“We Are Doing Television Only For The Money” – Confessions of TV Actors
A very close friend of mine recently got an acting role in a Hindi TV show. Generally, when struggling actor friends get roles, even if in a teensy commercial, it is news for celebration. In this instance, he didn’t share the news with the gang. He slipped it in, unexcitedly, during the wee hours of one drunken Saturday night. We didn’t cheer him, either.
Actors don’t aspire to television in this country. It is of course foolhardy to compare Indian TV shows with what America and Britain is doing, but one can only imagine how pathetic an option television must be if struggling actors look at it as the last resort. Many established TV actors who might be borderline indispensible, thanks to their diehard fan following, have come out and spoken to the press time and again about how “regressive” TV content has become. But one must note that these are actors who have passed their prime, are pally with producers and channels and who can demand better pay. For the majority of actors who play scores of husbands-wives-papaji-saasuma-mummyji-buaji-parjayiji-beti-behen-dewar-sauten, TV means zero creativity or scope for acting, very long hours and frustrating work environments – all for the sake of money. I am not demeaning the need or importance of money, but the fact that you can allow your intelligence and sensibilities be absolutely bludgeoned to death, every single day, for money, seems a tad far-fetched.
Anandi, Champa and Phooli in the show Balika Vadhu
“See, there is always that hope that something worthwhile will come along,” says Ankit Gupta (name changed). Ankit is presently the second lead in a popular Balaji Telefilms primetime show. “You get frustrated after giving auditions every day, yet not getting any offers. Your finances start drying up. Mumbai is an expensive city and is not kind to struggling actors at all. Rents are high, as are gym memberships. As actors, we have to always eat well and work out constantly. I am not even mentioning protein supplements and other additions. We are also expected to look good and dress presentably. Looking good requires a lot of money.” Ankit’s story is similar to Pooja’s.
Pooja Chauhan (name changed) has been working in TV shows as second leads and supporting characters for a while now. It is the pressure to earn money and sustain herself in the industry that keeps her going. “Of course I want to do films. Who doesn’t? But it is not like I have offers piling up at my doorstep. There is absolutely no reason for anyone to do television. I started off by being the lead actor’s sister, then the show took a leap and I was playing a 45-year-old mother of three. I was killed off in one show, brought in as the incarnation of a Goddess in another, and now I play an evil sister-in-law who is perpetually scheming for the lead actress to fail or die. Who wants to do this day in and day out?” So, what brought them into television in the first place? “I used to be a model,” says Apurv Jain (name changed), another TV actor, “I was auditioning daily for ads and films, but nothing worked for a long time. Then a TV role came along and I got selected. No one is looking for acting experience in television. You just have to look the part and have chemistry with your co-actor.” Ankit and Pooja have similar stories. Pooja had done a couple of ads and then TV came along and she just took it up. “I didn’t know anyone from the industry, so no one warned me about the pitfalls. The working hours are long and strenuous. The dialogues keep changing all the time, and you have one or two takes, tops, to finish a scene. Everyone just wants to pack the episodes up as fast as possible.” Ankit agrees. “All the acting happens on the editing and special effects table,” he comments, smiling ruefully.
All the actors I talked to unanimously agreed that TV content is “regressive”. The word is a practiced, go-to one to describe the kind of scripts and concepts on air currently. Indian television is given to umbrella trends that every channel and production house jumps on to if one show seems to work out. While saas-bahu kitchen politics ruled the idiot box in the 2000s (thanks to Ekta Kapoor and her ability to cash in on dated stereotypes, social tradition and the middle-class obsession for rituals and festivals), from 2010 onwards, there was a shift of focus. The vegetarian Gujarati and Marwari households were replaced by Rajasthani zamindar families, and social issues dealing with women’s rights, female infanticide, child marriage, abortion and education became the order of the day. Led by shows like Uttaran and Balika Vadhu, every channel moved from rich business families to folksy rural milieus. While the content might be progress-oriented and much needed for the majority of the country, the treatment remained melodramatic and OTT, hence distancing younger and urban audiences.
A while back, we were riding high on the mythological wave. While the Indian audience always had a soft spot for its myths and epics (generally restricted to Sunday mornings), after the success of Devon Ka Dev Mahadev, every network started shows on whichever God they could lay their hands on. Mythological shows moved on to period dramas like Suryaputra Karn. But all trends are not healthy or necessary. These days, every show has supernatural elements — humans transforming into animals, vampires, witches, banshees, dark spirits, convoluted mythological characters, werewolves and whatever else you can possibly imagine. One of the highest rated shows, Sasural Simar Ka, had the female lead turn into a housefly to get revenge. In one episode, the fly was even shot with a rifle, only to be saved by her husband (thankfully still in human form) at the last moment. He actually took a bullet to his heart to save his fly-wife.
Stills from Kavach
It is also interesting to note that the matriarch on Sasural Simar Ka is played by Jayati Bhatia, a stage actor who features in the Indian cast of Vagina Monologues — one of the most important examples of modern feminist literature. She must be getting paid well enough by the show to completely abandon the progressive ideologies she champions so bravely on stage. Another show, Naagin, is about a shapeshifting cobra with a heart of gold — that age-old Bollywood favourite. Yet another, Kavach, is about a wife trying to save her husband from “evil spirits”. Interestingly, Kavach stars Mona Singh, the actress who debuted in Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahi, the Sony show that came in as a breath of fresh air in 2003 and gave Ekta Kapoor sleepless nights because of its sudden popularity. Sadly, while Singh’s debut was path breaking, she still had to adhere to the industry’s “regressiveness” to stay afloat. Her co-star from Jassi, Gaurav Gera, decided to stay away from the silliness and become a drag star instead. Tough choices.
“These days, the kind of roles I get are like, you are an inspector now, but you were a nag devta in your previous life, or you are a businessman now but you are also a vampire,” Says Eijaz Khan. I decide to catch up with some of the older TV actors who are being selective these days, and also attempting to make it big in films. One such actor is the hugely popular Khan, one of the original K-serial actors, who has also had a few tepidly-received film releases. Personally, I think Eijaz is quite a nuanced actor, and it is great to see that he has not given in to the industry. He has been very selective on TV, choosing interesting projects like Bhaskar Bharti (which unfortunately didn’t do well) and cameos in better shows like the recent Lata-Asha inspired Meri Aawaz Hi Pehchaan Hai.
“Television requires what I call ‘executive acting”, he says. If you try to start delving into the character or start asking questions about the character beyond what is there in the script, you are termed an ‘interfering actor’. You get a maximum of two takes, and after that they will make do with what they have. They will make the camera act, or the music act — you just have to execute the lines. The directors are also ‘executive directors’. There is no direction involved. In my early days, I would come back to Balaji House at 3-4 AM to see how the editing works and understand why certain shots of actors work and the others don’t. That is how I slowly learned. Then I got burned out, man.”
That is the story for quite a few of the actors on television, who just could not take it any more. On the other hand, Karan Tacker feels television is the best schooling in acting possible. “A lot of people discredit that fact,” he says. “I personally feel it makes an actor more prepared technically. An actor is going through 7 or 8 scenes daily with varied emotions and narratives. So, that helps a lot in the long run. But having said that, television is like fast food — it’s instant, it’s yummy and you forget the taste as soon as you have liked it. Yes, as an actor, at times I feel we end up becoming mechanical, but, well, that’s the medium.”
But what is the root cause of this “regressiveness” that everybody keeps talking about? “Whom do you think we are catering to?”, asks Eijaz. “We are making our TV shows for some aunty sitting in Mathura, chopping vegetables. Woh kitchen mein jaake chhaunk deke aayegi and she still has to understand what’s going on. That is the target audience.” Karan Wahi agrees. “When I started off with Remix, there were a bunch of cool shows around, like Sarabhai vs Sarabhai. Unfortunately, TV has regressed today. I think the channels and producers tried making something urban, but at the end of the day, we have to realise this is a business. The TRPs dictate the kind of the shows that will be produced. Having said that, every Indian household does not have a TRP meter. The way we rate our shows in India is different from the US or UK. In a country with our population, if you take just 10,000 households and tell me that this is the number one show and this show is not working, I wouldn’t accept that. So, I just hope we get better as a medium. However, I am not expecting a F.R.I.E.N.D.S. or Entourage or a How I Met Your Mother, because that is not the audience we cater to.”
Karan Tacker says the same thing. “You can’t blame the makers. If that’s what the audience enjoys watching, if I were a maker, I’d cater to the need. But yes, I’d also like to see channels and producers come together to feed a small but constant diet of modern content to the audience, because I believe entertainment is educational, and the audience of India needs to grow.”
What I have always wondered is, what are Indian TV actors watching on TV? “Game of Thrones, Narcos and Scandal!” Pooja says, excitedly. “I love F.R.I.E.N.D.S.,” says Tacker. “I grew up watching it and I still love the repeats. I also follow Entourage, Narcos, American Crime Story and Ballers.” And which was the last Hindi show they watched? “Sarabhai, I think,” Ankit says. “I didn’t follow anything after that.”