Roshan Taneja at his acting school in New Alipore. Picture: Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya
What’s common to the CVs of Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Aamir Khan, Ranbir Kapoor, Rani Mukerji....? A stint at the Roshan Taneja School of Acting. “Who said you cannot train actors? They are like rough diamonds, you have to polish them,” said acting guru who has been doing just that for 49 years. On Monday afternoon, the 71-year-old spoke to t2 at his acting school in New Alipore which turns a year old next month.
What is the one actor-like quality that you look for when someone comes to your school?
I know it instinctively. Danny Denzongpa walked in for an audition a long time back in Calcutta to enrol in my school. I looked at him and said he has it! Instinct is very essential in acting. Mithun Chakraborty came to Bombay for an audition. He was good, he auditioned well, he had it in him. I asked him why he didn’t come to Calcutta? He whispered in my ears ‘I’m a Naxalite, so I came here’. We rejected him; I said we don’t want a Naxalite in our hostel! He was despondent and he found out my neighbour in Bombay and through him he came to see me again. He started crying saying ‘Sir, mera kya hoga?’ I said you are good but you are a Naxalite.... Mithun Chakraborty is like that, you can tell him anything and he doesn’t take offence! I told him come next year and you will be taken...
Is it a given that whoever enrols in your school will get a ticket to Bollywood?
Not necessarily. You have to work for it. I don’t guarantee anybody a job. No, no, no. I am here to train. I will see to it that you are ready to operate before the camera. That I can guarantee, but I cannot guarantee you a job.
How did your journey begin?
My journey? (Laughs) I was interested in acting in college itself and used to act in plays. I wanted to be an actor. (Smiles) I finished college and enrolled for a Masters degree in economics because my father wanted that. I had evening classes so I had a lot of time for myself. I met a few people from the industry to give me a chance in acting, but I was rejected because I wasn’t tall enough! So I thought I should add some extra qualifications. In those days there was no acting institute, not even National School of Drama. So I went to the American Embassy, shortlisted some schools in America and sent them letters saying that I want to train as an actor. One of the best method acting schools in New York, Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, responded and gave me a scholarship. I trained under the legendary American guru of acting, the late Sanford Meisner. After completing my course he asked me, ‘what are you going to do back home?’ I said ‘act, what else?’ He told me ‘why don’t you become a teacher?’ I said ‘I don’t want to be a teacher’.... But destiny wanted me to be a teacher. I came back to Bombay. I struggled for five years, did a few cameos in Mahesh Kaul’s films like Pyar Ki Pyasi, Miya Biwi Razi, Sautela Bhai with Guru Dutt for Rs 100 a month. Then in 1963, Film and Television Institute of India was born, the principal came to Mr Kaul for suggestions about the acting course... and I got the job as a teacher in the acting department. That’s how I became a teacher.
Do you really believe that acting can be taught?
When I was a teacher in FTII, people used to say Dilip Kumar ko kisne acting sikhaya? Ashok Kumar ko kisne sikhaya, yeh acting sikhane chaley hain, bade aaye acting sikhane wale.... Actors are born, you cannot make them! I said they are born, dancers are born, artistes are born but they have to grow, they have to develop their talent. They have to have a guru to guide them. They are like rough diamonds, you have to polish them. In those days my students used to be very disappointed. Wherever they went people made fun saying that arrey yeh toh seekhke aaye hain acting, people used to pooh-pooh them.... Poor guys like Asrani, Subhash Ghai, who were my students from the first batch, were disappointed. See where Subhash Ghai is today! Asrani too did so well for himself.
But not many actors believe in training or workshopping...
When Ashok Kumar sent his daughter Pali to my school, he told me he was educated and intelligent so he would see himself on screen to find faults. It took him 10 years to understand where he was going right or wrong! See, training lays the foundation and you don’t have to wait for 10 years to know. You know the basics and on that foundation you go on building. In my school the foundation is laid and you are taught the nuances of acting. See, the director doesn’t have the time to teach you. That’s why training is necessary.
Naseeruddin Shah was also my student. He joined me after doing five years of NSD. After that he came to me for two years. He is one of a kind. I called him to my office and said ‘you are good, I’ve seen your play, now you’ve come here you will have to forget about the last five years of your training. If you have to learn from me you have to start from scratch’! And he did it, giving his 500 per cent. He started as if he had not done anything before... Om Puri too was my student.
Have you ever selected people randomly from the crowd and groomed them?
You talk like how it happens in Hollywood! There a director might go to a drugstore and spot a woman and ask her to join acting! That doesn’t happen here. We have auditions. Rehana Sultan was my student from the second batch. She was the first to get a National award for Dastak. Then Jaya (Bachchan) made it. After Jaya made it big with Guddi, we used to get so many applications from girls. We would go around the country, from Bombay, Delhi Calcutta and Madras. I would come every year to Calcutta for auditions. We would do screen tests, re-watch them in FTII Pune with a star guest from Bombay and select only 10 boys and 10 girls. It was that difficult.
How do you differentiate a star from an actor in your school?
We don’t make stars, people make stars! Popularity makes you a star, we make actors. I mean, we groom actors. We don’t promise anybody that he or she will become a star. No. That is up to you. You know all these people who became stars, I could never say that they would become a star. They were good actors, hardworking, dedicated. Depends on what kind of films you get, what kind of roles... And it sometimes happens that a film may not work but if you are good you will be seen, you will be noticed.
What is the process? How do you develop actors?
Through exercises and riyaaz. We have a lot of exercises like improvisation, imagination and others which students need to follow. They have to develop their emotional range. Performing arts is all about exercise.
What is your message for aspiring actors?
Come here only if you have patience, otherwise don’t venture into it. It’s not an easy thing.
Some of his best boys and girls
I knew he will make it big. I didn’t know how big. I was sure he had it in him. Ranbir is an emotional actor, a feeling actor. Those who are feeling actors are real actors. Only when you feel a character will the audience believe you are that character. That is what method acting is all about. You feel yourself first fully and believe in it. Then you can convey that to the audience.
Sonam is a little more intellectual kind. (Laughs) She has not been lucky with breaks, chances. But she has promise, maybe she will make it better someday. She has done some roles but hasn’t got a break like Ranbir. Luck plays a great part in this line. But if you are good you may not become a big star but you will go a long way.
Can you imagine the kind of roles she has done? She is very talented. In Black, she was better than Amitabh Bachchan!
He is a very intense, dedicated and sincere actor. He is most serious about his work, that’s why he is one of the top actors today. In every role, he really works hard. He is fantastic. The spark was always there. He enrolled in my school before Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and from then to now he has developed so much. He’s the most hardworking student I’ve ever had.
He is my favourite actor. His first film Mrigaya won him the National award. But after that he did a Disco Dancer (laughs). That was the mistake he made. He had more potential than do disco dance! He could have done better. He should have waited after Mrigaya for such films to come his way. But he is going onů
He is very intelligent. He knows what he should do and what he shouldn’t. Mithun doesn’t. He gets carried away by anything. That’s the difference.