When a candid camera captures Bollywood
Kareena Kapoor Khan between takes at a commercial ad shoot for a sunscreen brand at Madh Island, Mumbai
American photographer Mark Bennington set out to capture 'acting communities' in India. Six years later, his passion project has resulted in a book that is a sharp visual commentary on the Indian film industry
In his hometown in Mathura (Uttar Pradesh, India), 25-year-old Gabbar Singh had almost been anointed a star. Every time he performed to "Shah Rukh Khanji", "Salman Khanji" or "Amitabh Bachchanji's" hits on stage, thunderous applause from the local audiences awaited him. The hope of replicating this success on the big screen brought him to Mumbai. His plan was simple: once he landed, he would straightaway head to Shah Rukh Khan's plush home in Bandstand and seek the superstar's help.
It was during the process of turning this idea into action that Gabbar got his first reality check. Once outside Mannat (Shah Rukh Khan's home), the watchman asked him to leave. To prove the seriousness of his intent, Gabbar began to perform some of Shah Rukh's scenes right outside the house when a group of men in a rickshaw stopped by and offered him a ride. They claimed to be sons of filmmakers and promised help. He went along. As soon as they were out of the vicinity of Mannat, the men robbed Gabbar of his possessions, chiefly among them a sum of INR900 (Dh51). With the help of some strangers, he gathered enough money to return to Mathura.
For American photographer Mark Bennington, Gabbar Singh is more than just one of the 112 voices from India's acting community that feature in his new book Living the Dream: The Life of the 'Bollywood' Actor; he represents a sect of Bollywood hopefuls who share an intimate relationship with their screen gods and nurture a dream of scripting a success story as big as theirs. This is not an unexplored theme - last year, Maneesh Sharma's Fan was a dramatic exploration of the subject. What lends incredible depth to Bennington's coffee table book is that voices like Gabbar's feature alongside those of Bollywood celebrities, arthouse veterans and television actors, among others, making Living the Dream a more complex visual narrative on how the Indian film industry is perceived by different clusters of the acting community.
Gabbar Singh performs scenes from Sholay
THE STAR AND THE STRUGGLER
A few pages prior to Gabbar Singh's account, Bennington captures another Singh on his lens - the YashRaj protégé Ranveer Singh - a month after his debut in Band Baaja Baaraat when he is all set to perform what appears to be a fairly intense stunt onstage. The then one-film-old Ranveer tells Bennington about his journey from University of Indiana to Bollywood - how he enrolled for an acting class at the last minute, came back to India to find a career in films, rejected some small budget movies and then landed the big ticket role in the YashRaj film.
Pitting the story of Gabbar Singh against that of Ranveer Singh is an exercise Bennington warns us against. "Both worlds are real and fantasy in equal parts. I don't think there is any one that outweighs the other. Because the world of the celebrity can be very real. These are hardcore businessmen. People think it is just about glamour but they actually employ a lot of people. On the other side, you would think the struggler's would be a more real world. But in fact, there is a lot of fantasy involved. This fantasy that they are going to be huge stars."
Alternating between the gloss and the grime, does the book debunk the notion of Bollywood as a larger-than-life entity? Filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee explains, "The gloss and the tacky grime under it - both are true and both are false. The gloss tries to hide the fact that it's paper thin. The underbelly, in its crowded tenements, pretends the strugglers are on a way station en route to the glory that awaits. Most of them will fail because of their skin colour, accent, physical features, lack of family connections or mediocrity. Some will shine against all odds but will finally hide behind the same paper-thin veneer of the class wall they clawed at. It is a family that deserves its members and vice-versa, with all that's hidden in family politics."
Living the Dream was an idea that took root nearly seven years ago when, during a trip to India, Bennington decided to photograph different acting communities. But 'acting communities' in India are not just limited to Bollywood - there is regional cinema, arthouse cinema, theatre... "The only reason I focused on Mumbai was because I was living in Mumbai. I didn't want to only represent the stars. I didn't want to only represent the strugglers. My plan was to capture every branch of the tree, maybe not every leaf. So I was looking for representatives in each cluster. You have Salman representing the stars, you have Dharmendra and Hema Malini representing the Sholay generation. Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Deepti Naval representing parallel cinema. So, it was always very much a community representation."
At the outset, shooting aspiring actors wasn't difficult - most were thrilled at the prospect of getting featured in a book on Bollywood. Getting through to his A-list subjects, however, wasn't a cakewalk. "The process was very intense. My morning would start with following up on messages. I would be texting away and emailing, then running to meet someone. There was an army of secretaries and PRs one had to go through." That's when he met producer Guneet Monga. Recalling how she came on board, Monga says, "I saw Mark's work and his passion to tell stories of actors from India. He spoke about the way Hollywood works and it was so different from Bollywood. His images capture a special moment that are real, raw and yet magical." Much like Bollywood itself.
Guneet introduced Mark to Shanoo Sharma, head of the casting department for YashRaj Films, who helped him get access to many stars. But, the challenge was not over yet.
With great stardom come the dos and don'ts, and this is perhaps where Bennington may have underestimated some of his subjects. Not all A-list actors were comfortable with the idea of being shot candidly, and as much as Bennington understood their predicament, he knew he had to work around them. He remembers a time when he decided to shoot veteran actor Dharmendra, who thought this would be a 'proper' photoshoot. "When I told him, I am going to photograph you in your natural environment, he was iffy. It was understandable. If you are used to being shot a particular way, you are used to it. We shot him candidly, but then also did a proper photoshoot, which I never used. Similarly, I told Hema Malini I wanted to shoot her watering plants; she was surprised. They felt it would be unflattering."
Hema Malini photographed at her home
In the past six years that Bennington has spent capturing his subjects - especially the mainstream actors - a lot has changed. Once newcomers, Swara Bhaskar and Rajkummar Rao have carved a niche for themselves, while actors like Vivek Oberoi and Abhay Deol are rarely seen on celluloid these days. Change indeed is the only constant in Bollywood. Forty-seven-year-old Bennington, however, sees it more philosophically. The pictures, according to him, have been 'marinating' and 'maturing', lending a timelessness to the book.
THE A-LIST COMPANY
Any book on contemporary Bollywood would seem incomplete without the reigning troika of the Khans. Even though Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan are conspicuous by their absence, Bennington not only manages to photograph Salman Khan but also becomes a first-hand witness of the actor's famed generosity. "He is the eye of the storm - very calm, very centred. There is a hurricane of bodyguards with machine guns, secretaries, fans that swirl around him. But he is quiet, composed, thoughtful. I witnessed first-hand how generous he is. While on the sets of Bodyguard, I saw a man coming to him with a box of Rolex watches. Soon after, Salman was picking out different watches. I realised he had bought them for his cast members. The gesture was incredible. For the record, I didn't get a watch," he jokes. The easy camaraderie the photographer shared with his subject reflects in some of the powerful thoughts the superstar shares with him. "It's the actors who are the last people to know that they've fallen because everyone around them is blowing smoke up their a***s. Actors are the last people to know, 'Oh s**t, this isn't working anymore,' and by that time, it's too late because their egos have been overfed on so much bulls**t," he tells Mark.
Salman Khan photographed on location while shooting for Bodyguard
As we prod him on the absence of other A-listers, he opens up on the reason for missing out on some illustrious names. "I would have liked to have Amitabh Bachchan; he politely said, no, thank you. I really wanted to feature Kajol, but she was pregnant at that time. I wanted to get Shah Rukh Khan, but he said he wasn't interested. The thing is I didn't ever want to talk someone into doing it. Either they saw the value in the project, or they didn't." One of the celebrities, who Bennington does not name, wasn't comfortable with the idea of being featured alongside commoners. Then there was also 'someone' who suggested that the photographs of the stars be put along with the stars and strugglers be put with other aspiring actors. "That's when I said there would be no hierarchy. This is going to be organised according to colours and patterns. It is a photography book. So the sequencing has to follow an aesthetic. I think it's interesting when you see a Rani Mukerji on one page and then you see someone you may have never heard of. It starts to break down barriers."
The refusal to sequence the photographs has, according to Dibakar Banerjee, lent gravitas to the project. "His exposure meter juxtaposing various skin colours in the same frame brings out the Indian fascination with the fair and the lovely with deadly accuracy. His portrait of Mithun (Chakraborty) is probably the most eloquent piece on the ageing hero I have ever seen. I so wish there was a poster of the young Mithun somewhere in the background. That would raise it to a statement on morality and its opposite."
Mithun Chakraborty outside his vanity van
THE 'PARALLEL' PLAYERS
Despite its titular ode to the 'life of the Bollywood actor', Living the Dream pays due respect to parallel cinema and theatre. Voices such as Naseeruddin Shah, Deepti Naval and Shabana Azmi reflect on the more meditative, more philosophical aspect of performance. While on one hand, Shabana Azmi talks about the importance of proper training while reminiscing about her early days in theatre, Deepti Naval emphasises the need for empathy in order to become a better actor. Peppered in between these anecdotes is a commentary on how Bollywood goes about conducting the business of cinema. Naseeruddin Shah, for instance, talks about the randomness of how awards are given away. "All these awards are deadly dull and rigged anyway. I have, in fact, on several occasions been told, in so many words, 'You will win if you turn up, and if you don't, you won't. We will gladly give it to somebody else who cares to turn up.' It's absolutely insane. And people actually go and accept these stupid things and act honoured and cry. They are jokers as far as I am concerned." Not oblivious to the fact that he himself has been a recipient of several of these awards, Shah adds, "In the beginning of my career, I was deluged with awards for my first three or four movies. And then I realised, in hindsight, it was only because the entire press machinery was backing these artistic movies. You see, there is this magazine, which had this editor, who was supportive of art cinema. That was the only reason I won all those awards because there were people lobbying for me. Ever since I started blasting these awards in print, I stopped receiving anything."
Naseeruddin and Ratna Pathak Shah
Western media tends to be myopic about the Indian film industry, often thinking of it as cinema where "actors break into song and dance". As a 'foreigner', Bennington was keen on ensuring his artistic lens was not marred by stereotypes. "But it's not just up to me; the reader plays a big role too. Writing about the book, somebody asked why was I showing rickshaws. But that's also Bombay. You may want to show some people in their living room, but you would also like to see some people on the street. So, my quest to show the city can be viewed as a 'westerner's view'. When you go looking for the human story, you won't be able to stereotype."
Struggling actor Kanan Chakor waits for an audition outside a busy casting office in Versova, Mumbai
Bennington is right. Living the Dream is not a westerner's guide to the Indian film industry. Rather, it is a peek into a dream where the audacity of hope competes with the power of ambition.