management consultant. Nothing in my background could really prepare me for the kind of rejection and emotional turmoil that I was going through. So all I could do was to hope. And hope is what I stuck to. I continued doing theatre with Barry John, who thankfully had moved to Mumbai and it was while performing in one of his plays that a flicker of hope called Dibakar Banerjee came in.

Dibakar was a small-time director scouting around for a fresh face for a small role in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!. He was just one film old but was talked-about. I was signed on. The movie became a hit. I was noticed but that didn’t mean anything. Small, inconsequential roles were all I was offered, if at all. I auditioned for Dev.D. Anurag Kashyap loved it but signed Kalki Koechlin instead! A filmmaker friend signed me for his new film, told me to block my dates and gave me the script to prepare. I was raring to go when, just two days before the shoot was to begin, he told me I was being replaced because I wasn’t "glamourous enough".

I wallowed for days, cried, cribbed but couldn’t give up! The rejections made me realise one thing: that whatever I did, I wouldn’t be able to make everybody happy. I would just lose myself trying to be someone else. So I focused on what was my best asset. My talent as an actress. I did plays, workshops, travelled to Chennai and Pondicherry and joined Theatre Professionals to hone my skill. Then, two years after Oye Lucky…, Anurag called me to do Gangs Of Wasseypur. And yes, it has changed my life. But after a smash hit, awards and all the glory, the struggle continues.

I still face rejection. In fact, it happened early this year. But now I too can reject offers. I am not going to compromise or change just to please somebody or everybody. That is my vindication.

– As told to Tavishi Paitandy Rastogi

1 Be happy in your skin. Don’t try to be someone else or you’ll lose yourself.
2 Know your goals and never lose your focus.
3 You may be criticised and rejected. Cry and crib but don’t lose hope.
4 Keep working towards your goal. Do everything that you have to hone your skills.

Level 3
Mohit Chauhan, Singer: Think Big. Don’t Settle For Second-Best

A lmost 10 years ago, in the dead of the night, my landline rang. I answered, dazed. The man on the other end told me that I needed to fly to Chennai at 10am that morning. I asked him why. He said, "Didn’t you hear me? I am calling from A R Rahman’s music studio." I could not believe what had happened. It didn’t sink in for the longest time that Rahman sir wanted to see me. I’d waited some five years for that call.

I met A R Rahman for the first time when my band, Silk Route, shot to fame in 1998. He very casually walked up to me at an award ceremony and said that he might want to work with me in the future. And so, my wait began.

Every day, I hoped to hear from the man but no call came. I started touring with my band but I never forgot that short conversation. After our second album, Pehchaan released, I started getting impatient because I was getting playback offers from other composers. I rejected most of them. People told me I was being foolish by waiting for a call that might not come, ever; that I should take whatever comes my way because getting a break in Bollywood is not easy. But I was adamant.

And so the impatience grew. Silk Route disbanded. I needed work. But I made one wise decision, I did not shift from Delhi to Mumbai because being jobless in the city unnerved me.

And then, it happened. I got that call. I went to Chennai. I sang a song for him. Rang De Basanti released and Khoon Chala was a hit. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know who I was. And now, looking back, wasn’t that the right decision? Sir gave me Rockstar next, and my career just took off. Now people recognise my voice even on the radio. It’s quite unbelievable for a small-town man like me.

Yes, it took me over a decade to get to where I have, but I didn’t compromise on it. I have been selective of my work and look where it got me! Every night I thank my gut that always told me that you will get the call.

1 People will always tell you to take the easy way out. Never take it. Work hard and be patient.
2 Complacency is your enemy and never get too comfortable. Be on your toes.
3 Times change and your time will also come. But don’t sit doing nothing and leave it to destiny. Work towards achieving your destiny.
4 Don’t get disheartened by criticism.
5 You will make mistakes. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Level 4
Ram Sampath, Composer: Stand Up For Yourself, Even If You Are Standing Up To A Bully

The night I decided to challenge the Roshans, I knew that life was going to be tough. After all, I was just another music composer. But I decided to take the Roshans to court for stealing my intellectual property – an ad jingle I had done for Sony Ericsson, which they used in their movie, Krazzy 4. Was I nervous? Hell yeah, who wouldn’t be?

News spread. Suddenly I was the bad guy trying to make money off the big guys. They had industry backing, I just had my conviction and Sona [Mohapatra, his wife] by my side. She held my hand through that phase and gave me the support that I needed to tell the world that even a small fry like me can take on the mighty guys.

The time I challenged them in court was also the time I was trying to break into Bollywood. Ninety per cent of the people told me that I was insane. That no one would want to work with me. And that happened. I was out of work – from my primary income, advertising and Bollywood. Yes, I was jobless; yes, I was broke; yes, I was angry; but no, I was not going to give up. Things happen for a reason. So I decided to treat my joblessness like a mini vacation.

I won my case, but rejection had become a part of life. People didn’t want to jinx their films by working with me. I scored and composed music for four films but all of them got shelved. I hit rock bottom. Then out of the blue, Delhi Belly happened. Abhinay [Deo] insisted that I compose music for his film. Delhi Belly was supposed to be a one-song film but once I read the script and knew that it had scope for more. I took a year to write music for it and when Aamir heard it, he loved it! That was the turning point for me.

Even today, I am not the most loved person in Bollywood. But I trust my work and my instincts. And you should too. Everyone will not love you, but you will be surrounded by people who care for you.

1 You have to learn to stand up for yourself because if you don’t, no one else will.
2 Have faith in the system and believe in yourself. Justice might take some time, but don’t lose patience.
3 Build a support system. Because there will be days when your resolve will break, that is when their resolve will hold you in good stead.
4 Find humour in everything. It makes life simple.
5 Don’t get angry. Get even!

Level 5

Kausar Munir, Lyricist: Be Yourself, Even In A Man’s World

Everyone asks me if it is hard being the only female lyricist in Bollywood. Of course it is hard. But it is only as hard as it would be for a man to walk in heels. It’s not impossible, it’s just a mindset that needs to be broken. Women tend to steer clear of Bollywood. That’s why we have just one music composer, Sneha Khanwalkar, as opposed to at least 20 dudes with a sound mixer. And then there is me, a female lyricist with no formal training in Urdu.

My struggle, if I can call my experiences a struggle, started after I started penning words for songs. I had never planned on being a bard. I used to write for shows like Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahin. One evening the scriptwriter of Jassi…, Victor [Vijay Krishna Acharaya] asked me to write a song for his film, Tashan. And I wrote Falak tak chal, which was a hit. After that, Habib Faisal asked me to pen a song for Ishaqzaade. I wrote the songs and everyone loved them. Words like Pareshaan and Ishaqzaade caught on and people wanted to know who the bespectacled girl was. That is when my struggle actually began.

Until then, I was quietly writing songs in a corner and was no threat to anyone in the industry. But after songs like Saiyaara and Mashallah from Ek Tha Tiger, I came to be seen as the female lyricist who disrupted the male bastion. The songs became a dead albatross around my neck – filmmakers wanted me to come up with a new cool Urdu word for every song. It put me under tremendous pressure. Plus, the expectations of being a woman lyricist were mounting. Suddenly I had become a postergirl for gender equality! I don’t know who put that responsibility on my shoulder but I think it’s the women themselves.

Now I’ve realised that to survive in a man’s world, you have to be a woman. Women are better listeners and understand briefs better. Being myself worked in my favour. And it will work in yours too.

1 Be a strong woman and know that gender has nothing to do with competence. You have to believe that you are as good as anyone else on the job.
2 Even if someone plays gender politics, ignore them. The right people will notice you at the right time.
3 Never hold grudges against people who doubted you. Grudges will only pull you down.
4 Remember that you will start small, but keep at it. Don't give up.

Level 6

Zeishan Quadri, Script-writer: If At First You Don’t Succeed, Find Another Way Up

Look, I’ll be honest – I never came to Mumbai to be a scriptwriter. I came here to be an actor. Actually a star! So on March 17, 2009, like every other kid from a small village, I boarded a train to Mumbai hoping to be the next Salman Khan. I was fully confident I’d make it, friends back home in Wasseypur told me I had eyes that would win directors over. So I reached Mumbai and expected to see a friend or two waiting at the station. No one came. I stood there alone with all my belongings for an hour in a daze. I had nowhere to go.

That was my first day in Mumbai, alone, apprehensive and angry. But that was the last time I felt lost. I told myself that I’d never call my struggle a struggle – just another chapter in the journey called life. And the day I felt I’d spent enough time chasing my dream, I’ll pack my bags and leave.

My acting dream never took off. I was not ‘hero’ material. So I had a lot of free time and no money to go out. I’d stay home with world cinema on TV. While watching Edge of Heaven, it occurred to me to write about Wasseypur because it used to fascinate my friends in Mumbai. I also realised another thing – if someone made my movie, I could act in it! That was my ticket to stardom. So I wrote part two of Gangs... first and started chasing Anurag [Kashyap]. Stalking really! I visited his office everyday and was sent back saying that Anurag didn’t work there. Then I followed him to Prithvi theatre one evening in 2009. I had stared at him all evening and forced him to walk up to me. Once I had his attention, I knew that he would love the concept. And he did. Later I told him that I wanted to play the role of Definite. He agreed.

I could’ve struggled for years but I chose to be smarter. Today I am acting in movies [Revolver Rani and Ali] I haven’t even written. And it is only a matter of time before I will become a successful actor too. In this industry, it only takes one big director to vouch for you. Then the industry falls at your feet. And I know that will happen.

1 If one thing does not work out one way, find another way to achieve it.
2 Never pity yourself. It will only pull you down and lower your self-confidence.
3 Set a realistic time limit to achieve your dreams. But keep an eye on reality. If your dreams are too ambitious, ditch them.
4 Believe in God because only he writes your destiny. Your work is to work hard to achieve that destiny.
5 Don’t spend too much time struggling. Gambling blind is cool but only for a while.

Level 7

Sujoy Ghosh, Director: Failure Can Follow Success, Stay Sane

I wish I hadn’t started my career with a hit. I was an outsider who dared to make an offbeat film like Jhankaar Beats and it worked. Suddenly, everyone praised me and wanted to know what I was doing next. That was 2003. What happened after that was the worst phase of my life. Two years later, Home Delivery: Aapko…Ghar Tak hit the theatres and it tanked. "Everyone gives a dud once in their career," I rationalised.

So I decided to take time with the next project, Aladin. It took four years. And that tanked too. That was devastating. Now, no one believed in me. Even I started questioning my abilities as a director. Dejection was too real in Mumbai where people called me a one-hit wonder. I had a family to feed, so I had to take a call whether I wanted to continue or not. That is when I decided to go back to Calcutta.

At that point, Kahaani was still a concept in my head. Everyone I discussed it with said that it was everything a Bollywood film shouldn’t be. But I was in love with it. So I needed to walk away from the detractors and just write.

The scariest thing at that time was the fear of rejection, again. But I couldn’t give up. I didn’t have the luxury of another job. The exact thought in my head at that time was "If I sit and wallow, who will take care of my family?" So I kept moving ahead with Kahaani.

Slowly I knew I was on to something good. But people urged me to make something more commercial. I thought that was a bunch of baloney. I eventually released Kahaani last year after struggling for seven years. I fought to keep my family afloat, fought the critics, faced rejection after rejection but eventually came out triumphant. Kahaani was a success and so I am successful today. But I am as good as my last Friday. The story continues… But I will never give up.

1 Everything in life is a great learning experience – good or bad. Nothing comes easy. If you want something, work for it.
2 Your family should be your priority. Don’t get so blinded by your dream that you ignore the ones who love you and care for you the most.
3 Let your work speak for you. And if you mess up, be prepared for criticism.
4 If you keep your expectations real, it is much easier to deal with rejection.

Level 8
Shalmali Kholgade, Singer: Learn To Deal With Success As Well As You Dealt With Failure

People say that I’ve had an easy break in Bollywood. And that is true in some ways. I used to record demos which my friend Anjo John handed over to Amit Trivedi. And there I was, singing Pareshaan for one of the greatest musicians in Bollywood. But what people don’t know is that I have faced rejection on more than one occasion from every music director I’ve worked with. I just choose to not speak about it.

Rejection can make anyone feel sorry for themselves and most times my first reaction has been that of anger. But I have devised a unique way of dealing with it. I just attribute it to several things, not just me. If a song does not go through in my voice, I say “maybe I didn’t sing well enough”, “maybe my voice was too young for the actor”, so on and so forth. I don’t only blame myself for it. Call it naivety or just positive outlook, I keep myself happy like that.

Today I am famous. It’s a great feeling but it’s also very scary. In the beginning of my career, I used to get intimidated by people staring at me. Slowly, I started adjusting to the attention. I am extremely aware of what is expected of me now. For every off day I have, I feel like it’s a day wasted, that I will let so many people down, let myself down too. The pressure is immense. Popularity puts you in a tough spot that requires you to keep achieving all the time. So you start expecting more from yourself.

And yes, sometimes I get taken for a ride. I am only one year old in Bollywood. But I’m becoming smarter when it comes to people and the promises they make. I’ve realised that most compliments are not genuine and I have to keep reminding myself to not get carried away. That is my struggle.


1 Remember the person you were before you got popular. That is the real you. And that is who you should be.
2 There are many people who will be sweet to your face but may have malicious intent. Beware of them.
3 If you feel overwhelmed by the situation, seek help from friends and family.

All levels cleared!!!

From HT Brunch, July 14
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First Published: Jul 13, 2013 13:34 IST