Acting guru Roshan Taneja on the students who disproved the belief that ‘actors are born, not made’

The veteran acting coach, who has taught at the Film Institute of India and in Mumbai, on the early days of Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Aamir Khan.

Roshan Taneja has trained scores of Hindi film actors since the early 1960s, first at the Film and Television Institute in India and later at his private school in Mumbai, the Roshan Taneja School of Acting. He studied under the legendary Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City, and returned to Mumbai to be an actor. After appearing in a few films, Taneja transformed himself into an acting coach with stunning results. In edited excerpts from his memoir Moments of Truth My Life with Acting, Taneja looks back on the students he trained at FTII and his Mumbai school.

It was the summer of 1968; we had been auditioning all day and drew a blank–not a single candidate of any worth had shown up yet. Later in the afternoon, the Film Division staff who was helping us passed on the application of a candidate named Jaya Bhaduri. In it was mentioned that she had worked with Satyajit Ray in his film Mahanagar at the age of 15. Curious, we talked to her about her experience of working with Manik da, as Satyajit Ray was fondly called. She spoke with us about it, then did the piece assigned to her, which she did well enough, but perhaps wanting to make more of an impression at the selection, she said she’d like to show us her own piece too.

She entered with the dead body of a child in her spread-out arms, and with it she, ever so slowly, moved around the room, making us witness a loving mother’s deeply moving, sorrowful lamentation. She made up for many a dry patch we had endured during the period of audition with her performance.

A young Roshan Taneja. Image credit: Bloomsbury.
A young Roshan Taneja. Image credit: Bloomsbury.

Tshering Denzongpa was rechristened “Danny” by his classmate Jaya Bhaduri and, easy on the tongue, the name has stuck ever since: Danny Denzongpa has gone on to become famous. His early ambition, though, was to join the Indian Army, and he had applied to the prestigious Armed Forces Medical College were auditioning, we took one look at him and I knew it: he had it in him; it was a cinch that he’d make it big as an actor.

The next of my students to make it big was Kiran Kumar (real name Deepak Dar), who took on his mother’s first name. He is the son of the legendary character actor Jeevan. The photo that he had sent with his application left us most curious–he was bare bodied, muscled and looked like a heavyweight wrestler. It made me wonder whether Jeevan Sahib had seen the picture before it was sent to us. But it was Deepak’s (I still call him that) remarkable will power that made us see him change within just a few months. He shed all his unwanted weight, and stood strapping tall and handsome before us.

The royal who refused instruction

Mithun Chakraborty’s real name is Gauranga, the sound of which is like a gong, and quite impressive. I told him so, but he said that Gauranga meant fair-complexioned, and since he was dark, he had changed it to Mithun. For his very first movie Mrigaya, he won the National Award for Best Actor. It was 1976, and I had started my classes in Juhu. He came with the award and placed it before me, beaming proudly. I was very happy for him. I had him take some classes for me for about three months, until he got busy with some other assignments that soon came his way. But I felt that going from Mrigaya to Disco Dancer was taking a leap backwards, as the first showed his potential as a dramatic actor, while the second made him popular as a dancer at the cost of making him famous as a star/actor with sterling dramatic qualities.

Vijendra Ghatge was an eccentric character: an enigma for his colleagues. I got a taste of it when I distributed the Acting Theory question paper for an examination. He put the question paper given to him on the desk and started to study the lines in the palm of his right hand. We could not figure out what that had to do with the question paper, but that wasn’t the place to ask him. Even if we had, his usual response would be like that of a Cheshire cat–a broad, fixed grin. A descendant of the Holkar royal family of Indore, he abhorred any kind of physical exertion. He hardly attended the dance classes, and whenever he did, he would do one odd thing or another, or would just sit in the theatre watching the others dance on the stage.

The first time I saw Naseeruddin Shah was in a play called Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht. It was part of the repertoire of National School of Drama, Delhi, where he had graduated from. They were on a tour, and were performing in Poona at the Bal Gandharva Theatre in Deccan Gymkhana. I found him good, very good. So when he applied for admission with us, I was not only surprised, but a little intrigued too, that after three years at the NSD, he would want to enroll for a further two years’ course in acting. So I was a touch wary, also because I had heard that the students coming out of NSD were the pseudo-intellectual types, and very smug.

All that changed once I got the chance to speak with him. Before the classes started, I wanted to size him up to get a measure of his mind. I said to him that whatever work he had done at NSD was definitely a part of his life, but now that he was starting out on a new path with me, let the paths not cross. He would have to start from scratch if he was to learn anything from what I had to offer. He listened intently, said he understood, and left. And God above knows, not once did he flinch, never did he stray. Such is the measure of the man: professional in his approach, totally committed. Such a man–with talent and backed by discipline–needed just a bit of luck to move on. Call it serendipity or what you may, but lady luck came knocking on his door. The era of ‘parallel cinema’, or ‘art films’ was starting out right then, and needed just the kind of talent he possessed. Shabana had already been swept by the wave into a whirl of activity, and Om Puri was similarly going to be lifted up from nothingness to worthiness by that wave.

Roshan Taneja and Om Puri. Image credit: Bloomsbury.
Roshan Taneja and Om Puri. Image credit: Bloomsbury.

Om Puri joined the Institute after his colleague from NSD, Naseeruddin Shah, recommended it to him. Obviously talented, his selection was a cinch. It was not, as he has said (and where he got that information, I don’t know), that we debated that he didn’t fit into any of the usual moulds in the Hindi film industry. The truth is that the gentleman from the film industry who was a member of the final selection board, after watching the camera footage of the audition, remarked that a man with a pock-marked face did not have much chance in the glamour world of films. I said that the man had talent and deserved to be selected; as for the future, who were we to decide? One can’t keep a good man down, he is sure to find his place. And that came true: with the advent of art films, Om went on to find his niche that slowly expanded beyond belief.

Grooming actors in Mumbai

My classes in Bombay called Studio (now changed to Roshan Taneja School of Acting) started functioning from 1976. It was a one year course–Monday to Friday, 9:30 to 6 pm, starting January 1, 1976. That was the only year we devoted an entire year for acting; after that the period got depleted to 10 months, then 9 months, to 6 months, which period lasted for eight to ten years. Currently it is down to 4 months. The reason: shortness of attention span. Like fast food, the need of the hour is quick results, a contradiction in terms. Nothing that’s dependant on practice that must be performed for a reasonable period of time to achieve a certain standard, a definite quality, can be speeded up to yield the required proficiency. Any performing art, be it dance, music, or singing, has its own discipline, its own set of practices one must go through; similarly in the training of an actor. As the saying goes, ‘Practice makes perfect’. But perfection has been abandoned for adequacy, for mere competence. Why fret for perfection when a little competence can do the job?

There were twenty students in the first batch. Anil Kapoor, Gulshan Grover, Madan Jain, and the (Late) Mazhar Khan are those who came out of that batch and found their places in the film world.

Anil Kapoor used to take the bus to come to Juhu, which he had to change at three or four different places. Despite that, Anil never missed the first class, which began at 9:30 am. Once, his father, late Mr Surendra Kapoor who was a film producer, offered him a lift to Juhu in his car. But when Anil came to know that he would be late for the first class, he preferred not to avail of the lift and took the bus instead. Such was the dedication of that man; no wonder he has gone on to achieve as much as he has.

Madhuri Dixit and Aamir Khan

Around 1984-85, Devi Dutt, Guru Dutt’s younger brother, called me to say that he was bringing along a girl who he had chosen as the heroine of a film he was planning. A girl just about 17 years of age, fresh of face, charming with a beautiful smile stood before me. It was Madhuri Dixit. The boy who was to be cast opposite her was named Chiragh. Both trained with me. Devi Dutt later got me the scenes of the movie so that they could rehearse with them. Madhuri worked from the heart. She was spontaneous and real–there was no hocus-pocus, no artifice about her. Unfortunately, the movie never got made. But Madhuri Dixit went on to become one of the leading lights among heroines.

Although I knew the producer-director Tahir Hussain already, we chanced to meet at his brother Nasir Hussain’s residence when I went there to discuss the training of Nafisa Ali, who Nasir Saheb had in mind for a lead role in some film. Both Tahir and Nasir Saheb brought up the subject of training Aamir Khan to me. Aamir started training with me in earnest. From the beginning I saw that he was sharp at grasping things, and was a few steps ahead of others. Although his training was not ideal in terms of regularity (he was helpless as he was also involved in production with his uncle Nasir Hussain), he was ready by the time his training was over.

Excerpted with permission from Moments of Truth My Life With Acting, Roshan Taneja, Bloomsbury.

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