The Outcasts

How Bollywood shuts its doors on the poor

Kirti Jadav dreams of becoming a film star. In pursuit of this dream, she travels for up to four hours every Sunday, from her home in a far-flung Mumbai suburb to an acting class in Dharavi. RITESH UTTAMCHANDANI FOR THE CARAVAN
01 July, 2016


EVERY SUNDAY, KIRTI JADAV leaves her house in Bhiwandi, a far-flung suburb of Mumbai, at around nine in the morning. She walks for ten minutes and boards a bus, which, in an hour and a half, brings her to Vasai Road station. From there, she takes the Mumbai local train, which reaches Dadar in an hour. At Dadar, she boards another train, and in around 20 minutes arrives at Sion. Jadav then walks for another 20 minutes to reach the famous slum of Dharavi, located in central Mumbai. Even on a good day, the journey takes over three hours. With bad traffic or train delays, it can easily take four.

And yet, Jadav treasures her Sundays. Because on these days, she gets to do what she loves most: act. In Dharavi, she heads to the home of Baburao Laadsaheb, whose living room serves as the studio for a weekly acting and dancing class. Students above the age of 16 are charged at Rs 100 per hour, and those below at Rs 10. Laadsaheb teaches the poorest ones free of cost.

On the afternoon of 10 April, Jadav reached Laadsaheb’s house at around two. A few hours into the class, Laadsaheb asked his students—around a dozen twenty-somethings—to enact a few scenes. In one of these, a married woman is harassed by her ex-boyfriend, and her husband rescues her just in the nick of time. Jadav played the married woman, and two other students, Mahesh Kumar Rao and Dhananjay Shankar Pakly, played the ex-boyfriend and husband, respectively.

“Hahaha,” Rao rubbed his palms together, “kyun Basanti, teri shaadi kya ho gayi, tum mujhe bhool gayi?” (Basanti, just because you got married, you forgot me?)

Jadav walked towards him, stopped and gasped. “Dekh Shaka, ab main kisi aur ki suhagan hun” (Listen Shaka, I’m someone else’s wife now). She folded her hands, pleading. “Bhagwan ke liye mera raasta chhod de” (For god’s sake, leave me alone).

Chhod dunga rani, pehle meri baahon mein toh aa” (I’ll let you go, sweetheart, just come into my arms once). Rao tried to embrace her, but Jadav ducked and walked briskly away.

Chhod dunga rani,” Laadsaheb interjected, in a lustful, melodramatic voice,“pehle meri baahon mein toh aa.” He stretched the words “rani” and “aa,” implying the inflection they required.

Chhod dunga rani, pehle meri baahon mein toh aa,” Rao repeated in a monotone. Some students laughed.

After a few run-throughs, Jadav and Rao had memorised the first few lines. “Jitna chillana hai chilla, is sunsaan jagah mein kaun karega teri raksha?” (Scream as much as you want, who’ll protect you in a deserted place like this?) Rao continued in a deadpan voice.

Main karunga iski raksha”(I’ll protect her), Pakly said, walking towards Rao.

Kaun hai bey tu, phatichar?” (Who are you, moron?)

Phatichar nahin, schoolteacher. Iska pati aur tumhari maut”(Not a moron, but a schoolteacher. Her husband and your death).

“Dhan te na. Ta-na na-na na-na na-na,” Laadsaheb sang out dramatic music. “Go back and forth five times,” he said, directing Rao and Pakly through a fight. “Aaarrrggghhhh! Ugggghhhhh! Come on, I need this voice. Does the public come to watch a silent picture?”

As the scenes played out, the difference between Jadav and the rest of the students became apparent. Where scenes involving emotional intimacy made the others uncomfortable and found virtually no volunteers, Jadav took them on with enthusiasm. While the other students repeated Laadsaheb’s formulaic lines without any apparent emotion or interest, Jadav delivered them with melodramatic flair. She was clearly the most talented student in Laadsaheb’s class.

When I spoke to her after the class, I realised that acting wasn’t simply a hobby for Jadav. Her ambition went beyond being the best of Laadsaheb’s lot. She wanted to be a film star.

BOLLYWOOD STARDOM, though, has a particular geography. Historically, the Hindi film industry has recognised only certain parts of Mumbai. It knows Yari Road and Lokhandwala in Andheri West, where aspiring actors, screenwriters, assistant directors and directors live; Aram Nagar, where production houses hold auditions for films, television serials and advertisements; Juhu and Bandra West, home to film stars; and south Mumbai, or Town, where many movies are shot. But it doesn’t know Dharavi, Bhiwandi, Naigaon or Nalasopara, or any of the city’s other slums and sprawling suburbs.

Still, if you visit any of those slums or suburbs, you find thousands of people who don’t know this, who don’t want to know this. They, like so many of their fellow Indians, are in thrall to Bollywood. They crowd theatres to see new releases, follow stars’ lives, and, in indulgent moments, imagine some twist of fate landing them on the silver screen. Some of them take such daydreams more seriously than others. Some, like Jadav, make that dream the centre of their lives.

So they go knocking on doors, trying to find a way in. They look for acting classes that promise them a leg-up, and approach casting agents who promise to get them auditions. And, repeatedly, they find all doors shut. Because the truth is that Mumbai’s geography of Bollywood corresponds pretty much exactly to Mumbai’s geography of wealth. The city Bollywood knows is that of the haves. The city it pays no mind to is that of the have-nots.

Bollywood aspirants in Andheri West can afford to live in the city even without steady jobs. They go to high-end gyms, scarf down protein supplements, hang out in trendy cafes frequented by casting directors, and attend a handful of acting schools helmed by industry insiders. Compared to the nominal charges at Laadsaheb’s class, the fees for these acting schools are astronomical. A six-month course at Barry John Acting Studio costs Rs 315,000. A three-month course at Actor Prepares comes in at Rs 200,000. A four-month course at Roshan Taneja School of Acting sets you back by Rs 170,000.

With the economic divide comes a cultural one, too. The two Mumbais’ vocabularies of life, and of cinema, are vastly different. While Laadsaheb coaches his students in the cliched plots and highly melodramatic acting that defined the Bollywood of a few decades ago, the hopefuls in Andheri West prepare for the comparatively realist style of today’s more ambitious productions. Star-struck youngsters in Dharavi can only dream of speaking in the English-inflected Hindi now so common in Bollywood films, which for the strivers in Andheri West is already the lingua franca. In an industry that would rather create dreamworlds of privilege than believable portraits of poverty, those bearing the cultural markers of straitened circumstances are pushed further and further away. Meanwhile, Bollywood’s current young stars, almost to a one, hail either from families of enviable wealth, or from dynasties of former stars—simply put, from a certain class.

The world of the Andheri West strivers gets plenty of attention. Descriptions of it, dramatised and glorified, are ubiquitous in profiles and interviews of rising young actors. But the world of the dream-drunk poor remains largely invisible. Needless to say, Laadsaheb’s living room is on the most extreme fringes of Bollywood’s geography. So it was my first stop in getting an exterior view of Bollywood’s fortress, with its many barriers of class and hereditary privilege. Against these obstacles, what chances of stardom, or of even getting a foot in the door, does a talented outsider have?

JADAV FIRST CAME TO LAADSAHEB'S CLASS three years ago, at the age of 27, after she learnt about it from an advertisement in a Marathi newspaper. At first, she only wanted to learn dance. About a month later, Santosh Todankar, a director, came to Laadsaheb’s class, looking to cast an actor for Crime Diary, a true-crime show on ETV Marathi. From the bunch of pictures that Laadsaheb showed him, he liked Jadav’s.

“She is learning how to dance, she hasn’t acted yet,” Laadsaheb told Todankar. “But I’ll ask her if she’s interested.” She was.

Jadav’s role in her first episode of Crime Diary got her around ten minutes of screen time and didn’t include any lines, but gave her enough scope to act. Jadav nailed the few scenes that showed her crying. She didn’t even need glycerine; according to Laadsaheb, her “tears were real.” Impressed, Todankar called Laadsaheb, “Sir, this artist does real-type acting.” Jadav, who was paid Rs 250 for her first episode, became a regular on the show. She acted in more than 100 episodes of Crime Diary, playing a range of roles: a hapless girlfriend, a dutiful wife, a defiant daughter-in-law.

Baburao Laadsaheb’s living room serves as a studio for a weekly acting and dancing class in Dharavi. RITESH UTTAMCHANDANI FOR THE CARAVAN

Soon, she was earning Rs 2,000 for a day’s work. And then, one day, as she was returning from shopping with her younger cousin, on a motorcycle, an auto rickshaw smashed into them. The accident left her limbs badly scratched. She was hospitalised for a month, but had to undergo treatment for nearly a year. It took her around three years to completely recover—during which she could not act.

Shortly after the accident, in 2013, Jadav got married and stayed at home. Her husband, busy at work, didn’t have time for her. She didn’t want to while away her time by watching television or gossiping with neighbours. Television, especially, could become addictive. She decided to act again. She knew of only one place that could offer her a new beginning: Baburao Laadsaheb’s classes.

During those few hours in Laadsaheb’s living room, she even forgets her routine for the rest of the week: stitching designer blouses and salwar suits, clicking passport-sized photographs and making photocopies—all part of a small business that fetches her around Rs 5,000 per month.

Now, having spent the last four months training under Laadsaheb, she felt ready to start auditioning for parts. Jadav was going to start with television serials, before eventually moving on to films. She would take up any film offer without thinking twice, irrespective of the length of the role. Television could give her good, consistent pay, but she wanted more: “shohrat”—fame, which only films could offer. She could hardly wait.


Casting directors such as Mukesh Chhabra, who cast Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Gangs of Wasseypur, have increasingly become the gatekeepers of Bollywood Stardom. RITESH UTTAMCHANDANI FOR THE CARAVAN

ONE MORNING, Jadav looked up “Hindi movie and serial coordinators” online. A lot of options came up. She hadn’t heard of any, so she picked two at random: Mahadev Films and Jhankar Films, both located in remote Mumbai suburbs—the former in Nalasopara, the latter in Thane. She couldn’t solely rely on Laadsaheb’s contacts for acting offers. Casting coordinators, who pair actors with production houses, seemed like a good option. On the same day, she called Mahadev Films to inquire about auditions.

“I’m outdoors right now, for a shoot,” the man who picked up her call said. “Why don’t you send me your pictures over WhatsApp.” She sent them.

A few days later, she received a text message from him about the shoot of a Hindi movie, starring Bollywood A-listers. She was asked to come to the Mahadev Films office.

Jadav met a different man at the office, who told her that the casting company charged a non-refundable “registration fee” of Rs 1,000, before sending actors for auditions.

“How long after paying the registration fee will I get a role?” She asked.

“Once you’re registered, we’ll start sending you for auditions.”

Jadav wasn’t convinced. Even if she paid up, Mahadev Films couldn’t guarantee her a role. A typical audition saw hundreds of actors. What if she didn’t get selected?

“I’ll soon let you know,” she said. Jadav knew that she wasn’t coming back.

She decided to contact Bollywood filmmakers directly. She went online again and fished out phone numbers for the offices of Karan Johar, Ram Gopal Varma and Rakesh Roshan. She couldn’t reach Johar and Varma, but managed to speak to someone at Roshan’s production house, Film Kraft.

“Madam, this is Kirti. I’m an artist,” Jadav said. “I want to know about auditioning.”

“The auditions are already over, madam. The shoot has begun,” a woman told her.

“Do you know when the next audition will happen?”

“It’ll take some time. At least one and a half to two years.”

“Oh my god,” Jadav said. “Is there no chance for anything right now?”

“No, not right now.”

Still, after she hung up, Jadav was visibly excited. “I’d like to audition there more than 100 times,” she told me. “And I won’t even care about the role. Like, even if they cast me as a bhikhaari”—beggar—“I’d gladly take it.”

She decided to call Roshan’s office every six months. “I believe that something good can happen,” she said. “Because had that woman been rude on the phone, I’d have thought, ‘Let it be.’ But she spoke nicely, so I think maybe there’s a chance of an audition.”

A few days later, Jadav did secure an audition. She received a text message from Jhankar Films, whom she had contacted earlier, which read: “1 May ko shoot hai. Agar apko kaam karna hai toh office me aa ke milo” (There’s a shoot on 1 May. If you want to work, then come to office). “Jhankar Films, Nagrik Building, near Thane station.” She called up the office and fixed a time to meet.

On the afternoon of 25 April, Jadav found herself sitting in a small, one-room office, facing Sanjana Singh of Jhankar Films. It was Singh who had texted her.

“Do you know everything about the videos?” Singh asked.

“Yes, I’d been told that a video of an audition would be made,” Jadav said.

“Age kya hai aapki?” (What is your age?)

Jadav hesitated, lowered her voice, and said, “Thirty.”

“What kind of work have you done in the film-line till now?”

“I’ve worked in a Marathi serial called Crime Diary, where I played different kinds of roles—both positive and negative.”

“According to your age and work experience, I may have a role for you. It’s the role of a mother, for Savdhaan India,” Singh said. “But I can’t say for sure, looking at your figure, whether they’ll take you or not. If you appear in the right get-up, then maybe you can look the part.”

“Actually, my age is of a mother, but…”

“See, it only has to do with the age,” Singh said. “I don’t have a problem with you, honestly. I’d like my artist to get selected, so that I can get my commission”—from the production house. “I won’t charge anything from you. Can you send me a video clip of your acting?”

“Sure,” Jadav said.

“Is there a link or something where I can watch it?”

“I’ll show you.”

Jadav handed Singh her mobile phone, which had an episode of Crime Diary on it.

Singh watched the clip for a few minutes and said, “I’m going to forward your number today. You should get a call in the next three to four hours.” She added, “But you should also be sure about the kind of role you accept. Sometimes, an artist agrees to a role but backs out on set at the last moment. That becomes a problem.”

“I’ll do any kind of role: mother, daughter. I’m a kalakaran artist—“after all.”

“You’ll get a good role,” she said. “I’ll make it happen.”

Jadav left Jhankar Films’ office feeling elated. “Amazing. I didn’t know everything would turn out so well,” she told me, smiling. “They didn’t even ask for money.”

A few minutes later, we were at a restaurant near Thane train station. “This was exactly what I was looking for,” she said. “I think if you’re talented, then the right doors open for you. I had shown her my acting skills there itself, on my phone. What more could she say then?” Otherwise, Jadav added, it was difficult for struggling actors. “Bahut daudaate hain. Expressions dekhte hain. CD banate hain” (They make you run a lot. They see your expressions. Ask you to make a CD).

Jadav said that she would wait, as she had been told, for a phone call from Jhankar Films. Then, as they had directed, she’d go for auditions. She didn’t want to approach anyone else or give any more auditions on her own. “Kyunki abhi maine sahi nishana phenka hai” (because I’ve targeted the right opportunity now), she said. “I just need to crack one audition for a serial. Once I get that, I’m sure, different production houses will themselves start getting in touch with me.”

BUT THE PEOPLE Jadav was placing her hopes in have no power to launch her into the ranks of stars she aspires to. Casting coordinators, such as Jhankar Films, can, at best, offer small roles in television serials or films. They are at the bottom of the casting food chain. Those at the top, who could really help Jadav, are another breed altogether: casting directors. In recent times, they have increasingly become the gatekeepers of Bollywood stardom. They are largely inaccessible to people like Jadav, and cater to the affluent struggling actors of Andheri. But when I spoke to them, many of these casting directors were in denial about Bollywood’s class prejudice.

Atul Mongia, the casting director of recent films such as Love Sex Aur Dhokha, Lootera and Titli, told me that Bollywood is becoming more inclusive. “Are we accessing spaces like Dharavi? Actually, yes,” he said. “We work with people who call actors from everywhere—from Dharavi, from Kalina—and audition them.” Over the course of our conversation, we discussed examples of actors, purportedly from poor backgrounds, who managed to make it into Bollywood.

Govinda, for instance, was indeed from a far removed Mumbai suburb called Virar. “In the 1980s”—when Govinda broke into Bollywood—“we were making poor boy-rich girl love stories. And even though our films had a poor boy, he didn’t look like one; he was very fair,” Mongia said.

But Govinda, I later found out, was by no means from a poor family. His parents were actors, and his uncle directed the first film Govinda featured in. His parents lived in a bungalow on the posh Carter Road, and had moved to Virar after falling on hard times. Still, Mongia was optimistic. “If we had a boy of that class who somehow pulled off to look rich, then maybe he would have a chance,” he said. “Or someone who’s quirky and has a cool attitude, like Nawazuddin”—the actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui—“then people want to watch that circus, too.”

But Siddiqui does not hail from a poor background, either. He comes from a family of affluent landowners in Uttar Pradesh, and went to National School of Drama, the country’s premier theatre institute. The story of Siddiqui’s dazzling success—from appearing in bit roles to becoming a Hindi film hero—is still incredible, since the industry is typically quick to categorise someone with his physical attributes—dark skin and a bony frame—as an extra or, in the industry’s parlance, a “junior artiste.”

Mukesh Chhabra, the casting director of Gangs of Wasseypur, Siddiqui’s first film as a hero, said he “wasn’t looking to cast people only from Bandra, Juhu or Town.” In fact, “for Raman Raghav”—Anurag Kashyap’s latest, where Siddiqui plays the lead—“we cast local actors.” Chhabra added that now, with films that look “authentic and realistic,” casting isn’t about “stardom or looks.” Chhabra, like Mongia, was optimistic about aspiring actors’ chances, irrespective of their backgrounds. “I think now anybody can walk into this industry and work,” he said. “Times are much better.” However, he did not offer any examples of such people that had walked in and found work in Bollywood.

But I got a different impression from a casting assistant I spoke to, who didn't want to be identified. The casting assistant had worked with a renowned casting director, a few years ago, on some big Bollywood films. One of these became a box-office hit a few years ago. For that film, a then new actor—now a fairly well known face—auditioned for the role of a hero’s close friend. “Her audition was bang-on,” the casting assistant said. “She was amazing.” But the director, while looking at her audition tape, said, “You know, if I want to cast a reporter-type, I’d take her.” The actor’s relatively dark skin had earned her a label: a “reporter-type.”

Though looks understandably need to be considered during auditions, the manner in which they are interpreted in Bollywood reveals the industry’s prejudice. The casting director, the casting assistant told me, “categorises pictures sent by actors. One category’s called ‘very good’ actors. The other’s called ‘funny faces,’” the casting assistant said. The casting assistant also listed out some others: “Transgenders, FTII actors, A-type good-looking models, B-type good-looking models, and,” at this point the casting assistant's voice dropped, “down-market models.”

Down-market models, the casting assistant told me, would be “required to play the roles of, say, a rickshaw-wallah—where you need a certain kind of face, but that person also needs to be a good actor.” The casting assistant then revealed some more terminology commonly used by casting directors and their associates: “Behenji”; “DM,” for down market; “gaonti,” for a villager; “Lokhandwala-type,” for brawny men; “BTM,” for a behenji turned model; “varnac,” for vernacular (those who don’t speak English); and “LS,” for low society.


THE FILM INDUSTRY'S PREJUDICES, thus, significantly limit opportunities for poor people like Jadav. The jobs available to them are those of faceless workers: back-up dancers, make-up artists, stuntmen, spot boys, hairdressers, light men and so on. Within this bunch are junior artistes, formerly called “extras,” who occupy the lowest rung of the Bollywood-actor ladder. They appear in the background—in scenes shot in railway stations, busy streets, bus stops; they are a villain’s henchmen, soldiers in a hero’s army, or corpses inside a morgue.

In late April, I visited the Junior Artistes Association, in the western Mumbai suburb of Jogeshwari West. The office is a single-storey building comprising only a large hall that faces a heap of stones, bricks and metal pipes, and a pit filled with black water and mosquitoes. The office opened to a large hall, where large steel benches, each capable of accommodating four people, were lined up against two walls. A blackboard on one wall asked the junior artistes to pay their monthly chanda—donation—to cover the cost of electricity and utilities, or else they’d have to face an inquiry and pay a fine.

The organisation comprises around 1,200 junior artistes, many of whom have inherited membership of the body from their older relatives, who have died or retired. Some of the junior artistes have been working in films nearly their entire lives. One, who looked at least 60 years old, talked fondly about acting with Dilip Kumar in the 1986 film Karma. He appeared in just one scene in the film, where Kumar asked his character, “Body kidhar hai?” (Where’s the body?), to which he replied, “Body idhar hai”(here’s the body). He said that the role showcased him and Kumar well on the screen. “Right now, there’s a famous film of mine, Munna Bhai M.B.B.S,” he said, beaming with pride, “where I play the role of a dead body.”

A bunch of junior artistes hail from Dharavi, too. I spoke to one, aged 30, who didn’t want to reveal his name. He became a member of the association in 2004, after his father transferred his membership to him. Four years later, at the age of 22, he began working as a junior artiste.

At the end of his first day of work, he got paid in cash: Rs 500. He was then earning Rs 12,000 per month, working as a watchman in one of the high-rises in Yari Road. “I thought, as a junior artiste, I can easily earn between Rs 15,000 and 20,000,” he told me. Besides, this job gave him the chance to see “nice artists”—film stars—from up close. Since then, he has worked in many mainstream productions. He played a fisherman in Chennai Express, a constable in Singham and a lungi-wearing villager in Dabangg—in which he also danced in the background to the film’s hit number “Munni Badnaam Hui.”

He was fairly loquacious during our conversation, but he also seemed reluctant to talk about the treatment meted out to junior artistes on film sets. “I like your nature, which is why I’m talking to you,” he told me at one point. “Otherwise, I don’t have time for these things.”

By the time I finished chatting with him, it was close to eight in the evening. The association was about to close for the day, and the junior artistes were heading home. I had had a long, tiring day myself, and wanted a break.

“Would you like to have beer?” I asked him.

He seemed hesitant at first, but then agreed. He called one of his friends, who was also from Dharavi. The three of us hopped onto the junior artiste’s bike, and rode to a dive bar in Jogeshwari.

Junior artistes, formerly known as “extras,” occupy the lowest rung on the Bollywood-actor ladder. They appear in the background—in scenes shot in railway stations, busy streets, bus stops; they are a villain’s henchmen, soldiers in a hero’s army, or corpses inside a morgue. REUTERS

“I’ve fallen in love so many times,” the junior artiste said. “So what if I don’t look like it?”

Three bottles of beer stood on a table in the bar. The lights were dim, the patrons were quiet and a television overhead played an Indian Premier League cricket match. The junior artiste showed me a picture of his three-year-old daughter on his mobile phone. “No one says that she’s my daughter,” he said, smiling. “I’m so black, and look at her.”

This was the second time in five minutes that, without prompting, he had referred to his looks. Looks matter to junior artistes. Because they matter to people who hire them: the junior coordinators. In fact, looks matter to nearly everyone in the movie business: the casting directors, the producers, the directors, the movie-watching audience. Even the pay a junior artiste receives for his work is determined by his looks—by whether he is “Decent” or “B-class.”

The Decent junior artistes are often light-skinned, tall and sturdily built, while the B-class ones tend to be dark, short and skinny. The former play the roles of doctors, lawyers, cops, white-collar workers; they appear in scenes shot in malls, airports, pubs and restaurants, scenes showing the new India, which is outwardly modern, trying to keep pace with the West. Meanwhile, those who are B-class, the junior artiste told me, would get roles such as that of a “gaonwalavillager; a “hawaldar”—constable; a “naukar”—domestic help; or a “bhikhaari”—beggar. They appear in scenes shot in villages, slums and the countryside, scenes showing the old India, the India that a multiplex movie-watching audience—urban Indians—is oblivious to. A Decent artiste earns Rs 1,250 for a full shift, a B-class artiste makes Rs 970. A half shift earns a Decent artiste Rs 550, a B-class artiste only Rs 375.

Though these demarcations are supposed to be based on looks, in practice, there is more to them. One is born into a category of junior artistes, much as one is born into a caste. The junior artiste belonged to B-class, just as his father had been. “My experience says that the son of a B-class can only become a B-class,” he told me. A union rule, he added, forbade the son of a B-class from becoming Decent. Was it possible for a B-class junior artiste’s son—athletic, and good-looking—to become Decent? “It hasn’t happened in the last 12 years,” he said, referring to the number of years he had been an association member. “The son of a B”—class—“has never gone into Decent till now. In fact, I know boys like that—way more handsome than the ones in Decent—who are still in B-class. They’re dying to become Decent, but they aren’t given the chance.”

Charged by multiple bottles of beer, the junior artiste began to open up. “We should get the same facilities like artists do,” he said, raising his voice.

“What kind of facilities?” I asked.

“Normal, basic facilities,” his friend, who also works as a junior artiste, told me. “Like food, water. Let’s say, you’re a director, cameraman, or an artist. You’ll get chicken tandoori, chicken falana falana. VIP items to eat. But light men, setting department, and junior artistes? They get low-quality khana.”

“When we eat food, we don’t get water,” the junior artiste told me. “The water tank is kept really far from where we’re eating. In the VIP area—where the artists eat—the bottles of Bisleri are kept, so that if they’re thirsty, they can easily drink water. But when we have to drink water, we have to stand in a line.” He continued, “Artists”—actors—“have ACs. They get umbrellas. Don’t give us ACs, sir, but at least fix a tent for us?” At times, junior artistes don’t even have enough chairs to sit on.

On sets, all junior artistes are usually given just one vanity van, which also has a toilet. But it isn’t possible for so many of them to share one toilet. “It starts smelling after a point,” the junior artiste said. So a few booths, made of plastic, are installed on sets, where junior artistes can relieve themselves. “But in the afternoon, those small boxes become so hot that they’re unbearable to even step inside,” his friend said. Many junior artistes—both males and females—go into the fields to defecate.

Hum kaam karne aaye hain, kaam kar ke jayenge. Baaki tum yeh mat samjho ki tum humko khareed liye” (We’ve come here to work. We’ll do our job. But don’t think that you’ve bought us), his friend continued. “Yaar, hum bhi insaan hain” (We are human beings too, after all).

Apun log, we never studied in school,” the junior artiste said. “We didn’t have a good circle. We never spent time with studious kids—always anpadh, ganwarilliterate, uncouth. “We used to hang out with people whose fathers were in government jobs. They knew that they’d take up their fathers’ jobs one day, so they never studied. And neither did we.”

The junior artiste inherited his father’s job, too. But there was a difference: their friends were in government jobs now. “They are sweeping and mopping,” he said. “You know how much they earn per month? Rs 25,000.”

Aaj apun ko feel ho raha hai” (I have this feeling today), his friend added. “That why do I not have a government job?” He said.

“If you have an accident on set, you’ll get only Rs 1 lakh in medical,” the junior artiste’s friend said. “And if you died a natural death, then do you know how much you’ll get?” I waited for his answer. “Kela”—banana—he said. And “for an accident during the lunch break? Same. Kela.”

As the bottles of beer kept appearing on our table, the junior artiste had started calling me “bro,” and talking in a smattering of English. It was past midnight. The bar was about to shut. “I will to do talk in English,” he said, talking to himself. By now he’d repeated this line more than a dozen times. “Bro, I will do talk to you…”

“Yes, tell me,” I said, finally talking in English myself.

“Life mein mera sabse bada khwaish kya hai, maloom hai? Mujhe paisa waala nahin banna hai. Mujhe sirf English talking chahiye” (You know what’s my dream in life? I don’t want to become rich. I just want to speak English fluently), he said, laughing. “I will do talk to me in English.”

Despite having tried to enter Bollywood for nearly three decades, and not even making it past the fringes, Laadsaheb still aspires to become a big Bollywood director. RITESH UTTAMCHANDANI FOR THE CARAVAN


JADAV WAITED FOR A CALL from Jhankar Films after meeting Sanjana Singh. It never came. The day after she visited the office, she called Singh’s “personal number.” A woman picked up.

Jadav introduced herself and said, “Madam, you had told me yesterday that you’d forward my number.”

“I’ve forwarded your number,” she said. “You should wait.”

However, almost instantly, the woman said, “I’m not the one you spoke to. That was some other madam. I don’t know you.” And then: “Anyway, this is my personal number. Please don’t call on this.”

Nothing about this conversation made sense to Jadav. After all, she had dialled the right number, she was sure of it. It was the same number that Jadav had found in the online ad; it was the same number from which she had received a text message for an audition in Thane; it was the same number Singh had given her in the office.

And then it hit her: she had been conned. Jhankar Films wasn’t that different from Mahadev Films. The modus operandi was exactly the same. Put out ads to lure an actor in. Once the actor gets in touch, call her to an office. In between, also inform her through text messages about a film, or a television serial, that will begin shooting soon. Then, at the office, “the requirement changes. They tell you to get a CD made or pay a registration fee,” Jadav said. “They make money out of an actor’s desperation.” That day at Jhankar Films, she was not asked for money, which made her happy and hopeful. But now she realised why no money had been demanded. Jadav said the promise of “making a CD”—an audition tape—worked for newcomers, as they didn’t have work experience. But she already had a sample of her acting, in the form of a Crime Diary episode on her cellphone. A 20 minute-episode, which had aired on television, was far more impressive than a few seconds of dialogue on a CD.

“I think they realised that they can’t make money from me,” she said. “I have proof of work, so how can they tell me to get a CD made?” Now their business model—and that phone conversation—made sense to her. “If they charge Rs 1,000 from 10 actors every day, imagine how much they would be making in a month.” In the coming weeks, Jadav didn’t receive any text message or call from Jhankar Films. She didn’t get in touch with them either. She wasn’t going to pay money just to be eligible for an audition. Jadav looked frustrated; she also looked angry. “Seedhi baat bolun, woh log fresher ko chutiya banate hain” (To be honest, they make fools out of freshers), she said.

But had Jadav thought about another option—becoming a junior artiste? “If I work once as a junior artiste, then I’ll always be counted as one,” she told me. “Besides, junior artistes do only small roles. They can’t say dialogues or face the camera, which is why they mostly stand in the crowd. It’s also why stars don’t mix with them.”

THE REALISATION that she had been conned did not kill Jadav’s dream. She did not approach another casting coordinator immediately. Instead, she was looking forward to a film Laadsaheb was making, Hum Toh Karenge Pyaar, where she was cast in two leading roles. It would be a family drama spanning two generations. “I’m playing the mother and the daughter,” Jadav said. Laadsaheb had begun shooting the film. “Sir is taking this film very seriously,” she said. “He’s looking to release it in theatres.”

Laadsaheb, on the other hand, had plans of his own. The 50-year-old has himself been trying to make it in Bollywood for almost three decades. Over this period, he has acted in bit roles in over a hundred films, most of them low-budget. But he never got a decent role, he said, because he wasn’t good-looking. “Khoobsoorti naam ki cheez nahin thi mujh mein” (There wasn’t a speck of beauty in me), he told me.

Jadav had failed to find work in television or films through casting coordinators. Her hopes are now pinned on a movie Laadsaheb is making, RITESH UTTAMCHANDANI FOR THE CARAVAN

Tired of not getting acting or directing opportunities, he began making his own films. Any time Laadsaheb was able to save about Rs 10,000, he would rent a camera and begin shooting. Over the last 20 years, he has made at least a half a dozen Hindi films, none of which ever made it to a theatre. They are available on DVDs, at a “dosti price”—a friendship price—of Rs 155. But Laadsaheb, like Jadav, would not abandon the dream. I asked him about his latest film—the one Jadav told me about.

“I’m making this as a demo film for Amitabh Bachchan,” he said. “I want his entire family to act in it: Jaya Bachchan, Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya. I’ve even written a role for Abhishek Bachchan’s daughter, Aaradhya.” Laadsaheb was making the film with Jadav and other actors enrolled in his class, for the time being, because he “wouldn’t need to tell Amitabh Bachchan the story,” he said. “My actors will tell the story for me.” Laadsaheb hoped Bachchan would ask him to direct the film, and that this would launch his career in Bollywood.

Jadav, of course, was unaware of these plans. To her, she was about to get her first credit as a Bollywood heroine. “Ab sir ke yahan aaye hain toh kuch na kuch toh ho hi jayega”(Now that I’ve come to sir’s class, something good will definitely happen), she said, smiling.

Tanul Thakur is a Mumbai-based film critic and independent journalist. He has written reviews, features and opinion pieces for, among other publications, GQFountain InkMan's World, Yahoo! India, the Wire, Firstpost, and OZY. In 2015, he received the National Film Award for Best Film Critic and the Mumbai Press Club Award for Best Lifestyle and Entertainment Story. He's on Twitter as @Plebeian42.