An outcast named desire

You notice a famous film director at a hotel coffee shop. He is talking to his assistants. A few giggly models surround him. They laugh when he laughs. Everyone knows he is the main man, the key to unlock many futures. He is shooting in your locality. You wish you weren’t in your ordinary office attire. You want to ditch your oversized bag. You don’t look like a performer, which could just work in your favour. You walk up to his table. He has seen many like you; he looks wary of your pleading demeanour. You need to do something different. You need to be fearless, not competent. Years later, this director will recall proudly how he ‘discovered’ you today.

The article will be a classic rags-to-riches fairytale. Readers will see stars in their eyes, like the ones you saw when you watched Delhi boy Vikram Jaisingh (Farhan Akhtar) get ‘lucky by chance’ in Zoya Akhtar’s first (and finest) film. Maybe your senior, Shah Rukh Khan, will give you valuable advice too. And right there, besides the pool, in a five-star hotel you have never been able to afford a meal at, you begin to dance. You scream. You beat your chest. And then recite. And you show him that no matter who mocks you, you will do what it takes. Stage fright, what? The world is your stage. If he dismisses you as a nut, you feel bad. But he will remember you. You go back to work. You sit in a cubicle. You go home, you re-enact that scene in your mirror. The next day, you go back again. To someone else. And again. To anyone who has the power to help you. You do everything but act . You become everyone but yourself. Your life becomes your only performance.

A regular day for an aspiring actor, this desperate scene also belongs to Satyam Dabbu’s (who co-wrote Gattu ) 2016 Hindi film, Bollywood Diaries . It is dedicated to tinsel-town strugglers. ‘Struggler’ is a peculiar term to bestow upon people who’ve done anything but struggle to follow their heart. Perhaps we struggle to understand this clarity. But Rohit (Salim Diwan), who inhabits the multi-narrative as one of three disparate threads about unfulfilled dreams, is a true struggler.

Unlike the other two in the film — a retiring Bhilai-based government servant (Ashish Vidyarthi) unable to suppress his acting ambitions any longer, and a Kolkata-based sex worker (Raima Sen) who latches onto Bombay clients with naïve hope — Rohit’s is a more conventional outsider story. But he hasn’t been brave enough to risk everything yet. He hasn’t even reached Lokhandwala’s gyms or Aaram Nagar’s ubiquitous hole-in-the-wall audition studios.

He has interpreted this longing from a distance. A call centre executive who lives with his middle-class parents in a Delhi colony, Rohit is a millennial dreamer. He subscribes to an era where nationwide talent hunts provide a clearer road to stardom than the old-fashioned days of spending nights on station platforms. He takes the old phrase ‘blood, sweat and tears’ literally. If he were an athlete trying to impress a coach, his endurance would be lauded. But he is an artist running the wrong race. In his first onstage audition, he breaks a beer bottle over his head while enacting a scene. In his next, he whips himself to the verge of tears, shocking the country into TRP-fuelled frenzy. At one point, he even slits his wrists. If love were his muse, he’d be Kundan (Dhanush, in Raanjhana ), the all-consuming martyr of his own device.

All along, he forgets the one thing nobody else does: he is an awful actor. His hunger is entertaining, not compelling. He becomes an overnight cult sensation on the lines of American Idol ’s William Hung, the court jester reality shows crave for. Even when he excitedly high-fives ‘fans’, you sense that they’re laughing at him and not with him. Everyone seems to be in on it, like an entire population finding their Bharat Bhushan (Vinay Pathak, in Bheja Fry ). He is a walking tragedy; his mediocrity is the actual show.

One is usually cynical when the father of the newcomer is also the film’s producer. But with one look at (Rajasthani businessman) Salim Diwan’s fiery kohl-lined eyes, you wonder: is this just a bad actor being a bad actor, or is this a performer unlearning his own craft to play a bad actor? Perhaps he is using his film as an extended audition video for real Bollywood bigwigs. It’s impossible to tell. It’s not necessary to tell. When the judges decide to eliminate Rohit after another self-flagellation episode (because he has ‘served his purpose’), he stands motionless on stage trying to decipher their criticism. They chose him for this; why are they righteously telling him that passion isn’t enough now? Why fly him till space and then drop him without a parachute?

This still remains the most heartbreaking scene in cinema this year. You can feel, and hear, something snap. A song called Mann ka Mirga plays over his disillusioned phase; Vipin Patwa’s folk-ish score is ominous, its chorus (“ Mann ka mirga, dhoond raha, kastoori kahan hai ?”) an impending funeral march, and its bridge (sung by Javed Basheer) a beguiling call to depression. It’s, both, fiercely private and embarrassingly public; you don’t want to look at his plight, but the voyeur in you is spellbound.

As an unprepared witness at the scene of a gory road accident, one’s first instinct is to help the victims escape death. But how to witness, and stop, this death of heart and faith? Rohit’s crippling is foreboding, yet poetic to the thousands who deserve his place on merit. It is a picture of the worst kind of rejection, one that this film’s director seems to be uncomfortably familiar with.

When we crossed paths recently, I congratulated him for his uncompromising vision. I urged him to be proud; his film was as much a word of caution as a searing tribute to ill-fated obsession. And when he spoke, I heard a bit of Rohit in his voice. I heard a bit of Abhimanyu (Arjun Mathur, in Luck By Chance ), the stage actor bereft of mainstream opportunities.

And I heard the meandering tone of a fervent, but slighted, artist. His film, one that thrives on a desire to be seen, had exited theatres after its first weekend. Barely anyone had watched Bollywood Diaries , much less appreciate its moments. Often, even being good isn’t good enough; a burden Rohit had the fortune of not carrying. Here was a filmmaker who had made his own break, only to face a different wall, a higher rejection. Imagine scaling an insurmountable peak only to realise nobody is watching. As I left, I couldn’t quite tell if he was the director at the five-star café that day or the impassioned actor craving for a nod.

The writer is a freelance film critic, writer and habitual solo traveller