The new dream merchants

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By As the entertainment industry booms, a clutch of new acting schools is getting ready to teach newcomers the ropes. Sushmita Biswas reports
  • Published 2.04.05
(From top): Anupam Kher at his school, Actor Prepares ; Meghna Ghai poses in front of the Subhash Ghai venture, Whistling Woods; Satabdi Roy takes aspiring actors through the paces at the Satabdi Roy Foundation; Kishore Namit Kapoor with students at Acting Lab

Is there a substitute for the casting couch if you want to become a Bollywood star? Filmmaker Subhash Ghai firmly believes there is and he?s acting on his beliefs. In a few months, Ghai will throw open Whistling Woods, the country?s biggest and most ambitious acting school spread out over 20 sprawling acres in Mumbai?s Filmcity. The school will teach its students everything from editing on hi-tech machines to the old-fashioned art of facing the cameras and it will even have a hostel attached. Says Ghai, ?I felt that a school with the latest state-of-the-art infrastructure and international standards would help youngsters who want to study the art.?

Actor Anupam Kher also believes it?s possible to stay off the casting couch if you?ve got the right skills and talent to match. Kher has put his high-profile role at the censor board behind him and is now focusing on his two-month-old acting school, Actor Prepares. The school currently operates from a bungalow in Andheri, Mumbai, and aims to teach students everything from radio to yoga, voice control and acting in front of a live audience. Says Kher, ?India has the world?s biggest entertainment industry. A huge pool of artistic talent is required, not only in films but also in related performing arts like theatre and television.?

As television booms and the movie industry churns out a steady stream of potboilers and made-for-multiplex movies, some Bollywood veterans have figured that it?s time to get into the training game. Each day, the trains and planes into Mumbai disgorge scores of ambitious youngsters with stars in their eyes, who are hoping to make it big in the fickle world of entertainment. Many are blissfully ignorant of how the industry works and what they need to know. Says Kher, ?Our task is to identify, train and groom raw talent into a breed of disciplined actors for the next generation.?

Ghai and Kher aren?t the only ones who?ve hit upon the need for training in a disorganised industry. In Calcutta, there?s the Satabdi Roy Foundation opened by actress Satabdi Roy who opened her school recently at Ranikuthi. Roy reckons that the revival of the Bengal film industry combined with the growing television industry will lead to an increased demand for young actors in the city. Also in the city is the three-year-old Kheyali Arindam Acting Workshop owned by actor-couple Kheyali Dastidar and Arindam Mukherjee, which has been moving swiftly since it opened in 2001 and now has branches in Manicktala, Lake Gardens and Behala.

Teaching prospective actors isn?t anything new of course. In Mumbai, for instance, there?s the 25-year-old Acting Lab run by veteran actor Kishore Namit Kapoor. Kapoor runs a much sought-after course and some of his students have gone on to become Bollywood?s best-known faces. Stars such as Hrithik Roshan, Vivek Oberoi and Kareena Kapoor have all learnt the ropes of acting from this school and many more hopefuls have queued up to follow in their footsteps. Says Kapoor, who invested his own money in the school when he started out, ?Acting is a performing art and cannot be taught. But given the competitive age where there is a need for fresh talent in both cinema and television, you need to be armed with sound knowledge before joining this line.?

But the new wave of industry stars-turned-acting coaches have grand ambitions for the future. Ghai?s new school, for instance, will be organised on the lines of a management school and will run intensive two-year (84-week) programmes and shorter workshops for industry professionals. In addition, there will be short courses aimed at lay persons in subjects like aesthetics, film and music appreciation, photography and a selection of other non-technical subjects. These workshops will begin from October 2005 onwards.

The school will have everything from landscaped gardens and cafeterias to air-conditioned classrooms. Then there?ll be a library stocking the latest books on the industry and a CD collection of music and sound effects. Private viewing facilities and listening stations will be available so that students may watch the latest releases. Besides this, there will be three computer centres.

But the Ghais ? Subhash and daughter Meghna, who will be in charge of the school?s business side ? also reckon that the school?s location will be a huge advantage for the students. Says Meghna, ?The greatest advantage is its location which is inside Filmcity. Students can see for themselves the various film shoots and gain hands-on experience from it.?

Obviously, Ghai isn?t depending wholly on technology and fancy infrastructure. He has been careful to put together a panel of film personalities as members of the faculty which reads like an industry Who?s Who. There will be leading lights like Shyam Benegal, Karan Johar, Om Puri, Shah Rukh Khan and Shabana Azmi. Also, there are others like choreographer Saroj Khan, dance maestro Shiamak Davar, music director A R Rahman and art director Sharmishtha Roy to name just a few.

Kher is operating at a more modest level, and he will offer two modules that will be taught during a three-month course. It won?t be all about facing the camera and there will also be workshops on radio drama, comedy and how to handle musical scenes. The course will cost about Rs 1.20 lakh. About 20 students will be taken on for each course and they will be chosen by Kher.

The fees are one area where Mumbai?s acting schools differ radically from their counterparts in Calcutta. Ghai is planning to charge a stiff Rs 5 lakh for the two-year course and even the shorter workshops will cost about Rs 4.5 lakh. About 20 students will be taken on for each two-year course and about 12 others in each specialisation.

However, Meghna insists that students won?t find it all that tough to pay. ?Though the cost is slightly steep, we will ensure that students can go for bank loans. We?re also looking into the residential facilities so that anybody coming here can be put up in the hostel adjoining the area,? she says.

At an entirely different level, the Calcutta acting schools are keeping fees at extremely low levels. Roy will take on 25 students a batch for her six-month courses that cost Rs 2,000 per month. She has also roped in industry stalwarts like actors Soumitra Chattopadhyay, Arun Bandopadhyay and Bishnu Pal Chowdhury to teach the students the finer points of how the industry works.

Similarly, the Kheyali Arindam school offers a six-month course costing Rs 6,000 and a 15-day workshop priced at Rs 6,500. Again, they take on about 20 students for each course and they are taught by guest lecturers like actors Sabyasachi Chakraborty, Kushal Chakraborty and Debraj Roy. Also, there?s director Animesh Halder along with Kheyali and Arindam themselves.

Roy insists that the youngsters who want to join the Bengali film industry need training much more than the worldly-wise hopefuls heading for Mumbai. Says Roy, ?Actors who want to join the Bengali film industry have no knowledge of the technicalities involved in the process of film-making. They just land up with stars in their eyes. Therefore, I felt that if they have a first-hand knowledge about various aspects of cinema, they will not feel like the proverbial fish out of water.?

Keep in mind that entertainment covers a lot of things these days. In Calcutta, for instance, the Kheyali Arindam Workshop even offers training on news-reading and anchoring where it focuses mainly on pronunciation. Says Shampa Sen, who is in charge of the school, ?There is a complete package that covers every aspect of acting starting from voice modulation to dialogue delivery.?

So what basically are the prospects of students passing out from these acting schools? Kheyali Dastidar insists that even though her institute is only three-years-old, it has already turned out students who have achieved fame and fortune. Says Kheyali, ?Many of them have made a name for themselves in the visual media. Tapasya Sengupta, a child artiste, has worked in a Buddhadeb Dasgupta film. Other than that, many of them are acting in television serials on various channels.?

What does a student get after finishing one of these courses? They will walk out from the course with a certificate to show that they have undergone the training process and know the basics of how the industry works. Ghai will be giving out a diploma for students who successfully complete the course.

Will one of these students go on to become the next Shah Rukh, Aishwarya Rai or Hrithik Roshan? That?s something that a certificate can?t ensure and which nobody can predict ? not even the industry experts running these schools. As everyone knows, in the film and television industries, there are never any guarantees about getting a job in front of the camera.

Other acting schools in India

• National School of Drama, Delhi

• Film and Television Institute of India, Pune

• Asian Academy of Film and Television, Noida

• Star Talash, Mumbai

• Ashok Kumar Academy of Dramatic Arts, Mumbai

• Actors Studio, Mumbai

• Asha Chandra Institute, Mumbai

Photographs by Gajanan Dudhalkar and Rashbehari Das