Why's acting equated to keeda/bug
Guessing immortality is the pay-off for all the crazy price one pays to somehow be an actor on screen?
"I wish I'd died after Chashme Buddoor (1981) and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (JBDY, 1983). I would've become India's James Dean," actor Ravi Baswani, who passed away in 2010, told me in the early 2000s, seated in his modest suburban apartment that he shared with a flat-mate then.
James Dean was a fine headline for a nostalgia piece I was writing. Only later I wondered, what a thing to think/say? It's the reverse of what Sylvester Stallone mentioned in an interview about progressively fading from public memory: "Well the good thing about being a 'has-been' is that at least, you 'have been'!" Most haven't.
Stallone's story towards Hollywood stardom is stuff legends are made of. Which is still quite similar to several people in Bombay, Bandra northwards, who are simply professional movie actors.
Conversations with them in the press inevitably centre on how they became actors to begin with. Their monologues range from going without food/shelter for days, to running away from family/home. Naseeruddin Shah is known to advise young aspirants to only aim for acting as a profession if they'd die without it!
"Don't bother, it's just luck," actor-director Rajat Kapoor once dismissed a student before me, while we were chatting about his film Aankhon Dekhi (2013) at Bombay's St Xavier's College. I didn't press on why he'd discourage like that.
Maybe because work (for hopeful actors) is the rarest exception — rejection, the norm; and constant humiliation, guaranteed. That you have to be made of thickest skin to let none of that deter you, even as you continue to exist in the most right-wing of all arts, with its own unbelievable hierarchies, zero social security — screw royalty/benefits.
Wherein you're either a star, inheriting swag plus gravitas, or as Ed Norton says, "[Overcompensating for] what you really do is play dress-up!" Or you're a 'struggler', within a sea of familiar faces and unknown names.
How often have you heard someone being called an 'A-lister' engineer, 'failed' CA, 'minor' doctor, 'junior' poet/painter/sculptor, or 'struggling' banker? And yet those are pejoratives we publicly toss around (only) for actors — who we're programmed to either worship or consider 'wannabe'.
To get to either position still, you've got to be on screen. That involves presence and expressions. Even intellect could get in the way of instinct/X-factor. All of which only the camera can gauge. Impossible to tell otherwise.
What does a screen actor do, when they're not acting — which for the most part involves, reacting? During normal times (unlike pandemic, when they would've gone without income for multiple quarters), they audition among similar actors — inevitably growing a circle of minor jealousies, knowing that for every part one lands, everybody else doesn't; while success can only be tested upon actual trial.
This cycle seldom ends. Even for the top dozen that corner most of showbiz wealth and fame. For, they get beholden so much then to the audiences that can't have enough of their scripted selves — like politicians, they fear saying/doing anything that might upset their massive base. They often lose their real voice.
While Bollywood was being shamelessly/senselessly vilified, for instance, on national news and social media, post-death of Sushant Singh Rajput, one superstar Khan told me, everybody feared losing their fans — if they said anything at all! Securing followers can be a bigger curse than not having any.
How do you maintain that patience/sanity at the lonely top, if it's even worth it? "Just work; never shy away from starting from scratch, over and over again. And if things go your way, good; if they don't, even better," is how Amitabh Bachchan, longest surviving superstar, described to me his talisman for life.
Underlining also the obvious fact that the performer is still only a conduit/prop to a process/material. History's most respected actors — Soumitra Chatterjee (died Nov 15, 2020), Toshiro Mifune, Marcello Mastroianni, Robert De Niro — chiefly owe their status to being their great directors' (Ray, Kurosawa, Fellini, Scorsese's) wonderful alter-egos.
The reverse is, in fact, infinitely truer. Which is why actors privately bitch out their least loved films with the sincerest passion. They were the faces that had to publicly front that flop in flesh. It's emotional, public flogging.
I once spent an evening blasting a seemingly condescending/racist American production set in India called Outsourced (2006), with Asif Basra, who had a major role in it. He was only too pleased to add/agree.
Don't remember the rest of the evening well. Surely enough people at that house-party would've walked up, only to Basra — to tell him a thing or two about how they liked/watched a film of his. As they smiled with fondest memories to Baswani over Chashme Buddoor, JBDY, all his life.
Basra allegedly died by suicide at a private guest-house in Dharamshala on November 12. People were shocked by his death, while they weren't fully sure what he was up to when alive. But you'll see him in frozen in time, even for only a few minutes, in Jab We Met, Black Friday, Kai Po Che, Krissh 3, Paatal Lok… That will survive, forever. Guess immortality is the pay-off for all the shit actors willingly go through. They're just not there to see it. Nobody is.
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14
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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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