“After this book nobody will give me a film role”

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Rahul Bajaj: An inside view of Bollywood

From a student at London School of Economics to an investment banker on Wall Street, and a Bollywood actor in Mumbai; Rahul Bajaj is a man of many talents. After achieving success as a leading television actor in India, Bajaj can now add the avatar of writer to his resumé, with the recent launch of his first book ‘Bollywood Roulette: Inside the Struggle!’. Over coffee and dhokla at his South Delhi home, Bajaj reflects on struggling actors in the cut-throat world of Hindi film, as well as why the ‘Baadshah’ of Bollywood is his ‘brother’. After publishing such an exposé, the author speculates that nobody in the industry will now offer him a role. Yet, an elated Rahul appears buoyed by news from his publisher, that his debut is already a national bestseller.

Firstly, ‘Bollywood Roulette’. An interesting title. How did it come about?

‘Bollywood Roulette’ was my title of choice as soon as I had finished writing the climax of the novel. At various points, the editors came up with names they thought would be more commercially viable. But I always felt ‘Bollywood Roulette’ captured the true essence of my novel and stuck by it. I think outsiders who come to Bollywood to ‘struggle’ are playing a dangerous game of roulette, and that thought is not foremost in their minds when they begin their pursuits. I wanted that thought, that sense of danger, to be up front. Of course, the game of roulette also features in the narrative, so it made sense in more ways than one.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing the novel?

The editing. I had about 500 pages to begin with and had to whittle it down to about 300 pages. Cutting out 200 pages was very painful! My publishers were very conscious about keeping the novel marketable, and therefore that imposed certain restrictions. The challenge was to shorten the novel without missing out on any of the key messages.

Have you now ‘officially retired’ from Bollywood?

I think I will never go back to being a professional actor in television/film. I made a conscious choice to give that up. Also, I think after this book nobody will give me a role even if I changed my mind! I do think I will remain connected to the arts in the broad sense of the term. I am not sure what shape that will take. I have many dear friends who are still on the ‘inside’ so I guess I will remain connected to Bollywood through them at least.

Are the characters in the book based on real ‘strugglers’ within the industry?

They are very accurate representations of ‘strugglers’ I have known, but with an important caveat. The caveat is that, again, there may not be a one-to-one correspondence between each character and a real person, but rather the characters are amalgamations. My aim has been to capture the entire spectrum of people that I’ve seen in the ‘struggler’ category. For that, I have taken the liberty to create characters that are collages, but those collages have very real elements. Each of these characters represents reality.

You have spent time in the US and the UK, do you perceive Bollywood to have made it outside of India?

I think Bollywood is an integral part of the life of South Asians in the diaspora abroad. They cling on to it with the same fervour as they do to religion or cricket or desi food. It‚s part of their cultural identity. The overseas market for Bollywood films is driven mostly by the diaspora and it is now pretty substantial. I think for the non-desi audience, Bollywood is just another thing they associate with India – a novelty – like the Taj Mahal or snake charmers. I don‚t think Bollywood has really “crossed over” into the mainstream in any real or substantial way. There is complete awareness about Bollywood today even in non-desi circles, but again, it is not much beyond awareness and it certainly does not amount to regular consumption as say Hollywood products are consumed. So yes, the world is aware of Bollywood and curious too.

 

It would seem that an increasing number of actors from overseas are becoming a part of HiFi. What is your perception of goras in Hindi film?

I think the situation is similar to Indian actors in Hollywood. Just like Indian actors in mainstream Hollywood movies are limited to the role of cab drivers or the occasional computer engineer or immigrant, similarly, goras in mainstream Bollywood are usually limited to the English saahib of period films or the arms supplier/mafiaman villain who gets beaten up by the desi hero at the end. I have not seen any goras running around trees mouthing songs or dancing like Govinda! I guess art reflects the segregated nature of our cultures.

Your book is something of an exposé of the dark underbelly of Bollywood: the casting couch, underworld links, political deals, filmi family dominance. How much of this is based on your experiences within the industry?

The phenomena represented in the book are very much based on my firsthand experiences in Bollywood and those of other close friends and colleagues who have experienced the ‘struggle’. The specific incidents, characters, etc. as characterised in the narrative are fictitious or used in a fictitious manner; but the underlying phenomena they are representing and portraying are very, very real.

You trained with celebrated theatre director, and teacher of SRK, Coventry’s Barry John. In your book the drama school ‘guru’ figure plays an important role in your story. To what extent do you credit Barry John with your success as an actor?

The fictional character of “Guruji” in BR is very much inspired by the teachings of Barry John. I am deeply indebted to Barry John. He took me under his wings at a time when I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted my life to take. He is a real master of the art of acting and I agree with SRK that Barry John is the best acting teacher in the world. Incidentally, it was Barry John who encouraged me to write. I remember we were doing character studies, and I had gone to a sabzi mandi in Delhi to study a character- it was after reading my character study that Barry John almost forced me to consider taking up writing. He also said something which I hold very dearly: ‘be artists in the broad sense of the term.’ I am trying that.

Your career path begins in a similar way to Shah Rukh Khan. Both from Delhi. Share the same acting teacher. Started out in television. How is it that one participant of ‘Bollywood Roulette’ trades acting for writing, to then publish a book on the industry; whilst the other seduces Indian Cinema to become ‘The King of Bollywood’?

In a gurukul sense, SRK and I are brothers we share the same guru, or theatrical father Barry John. Beyond that similar beginning I don‚t think I‚m even a patch on SRK! Sure I’ve done a few TV serials and I‚m from Delhi too, but I have no illusions that we‚re even in the same stadium of comparison! SRK is a superstar. I‚m still a kid who‚s trying to find his feet. I think he did what came naturally to him and I‚m doing what comes naturally to me. There has to be no one path. As Barry John would say, ‘be artists in the broad sense of the term.’ We both are.

You mentioned 26/7. Indeed, the climax of the story is set against the historical backdrop of the 26th July Mumbai floods. Were you personally affected by this event?

I was in Mumbai on 26/7. I was lucky; I got back home before the flooding got out of hand. But yes, I did have to wade through knee-deep waters and remember the two-day power blackout that followed and rationing my food and water in my flat. My most distinct memory of that day is that I remember reading in the papers the day before 26/7 how plans had been drawn up to transform Mumbai into Shanghai and after 26/7 thinking that Venice would have been a more appropriate model. Many of my friends were stranded away from home that night and had to spend the night in whatever shelter they could find. Psychologically, I think 26/7 was a very important event for everyone in Mumbai. Something snapped that day.

What next for the multi-talented Investment Banker/Actor/Writer that is Rahul Bajaj?

Right now I’m just basking in the warmth that ‘Bollywood Roulette: Inside the Struggle!’ is generating. I‚m very grateful to my readers for the love and affection with which they have received Bollywood Roulette. It gives me immense satisfaction when somebody tells me ‘after reading your book, I look at Bollywood and Bollywood products in a very different light. I wonder what those poor souls are actually going through.’ Knowing that people are getting a glimpse of the real Bollywood is very gratifying. Let‚s see what catches my  fancy next!

 

Bollywood Roulette: Inside the Struggle!’ (Indialog) by Rahul Bajaj
http://www.bollywoodroulette.com/


Steven Baker is a UK writer who divides his time between London, Delhi, and Mumbai. Best known for his writing on the Hindi film industry, his work regularly appears in a range of Indian, NRI, and international publications. Steven Baker is presently the Co-ordinator of the British Council’s Creative Writing course in New Delhi. He has also appeared in 15 Bollywood films.

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