Behind Bollywood's happy ever afters

26 October 2019 / Karim Raslan

Thirty-year-old Tanya Purohit looks like a leading lady: slim, beautiful and fair-skinned. But what makes her special is her intelligence, warmth and wry, comedienne-like wit.

Having started out on a Delhi-based TV shopping channel as a promoter and then moving on to a Mumbai sports network, the Uttarakhand-born beauty is working her way ever deeper into Bollywood’s huge M&E (media and entertainment) industry.

Andheri, the low-lying, beach-fronting suburb close to Mumbai’s Santa Cruz airport is arguably its epicentre.

Amongst a phalanx of high-rise apartment blocks interspersed with 1960s bungalows now converted into casting agencies, production houses, alternative performance spaces and cafes, the industry’s professionals jostle for work, contacts and advancement.

But, in multilingual India, there are also other entertainment hubs; including most notably “Tollywood” and “Kollywood” – the Telugu and Tamil-language movie industries based in Hyderabad and Chennai respectively.

Film is huge. It is also a global industry and possibly India’s most successful export. For example, the 2016 Hindi-language wrestling blockbuster “Dangal” (starring Aamir Khan) earned over USD216 million outside India alone.

TV has also mushroomed with over 900 channels and growing. Moreover, in recent years, streaming services have taken off.

Netflix’s “Sacred Games” (now in its second season) was made with a record-breaking USD14 million budget – the largest-ever foreign investment in an Indian production. Indeed, it is estimated that two out of three viewers of the series were from outside the country.

India’s 570 million internet users are a very attractive prize. A recent Boston Consulting Group (BCG) report noted that the OTT industry in India is expected grow at 27%, reaching an unbelievable USD5 billion market size by 2023. According to KPMG, India’s entire M&E industry should reach USD23 billion in revenue in FY2019.

And behind the mind-blowing numbers, the glitz and glamour, are people like Tanya. They are the tiny cogs that keep the industry running. And she’s now spending more time acting – her first love.

However, her TV background means that, unlike those hoping to break into film, she at least has a regular source of income. This, coupled with her rigorous work ethic means that she’s been able to balance small-screen commitments with a web series, “Project Tank Man” as well as a minor role in the third instalment of the “Commando” franchise.

Besides auditioning for future roles, Tanya now works for a Bollywood TV channel, conducting interviews and reporting on the latest industry news. She also helps students at the National School of Drama devise and structure plays. On the side, Tanya still freelances with her sports station, presenting analysis on everything from cricket to professional wrestling.

 

And behind the mind-blowing numbers, the glitz and glamour, are people like Tanya. They are the tiny cogs that keep the industry running. And she’s now spending more time acting – her first love.

Still, making it in the movies is the ultimate prize and, in that sense, looking good is non-negotiable. Tanya laughs as she explains: “The boys have to have six-packs – they can only eat protein, chicken and egg-whites! And we (the women) have to act alongside them, so we must be trim as well.”

“Otherwise, someone will always come along and snatch it away from you. I know I’m good at my job, but I can’t let it slip through my fingers just because someone looks better than me.”

So hectic is her schedule that she often only manages to exercise very late at night, jogging around Andheri’s buzzing street-life at 1:00 A.M.

She adds: “Mumbai isn’t Delhi. It’s so safe.” It also helps that her husband Deepak, a news anchor, is very supportive of her ambitions.

Still, being in the Bollywood scene has also made her realise how cutthroat show-business really is. Indeed, the life of an actress in Mumbai is a tough one, especially managing one’s finances.

A third of Tanya’s salary goes to her rent. She must also pay for her own makeup and clothes to wear on-camera: she can ill-afford to repeat her outfits.

However, Bollywood has evolved beyond the clichéd dramatic cutaways and lavish musical numbers. Recently, the politically charged “Article 15” captured the attention of the population. In a country where caste and religion spark fierce debate (and even violence), the fact that these topics continue to make it to the silver screen—which is supposed to be the ultimate form of escapism—speaks volumes.

Having said that, Bollywood is NOT Hollywood. Unlike its North American equivalent, Mumbai’s film industry and its stars operate very much within Delhi’s orbit. The increasingly autocratic Narendra Modi is a powerful presence.

Even streaming services may not be immune from the conservative milieu. For instance, scenes from “Sacred Games” have faced complaints by the ruling BJP party due to their allegedly being insulting to the Sikh community.

Still, as the industry continues to grow—so do the people who hope to make it big there.

Tanya says that, on average, at least 100 people audition for a specific part in any given movie. Generally, she has a 25% call-back rate.

For the tens of thousands of would-be Shah Rukh Khans and Aishwarya Rais, talent and good looks are the bare minimum—and even that isn’t enough most of the time.

According to Tanya, it all boils down to luck and frankly, whether your physical features match the role advertised.

But with a determination like Tanya’s, one feels that she has every chance at a “Bollywood ending.”