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Written by Mark Bennington


Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall madly in love. Girl’s father disapproves of low-caste boy. Girl is kidnapped by villain with a mustache. Boy sets out to rescue girl. Boy fights villain and his ten goons. Boy gets girl back with tears in his eyes. Cut to song and dance in the Swiss Alps, with six costume changes and twelve passionate embraces.

This is Bollywood masala. Masala, in Hindi, means spice; Bollywood masala is the drama and lore that are the essence of Hindi film. It is an industry so deeply embedded in the Indian culture that nearly every song you hear on the street and every flashy dance you see at an event is from a famous film. In the United States, Hollywood is glamorized and criticized with nostalgic flare. Yes, we love our movies, but are they the epicenter of our cultural narrative and social expression? Not really — at least not to the extent that they are in Bollywood.

Most films that Americans associate with Indian film are Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire — neither of which are Bollywood films. “Bollywood,” in India, refers to mainstream Hindi films, but some find that term derogatory and prefer to use “Hindi film industry.” South India has its own entertainment industry, linguistically and culturally distinct from Bollywood. Furthermore, “offbeat” or “parallel” cinema (what we would refer to as “indie” film), also seeks to differentiate itself from the ubiquitous Bollywood blueprint. Mainstream Bollywood actors often venture into both.

But Bollywood holds a major key to India’s cultural identity, reinforced by over a billion devoted masala fans within and outside of the country, including in neighboring Pakistan. Bollywood not only captures the social fabric of India; through its archetypal stories of valor and romance, it becomes the visual incubation and celebration of hope.

Bollywood actors are unlike Hollywood actors — they are beyond loved. In the devout culture of India, their stars are cherished, idealized, and even prayed to. At some point in every Indian’s life, 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.

Yet, beyond the glitz and flashbulb-glam life, what do Bollywood actors really do day-in and day-out? How does life look on the inside? That’s what few Desis (Indians) consider as they pack their bags and head for the big city.

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Sonakshi Sinha, star of Dabangg (her debut film with Salman Khan), rehearses for the Stardust Awards, one of many awards shows in Mumbai. (Mark Bennington)

In Bollywood, everybody knows everybody’s business and family is intrinsic. This is the essence of Indian culture, in general, but in Bollywood, what it means is that 95 percent of the celebrity-actor population enters the industry through family ties. In the same way that high school has cliques, Bollywood has camps. Salman Khan’s camp is very different from Shahrukh Khan’s camp, especially now that the two, who were once bosom buddies, are now rivals. It is the same high-school power play, but with big dollars involved.

In Mumbai, celebrity actors are just now getting agents and managers, whereas in the past, only the biggest actors had secretaries to arrange shoot dates and schedule day-to-day activities. Secretaries would never negotiate money, as that was the actor’s responsibility. Even today, most actors hash out the financial terms of their own written or nuncupative contracts. Most actors I spoke to had only ever had oral contracts, which indicates the level of trust and familiarity running through the Bollywood bloodline. One of the best-known character actors in Bollywood, Anupam Kher, told me he had done 380 films and had never signed a contract. He said, “You always had to make sure you got paid on the last day of the shoot, otherwise you’d never see the money.” The younger generation doesn’t take such chances.

The biggest difference between the two acting communities of Hollywood and Bollywood is cultural. For many actors in Mumbai, the social impact of poverty juxtaposed with everyday life has imbued them with a profound sense of appreciation for life. The actors I encountered demonstrated depth and earnestness, even when they were making no progress in their careers. This wholesomeness of the actors is very different from the desperation that can be found wafting across the Hollywood Hills on any given day. There is a myopic ambition that overshadows much of the Hollywood acting community today, as it continues to embrace “the self.” On the other side of the world, the acting community in Bollywood sounds more like the festive marching band of a wedding procession, or one big family where everyone literally calls each other bhaiya (brother) or didi (sister), auntie or uncle.


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Family Ties & Handshakes: A Close Look into the Make-up of Bollywood -

 

In Andheri, the entertainment capital of Mumbai, Studio 77 is one of the busier casting offices. Since 2008, it has been home to an average of 250 commercial auditions a year and a handful of film auditions.

Over the last ten years, the Lokhandwala section of Anderi has become the new Mecca for the acting community. One actor and stand-up comedian at the Comedy Store in Mumbai has based his whole set around the lives of struggling actors. He says in his act, “There are so many actors in Lokhandwala, it’s the only place in Bombay where, as a part of your application to rent an apartment, you have to give an audition!

In Hollywood, the casting offices are well-oiled machines. Actors are scheduled for an audition only after their agents or managers have submitted photos and résumés, and they have been called in by the casting director, who then swipes in the actor on their personalized barcode, now an industry standard. More than 8,000 miles away in Mumbai, the norm is for actors to show up daily at the casting offices and ask if anyone is casting their type that day. It’s not uncommon to see actors waiting outside casting offices, even on days when nothing is being cast, in case a casting director arrives like a bolt of lightning with a spur-of-the-moment audition, in which case they would be first in line.

This wholesomeness of the actors is very different from the desperation that can be found wafting across the Hollywood Hills on any given day.

One actor said, “Being in Bombay, wanting to be in this business, is like being with someone you know is bad for you. It’s going to screw with your head and heart and it’s going to make you a little mad, but you’re in it. There’s a saying—Dil laga bhaims se, toh pari kya cheez hai—meaning, ‘If your heart gets stuck on a buffalo, then even a fairy will not seem attractive to you.’ It’s an addiction.”

After a long day of making the rounds at various casting offices, struggling actor Kanan Chakor (top photo) stands outside of another typical casting office in Andheri. The audition process is unstructured and can go on for hours. Chakor does three to five auditions each day.

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In 1997, Bollywood films entered a new and heightened phase with the film Dil To Pagal Hai. It transformed the style of dancing in Bollywood films forever. It was directed by the late Yash Chopra and choreographed by Shiamak Davar, who introduced contemporary jazz and indo-Western dance styles for the first time in Hindi films. Prior to this, Bollywood films always had dance sequences as a key ingredient, but they were usually headlined by an “item girl” who did all the big dance numbers. Dances that were performed by actors had little synchronized choreography and consisted of mostly random animated gestures and the stereotypical dancing around trees or in the flower fields of Rajasthan or the Swiss Alps.

Today’s Bollywood films demand that actors take dance classes, often even before taking acting classes. It is one of the most vital elements of modern Bollywood. Unconventional choreographer, Farah Khan, is another popular personality who has taken dance to new heights with huge “item numbers,” such as “Sheila Ki Jawani” in the box-office flop of 2010 Tees Maar Khan, and “Munni Badnaam Hui,” featured in the box-office megahit Dabangg.

However, actors almost never sing the songs they perform in movies. It is an unhidden fact that they are all lip-synching to what are called “playback singers.” Since an average Bollywood film can feature up to six songs, playback singers can very well become famous in their own right.

Above, actor Shivam Bhargava (center) rehearses a sequence during dance class with well-known Bollywood dance instructor Shakur Shaikh, who is also connected to the Kishore Namit Kapoor Acting Institute in Mumbai.


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In Hollywood, there are more acting schools than coffee shops. In Mumbai, that is not yet the case, though the numbers are growing. Some of the more well-known acting schools are the Barry John Studio, Anupam Kher’s “Actor Prepares,” and the Kishore Namit Kapoor Acting Institute, whose motto is “We don’t make stars; we only chisel uncut diamonds.

In Mumbai’s Film City, an area that is home to several studio lots, which every day host multiple TV and Bollywood productions, there is a film school called Whistling Woods International, founded by Subhash Ghai in 2005. It calls itself “Asia’s largest Film, Television, Animation and Media Arts institute.” It offers an eighteen-month diploma in acting for 1.2 million rupees, or about $22,000 USD. Whistling Woods International has affiliates around the world, one of which is Syracuse University in New York. In 2010, the Hollywood Reporter named Whistling Woods one of the best film schools in the world, furthering the recognition, respect, and mass influence that Bollywood has on the world stage.

Above, a student is led through one of the school’s “sense memory” exercises, in which he acts out the physicality of a child’s tantrum.


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Salman Khan is Bollywood’s bad-boy bachelor with a heart of gold, and easily one of the most famous actors in the world, though most Americans have never heard of him. Nicknamed “Sallu,” he came onto the Bollywood scene in 1989, the son of a famous screenwriter and stepson to one of Bollywood’s most famous item girls. Above, at the Marriott in Pune, hundreds of onlookers gather to get a glimpse of Sallu after word spread that he was in town shooting for Bodyguard. This is not uncommon, as he is usually followed by hundreds, if not thousands, of fans every day. In 2010, 2011, and 2012, he had back-to-back super-hits: Dabangg (already a cult classic), Bodyguard, and Ek Tha Tiger; each broke the previous opening-day box-office record.

Speaking about the industry, he says:

It’s different in Hollywood because you have so many lawyers, contracts, and deals, but here in Mumbai, you’re just working with friends, you know. We do have contracts now, but all of those I sign at the end of the film, not before. But now, the younger generation are signing contracts or they won’t show up for the shoot. They are bright and more business savvy than all of us guys who have been burned by producers.

In Bollywood, no actor is paid residuals, in part, due to the lack of a union presence or infrastructure. A working actor in Hollywood could work twenty days per year and, because of the SAG-AFTRA union-regulated residuals, make upwards of US $75,000 and be completely under the radar. In Bollywood, anyone making that kind of money is a celebrity or well on his or her way to becoming one.


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All over India, young men move to Mumbai in hopes of being the next Salman Khan, who, in the early 1990s, started the gym craze in Bollywood. Ever since, gyms have been popping up all over India, and in Mumbai, especially. Young actors will sometimes bypass acting school altogether and head straight for the gym, working out one to two times a day. On their days off, they attend Bollywood dance classes.

To get acting work, most new arrivals will meet with people called coordinators, who act as casting agents, getting information about auditions, then taking 25 to 30 percent if the actor books the job, as opposed to the 10 to 15 percent standard in Hollywood. Unlike an actual casting director, who interacts with the actor or agent, coordinators are really middlemen, sometimes using their small influence as a bargaining chip for sexual favors from clients.

At Diljit’s Gymko, in the Seven Bungalows neighborhood of Mumbai, Nitin Gupta says, during a workout: “I faced the casting couch in the starting days, when I went for auditions. Some gay coordinators called me to their places and said, ‘Come with me and sleep with me and I’ll give you work.’ But I just want to perform well and get my work that way. It’s so competitive here, but at the gym I feel like I’m the best.”


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Here at the edge of the Arabian Sea, the Gateway of India stands opposite the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, famous for being the most luxurious hotel in Mumbai (in 2008, thirty-one people were killed during terrorist bombings at the Taj).

Gabbar Singh (pictured above) is known in Mumbai for getting arrested outside of Bollywood megastar homes while performing scenes from their hit films, hoping to get noticed for future work. When Singh first moved to Mumbai, he paid a visit to Shahrakh Khan’s house, assuming the megastar would just open his door and invite him in. Singh’s attitude is the most frequent kind of naïveté in Bollywood.

Singh says, “When I did a little bit of acting outside Shahrukh Khan’s house, four or five naughty boys approached me, claiming that their fathers were big directors and that they could help me out. So, for an hour they tricked me. I went along in a rickshaw, but when we reached ‘their house,’ they took off with all my things and about 900 rupees.”

Because he’s covered frequently in the local media, Singh is able to make a living as an infamous street performer. His notoriety also increased after appearing in two reality shows, yet he still does the rounds of auditions that all struggling actors must do. He is a long way from his big Bollywood dream of starring in his own film, opposite Sonakshi Sinha.

Singh, who is dark-skinned, says he prefers to play the villain roles — or what they call in Bollywood the “negative roles” — which may be his way of accepting the reality of the industry. In Bollywood (and in India), skin color is a major factor in how one is viewed in terms of status. In the caste system, the Brahmins are the highest caste and are almost always very fair-skinned. Thus, most Bollywood stars are dusky to fair-skinned, and generally do not stray from the standard hero role.


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Pujha Verma prepares for her next scene, in the dressing room she shares with three other actresses, on the set of the tv-soap Bhagya Vidhata, in Film City. Like most modest studio dressing rooms in Film City, it has a toilet, sink, bed, and dirt floor, and represents the typical condition of the working actor.

Television acting in India is primarily about soaps. Every soap is one hour long, but feels more like three. The scripts are ten to fifteen pages, with one page of dialogue — say, about some family strife — in which one character says something shocking. Then, with five actors in the scene, the camera pans to every character’s reaction of what was said. No one speaks; there is only dramatic music in the background. This continues for three or four rounds, all in slow motion, followed by another page of dialogue, followed by a replay of new slow-motion reactions. It is always high drama with a rich family setting, and lots of tears.

A typical day on a TV set is from 10 A.M. to one or two in the morning. For most actors, TV does not usually lead to mainstream Bollywood, unless you are a character actor, in which case it is more accepted to go back and forth between the two. One TV producer said, “When an actor auditions for me, it doesn’t matter if they can act or not. If they are beautiful, that’s enough. The rest I can teach them on the set.”

Landing a film contract can often involve sexual quid pro quos. In a country where it is extremely uncommon to see couples kissing or even holding hands in public, and sexuality is harnessed in the confines of arranged marriage, Bollywood operates and often feeds on the flip side of that sexual prohibition. Verma says one film producer spelled it out for her about a possible three-film contract, saying, “You have to sleep with me for the entire eighteen months of shooting.” When she declined, she never heard from him again.


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American audiences may recognize Nargis Fakhri from the TV show America’s Next Top Model. Fakhri grew up in Queens, New York, where friends would call her “Miss Bollywood” because she would dance around while using a fake Indian accent. In 2010, after years of modeling on the runways of Europe and Asia, she received a call from Bollywood director Imtiaz Ali, who wanted her to star in a film called Rockstar, opposite Ranbir Kapoor (of the Kapoor acting dynasty).

Landing a film contract can often involve sexual quid pro quos.

Of her experience, she says, “When I worked on Rockstar, the people I worked with became like family. Maybe I’m disillusioned because I was so new, but I actually thought, ‘Hey, we’ll always be together.’ It was a lie. It was a fucking lie. Sometimes I feel like I’ve developed a lot of negativity living here, in this business. But now, I’m trying to find my way back to being more positive. In Bollywood, it’s not about the story, it’s about the actor. It doesn’t matter how good he is, if he doesn’t have a big name, they [my agents] say, ‘Nargis, you cannot work with him.’ Even if I love a script, but the actor is not at that level, I cannot do it. Because if I do, I am pigeonholed into a particular, ‘Oh, she’s a B-grade or this alternative, offbeat type of actress.’ They only want me to be a commercial superstar.”


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Shashi Kapoor is one of Bollywood’s most dashing heroes of the 1960s and 1970s. Son of Prithviraj Kapoor, one of the founding fathers of the Hindi film industry, he is the second generation of the Kapoor family dynasty; the only thing comparable in Hollywood would be the yesteryear Barrymores.

He started acting when he was four years old, in his father’s traveling Prithvi Theatre. By the time he was sixteen, he had already acted in almost twenty films. Most of his films are categorized as what Bollywood fans consider the classics. Co-starring with all the biggest Bollywood names of the 1970s, he also worked on multiple Merchant Ivory Productions, such as The Householder and Heat and Dust and also on The Deceivers with Pierce Brosnan, making him one of the first Bollywood stars to work in Hollywood.

One of his films in 1972 had a very controversial love scene with actress Simi Garewal. Not only were the actors pretending to make love, but they were actually and passionately kissing, something extremely rare in Bollywood, even today.


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Bobby Darling is the most infamous transgendered woman in India. She is still awaiting her lifelong dream of a full sex change, while pursuing her very successful niche career as a Bollywood actress.

Darling’s father disowned her after she moved to Mumbai in the late 1990s. After arriving — and not knowing anyone — she slept in train stations and on the streets before finally getting a job as a go-go dancer in a very underground gay club. Early on, when looking for work, she was laughed at by directors. Since 1999, she has appeared in fifty-two films, and is the first openly gay, cross-dressing actor in Bollywood, though more accepted as an outrageous character than a gay person. She is always essentially playing herself. The public views her with voyeuristic eyes, as opposed to eyes of acceptance.

However, despite getting noticed, “I do not have a single friend here,” she says. “This industry is very strange. Just like sunrise, when everything is going well they want to be with you, but when you are going down, they vanish. So nobody is my friend. My God is my friend.”


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Actor Raj Kumar Yadav flies through the air doing his own stunt during an action sequence on the set of the 2011 film Shaitan, produced by maverick director Anurag Kashyap and wunderkind Guneet Monga, two of the most successful producers in independent or “parallel” Hindi cinema. Shaitan was filmed mostly in and around the old-world fishing community known as Versova Village in Mumbai.

Yadav, like many young actors, had always dreamed of acting in films as a kid. He made his film debut just two years ago in Dibakar Banerjee’s very successful LSDLove, Sex aur Dhokha, which included the most controversial sex scene to date in Hindi cinema, due to the graphic nature, full nudity, and story-line context of Dhokha (the Hindi word for deceit).

Films like Shaitan and LSD represent a whole new market in modern Hindi cinema. This new wave is much more Western in subject matter and edgy when dealing with some of the classic tales and issues concerning India and modern Indian lifestyles. Anurag Kashyap, who started out solely as a screenwriter (a career inspired by Scorsese’s Taxi Driver) and Dibakar Banerjee, who began his career in advertising, are two director-producers leading the way into this sleek, raw, and often controversial market. Both directors like to use the action in their films in a very realistic way (as can be seen from this picture), quite unlike the traditional glossing over of Bollywood action films.


Family Ties & Handshakes: A Close Look into the Make-up of Bollywood -Mark Bennington was a classically trained, working actor for 10 years before picking up the camera in 2004. He has since become an award winning photographer, whose work has been seen in The Atlantic, Forbes, Platform, WorthThe LA Times, The Wall Street Journal India & The Times of India, as well as in galleries around the world. Mark was recently an adjunct professor of photography with The S.I. Newhouse School of Media and Communications at Syracuse University and, in 2015, briefly returned to his acting roots to co-star in 2 films set in India: Dibakar Banerjee’s sleuth thriller Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! and the Mother Teresa biopic The Letters, opposite Juliet Stevenson. He lives in New York City with his wife Taapsi.


This article originally appeared on VQR
All images produced and supplied by Mark Bennington

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