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Role Call

Ordinary heroes

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NEW ACT: The Monttage Film and Television Academy in Malad, Mumbai has a number of unlikely students such as 31-yearold housewife Ashwini Gaikwad. Ashwini (below right) is the oldest student in her class. (Below left) Agatho Sumi wants to be Bollywood's first Naga hero

With television and advertising elevating the Everyman, all sorts of unlikely people, from middle-aged housewives to mid-career stockbrokers, are signing up for acting classes.

Any tele-prophet could see it coming. TV viewing tribes over 30 have started to grasp, through early bifocals, how life on screen is uncannily alike real life. They notice the diminishing hegemony of youth, and the rise, like Ravan, of the multi-headed cast. They notice plurality in age and appearance. They especially notice the ordinariness of the actors, the simplicity (even inanity) of their screen actions. And they come to this natural conclusion - if those boobs on the tube can act, so can they. Then some of them actually go about proving it. They make that first motion down the inglorious road to moth-flame fame and occasional windfall - they join an acting school.

Mid-range 'academies of art and dramatics' (equal in number to fixers of piles and hernia), have lately seen more than a few grizzled heads and double chins wobbling in a class originally full of taut-skinned youth. They're housewives off home duty, pensioners now living on LIC, lecturers on a break, feisty mothers-in-law - it's not the old school of beautiful youth anymore;acting schools today are fast filling up with middle-aged, averagelooking unlikelies. "It started with the Ekta Kapoor era of serials on TV, " theorises Vidur Chaturvedi, an acting coach in the Lokhandwala Complex, the womb of the acting industry in West India. "For a lot of aspiring actors, films were inaccessible, and television was seen as a way through. " The broadening band of sitcoms, along with the constant search for fresh faces made television a sort of Jehovah's Witness. Then, more recently, realism came along -in films, TV and commercials -and gave new courage to Everyman. Good looks today are not paramount;talent is. And character actors like Boman Irani, Kay Kay Menon and Vinay Pathak - not quite chocolate boys - have become the new idols of hope.

"The development of character-based roles, the growing portrayal of families in commercials and a closer representation of reality all added up to the mass recruitment of lay people, " says Vidur, who's coached many such. He narrates a telling example. "The lead actor of a serial called Kavyanjali was someone called Rakshak Sawhney, who was fired for slacking on the job. His mother, Neelam, wanted to show her son that anyone with the right attitude and drive could make it as an actor today and so she made an example of herself. She enrolled at acting school - a widow in her 50s with no professional history on the screen or stage. She completed my four-month course, and landed a minor role in a Yashraj film and roles on TV. "

Apart from weekday classes for single-minded starlings, Vidur also has Sunday school for students with other commitments on weekdays. Ashok Bajaj is one of these. A stockbroker from Kolkata, Ashok preferred scripts over scrips and relocated to Mumbai with his wife, kids and business last May. "I had come to Bombay 20 years ago to act, but things didn't work out for me at the time and I had responsibilities back home. So I returned to Kolkata and worked in stocks. Now that I'm financially settled, I've decided to give it another chance, " says Ashok, who set up a branch of his business in Mumbai, only so that he could sprint to the sets. For the moment, he's mostly running to auditions. "I usually attend auditions after 4 pm when I'm done with work. But for an important role, I'll leave the office any time of day, " says the 43-year-old, who copped a four-episode role in a DD1 serial called Kal To Hai Apna. "I don't want to make a career of the screen, but if things look promising, why not?" he says practically.

It's not just the call of money that's been hauling fresh catch out of broad seas. It's also the longcurbed desire to perform, to test one's mettle, to see if those secret motions before the bathroom mirror are worth more than private applause. They may have had it in them all along - spouting dialogue at the dal or simulating Bachchan in a vacant office urinal, but many feel now's the right time to go public.

Three months ago, Ashwini Gaikwad discovered the latent power of her lungs. That day, while her nine-year-old daughter and six-year-old son were sleeping in the next room, she screamed with the intensity of a freshly empowered housewife, who had so far sacrificed her ambitions for the sake her family, just like the women in her favourite soaps. On hearing her shout, her husband, who was in the verandah, rushed to her side, fearing the worst. "It's only a breathing exercise, " laughed Gaikwad.

"They taught me how to exhale loudly in acting class today, " she added, as he exhaled in relief. "Please don't make it a habit or our neighbours might think I am a wife-beater, " he warned her, smilingly pointing to the walls of their SRA apartment in Bandra. But he allows Gaikwad to disobey, every day. After all, an early marriage, two kids and innumerable responsibilities later, the 31-year-old housewife finally seemed to glow in this renewed pursuit of her childhood passion - acting.

Gaikwad enrolled herself in the three-monthacting course at the Monttage Film and Television Academy in Malad, which cost Rs 50, 000. "I had acted in college plays, but I want to be on television, " she says. Soon, she bid farewell to her wardrobe of saris and churidars and took to the youthfulness of denims and T-shirts, perhaps in order to fit in with others in her batch. There were other more tacit changes. In the course of her three-hour-long classes, where she was the oldest student but "was never made to feel out of place", Gaikwad learnt things like voice and speech modulation, improvisation, entry and breathing exercises, which she would practise with clockwork regularity at home. Even impromptu theatre games that students followed in class, which involved following instructions such as "Act like a mad woman" or "Crack your partner up", were immediately replicated at home with her kids. "The class has increased my confidence and helped me develop my personality, " confesses Gaikwad, who used to be painfully shy but now tells you how to get into the skin of any character.

Television's recent affinity for realism - ordinary faces in believable settings - has given students like the housewife a silent hope. "Although the film industry still obsesses over good-looking faces, TV does not seem to want people who wear Chanel No 5 anymore, " says Vikrant Thakur, director and marketing head of Monttage.

Thakur says he has students from age eight to 40 from places as far apart as Bihar and Bhiwandi who come with a lot of aspirations and sometimes "no money". For the deserving ones, the institute provides a discount of Rs 15, 000 to Rs 20, 000. Among his unlikely students was 26-year-old Agatho Sumi, a political science professor-turned-networking professional from Nagaland, who, despite opposition from his family members, came to Mumbai to pursue acting. "He could not speak a word of Hindi and aspired to enter Bollywood. I used to laugh at his audacity, but he surprised me with his dedication, " says Thakur about the man who would sit with a Hindi textbook and practise reading the alphabet. Sumi, who can now spout entire lines of Amitabh Bachchan in class, provided they are written in English, wants to do "serials like CID" and reality shows. He's already auditioned for the role of a waiter in Vishal Bharadwaj's next (where the casting director's first question was "Can you speak Hindi?") and for a place in the second season of reality show Entertainment Ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega. "Who knows, I just might be the first Naga superhero of Bollywood, " he smiles optimistically.

One of the reasons why this new demographic chooses to attend acting school and not simply gamble at auditions is because production houses are impatient. Time is money, and it can't be wasted on someone who doesn't understand what it means to 'catch the light'. "People need to know camera angles, lighting and other technical nuances of the business, " says Vidur. Kavita Barjatya, who heads the television division of Rajshri Productions, says the long line of hopefuls at castings includes doctors, senior citizens, people who've quit their jobs and others who overestimate their talent. "Sometimes, just to pacify people who threaten to create a scene, we allow them to audition, " she laughs, adding exasperatedly that "40 per cent of India" wants to act - a statistic upped considerably by television's demand for ordinariness.

For some, it's the need for recognition and money that lures them to the arc lights, and Barjatya is proud of how many kitchens run by virtue of just one show. A small role in a TV episode can earn them anywhere between Rs 2, 500 and Rs 3, 000, she says. If one lands a part in a commercial, the pickings could be anything between Rs 10, 000 and Rs 25, 000, while a day's work in a film, at Rs 10, 000, could pay half the rent in the suburbs.

With an eye on this considerable turn of amateurs - many of whom trundle into industry capitals like Mumbai for auditions at debilitating expense - Preet Bedi, ex-CEO of Percept Picture Company, came up with a handy solution: online auditions through his newly launched website, abmeribari. com. For an application fee of Rs 700 to Rs 1, 200, home-based actors can upload twominute screen test videos of themselves, which will be stored in the site's database and pulled out when a fitting role comes by. "Apart from our own database, we also conduct specific searches for producers and directors, " Bedi says, alluding to the current demand by Madhur Bhandarkar for a suitable minor actor for his coming film. He says the submitted tests will be evaluated by industry insiders and the top ten shortlisted ones will be escorted to meet the director at the site's expense. "We're not looking for portfolios, but performances, " says Bedi, piquantly. In other words, everyone's invited.

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