Wednesday, 8 February 2017

How Anupam Kher's acting school killed my Bollywood dream

In the spring of 1994, I posted a letter to film director Raj Kumar Santoshi requesting him to launch me as an actress when I’m all grown up. His address I found on the pages of CineBlitz, a magazine I regularly read as a kid to get my fill of Bollywood gossip; there weren’t too many entertainment outlets for us except for watching films on VCR and we did so religiously.

Many Pakistanis may despise India and Indians but not Bollywood; it is seen as a separate entity, a secular space filled with as many Khans as Kumars. The return of Hindi cinema on our screens is both a moment of jubilation and relief for us, even if some people don’t like admitting it.

I never heard back from Santoshi or from Madhuri Dixit to whom I had dispatched a birthday card as well, but the fascination with Bombay only grew over time, even as I left for Canada with my family as a teen. Years later, right after completing university, the filmi bug raised its shiny head again reminding me of the countless "best actress award" acceptance speeches I’d given under my blanket each night, and the promise I made to myself of buying a house next to Shah Rukh's.

I just had to give it a try, so I enrolled myself in Anupam Kher’s acting school, a training ground for young aspirants, exploiting the dreams of the naive and promising them a good future in return. The process of getting selected in the school was a tedious one, ensuring that everyone landing in Juhu felt like "ab btoh star ban hee gaye yaar".

There were young men and women from the smallest of towns in India, who had saved up for months to make it to this prestigious school, sitting with their widest smiles as Kher went around asking for introductions on the first day itself.

There was also a coterie of exceptionally well-turned out, affluent young people sitting in a corner by themselves. Some were recommendations of superstars, others belonged to a filmi gharana; they each took their turn explaining in their broken Hindi why they wanted to act.

I’m probably the only Pakistani to have attended Actor Prepares, I thought to myself and disclosed this information to everyone upon my turn. I also saw myself as an equivalent to any Indian there - in the realm of cinema we were equal as spectators, we were all one ticket each, so ideally everyone should hold a fair chance to making it inside B-town.

The Pakistani film industry is still in its nascent stages of being revived and already overpopulated with well known TV stars. Indian films have always been our drug to escape civil unrest, volatile attacks and the forever-palpitating political scenario, and so they have been an involuntary part of our culture since Partition.
As vocal as Anupam Kher may be against corruption now, it was disheartening to see that his acting school was filled with the same incongruencies found elsewhere. 

"But you don’t look Pakistani," exclaimed a fellow struggler to me in our dance class. Of course I didn’t - not in the way Indians had come to recognise Pakistanis - I was dusky, short, and on the plumper side of things and all the more conscious of it, sitting among Kingfisher Calendar girls touching up their make-up every few minutes.

I had instead packed with me a whole lot of zeal and the willingness to learn which I soon learnt weren’t needed at all. They paled in comparison to connections and the insane amount of money required just to survive in the aspiring-actor circuit.

Finding accommodation turned out to be an easy-task for me, my hybrid sounding name helped; the landlady mistook me for being half-Christian and half-Sikh; soon my Urdu gave me away but by then we had bonded strongly over her devrani-jethani family politics discussions each evening.

Within the acting school though were strange divides which became apparent early on. Nepotism ruled the day, and those of us that felt neglected started meeting outside of class on Juhu beach, discussing prejudice while devouring panipuri. We felt belittled in front of celebrity rug rats, much like children born out of wedlock.

Some batchmates tried compensating for their dilemma by clicking umpteen selfies with Anupam Kher, and also guest speakers, to send back home. This kept their parents fooled into thinking that their talented child was hobnobbing with people that mattered in the industry. It was frustrating to watch the faculty place their faith into those born with a silver spoon overlooking the common man’s hunger for expression.

"I want my fee refunded... bas," I said one fine night to my friends as we made plans to revolt. Suddenly I felt like the union leader of labourers in some B-grade Mithun-starrer demanding "hamari maange poori karo". However, I could sense that most people were petrified of rubbing Kher the wrong way, it may affect their filmi future they figured - so plans for the mutiny were dropped.

As vocal as Kher may be against corruption now, it was disheartening to see that his acting school was filled with the same incongruencies found elsewhere. Cinema is perhaps the only domain in our subcontinent that allows people to make vast economic jumps.

Being the eldest in a family of all girls, hailing from an upper middle class set up, I had envisioned that a life filled with celluloid stardust would relief us of always budgeting our desires - of checking the price tag first and then deciding to like something or not.

Bollywood’s quota system for their own kind may have aborted my cinematic dream but it could never rob from me the pleasure of watching stories unfold on the big screen.

There was however another way of breaking it in, it was by getting into the good books of Salman Khan - but I was neither a foreigner nor a look-alike of one of his exes.

(Source: Daily Yo)

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