Mumbai’s Andheri West neighbourhood attracts single young women keen to find a foothold in the celluloid city. But this city is not an easy one to call home.
Text by Nayantara Nayar
Photos by Saurabh Kumar
It is 7 pm when I walk into the Starbucks at Infinity Mall in Andheri West. The place is packed but I have an inside man who points me to an empty table in the corner. It has the perfect vantage point as it overlooks the entire café. Undoubtedly, this must be the preferred spot for casting directors on the lookout for the next new face. Or perhaps, this is where the actors perch themselves trying to tell the producers from the rabble. My own goal isn’t very different – I am there to test out a theory: ‘Go to any coffee shop in Andheri after six and every other woman you see there is a struggling actor trying to make it in Bollywood.’
“Andheri became the central point of the production houses only in the 1990s,” says Ajay Punjabi, a real-estate broker with Regal Estates, located in Lokhandwala Complex. “Before that it was mostly residential.” It still is mostly residential but the difference seems to be the kind of residents moving in. “In a day I get about ten enquiries for homes,” Ajay says, “and I can confidently say that nine of those are from young single women looking for housing in Andheri. They’re usually either in media or want to get into Bollywood.”
The story of the struggling actor/writer/model/singer/director slumming it in Mumbai isn’t very new – the city has been a beacon for starry-eyed youngsters from all across the country for decades, but today with spiralling rent costs and fewer industry openings, how do young women, who put everything on the line and move to Mumbai, manage?
This is the question I ponder as I watch a stylishly dressed young woman, pointed out to me as a struggling model, order her third round of chai-tea latte. Starbucks is not cheap, and surely if one is struggling the sensible thing to do is avoid coffee at Rs 230 a pop?
“You would think so,” says Chandni, a 23-year-old make-up artist who tried life in Mumbai but found it too expensive, “but image is everything with people here.”
“If you want to get into the industry, you have to make contacts. When I was training at Fatmu we’d get models in a lot, and they were always running off to coffee houses and swanky bars just because someone says, ‘Oh all these big shots from this production house hang out here’ or ‘I saw this actor over there’ so they’d have to be there too. Not being seen at those places means you don’t exist,” explains Chandni, who’s now back in hometown Chennai.
Just then my contact gestures to me. “There’s a man who does casting – in a red shirt, sitting by himself,” he whispers furtively as I approach him, “just talk to him.”Bhavya, a struggling actress from Lucknow, demurs, “I think when people say you have to be seen here or seen there they aren’t getting it correctly. Yes, contacts matter but at the end of the day being in a coffee shop will only get you so far. I’m still new to this but I find I make my best contacts by being persistent and approaching the right people repeatedly. That way you also have time for other things.”
“Not everyone can make it here. Eight or nine of the people I talk to on a weekly basis are women from outside Mumbai who want to become stars or big-shot models.”
The man I am pointed towards is Kuresh, and though he won’t tell me exactly what he does, he is quick to say that he isn’t an agent but more a liaison. He knows producers and casting directors in the big companies, and he knows a lot of aspiring actors, writers and the like, so he simply puts them together.
“I don’t conduct auditions,” he says his eyes constantly flitting around the room, “I take peoples’ profiles and portfolios, and if I hear about a role they might be good for, I tell them.” What he gets out of this is unclear but he bypasses that question and tells me instead of how one of the people he helped is now doing television serials. “Not everyone can make it here. Eight or nine of the people I talk to on a weekly basis are women from outside Mumbai who want to become stars or big-shot models.”
These young women arrive in Mumbai every day, some supported by their families and others not. Those who have family support manage to live in relative comfort, if not in luxury but those women that have no support, work several jobs to sustain their dream.
“They’ll struggle for a year or two,” says Kuresh, “but as they stay on it becomes harder. They need to be able to afford things like acting classes, regular photo shoots, dance or speech training. Eventually some just pack up and go home.”
Bhavya, who moved here in June last year, says “I came with my mother so at least I had that, but it took us a long time to find a home in Oshiwara. No one wants to help single women.”
Ronak Makhji, working at Landmark Real Estate Agents, agrees, “Only you can’t really blame the people who are in the societies. When women are by themselves they have parties or have men over and drink and smoke – the buildings they are living in have young children, so it isn’t nice. I think mostly they come here because it offers so much more freedom than their homes, and then they lose direction.”
The fact that young single women find it the hardest to get flats is something that no one I speak to denies. To most people it seems a foregone conclusion. “With things like call girl centres being run out of apartments in respectable areas, what do you expect? The societies here are very strong and they don’t want that kind of thing to ruin the neighbourhood,” says Ajay.
Chandni, however, finds that unfair, “It took me some time to find a place and even then people were really suspicious of me, being a young single woman in the film industry, but honestly I was just there to do my work and get out. Most of us don’t have time for anything else. Even the people who come home late and wear these so called ‘indecent clothes’ have to, it is part of the job to be on call all through the day and to present yourself a certain way.”
Andheri and places nearby like Versova and Oshiwara are very attractive to young women because these areas are considered safer. “I can wear what I want here and walk around at 12 in the night too,” says Mithali, a 20-year-old college student and aspiring actress living in Andheri. “I don’t know if that’s true of everywhere in the city.”
However rising prices are pushing strugglers further and further out towards parts of the city that aren’t as safe or easy to navigate. But the call of the silver screen is too strong to let this matter, “I’m here to become an actress,” says Bhavya, “and I knew it was going to be hard. Honestly Mumbai is a good place for us, because even though it rains a lot, the people here are nicer.”
Even as space in the city grows more expensive, young women and men stream in, hoping to get a break in the film industry which is one of the largest and most successful employers of young people. But the industry is also deceptively misleading. “There are a lot of fake auditions,” admits Bhavya, “with people just trying to rope in young girls and get their information to take advantage of their ignorance. You have to know how to tell the difference and only being here and experiencing this will show you how to really survive here.”
(All photographs are for representational purposes only)