Bollywood masala through its films and fraternity is the feast of the nation, the recipe of a group narrative that serves not only its own but is the global voice of a people living together as one.
It would not be an exaggeration to assume that at some point in every Indian’s life, he/she has dreamed of becoming a famous Bollywood actor: living the tabloid life of luxury on the set, chilling in an air-conditioned vanity van, sipping imported bottled water and winning awards, all whilst signing autographs for the masses. Yet, beyond the glitz and flashbulb glam life, what do Bollywood actors really do day in and day out? How does life really look on the inside?
The life of an actor, any actor, may seem like a dream but the bleak and overcrowded reality of the business is something quite different. It is a reality that few dedicated desis (Hindi for ‘Indians’) consider as they pack their bags and head for the big city. And in Mumbai, the Bollywood dream rains down like the monsoon, showering every starry-eyed actor with hopes of grandeur.
Living the Dream began in January 2010 during my maiden voyage to India. It started as a simple comparing-and contrasting photo essay about the acting communities of Los Angeles and Mumbai, affectionately ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Bollywood’. I was to be in Mumbai for just two weeks and so arrived a fledgling in a new culture. The only thing I knew about Mumbai was that I had to stay in an area called Bandra; it was where I would have the chance to meet an abundance of actors. I already had a place lined up thanks to a good friend’s real estate agent’s brother, who was from Los Angeles and was now living in Mumbai, running a gelato business. However, that plan fell through a day before I was to move in and I found myself on Craigslist, searching for accommodation at the last minute. Luckily, I didn’t have to search long. The first thing that came up was a listing that read, ‘Travellers sick of hotels, rent one room in my apartment in BANDRA.’ Serendipity had struck.
On my second day there, an American woman moved into the room next to mine. We made our friendly introductions and it turned out that we were both born in the same hospital: Boone County Hospital, Columbia, Missouri! She casually mentioned that she was a ‘professional catalyst’. ‘Interesting,’ I said. ‘So, what exactly do you do?’ With a twinkle in her eye she replied, ‘I make things happen.’
Two days later, the Catalyst phoned mid-afternoon and said, ‘I just met a lawyer who represents some Bollywood stars. I think you should meet him and pitch your “Hollywood-Bollywood” idea.’ The next day, I met Jamshed Mistry – the lawyer – at an expat hangout called the Bagel Shop in Bandra. This was my first typical Indian meeting…three hours of talking about everything but the project and then straight to the point – a wonderful conversation that culminated in our meeting again two days later and breaking bread with my first Bollywood star, or so I thought. She was a certified diva, but not a star, and, luckily for me, was interested in being a part of my project.
Jamshed also invited a young film producer by the name of Guneet Monga, a kind stranger, who had recently started working with maverick writer-director Anurag Kashyap. I told her my idea about the project and she said, ‘I don’t have much going on right now, so call tomorrow and I’ll see what I can do.’ The next morning I called and she answered the phone saying, ‘Okay, you’re meeting this actor at 10 a.m., that actor noon, the other actor 2 p.m. and another at 4 p.m.’
That second week in Mumbai, Guneet introduced me to about twenty actors. No one really famous, but all with fascinating actor stories that I completely related to, albeit we were worlds apart. I returned to Los Angeles revivified with a new purpose and dreamed of turning the photo essay into a book, concentrating solely on the acting community in Mumbai.
Ten months later I journeyed back to India in mid-November 2010 with a clear idea of what I wanted the book to be.
I had no real plan of attack other than to meet a wide variety of actors and interview and photograph them. That’s it. It was at this time that I requested a new film-maker friend to write down an ‘interesting’ list of actors that he thought would work for my book. From ‘student to star’ was my motto. He put together a list of about sixty names and I realized that I didn’t know a single one on the list. I was standing at the bottom of Mount Everest looking up and had no backpack and no map! I didn’t know anything about the history of Bollywood!
The next month and a half would prove to be a crash course in the history of Bollywood culture and on the breadth of the acting community. Every night I watched multiple films and every day I was on the internet reading up on the who’s who and the what’s what. By the end of December I had hit my stride, but also hit a wall. I now had about forty-five actors for the book but no big stars and now no one was returning my calls. Guneet suggested I call her Bollywood screenwriter friend, Sam Sharma. I did, and Sam kindly sat with me for an hour writing down names and numbers off his cell phone. As I was leaving he said, ‘You should call my sister Shanoo. She’s a casting director and knows a lot of actors.’
The next day, I called Shanoo Sharma and she answered the phone with a very curt, ‘Who is this?!’ ‘Mark Bennington. Your brother Sam gave me your number…’ ‘Yea, he gives my number out to a lot of people – what can I do for you?’
I started off, ‘I’m friends with Guneet Monga and am working on a documentary photography book about the acting community here in Mumbai and…’ ‘Okay, meet me at midnight at Kareem’s (a restaurant) with Guneet.’ A pitch meeting at midnight…this was definitely not the United States.
Guneet and I went to Kareem’s to meet Shanoo. She was larger than life, dressed beautifully with forty-five bracelets, sixteen earrings and the biggest nose-ring I had ever seen. Smart, sassy and completely in charge of everything – ordering her assistants and waiters around as the world suddenly seemed to be spinning around her axis. I was instantly captivated and told her my story. She said that there were other people in town working on similar projects; they had all approached her for help and she had turned them all down. But then she said, ‘Since you’re a friend of Guneet’s, come tomorrow and show me your photographs.’ The next day, after seeing all the photographs that I had shot up to that point, Shanoo started making calls and completely turned this project into what I always imagined it could be. Once again, serendipity had struck.
For the next three and a half months I worked tirelessly with Shanoo…phone calls, texts, emails, rickshaws, taxis, trains, meetings, lunches, interviews and, of course, photos, all in search of a common thread which binds every actor to their dreams.
Excerpted with permission from Living the Dream: The Life of the ‘Bollywood’ Actor, Mark Bennington, HarperCollins India.