Twenty-one years ago, Krishna Bansal made his way from a small town in Punjab to the throbbing streets of Mumbai. For the previous decade, he had been slogging in the local theatre scene, and he was convinced that he was ready for the big time. And indeed, it took him just three days to land his first role, a bit part in a soap opera. Bollywood glory, he was sure, was just around the corner.
Today, Bansal, 49, has appeared in 225 films and more than 300 "serials," as the tearjerker soaps are known. He has acted in scenes with Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan, some of the biggest names of Bollywood. But his longest stretch of dialogue was about five sentences; again and again he has been cast as a hapless police officer, a dopey clerk or an eccentric Hindu holy man. Twenty-one years in, he is still waiting for his big break.
"Too much talented, too much struggle," is how he summarizes his plight in his excitable English.
Nevertheless, Bansal wakes each morning and checks his cellphone for text messages from other actors reporting on auditions or shoots, then he heads into the streets of Lokhandwala. This neighbourhood in the north of Mumbai is the nerve centre of the film industry, home to studios, animators, costume shops and casting offices. And thousands of actors – not the big stars, who live in south Mumbai with a view of the sea. Lokhandwala is home to actors such as Bansal who play Angry Villager and Second Police Constable and Wedding Aunty in the countless movies and TV serials that are made in this city each year.
Bansal and his wife live in a windowless room five feet wide by 10 feet deep; a cement slab is the "kitchen," with a toilet and shower pipe at the back. There is barely room for the mattress that is their only piece of furniture. Their room lies in a stinking tunnel-like lane off an alley, and the sense of crowd, in the identical rooms stacked above and below and alongside, is crushing.
In every lane and every alley in this neighbourhood, there are actors such as Bansal, stepping into the street with hair slicked and carrying glossy postcards of their face and phone numbers, looking for the shoot where a director will finally realize their potential.
Ramesh Goyal, 57, came to Mumbai from Agra in the northern province of Uttar Pradesh in 1973, and got his first part as an extra five days later. He has had roles in 150 films, including at least one hit with Amir Khan (Sarfarosh) in which he played a police inspector. In fact, he plays a lot of police inspectors; they're the bane of his existence.
"I've been typecast – they only want to give me the inspector role, or servant, or gardener, or goonda [a hired thug]," he says. "I can't get a big role. I'm trying my level best. I'm seeking out producers and telling them I can do a better role, but they are not convinced. I have given it 39 years and I have failed to convince them. I want to be Male Villain – Full Villain, Major Villain – but I am not getting. I can do it! I am deserving."
Goyal has a regal bearing, a bristly salt-and-pepper mustache and a booming voice; he wears a rope of wooden beads over his tweedy Nehru vests, which gives him that artistic look. He offers his best villain face; it's not terribly persuasive. He does, however, make a very good police inspector. "I have given 39 valuable years," he says wistfully, before hastening to add, "But I am still very fresh!" He heads to auditions each day still convinced his big break awaits him.
"I know only acting, nothing else," he says. (This is not strictly true: Others in the community reveal that Goyal keeps himself in middle-class comfort in an airy flat on the edge of Lokhandwala by dealing in real estate, but he does not like to discuss such crass material pursuits.) "I want to be an actor, that's all. I want to die on the set."
Half a mile down the road from Goyal's flat is a huge gleaming box called the Infiniti Mall; its supermarket, shoe stores and cinemas target middle-class denizens of the neighbourhood. But the benches in its atrium and most of the seats in its food court are occupied all day long by Bollywood hopefuls who come and sit in the hope of getting discovered. Everyone in the neighbourhood knows someone, it seems, who was spotted by a casting agent buying groceries, or who got talking to a director in the coffee line and sold him a script.
Kareila Krishav, for example, comes to the mall each morning. He says he began in the business at 17 and over the past 40 years has had minor roles in about 2,000 films. Typically, he says, he plays Member of Public Passing; in his longest-ever onscreen appearance, seven years ago, he played Villager and was on screen in seven separate scenes. He says he earns $400 a month and rarely has to audition: "Directors know me, I'm the guy who fits in, so they call me directly."
In marked contrast to the would-be stars on the benches around him, Krishav insists he has deliberately eschewed the fame that might come with a bigger role. "I have a more free life being a small star – no big star could sit at this table and enjoy a chat, their lives are restricted. But I earn enough to support my family and I am not restricted."
These days when he goes to Infiniti he is accompanied by his neighbour Hafezullah Khan. He wears a white fur fez, a tunic studded with rhinestones and silver jewellery around his neck and wrists and fingers. His nose is so dramatically crooked it crosses his face at a 45-degree angle. Not long ago he took a break from his usual job – running a small fleet of auto-rickshaws – to accompany Krishav on a shoot, and he was instantly enamoured with the lights and cameras. Now he has decided, at 77, to break into showbiz, certain his unique personal style will catch the eye of a director at the mall.
"Why not? It's not a bad life," Krishav says. His bedizened friend nods silently.
Few struggling actors share the men's equanimity, however. Young women who come here to break into movies often find the lines between acting, modelling and the sex trade are fluid; female extras who don't get bigger roles usually leave the business in a year or two, and the roles for Angry Female Villagers are played by a handful of regulars.
Bansal's years at the margin of the industry have given him a theory about his lack of success. "The people who are big in the industry now are riding on their father's name, uncle's name. I am no-name," he says. "Established actors come from rich backgrounds. If a poor person who is a better actor comes along, they put pressure on the director to cut his role out – it's criminal."
He has kept himself alive washing dishes in hotels, vending biscuits in kiosks and working as a nail-clipper salesman. When things got really bad, he did a Charlie Chaplin-esque shtick on the sides of busy roads, living on the small rupee notes that motorists tossed him.
In his last acting gig, a one-day shoot a few weeks ago, he played a Hindu priest in a soap opera. He'll be paid about $70 for it, in three months' time.
"Everyone around me gave up and left, they thought it was enough," he says. "I'm still here, struggling for my acting career. Because I know, I believe, that I am extremely talented."