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Lights, camera, upload: A sneak peek into Mumbai’s newest acting hub

As digital entertainment platforms boom, a quiet area called Aram Nagar has been overrun. There are casting agents in the cafes, audition announcements pasted on tree trunks, studios in old cottages.

ht weekend Updated: May 30, 2019 16:47 IST
Lavina Mulchandani
Lavina Mulchandani
Hindustan Times
Aram Nagar,Versova,Over-The-Top digital content space
A mural on the wall of an old bungalow in Aram Nagar. Most of the bungalows date back to the Partition era. Now, they house casting agencies and production studios, martial arts and audition spaces catering mainly to OTT platforms. (Shashi S Kashyap / HT Photo)

In 20 minutes in Aram Nagar, Mumbai, you meet every struggler stereotype — the rich kid with nothing but time; the wannabe singer; the multi-tasker (martial arts buff / agent / groomer / sound engineer); the movie junkie who won’t stop talking about the trade; the producer who pretends to be busier than he is.

Groups of people, most in their 20s, smoke and chat in groups, near trees plastered with posters for auditions, agencies and studios that charge by the hour. On the gates of little bungalows, more signs offer acting courses, martial arts lessons, training in Kathak and MMA.

Aram Nagar is a 10-minute walk from Versova, a seaside strip of land that is the networking hub of the film and TV industry. Versova is where the Bollywood struggler goes to the gym (in the hopes of running into a high-profile agent / producer / star), and sits about in tight T-shirts or crop tops in cafés full of people sheltering the same dream. It’s where TV’s casting agents scout for faces that are new but not too different; where agencies tasked with populating crowd scenes, fight scenes or disco scenes come looking for buffed bodies with the right moves.

The rare successes — actors, producers, directors — also live in Versova, buying or renting ocean-front flats as proof that they had arrived.

The large TV productions and the mainstream films remain centered where they’ve always been — Film City, about half an hour to the north. But the OTT boom means that there is a large chunk of lucrative work that needs to be done quickly, professionally and at as low a cost as possible. This is where Aram Nagar comes in.

The offices of content agency WhatWorks, which relocated to a cottage in Aram Nagar in 2017. The area is walking distance from the TV and film strugglers’ hub of Versova. It’s by the sea, and well-connected to the rest of the city. ( Shashi S Kashyap / HT Photo )

You go to Aram Nagar if you’re not afraid to start small. A lot of the content created here may never make a splash in the increasingly crowded OTT or Over-The-Top digital content space — that’s platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar, Hulu, SonyLiv and scores of others. But OTT is a medium that must constantly be fed, there’s plenty of demand for the offbeat, the unusual and even the niche. And so there is work to be had.

“As the demand for content boomed and the old hubs got overcrowded, the spillover found place in Aram Nagar, which is also very conveniently located, close to both the film and TV hubs and the residential areas where most actors and strugglers live. So close in fact that the strugglers can just walk here,” says Ishita Sharma, a TV actress and founder of Aamad, an art studio that offers courses in dance and martial arts in Aram Nagar.

For OTT platforms and digital advertising, this is where everything happens, adds Karishma Kapoor, a producer at ‘boutique’ production house Red Ice Films. “We ideate, we write scripts, cast, arrange shoots, edit to give you a finished product.” Red Ice has done advertisements (mostly online and some for TV) for brands such as P&G, Star Sports and Sony India.

Birgit Suitsu, a colourist from Estonia, at the RengeDragon visual studio. There is always work to be had in Aram Nagar, even if much of it doesn’t make a splash on the overcrowded OTT spaces. ( Shashi S Kashyap / HT Photo )

“While the infrastructure of Aram Nagar, the bungalows and the roads, have remained the same, the ecosystem has changed fast over the last few years,” says Bollywood trade analyst Atul Mohan. “About 150 office spaces have come up here, including casting agencies, production houses and co-working spaces. There’s everything in one place. Before this, the director-actor meetings used to happen in once place, the auditions in another, the production and post-production somewhere else. Now they can do all of it in Aram Nagar. And, as in Versova, there are small chai joints and posh cafes where people can network, share a smoke.”

There are now about 40 casting agencies and 20 production studios here, aside from the talent management companies and co-working spaces. Most have come up in the last five years, and are housed in the old bungalows that date back to post-Partition settlements.

Salons and gyms dot tree-lined streets. And on the trunks of those trees are more announcements for auditions, kick-boxing classes, sound studios and talent management agencies.

“We cater to everyone, the actors who want to learn capoeira for a role and the newbies who want to do more than just act,” says Parth Gagan, owner of Studio 147, situated in a rented four-room bungalow. “Web shows do not use body doubles, so having the right training helps actors get an edge over others in the running.”

Even the signs that don’t announce auditions, have something to do with the sudden boom. As platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar become monsters that must be fed, there is growing demand for work that can be done quickly, professionally and at low cost. That’s where Aram Nagar comes in. ( Shashi S Kashyap / HT Photo )

SCENES WITHIN SCENES

For the role of a tantric in a horror show, about 10 middle-aged men turned up at Casting Bay to audition. Some are on a lunch break from their day jobs as accountants and teachers; others were strugglers who spent most of their days hunting down auditions.

“As the OTT platforms experiment with new storylines, the bodybuilder-type heroes don’t fit every role any more. We can now cast all kinds of people, all age groups and all body types,” says Kavish Sinha, a casting director who set up an agency called On My Kayroll here in 2017. “They just need to have the right skills.”

India’s digital subscription market grew 262% between 2017 to 2018, to reach Rs 14.2 billion, of which the majority was video subscription, according to a FICCI-EY report titled A Billion Screens of Opportunity, released in March. ‘There has been a strong focus by global streaming platforms in the last year to invest in local content and originals as they look to gain scale,’ the report went on to state. ‘This continues to provide an exciting opportunity for content creators, who are seeing both global and local streaming services invest in greater volumes of content with larger budgets.’

In Aram Nagar, early movers such as Kunal Talwar, co-founder of Harkat Studio, an experimental art space set up in 2017, have seen this change reflected on the ground.

“There are 180 office spaces here now, most set up in bungalows. That includes casting studios, production companies, rehearsals spaces, theatre and artist management companies. “A part of this area’s big open ground is now, a lot of the time, used as free parking,” says Azhar Shaikh, business head at Tarsame Mittal Talent Management.

ARAM NAGAR TYPES: PEOPLE YOU CAN EXPECT TO RUN INTO
  • The rich boy with nothing to lose: Always has his sunglasses on, even indoors. Comes from a wealthy family, thinks web series are cool. Has an MBA in his back pocket as a Plan B. He’s quick to explain that his ‘British’ accent comes from the international school he went to in Delhi.
  • The believer: His jeans are ripped and he loves desi rap. He runs from audition to audition with the dedication of a board exam student, emailing his portfolio to Anurag Kashyap’s manager at regular intervals. Believes he could be the next Gully Boy, because no one wants it more.
  • The almost-singer: She models, sings, plays guitar, has a music guru and a friend who’s also a life coach. Is always fully made up and dressed in designer wear. She’s not a struggler; she does live gigs all the time.
  • The multi-tasker: No one talent is enough for the multi-tasker. Typically, he or she will be martial arts trainer, aspiring actor, fixer, talent scout and mentor all in one.
  • The film buff: Simply dressed, by design. Smokes constantly. Won’t stop talking about the trade. Says he loves Cuaron, turns out to be a fan of Amitabh Bachchan. His T-shirt reads ‘Roti Kapda aur Cinema’ and he means it.
  • The silent type: Here to do a job. Sits at the console and focuses on work — post-production, editing, sound design. Won’t smoke, and doesn’t want to go to Goa over the weekend.
  • The casting assistant: She is salon-styled all day, every day. Her Instagram game is strong, mainly because struggler in Aram Nagar hearts every picture. Name an OTT actor and she remembers her ‘on these very streets, such a nice girl, anyway, gotta go’.
  • The producer who has to pretend she’s busier than she is: She sips on green tea while briefing the team and abruptly answering a phone that seems to ring silently. Never has a free moment. Wears only indie brands. Carries a lot of bags. Has a small entourage at all times.

MULTIPLE CHOICE

In half an hour at the On My Kayroll casting agency, three actors walk in, asking if there is an opening. “In our studio, from Monday to Wednesday between 12 and 1, you can just walk in and shoot an introduction take on a video. We then save your details and call you when there’s a role you can take up,” says Sinha.

The studio has cast roles in web series such as Laakhon Mein Ek on Amazon Prime, AltBalaji’s PM Selfiewallie and Shaadi Boys on Voot. Actors don’t pay, the production houses do.

In a similar cottage nearby, Imran Shamsi moved his five-year-old content agency called WhatWorks two years ago. “We used to be based in Yari Road but the vibe here is better. There’s enough space to experiment.” WhatWorks has done YouTube promotion videos for Bollywood films Sui Dhaaga and MS Dhoni. They have also done branded social media video content for clothing brands such as Nush.

“Aram Nagar is connected to Madh Island by sea and to Film City by road,” Shamsi says. “Besides, people from the entertainment industry aren’t ever comfortable in a corporate setup. Here, we have bunk beds, synthetic grass on our patios, cafés tucked away at the back. There’s space to just get together, create together.”

DUAL ROLES

The struggle looks different here too. You can be an aspiring actor biding her time as a production assistant, earning well and busy, but waiting for a break. You can be an accountant who spends every weekend here, going from audition to audition, finally ending up in an OTT show.

“I did theatre in college and a documentary with an independent director to realise that I wanted to pursue acting full-time. I did not know how to go about it. I was a part of several WhatsApp groups with casting directors but was not getting anywhere,” says Aishwarya Chaudhary, 25, an actress from Delhi.

Her martial arts tutor directed her to Aram Nagar, where she found work as an assistant at a casting studio. “I learned so much about what kinds of roles were opening up and how they decide who to cast,” Chaudhary says. She is now acting in the second season of a web series on Amazon Prime Video.

Sayandeep Sengupta, 27, an actor from Delhi, spends all day on his feet, moving from shoot to auditions. “The casting studios being close to each other worked in my favour. I was once coming out of a studio after an audition for an ad when Sinha of On My Kayroll, who was about to hold auditions for a web series in a studio next door, spotted me and asked me to try out. And I bagged a role. The show is set to release on Hotstar in a couple of months.”

First Published: May 25, 2019 20:34 IST