Amidst the current debate in regards to the film industry and mental health of its artistes, here is an insider's account from actor turned filmmaker Himanshu Malik.
I don't think any actor (or actress) ever forgets the first day they arrive in Mumbai, be it a classic monsoon day of unending rain and the Mumbaikars go about their day as normally as ever or a hot muggy day, when your body is covered in a sheen of sweat and you wonder why the British gave this city so much significance to begin with.
The unfamiliar fishy smell is one of your first encounters and once you are loaded and crammed into a rickshaw or taxi heading towards Andheri, you encounter the oceanic bustling size of the city, like an overcrowded reef with endless by-lanes and people living in burrow like homes on top, bottom, side, below staircase, on terrace, top left or bottom right corner of each other. In those moments while the actor (it's a gender neutral word) travels in the rickshaw getting a half view of this world outside, the weight of their ambition is nothing but overbearing.
Here you are, chasing your whim or ambition or dysfunction or passion or a need- of being a part of the 'industry'- in a land of strange weather and sea smells and a profusion of people. There have been actors I have known who went back the very next day itself, the ones who stayed- stayed because they probably had no better place to go back to or because their ambition was robust enough to take on the city, most times, it was a mix of both. I think it is at this early stage that the actor starts to set the parameters and the goals of this new journey.
They want to be artistically appreciated and accepted and nourished and nurtured while being financially rewarded for the same, all this while sticking to their own personal moral code of conduct- which is generally very close to the middle-class morality that they come from. Though not too far away into the future the moral code will be tested and prodded by all and sundry and it's utility questioned, nevertheless you hold them like a promise made to the self.
After innumerable casting jaunts, where the Actor displays absolute humility and deploys every trick of a salesman, with deep faith and immense self-motivation, one does land a pitter-patter of a few jobs. There seems to be light at the end of the tunnel.
You start to create a network of friends, believers, competitors, non-believers and more importantly work associations, 'this is just stage 1 and must be built on' is what the actor keeps telling itself. By now the actor has crossed the 'money for casting racket' part but what comes next is far more jarring, the 'will you compromise' messages part. What takes you aback is the simple bluntness of it, all the horror stories of exploitation and clandestine flesh trade and secret kinky cults come alive in your head and it takes a lot to find faith around you again. You plod on.
Buoyed by the success Stage 1 the Actor goes at Stage 2 with even more ferocity and vitality. Networking and socializing become key words and tools to be applied for the graduation, it also aligns with the season of raging youth that the actor is in and there is no reason not to celebrate for what lies ahead. There are drinking soirees and clubbing and buddy bonding and escapades and all such things youthful, life really seems to be full and worth it. The Stage 2 battle awaits or unknowingly starts to evolve from within these rollicking times and though you might forget the dynamics of the game, the city does not.
After all, it is a business where unsullied youth is the most precious commodity and it always draws attention.
Now the Actor is propositioned not via messages but in person, that too by people they remotely had started to trust and then starts the process of slapping people (men in the case of women actors and homosexual men in the case of male actors), running away from parties, avoiding individuals, avoiding entrapment in empty flats or offices and what not. This is the first time that the individual starts to get the idea that 'favouritism' and 'nepotism' is at work, for though they steered clear of it, something tells them that there must be others who took up the proposition. You get this feeling that while you slept early and woke up early to go to gym and eat your soaked 'chana' you missed out some crucial casting opportunities the previous night.
Sure there is the art house, content driven, performance centric cinema emerging on the side lines and to be a part of them is also incredible but those films have their own obstacles of release and completion, so, no matter how much you abhor the mediocrity of mainstream cinema it is the only place you can build a career, brand and financial stability and what not.
Your life by now is a video game where survival is key and you know the pitfalls and the rules, within your limitations, with military like discipline you go at it. Calls from back home are a mix of anxious and happy, for they have seen your photo in the papers or on the screen and see you getting absorbed into the Mumbai life. Your nay-sayers are disappointed and make it a point to convey it to you.
Lo and behold one day a call comes, you nail it in an audition, the team is convinced, the all-important meeting with Producer goes well and bang you are in a project as a key-cast. There are celebrations (even back in the hometown) and a dramatic signing ritual and promises of friendships and a better life ahead and et all. Work starts, rehearsals- costume trials- dance practice, the whole nine yards, once again you are cruising the town with your pals like a rapper video. You buy yourself a new phone, new shoes, get the year old dent on your car repaired, old friends get insecure and think you are changing while new friends assure you that you are ready for the 'next level', whatever that is, you continue to be you and focus on your project.
The sneaky thing in the project is that there are daily reminders that you have been given a 'break', initially you are graceful and thankful about it but then it becomes a recurring theme of the conversations as if the purpose of such talk is to make you feel beholden to the makers. Sometimes you are in two minds, as to stop an assistant or the costume person when they mention the 'break' funda to you, that, 'hello! would you like to know what it took to get here!!', but such talk is viewed as disruptive and disrespectful, and it dawns on you that you have now entered the realm of fiefdom and serfdom.
Here you are imagining yourself to be a vessel, not a vassal, that will deliver the narrative to the audience and there they seem to believe and imply that the Actor is getting a free ride to some fabled land of Arabian nights; narrative they can take care of, who needs actors in the face of their esteemed talent. Of course you are subtly told that this sloganeering arises from the fact that filmmaking is a very difficult business and the maker has to go through the gates of hell and all that standard talk, clearly none of them had been a struggling actor and faced those battles.
And now that, many years later, I have made my own film (Produced & Directed) I can say it empathically, no matter how absurd it sounds, filmmaking has numerous comfort zones, while acting/casting has none. Hence is easier.
'Chitrakut' will be releasing in cinemas soon (as soon as corona allows it), please keep an eye out for it.
Triggered by these initial projects the actor finds him/her self on even more projects, the work is welcome so are the services of a personal staff (you are given your own fief: of two serfs) and you find yourself in the company of other seasoned actors. Some of them are people you have already seen and admired on screen while some are still works in progress, like you. There is seldom a dull moment when you are with your tribe, the jokes, the warmth the shenanigans are unending. Most are open hearted entertainers and storytellers and pranksters and more importantly they understand you and each other with tenderness and listen and talk and give and take advice. Like normal life should be. Unfortunately, by now you are distant with your friends of yester years- no fault of theirs or yours- they can't fathom or understand the life you live (that of an actor) and thus can't empathise. You feel the isolation that you have worked your self into.
Mainstream films have their own disappointments, no matter how reputed the maker, they have a commercial purpose and until that is fulfilled there really is nothing to fuss about. Your costumes and 'look' is discussed far more than your character and God help you if you inquire about it. The assistants will make a joke about it- that this actor thinks about his character also. Your dance skills and fight skills are scrutinised as if you were supposed to be a dancer and fighter, not an actor. If by any chance you ask about your character again, some director will pull you aside and tell you, 'play yourself', just as Shah Rukh Khan plays himself in each movie. You want to say that, 'he does that because everyone wants him to, else he has divine range', but you resist disagreement and nod to get this bizarre discussion over soon. You tell yourself, 'In Rome do as a Roman' and become a moron.
Your 'Industrification' is now complete, you have achieved what you set out to do, and now, you really start to think of your life choices, no not like the fake dramatic type you did when you came to the city 9 years back. Like really.
Submissiveness, Individuality, People of Power, Isolation and more…later. Click here to go to part 2, act 3.
*This is an unedited article contributed by Himanshu Malik. Click here to follow him on Instagram.