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Passions

The acting master of dharavi

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Baburao Laadsaheb's quirky acting classes are meant for Bollywood aspirants who cannot afford pricey institutions. Here they learn how to flutter their dupatta in the breeze, perfect their jhatkas and play drunk.

Behind a black, metal chair meant for meagre buttocks, a man in a gaudy pink cap stands with his eyes downcast. He then turns to no one in particular, screams in memory of his dead brother and bawls in ascending agony till his cries reach an embarrassing decibel. For two full minutes, Baburao Laadsaheb manages to transform the decrepit first floor room near Tamatar Mandir in Dharavi into a dramatic Indian courtroom a la Bollywood of the seventies.

On previous occasions, this very room - where the loo hides cardboard swords and the threadbare, brick walls are adorned with photos of inexpensive men and women in various stages of hysteria - has morphed into a temple, an animal farm, an employment exchange, a wedding hall, a cheap Bhojpuri set and other colourful environments, at least when seen through the square formed by Laadsaheb's two extended index fingers and thumbs.

This squalid room would have otherwise fetched him Rs 15, 000 as rent, but the tall, lanky signboard painter has been running an acting class named Five Star (after the chocolate, not the certificate) for over 25 years now. The weekly class is not only Laadsaheb's reason for getting up early every day but also his license for suffixing his name with the acronym 'FSA'. That, the 49-year-old Laadsaheb helpfully tells you, is the short version of "Family Serial Advisor".

Not many Mumbaikars need to be helped with the acronym anymore. Baburao FSA, after all, gathered a steady stream of fans through an eight-minute-long documentary film that was screened as a part of Cinema City Exhibition in Mumbai last month. Directed by documentary filmmaker Richa Hushing, the film Director Painter Baburao Laadsaheb introduces the audience to the quaintness of not only a unique, ten-foot-by-eight-foot acting class but also its unusual teacher.

"Though it is not very different from other acting classes in terms of content, the profile of its students and their aspirations set it apart, " says Hushing, referring to the class where Laadsaheb can be seen encouraging everyone from eager kids accompanied by their moms to undernourished men in tight-fitted jeans and women who like to team full-length skirts with imitation jewellery.
"They all have certain shortcomings, " says Laadsaheb. "But if I point out these out they'll be disappointed. So I only encourage them, " adds the balding man, who has no qualms about wearing an unflattering hairpiece and practising on the streets for the benefit of his students.

Great acting, Laadsaheb believes, emanates from the cheeks and, of course, the brain. While he prescribes a series of facial exercises for the cheeks, he recommends head rotations for the brain. "This exercise, " he says, making circles with his head, "will aid in brainwash. "

Laadsaheb grooms Bollywood hopefuls from across the country. A youngster from UP started perspiring when he was asked to read a piece of dialogue aloud. Laadsaheb realised later that the boy could not read but the fact did not bother the acting guru. "The mind of an illiterate student is like a clean slate and easier to train, " says Laadsaheb. "In fact, they learn faster than some MBAs do. "

A college dropout, Laadsaheb started out as a signboard painter 25 years ago. He volunteered to paint a set for a Bollywood art director one day. He managed to impress the film's director by finishing the assignment to paint shop names in record time. This, he says, soon spiralled into a routine. Laadsaheb then went on to do Marathi plays, Bhojpuri films, a music video, small roles in Hindi films and one self-produced-directed Marathi film Baburao Mhantoya Mithya Maruya. In this film he acted in ten roles (out of compulsion rather than choice). Today, he is the man Danny Boyle and AB Corporation Limited approach when they need to cast a range of characters from beggars and rapists to slumdwellers. His unique self-designed syllabus betrays his affinity for rhyming words. It includes sections such as "Framing-Looking", "Action-Reaction" and "Rumba-Samba. The "modelling" course contains a separate section on "dupatta modelling". Skill grades, in his world, are marked by and named after qualities : Basic, Smart, Developed, Master, Perfect and Talented. To avoid confusion, the moustachioed veteran, who supplied actors for Slumdog Millionaire and more recently Paa, has even divided his class into batches with titles like Sunil, Madhuri, Urmila and Govinda in no particular order. It is no coincidence, however, that the last three actors are good dancers. Laadsaheb loves dancing and claims to be aware of "2000 dance styles" (he means steps). It's clear when he gets up, hops on to a slippery plastic mat that could give way anytime soon and does something that makes him look like he is mending an imaginary shirt. On the fourth count, he brings his hand back to its original position. "This style is called needle, thread, needle, thread, needle, thread. Stitch, " he says in Hindi. There's also something called "farmer style", for instance, in which the steps are inspired by the act of "cutting crops" and "sieving foodgrains. "

All through this conversation, his nightie-clad wife remains determinedly horizontal. She is watching a soap in which a pregnant woman is crying and isn't distracted even by her husband's impromptu jigs. But, "she's supportive," he says. "She fell for my dancing skills, after all."

If not content, Laadsaheb's acting classes stand for reasons of economics.

"I could have hired a secretary, an airconditioned premise and charged them much more, " says Laadsaheb, who charges a minimum of Rs 300 per month. For girls, "it's virtually free", he adds. This is because "I can't guarantee success. Some of them flinch when asked to move the dupatta a bit," he explains.

The heavy influence of novels such as Alif Laila that he grew up on is evident in the way he coins dialogues and his own speech. "The film industry is a gambler's paradise, " says Laadsaheb, who even wrote a book Acting Master in 2000. He tends often to lapse into filmi expressions from that of a drunkard to a defeated man.

Laadsaheb, who has also been a parttime wedding photographer, clicks an entire portfolio for just Rs 4, 000. For this, he uses makeshift accessories. A row of painted, parallel black pipes becomes a dramatic jail door. Other props include fake blood-smeared daggers and a khakhi uniform that sit in the trunks on the side. The "outdoor feel" is achieved by bringing the plants on his roof inside.
Today, Laadsaheb, who has two mobile phones with four SIM cards each dangling from his neck at all times, is a very busy man. He has also started giving "Home Tuition" for Rs 500 per hour. He talks of clients who send him home because "aaj beti ka mood nahi hai (my daughter does not feel like it today)". In a western suburb, he recalls being chased by a dog every time he went to teach a young girl. The building watchman, it turned out, harboured a secret crush on the girl. Laadsaheb's manner of escape, in all probability, will soon evolve into a "dance style".

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