When I called Hari* to know about how it is to be a junior actor, he asked me to come to a tea stall in Saligaramam.
“I told you to come to this tea stall so you can meet a lot of people like me. Hope you don’t mind,” he said. “Absolutely not, so how is your day?” I asked.
“Well, I have been kicked out of my room as I didn’t pay the rent. For a couple of days, my friend has told me to stay in his room, and after that I don’t know what I am going to do...” he laughs.
"Aren’t you working now?" I asked. "Yes, but I don’t make enough to pay my bills and on top of that, cinemakaranuku yaaru veedu kudukuranga?" he said.
Hari is one among scores of people, who come to Chennai to satisfy their celluloid dreams. Cinema is not their passion; it is their lifestyle and livelihood. Chennai is not just a city, as they fondly call, it’s their ‘Thaiboomi’.
Tea and togetherness
The 24-year-old actor then starts to introduce his friends who converge at tea stalls to discuss audition schedules and details for the upcoming film projects in Tamil cinema. For many years, the tea stall has been a meeting spot for aspiring actors to talk about auditions, revive contacts and discuss life.
While talking about auditions and roles, the actors utter one name in unison- ‘Address’ Karthikeyan. An aspiring actor himself, Karthikeyan wanted to do the service of letting others know who is conducting the screen test, for what role and where. “He maintains a list of the audition and its address details. We go to him to know what we want to know,” one of the actors says.
Like Karthikeyan, there are many people, who wish to help numerous people grab an opportunity in Tamil cinema. A leading public relations officer in the industry helps aspiring actors, especially ladies by uploading their photos on his Facebook account and sharing it with top directors.
“This is like helping mutually,” says Velu, interrupting my conservation with the other actors. “Jealousy and competition of who will first become actor won’t lead anywhere as we are all looking for a launch pad. We believe in the saying ‘together we grow’,” Velu says lighting his cigarette.
The actors continue to say, apart from auditions and acting classes, they take out several social activities like cleaning beaches and planting trees. “This Thaiboomi has changed the life of many actors like Sivaji Ganeshan and Manorama. This is just a small way to return the love she has given us,” says Hari.
The audition is the D-day. Everyone wants to showcase the best in them. Usually only the assistant directors are present at the audition, but sometimes if the actors are lucky, the directors and the top brass are also present. Velu says, “From old Sivaji’s Parashakti scene to the latest Aruvi’s monologue, we perform everything that we know. Our aim is to make a long-lasting impression."
The actors say, even if they are selected at the audition, there is no guarantee that they will be called for the role they auditioned for. “I was selected for the role of villain. But, after coming to the shooting spot, they made me stand in the atmosphere (background),” one of the actors says.
“For women, the search for auditions is even more difficult as many look for safety, parents’ approval and travel time,” a female assistant director says. Though many aspiring female actors weren’t willing to talk on the record, I managed to speak to some, who on conditions of anonymity, said, “Even for character-oriented roles, they (director/assistant directors and producers) expect us to do glamorous performances. For instance, if I am called for an audition for the role of a girl who comes as a reporter for a scene, why should I dance to an item number,” a girl asks, narrating her audition experience that happened recently.
Call to mind
Looking back at the path crossed, an actor, who is now in the limelight, says, “Things were much difficult 30 years back as there were no cell phones. I used to literally go stand in front of every production company in Kodambakkam and ask for a chance. All I heard from them were, “Konja naalula sollurom. Ippo po (We will let you know in some days, Now go).”
The actor continues to say, gone are the days, when one waits in the lobbies of production companies and where the director lives to be spotted. Casting is now an organized sector, he says.
Hari says in this digital age, the information is still spreading through word-of-mouth as many actors haven’t updated themselves with the technology. Sadly, due to the lack of exposure to the large network and poverty, many are not spotted by the casting director.
“There are a lot of websites these days, where one can upload photos of the actors and mention their contact details. Though some have uploaded their pictures, many fail to update them regularly. So, it’s difficult for us to pick one,” an assistant director says.
Do or keep trying
For these wannabe actors, making it big is the only option as no one wants to face humiliation and mockery from family and relatives.
“I have left my family in Krishnagiri. My wife has stopped talking to me as I refused to quit trying. If there are no auditions, I make a living by painting and cleaning houses and bathrooms. Many actors who roam around the studios of Kodambakkam have miserable stories,” Gokul*, an aspiring actor says, looking at the poster of a famous star smiling down at the adjoining theatre.
These people far from stardom and red carpets are willing to wait as long as it takes. Kumar*, started hunting for roles at the age of 22. Now he is 30. “I hope I become an established actor by the time I am 35, else as promised to my father, I will go for some other job and make acting as a side profession," he says thinking about his bleak future.
*name changed on request
Written by - Sarada Sri