“Do you know?” chortles a ‘publicity agent’, “Today, the casting couch is dead.”
“Really?” I ask, unconvinced.
“No one needs the couch any more,” the 50-plus agent in a shiny, floral shirt, grins. “Sex kahin bhi ho sakta hai. The scene has changed.”
Then he guffaws, “Aaj kal toh ladkon ki bouchhar hai (Today, it’s raining boys!)”
“Are you saying that there’s more demand for boys than for girls?”
“You bet!” he shows me a voluminous album of hunky males (some with their faces fuzzed out). “Rate ranges from Rs 3,000 to Rs 3 lakhs… full night.”
This ‘publicity agent’ once handled A-lister stars but with the proliferation of quasi-corporate PR agencies, he’s out in the cold. A B-town source has informed me that Mr Shiny Shirt is quite a player himself.
Straight on, I ask the long-married agent, “Are you gay?”
Surprisingly, his face doesn’t darken. “I will not say yes or no. What I do in bedroom is no one else’s business but mine.”
Fair enough. Next, I ask,“You mean no one’s interested in women, any more?”
“That’s a stupid question. I’m just saying that no one’s safe – girls or boys – from the glad eye. Sex jaari hai!”
My on-the-record video interview with the agent is conducted at Oshiwara, a suburban enclave of Mumbai, a half-hour autorickshaw plod away from Andheri railway station. Get there, and you’re in sync with the Bollywood dream – or nightmare, depending on your take on desperate lives.
Around noon, Oshiwara becomes one big studio lot – dotted with airless audition studios, where hundreds of movie wannashines pose like convicts, before digital cameras: profile, full face and then ‘full body’. The auditions are for films ranging from the B- to Z-grade, TV ads and serials, and of late, for short 15-minute features uploaded on Youtube.
A majority of the strugglers are just out of their teens. Plus, there are parents who aspire to realise their lost ambitions in their dazed and confused, knee-high children. There are white-collar workers,too, who’ve suddenly quit their low-income but steady jobs to find a spot in the bright lights.
I also come across Russian chorus-line dancers, third generation NRIs, not to forget two middle-aged housewives who stammer, “Wha…what’s the harm if we earn some money to contribute to the ration paani? Our hu…husbands will be upset initially but they’ll understand gradually.”
The housewives are from the city’s outskirts. Many of the younger lot come from northern small towns as well as New Delhi’s Noida and Gurgaon to become the next Khan or Deepika. Just a negligible fraction – less than one per cent of the teeming lakhs who descend on Oshiwara every year – succeed, if at all, in becoming fringe dwellers.
“Unless you’re a son or nephew of an established film family, unless you can land a sugar daddy, it’s a no-win situation,” says a model from Chandigarh, who thought his Adonis looks would make him an instant rage when he alighted at the Mumbai airport, “I took a plane since I had booked the ticket months in advance,” he shrugs. “If nothing happens, I’ll have to take the train, second class!”
Dolly Bindra, who amassed notoriety, during her stint on the Bigg Boss reality show, believes, “If your heart wants to sleep with somebody, sleep with that somebody,” while alluding to strugglers, adding that she has seen fashionistas hitting on aspiring actors and handing them business cards to get in touch. The day after her frankspeak, Bindra calls, “Should I have said all that? My husband will disapprove.” I remind her, that she spoke from the heart.
Action director Tinnu Varma recalls that Ekta Kapoor had organised ‘kissing’ auditions for the casting of Ragini MMS. “Why did she have to do that?” he displays his muscles. “Why couldn’t her team call up a stud like me?” Expletives follow.
A middle-aged actress narrates that a film production assistant invited himself to her home on the pretext of rehearsing dialogue. “He wanted to have a good time and go back to his mamma, pappa, wifey and doggy, all asleep at home. Older women too can be sexy, I suppose. So go figure!” Model Vana Rose grouses that a movie baron summoned her for an audition but grumbled that she was too slim. Yet he asked her to wear a bikini to “check out if he was wrong.”
Shyam Kaushal, action guru, points out that young men from northern cities aspire to become the next Akshay Kumar, but after a decade or more, stop chasing dreams. “But they don’t return home,” Kaushal laments. “They stay on to become stunt men and assistants.”
A practising doctor, in his late 30s, who is also pursuing the Bollywood dream, says countless strugglers take to drug abuse and become ‘escorts’: “How else can they pay the rent for a room, their daily fix or an idli dosa lunch at Shreeji’s?
Shreeji, a fast-food restaurant at Oshiwara, doesn’t allow strugglers to get away without settling their bills immediately, unlike the now defunct Marina Lodge at Bandra. Lore has it that its landlady would waive rents and often paid for a square meal for Dharmendra, Rajendra Kumar and Manoj Kumar before they became stars. “Today,” the doctor states, “Landlords keep increasing the rent every six or nine months.”
The doctor, who was coaxed into studying medicine, has switched to teaching Bollywood dance to students. Not cash strapped, he lives in a one BHK in Oshiwara.
Doesn’t it get lonely? To that, the doctor’s evasive response is, “I have a cat who keeps me company.”
(All the interviews mentioned in this article were recorded on video for a documentary titled The Big Bollywood Struggle)