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A World Of Illusions: Inside The Bollywood Fame Factory

Filming in Bandra, a suburb of Mumbai
Filming in Bandra, a suburb of Mumbai
Frederic Bobin

MUMBAI – Shilpa Dhar is wearing fake eyelashes, jingling bracelets, and cherry-red nail polish. She tilts her head as she speaks, which makes her jet-black hair twirl around her neck.

She smiles because her friends have told her she has a nice smile – so she smiles all the time now. “I have a Kareena Kapoor smile,” she giggles.

“Kareena” is a superstar of Indian cinema, and Shilpa already sees herself as her. It has only been a week since the young woman left her home in the North of India and headed for Mumbai, her head full of Bollywood dreams. She wants to become an actress. She knows “it’s going to be hard” but she is “confident.” Every morning she prays to the Hindu gods at her neighborhood temple.

On the walls behind here are pictures of coffee grinders and Arabica beans. Coffee has now become the classiest drink in India. To hell with traditional tea, the trendy youth of Mumbai has fallen in love with coffee. In a corner, an acoustic guitar with a “Play me” sign in front of it adds to the laidback atmosphere of the place.

Located in Versova, the Mumbai neighborhood where all the film studios are located, this bar is the place where wannabe actors come to kill time between two auditions, to exchange tips, gossip, and strike the appropriate poses. You can spot them immediately. The girls radiate the same glazed beatitude as Shilpa Dhar. All the young men have impressive muscles.

In between the tables, they all sway their hips like Salman Khan, one of the most popular actors at the moment, a macho man archetype who never makes an appearance without his Ray-Ban glasses, even when it is dark out. In the Bru World Cafe in Versova, among this crowd of imitators, exaggerating their every gesture, you can measure the real power of the Bollywood myth.

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Salma Khan - Photo: bollywoodhungama

They are all aspiring actors. The one thing they have in common is their unflagging optimism. It is hard to say how many of them, coming from all over India, arrive every week at Chhatrapati Shivaji station with a bundle on their shoulder, attracted by the temple of Shining India. Today, there must be thousands of them wandering the streets of Mumbai, looking for a five-minute casting interview in Bollywood, the Hindi Hollywood.

This movie factory accounts for 250 films out of the thousand that India produces every year on a national scale, including films in regional dialects. India has the most prolific film industry in the world. Bollywood is a world of fierce and merciless competition. For every acting job offer, there are 200 candidates queuing outside for an audition. They can wait for two or three hours, sometimes up to eight hours.

Prakash Sudarshan is an optimist. He grabs a chair in the Bru World Cafe and sits, unfolding his bulging biceps and forearms on the table. You need a hefty dose of optimism to be able to continue dreaming of a big break after spending ten difficult years knocking on the doors of the studios.

But Prakash does not complain. Trained as a stuntman, this martial arts buff doubles the leading men during the most acrobatic scenes. This will do, he says, until something better comes up. One day, he is sure about it, he will be the one under the spotlight. “I have to deal with constant rejection,” he confesses, “but I keep my spirits up. I won’t give up. I can’t see myself doing anything else. I already feel grateful for what I have achieved so far. I feel very lucky.” Prakash knows all about rejection, he goes through it every day. But he soldiers on anyway, and says he is “happy.”

"It is really heartbreaking to reject them, these starry-eyed kids," sympathizes Nandini Shrikent, a freelance casting director. But with an ever-increasing number of aspiring actors, how could they all succeed? More and more self-confident young Indians are being lured by the Bollywood dream. “Cinema is the only field where you can become famous at a young age,” says Ravi Gupta, director of the Whistling Woods film school. The school is located in the heart of Film City, an enclave in the north of Mumbai where Bollywood films are produced. “You can succeed in the business world but you will never be a real star. Bollywood gives the illusion that fame is within easy reach.”

Hustlers and family dynasties

In these times of unbridled ambitions, a whole new phenomenon is emerging from the depths of Indian society. Until recently, in respectable families, Bollywood had a nefarious reputation; now, parents are actively encouraging their children to try their luck. “Working in the film industry used to be associated with loose morals and instability, and was not recommended for young women,” says Shanoo Sharma, casting director for Yash Raj Films productions. “It is now considered as a real job, where you can make a lot of money.” In short, it is a whole new industry that is rising, with a flood of candidates feeding all kinds of ancillary services: acting schools (often phony and expensive), dance classes, beauty parlors, cosmetic surgery clinics…

[rebelmouse-image 27086873 alt="""" original_size="499x375" expand=1]

Not a dream factory anymore? Photo: Meena Kadri

Not to mention the fitness centers are invading the Andheri West borough, where most aspiring actors live. Having a perfect figure is considered as a key asset, which was not the case in the past when Indian movie stars were rather plump.

Sweating profusely on the treadmills of Elixir or Waves, the two emblematic fitness centers where real celebrities can be spotted, has become the classiest way to spend your time. It is also a magnet for all the hustlers looking to taking advantage of these naïve candidates. They all have a story about a fake producer offering an imaginary part in exchange for a cash transfer. “Thanks to the Internet though, it is now easier to spot swindlers,” says Prakash enthusiastically. The aspiring actors have even created a Facebook page where they list the hustlers.

And even once the future actors have gotten into shape, lightened their complexion, stripped their Hindi of any regional accent, avoided swindlers and landed a casting audition, the hardest part is yet to come: getting round the family monopolies. Bollywood is ruled by a handful of family dynasties: The Bachchans, Kapoors, Johars, Chopras, Dutts, Akhtars… A symbol of India’s culture dynasties, Bollywood is all about its family trees.

“Producers and directors tend to give the roles to their relatives. It is very hard for an outsider to break through,” an actor says bitterly after asking to remain anonymous. As for women, if you are not sponsored by someone powerful in the clan, the only other easy way to get a role is to have won a beauty pageant.

“What I have learnt from my experience is that auditions are often complete farces,” complains Tarun Singh. He quit his job as a computer engineer to become an actor, and now goes from one audition to the next. “They don’t even give us the script. We feel like it’s all been decided in advance.”

And yet, hope persists… Nidhi has stopped counting the times she cried herself to sleep after another disappointing day. Her long black hair flowing down her naked shoulders, drinking lemonade from a straw, she says she’s sometimes overwhelmed by all the mirages around her. “You can easily lose yourself, forget who you really are and turn into a product trying to sell itself by all means necessary.” The hardest part, she says, is to endure the harsh remarks of casting directors. For instance: “You think you’re talented but street beggars are very good actors too!”

In order to face daily rejection, these young aspiring actors find “coping mechanisms.” An unfailing optimism is the best way to cope. The dynasty problem? It can be overcome, they say. Movie stars like Shahrukh Khan or Akshay Kumar managed to become who they are without knowing anyone in the business. Is it worth struggling for all these years? You never know. Irfan Khan is one of the few Bollywood actors who managed to become famous internationally (he starred in Slumdog Millionnaire and Life of Pi), and he had to struggle for eight years before eventually making it big.

[rebelmouse-image 27086874 alt="""" original_size="418x600" expand=1]

Irrfan Kahn - Photo: bollywoodhungama

They take it one day at a time. Telling each other stories that keep their hopes up. When one of their friends fails an audition, they point out how badly dressed he was that day – a valuable piece of information they will remember when choosing their own outfits.

According to Taran Khan, an investigative journalist who wrote about Bollywood behind the scenes, “They live in a parallel dimension where everything is an illusion.” There are plenty of tricks in order to become the perfect candidate and look important and confident. When you meet someone from the business for instance, one of the tricks is to have a friend call you and pretend to be a prominent producer.

Posturing, the ultimate weapon of the Bollywood dreamer.

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