Forever the Extra: The Alternate Reality of a Bollywood Struggler

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Forever the Extra: The Alternate Reality of a Bollywood Struggler

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I

was introduced to Ramesh Gupta by my former husband. Ramesh was yet another aspiring actor in the snaking, seemingly endless queue of “strugglers” that I’d meet during the time I lived in a one-BHK in Mumbai’s Lokhandwala, the stairway to Bollywood heaven.  

Ramesh had quit a cushy government job in Kanpur and decided to come to Bombay to chase his dream. His fodder was the encouragement from a distant relative, who had moved to Mumbai to try his luck at acting. The relative too, was a Bollywood aspirant, a struggler without any connections.

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Back in 2006, Ramesh lived in a dingy one-room-kitchen rented apartment in Oshiwara with three other struggling actors. All they owned was a mattress each. They shared clothes, their steel plates doubled up as the chopping board on the rare days that they decided to cook, and they had a “jugaad ka cylinder” to make chai. Lunch was typically skipped or they settled for a roadside vada pav. For dinner, some chakna and a quarter of Old Monk would have to suffice.

This was every day and every day was a bad day. On good days that were few and far between – their birthdays or festivals – Ramesh and his roomies had aloo-matar rasedar or paneer rasedar with rice for dinner. To make ends meet, in fact to even pay the rent of ₹8,000, every month was a struggle.

Ramesh was a lean man, with a stubble-covered chin. He was average-looking and I would have, at best, slotted him as the villain’s sidekick in a daily soap. But he was not in Mumbai to be an extra. Like hundreds and thousands of people growing up in small towns, bred on a diet of Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna films, surrounded by posters of Salman Khan and Hrithik Roshan, Ramesh aspired for a lead role.

But the world of a struggler is an alternate reality; a B-movie the sorry ending to which you already know.

Ramesh was just another face in a sea of strugglers that overwhelm the suburb of Andheri west. Men and women who are ridiculed routinely, in film, TV, and popular culture, for their “Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon” aspirations. But ridicule doesn’t affect people like Ramesh. When you’re a Bollywood struggler, what you need most is a thick skin, and a steely determination bordering on delusion.

Ramesh was immune to the rejections he received almost daily. He walked more than five kilometres every day from Oshiwara to Four Bungalows to Versova, the golden triangle where auditions take place and where Bollywood dreams are spun and left to tatter.

Like all strugglers, Ramesh had a routine and makeshift hacks for getting a break. Before the audition, he would stop by at a nearby mall to freshen up: Tuck in his shirt, “polish” his shoes using the tissues in the restroom, and neaten his hair with tap water. On the days that he didn’t land an audition, Ramesh had a checklist of people he hoped to deliberately bump into. He did not have the connections or the money to make it to Page 3 parties, where most of the networking took place, so his only option was to stand outside production houses hoping to strike a conversation with someone “influential” or follow casting directors around.

On Saturday evenings, Ramesh would visit the Shani Mandir in Juhu, a ritual for every struggling actor, hoping to get spotted by Ekta Kapoor who stops by for the aarti. Each one of them said the same little prayer. Others, with a little more money, showed up at the Chinese eatery she frequented. Almost each one of them returned home disappointed, but determined to try again next weekend.     

Ramesh was just another face in a sea of strugglers that overwhelm the suburb of Andheri west. Men and women who are ridiculed routinely, in film and TV for their “Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon” aspirations.

In the eight years I spent in Lokhandwala, I met hundreds of Ramesh Guptas. There were thousands that I did not meet. The Lokhandwala struggler is a trope for us outsiders: Men who are breathing equivalents of a protein shake, with the IQ of an emu, women with the talent and aesthetic of a Dhinchak Pooja.

But the world of a struggler is an alternate reality; a B-movie the sorry ending to which you already know. Hope keeps them alive, until one day, it destroys them.

People like Ramesh come from humble backgrounds, with no steady source of income. So when the savings dry up, they succumb to another life altogether. Best described as “pimps at large”, they double up as brokers who help newcomers find accomodation, they “supply” girls for Page 3 parties, they help set up meetings with casting directors, or even get you a “jugaad ka cylinder”.    

Ravi Chawla came to Mumbai in his early 30s. At 50, he’s still a struggler, hanging around Lokhandwala coffee shops, with a CD in tow. The CD is a recording of an MTV Bakra video that he once appeared in. In his search for his big break, he started his own “casting company”. By comparison, Kavitaji lucked out, by landing a few side roles in soaps. But she has bigger dreams, which are financed by her “husband”, a rich businessman from Hong Kong with another wife and kids, who visits her twice a year. When the money runs out, she settles for crowd scenes that once paid ₹300 for a 15-hour shoot. If luck favours her, she gets to say a dialogue or two.

In Lokhandwala, as time passes, your dreams become blurry. Vijay Sharma gave up in a year and moved to Dubai with a casting director who turned out to be a pimp for male escorts. He now lives in a palatial bungalow with a couple of other boys and their job is to service rich Arabs, both men and women. His acting dreams? He laughs about them now.

Bollywood struggler

In the world of a Bollywood struggler, hope is what keeps them alive, until one day, it destroys them.

Image credit: Excel Entertainment

I still remember the day my neighbour, also a struggling actor, came home sobbing after an audition. She had trained at NSD, but hadn’t been allowed to audition for the role of one of Raavan’s consorts. Subtle hints had been thrown, just before she could step in for the audition, about sleeping with the director to get the role. When she made it clear that she wouldn’t, the casting director’s assistants told her she looked “tired”. She was asked to come back when she was ready and “fresh”. That was the last audition she ever went for.

Even on the final note in this sonata of sadness, there’s always a project in the pipeline. There’s always, “baat-cheet chal rahi hai”, there’s always a story waiting to be told, there’s always the wait for the slightest sliver of a chance that if only luck favoured them, they would probably be the next big thing. Just ask the walls of watering holes like Adarsh Bar in Oshiwara, whose walls are lined with these stories and plans and hopes.

It’s been four years since I moved out of Lokhandwala after separating from my husband. I occasionally see Ramesh Gupta’s Facebook posts about getting five-minute roles on episodes of Crime Patrol and Savdhaan India. I go and “like” the posts, because by the standard of other strugglers, Ramesh ji has made it big already. At least he has regular work. He still hopes to land a role in a movie or bag a continuity character in a TV serial.

If not, there’s always the option of becoming a broker.

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