By Danish Siddiqui
The Hindi film industry or Bollywood can make a star, a household name out of anyone overnight. It can bring instant money, fame and the fan-following of millions from across continents.
Bollywood is an addiction for many that attracts thousands of aspirants to the breeding grounds, the city of Mumbai, everyday. I was keen to look at this other side of the glamour world. The side that entails the struggle to enter the world of aspiring dreamers and their struggles to become a star.
There is no time limit to becoming a nationwide sensation, a star in Bollywood. As one of the aspirants told me it’s a gamble you take, forgetting all your worries about the results.
To shoot this story I had to do a lot of research. A lot has been written about these ‘strugglers’ but they haven’t been photographed yet, as ironically, they are camera-shy. Nobody wants to have a record of their struggle because they believe one day when they make it big, these records could be an embarrassment.
During the course of my assignment, I met at least thirty people who had different, amazing stories to tell about their struggles, but they had a common goal – to become a superstar.
I met 32-year-old Ram Pratap Verma, a Bollywood aspirant on one of my research trips to the beach where he was practicing gymnastics and martial arts. The first thing I noticed about him was his bag. The bag had ‘Journey’ written across on it. Ram had made the journey to tinsel town eight years ago from his small village, about 1500 kilometers (932 miles) from Mumbai.
Ram and I met a couple of times at a roadside tea stall. It was very difficult for me to convince him that I wanted to document his life as a Bollywood aspirant. After almost two dozen cups of tea I finally managed to convince him. I still wasn’t sure whether he would be himself in front of me. But like him, I took a gamble too.
Ram had his first brush with acting when he ran away from home to escape the beatings of his elder brother, and joined a local company of actors who performed religious plays in nearby villages. He lodged with them for two years before returning home.
For the first few days on my assignment, I didn’t take any pictures of Ram. I would just take the camera out and pretend like I was clicking. The whole exercise was to test Ram, to see whether he changed his behavior in front of the camera or acted normally. I noticed he felt conscious. I followed him everywhere with my camera for one week without capturing a single frame. Sure enough, after a while, Ram started feeling comfortable around me and the camera.
I would eat with Ram at roadside eateries, attend his training sessions, and auditions, hang out with him at the tailoring shop where he worked or the city park where he slept at nights.
I actually started shooting pictures of Ram about one month after meeting him. Our relationship had changed from a photographer and subject to friends. This helped me get a lot of access into in his life. Like visiting the tailoring shop where he sewed old clothes for half a day to earn money to travel to auditions, or watching as he saved lunch money by eating at a temple during community meals.
I noticed that Ram carried his home, his life, inside his bag which contained two shirts, one pair of trousers, two pairs of track pants, two t-shirts, a few documents and some toiletries. He had permission to sleep in a park from a local politician at whose birthday celebration he’d danced. Every day Ram practiced his martial arts and gymnastics on one of the famous beaches in Mumbai in the hope that someday a celebrity Bollywood producer or director would spot him while taking a walk or jog.
Many big Bollywood names have lived this kind of life and struggled hard before stardom beckoned. Ram draws inspiration from them. To keep his passion alive, he makes it a point every week to watch at least one film at a single screen cinema, where the ticket prices are cheaper compared to multiplexes. The giant screen at the cinema keeps his hopes alive.
If Ram’s is a struggle, this was also one of the most challenging stories I have worked on so far. Right from getting access to subjects or locations to photographing the struggle, or as the subjects suspected, their ‘failure’. What kept me going was the urge to tell the behind-the-scenes story of Bollywood. It required immense patience and sensitivity. But my biggest take-away from this assignment has been never get disheartened or scared from attempting to tell a story which is difficult. Dreaming big is quite regular stuff for many out there, I’ve learnt.