The space has a funny name- Aram Nagar. You could translate it to Pleasure Town, which adds an interesting layer of sarcasm to Aram Nagar’s established identity as the film and ad casting industry’s HQ. It is not an easy space to navigate – almost like a crater in the middle of Versova in Andheri, Aram Nagar is dotted with small,
one-room studios and offices (often piled on top of each other, with winding rickety staircases leading you to the cramped upper storeys), open floor cottages and row houses, decorated with hipster knick-knacks like dream catchers and terracotta wind chimes, graffiti and assorted mosaic fish bowls, each trying very hard to exude a we- don’t-take-ourselves-too- seriously vibe. The offices have no dress codes, people eat take out on beanbags and work into the wee hours of the night – they are the freelancers, the independent movie makers,
the executive producers with dreams of changing the film industry – and most importantly, casting agents
who audition hundreds of aspiring, dreamy-eyed actors every day. The roads are potholed and clawed
into by years of rain and zero maintenance, and through narrow alleyways– there is no street lighting– you try to find the studio that the production house is auditioning actors at, or, like many, you stroll about, knocking on every door, asking the one who opens – “Main fit hota hoon kya?” (Do I fit the role you are casting for?) Aram
Nagar is a depressing and intimidating space if you are an aspiring actor who has given up everything back
home to chase a dream without a back up career option.

But for the last couple of years, there has been a shift in the identity. It is an interesting case of demand and supply – Struggling actors and performers tend to gravitate towards and reside in Andheri West because all the studios and production house offices are based out of the suburb. Andheri west is known for its cheap fashion, expensive gyms and pubs-and-coffee-shops-you-should-be-seen-at-to-meet-the-right-people. So, when a large number of people, craving for visibility and a platform, come together in one space, it was natural progression for them to create opportunities for themselves. Aram Nagar slowly started becoming the hub for alternate performance spaces that opened their doors to theatre, music and art enthusiasts, and soon enough, audiences.

Bombay’s art culture has a unique problem – quality of performances is judged by the stages they are put up at. People do not look out for actors, performers or theatre companies but rather check listings at specific stages like the NCPA and Prithvi Theatre, because, it is believed that these stages host the best of productions (not true). The NCPA’s rentals and Prithvi’s long waitlist (and selective screening system) leave many performers
in the city hungry for a platform. And even when platforms are created, it takes a lot of time to build awareness for the space, attract an audience and create enthusiasm and interest about “what’s happening next?” over there. While NCPA and Prithvi still remains the altars of performing arts in the city, a bunch of new spaces in Aram Nagar – most importantly Studio Tamaasha and Harkat Studios, have been able to create alternate
destinations for artists and art lovers. While Harkat and Tamaasha have successfully created a loyal audience
for themselves and are quite well-known in theatre circuits, smaller spaces have also mushroomed in the last two years, creating opportunities for actors and producers alike. There’s Shakuntalam Studios and OverAct for theatre and live music performances, Dill Studios and Nautanki for open mics, poetry readings and amateur film screenings and Castiko, a new watering hole-cum-workspace-cum- performance space. From theatre to poetry recitals, film screenings to live music, audiences are also getting to enjoy and explore art forms at a much more relaxed and informal setting – with the quality intact but minus the stuffiness of south Bombay.

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“Aram Nagar is one of the few places in Bombay where there are no high-rises. There’s greenery and peace and quiet – like a bubble within the bubble of Andheri.” We talk to Mika Talwar of Harkat Studios about why Aram Nagar was her and her husband, film-maker Karan Talwar’s choice to set up their art space. Harkat is an open
floor studio with a living room quality, perfect for intimate theatre, live gigs and film screenings. “It’s also ridiculous that there is no culture of art in north Bombay while all the artists live in Versova and Yari Road.” says Mika. “They live around this area but there is no space for them to perform or even watch something. So, we really wanted to bring culture into the neighbourhood. We started two years ago and now there’s an entire wave of new spaces because it showed that what we were doing was filling a gap and so other spaces also came up with various kinds of programming and all of them are doing well.” And what were the challenges that they faced with setting up Harkat? “You know that if you run an alternative performance space you won’t make money with it and you just try to make ends meet. And, as there is no funding in this country for art, the dream is to make it sustainable. Also, Karan and I are artists, but we curate all kinds of art forms, so, for us it’s a learning process in terms of what each art form requires.”

The most interesting move was that of Sunil Shanbag’s. One of the most important figures in Indian theatre today, Shanbag has been known for his large-scale, big-cast productions, till a little over a year ago, he established Studio Tamaasha – a state-of-the-art performance space equipped with a light and sound room, green rooms, brilliant acoustics and a lovely courtyard to socialise at over tea, lemonade or sangria. From debuting new productions to hosting interesting performances by artists from around the country (folk music nights, Kudiyattam performances and work-in-progress showcases by veterans like Astad Deboo), Studio
Tamaasha boasts of a stellar curation. But what are the challenges they face while trying to sustain it? “It’s  very hard, yaar.” Shanbag says. “It is expensive in Bombay to rent a space. It has been almost a year now, and the fact is that we cannot attain that degree of sustainability. So we try to convince people to support the space
financially because they believe in the idea, and they believe something like this is important.” And what
about the audiences? Given the housefulls he is used to, has he noticed a prejudice against alternate spaces?
“You know, watching theatre, watching cinema, is a habit. So after a while, you don’t think too much, you
just land up at Prithvi for a play. It takes a while to make people change their habits. So I think over a period
of time, people will come around to a space like this. It takes at least three years for a space to establish itself.
Also, a Prithvi or a NCPA largely attract a theatre- going audience. We get a wider variety of people who are not necessarily a regular theatre-going audience. People seek this place out simply because it has a variety of things. Many of the people who come here are probably seeing a play for the first time. I think that the fact it is a small space, it is intimate, it has a sense of adventure, make people come. It has a wider audience – not in numbers, but in variety.”

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The newest kid on the block is Shiv Tandan’s Castiko. What started off as an app to connect casting directors and talent, soon expanded into a co-working, rehearsal and performance space this year. Castiko wants to become a watering hole for artists, on the lines of what Prithvi used to be, before it became a full-fledged commercial restaurant. “The way we are looking at this is, as long as this is a sustainable space, even if it’s not a profitable venture, we’re good.” Says Shiv. “But we want it to become a community space by itself. So, we have a membership for artists, people become members at a very low cost, and it allows them to use this as their own co-working space. We are calling it a maker’s space for performing artists. There are a lot of artists who are proactive and need the space. They need a studio to shoot things in, a beautiful shed with its own character to make stuff in or put up a performance…We tell them that this should be your second home, you should come to the Castiko space and create. That has been the pitch right from the start.”

What Aram Nagar is spearheading is a healthy approach towards creating and appreciating art. Other
than the spaces mentioned in the story, there are a bunch of alternate spaces which are regularly exploring and hosting various art forms and are hungry for an understanding audience. And by the looks of the full houses they mostly enjoy, it seems like audiences are loving them too.

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