It’s the beginning of a long day for Rajesh Malhotra*. Clad in distressed jeans and a fitted yellow t-shirt, the over 6-feet-tall actor waits at the reception of a casting agency. He taps his foot impatiently, trying desperately to make eye contact with the person in charge of auditions, a skinny lad with a handycam. Meanwhile, he makes polite conversation with Saqib*, who is seated next to him clutching his mother’s hand. He quickly learns that Saqib recently turned eight, knows four languages, has featured in more commercials than he can count on his tiny fingers, and will soon be on a popular children’s TV show. Blown away by this resume, Malhotra graciously allows the child to audition first.

Finally, Malhotra is summoned. He clears his throat and shuts his eyes for a few seconds, as if going over the lines of an important speech. His face falls when he is made to hold a white board to his chest and instructed to announce cold facts — name, age, acting experience. “That’s it? Won’t you make me act?” he protests, as he takes his place before the camera. Before it begins to roll, he feebly asks, “Can I, at least, mention that I’m a black belt in karate?” His wish is granted. The audition reveals that Malhotra is 27, belongs to Gurgaon, and in 2009 he played a part in Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra’s Delhi 6 . “I acted with Abhishek Bachchan,” he says. “Twice.”

Half an hour later, Malhotra is still loitering. When the camera’s not on him, he has a different story to tell. “I’m actually not 27. I’m much older. This is just for auditions,” he says, with a wink. He left his father’s garment business around seven years ago to be a “star”. It’s been over six months since his last job — a one-day part for a Zee TV serial that is no longer on air. To make ends meet, he trains other aspiring actors in taekwondo and karate at their homes. His martial arts credentials are printed on a white and red visiting card embossed with stick figures of a man striking various karate poses. He distributes these to peers who could do with some guidance in the physique department. “I help them get into character. Sometimes we actors need to build our body to look the part. I also had to do it (build body) for Delhi 6 ,” he says, wistfully.

Currently, Malhotra is active on five WhatsApp groups where hopefuls share updates on auditions and directors looking for fresh faces. There is an audition for a commercial next door but the announcement specifies: ‘Looking for a 16-year-old with a cool, bohemian vibe’. “That is no use for senior actors like me,” he says, scrolling through the long thread of messages.

Almost every day of Malhotra’s life is like this — a never-ending search for work. And he’s not alone. Like him, countless aspiring actors, writers and directors set out each morning to hunt for that one opportunity that can take them from a ‘struggler’ to a star. It won’t be a stretch to say that the entire tribe of ‘strugglers’ dwell in and around the streets of Aram Nagar in Versova, an area in Mumbai’s Andheri West. The dusty bylanes are dotted with over 350 cottages, many of which have been occupied by reputed production houses, casting agencies and photo studios. An old-time real estate agent in the neighbourhood says he witnessed the tranquil residential area transform into a commercial space post 2002. “This place is ideal for creative people, it is quiet and peaceful. Stars come and go and nobody bothers them. Bobby Deol jogs here every morning, Anurag Kashyap is always hanging around, but nobody cares,” says the agent, who doesn’t wish to be named.

Yet, he admits there have been constant complaints from families who aren’t thrilled at losing their neighbourhood to “filmi types”. “Some of them feel that these young actors who come for auditions and dance classes smoke and do drugs outside their homes,” he adds. An upcoming actress who has appeared in a number of acclaimed indie films says brokers have requested her to conceal her professional identity. The owners of the house she’s rented for the last two years believe she’s a school teacher. “When people recognise me from film posters or ads, I tell them this is a hobby I pursue on the side,” she says.

Earlier this year, filmmaker Karan Johar famously described Aram Nagar on a TV show as the place where “those angsty people who make dark, depressing and devastated cinema live”. It was a comment from the poster boy of escapist cinema, who operates out of the cooler Khar area. But he wasn’t way off the mark. Aram Nagar is home to the likes of Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Sudhir Mishra and Anand Gandhi, all of whom started out with independent cinema. Some might have found a foothold in the big league, but their work is still premised on realism and not escapism. Their cinema also raises the hopes of the thousands of ‘strugglers’ who don’t fall into the tall, fair, brawny Johar genre.

Waiting in line

The latest on the block to set up shop here is Mukesh Chhabra. The 34-year-old inaugurated his casting agency about six months ago. The sprawling bungalow includes three studios where Chhabra, a former teacher at National School of Drama, preps actors like Katrina Kaif, Kangana Ranaut and Aditya Roy Kapur for their films. As for the rest, they are free to drop by and give a ‘camera introduction’ — the same process Malhotra was put through. On a slow day, an average of 50 budding actors queue up at Chhabra’s doorstep. On a busy day, which is most days, it can touch 200. Some bring gifts to bribe their way through. “There are times we don’t know how to refuse them. How can you say no to prasad or an idol?” rues an assistant. When Chhabra casts for a particular part, he asks his assistants to dig into their vast reserves and shortlist suitable people. From there, he personally auditions the prospective suitors.

The mob of actors parked outside his office complain that they have been on the database for months, but are yet to hear from him. The wait has paid off for some. Actors like Sushant Singh Rajput, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Huma Qureshi have Chhabra to thank for their big breaks. Chhabra himself is an example of a struggler who ran into good fortune. “I came to the city in 2007 and had the worst time ever. I stayed with nine boys in a flat for over a year. Whatever happened to me should not happen to others,” he says. Before he launched his own agency, Chhabra worked as a casting director in Gangs of Wasseypur , which earned him recognition. He recently also worked on Vishal Bharadwaj’s Haider and Raju Hirani’s PK as the casting director.

But the pressure of juggling the futures of so many aspirants is taking a toll on him. Chhabra can’t remember the last time he had a good night’s sleep or enjoyed a meal at a restaurant. He’s changed his phone number 22 times but people continue to track him down. “I don’t go out. People now recognise me. Wherever I go they come and ask, ‘When are you casting me?’ I don’t hate them but I avoid them because I don’t get any peace,” he says. To further illustrate his woes, he offers a peek into his Facebook messages. “People have offered me ₹10 lakh for a meeting, girls have asked me to give them a break, people pretending to be journalists set up appointments,” he rattles off. This explains why Chhabra’s cabin is strategically positioned at the far corner of his office, allowing him to dodge the hundreds of visitors. As a rule, he doesn’t meet any one personally until the last leg of the auditioning process. But that hasn’t stopped the hopefuls from waiting for him for hours on end. “Only the name of this place is Aram Nagar, there is no aram in it. It is a myth. It is the most dangerous and depressing area of the city because everyone is roaming around with a lot of hopes,” he says.

Real to reel

At times, these stories of desperation make for good cinema. Filmmaker Zoya Akhtar’s Luck by Chance (2009) told the story of a wannabe actor who strikes gold. The soon-to-be-released indie film Sulemani Keeda, directed by Amit Masurkar, presents a witty insight into the life of two out-of-work writers surviving in Aram Nagar, and the bizarre stunts they pull off to sell their movie to a producer. They brazenly rip off scenes from Hollywood films and stalk actors till they cough up phone numbers of their filmmaker friends. “It’s not easy to get work here. There are no advertisements in the job section of the paper. Here, you need to go through references, make a cold call and try to get a job,” says Masurkar, writer and director of Sulemani Keeda.

Masurkar is speaking from experience. In 2002, he left his engineering course mid-way as he wanted to be a filmmaker. He is a Mumbai resident, but was raised in Mahim, which is disconnected from the world of cinema. He then relocated to Andheri West to get closer to the action. In the last 10 years Masurkar has juggled various jobs in film and TV to stay in circulation, but all he wanted to do was make his own film. Three years ago, he realised the ‘system’ would only let him down. So he picked up the camera and began shooting this film, which has now travelled to festivals in Los Angeles, New York, London and Zurich. “This film is based on my experiences and anecdotes heard from friends. It’s an honest representation of this area and this world,” he says. Even the character of Gonzo, a producer who struts around in nothing but a bathrobe is fact not fiction. “A director I went to meet was sitting in his briefs. He’s kind of a known guy,” he says, with a laugh.

It’s almost 9pm and Bru World Café, one of the many coffee joints that dot Aram Nagar, buzzes with film talk. A single glance reveals this is a congregation of strugglers. Masurkar, who knows practically everyone in the room, confirms this. He says the definition of strugglers has evolved over the years. It no longer applies only to people from small towns who have left their homes to enter the industry. A new breed of strugglers — MBAs, engineers and bankers — who have abandoned well-paying corporate jobs for a life of uncertainty, and sometimes penury, have joined them. It’s from this observation that Masurkar chose to title his film Sulemani Keeda , a Mumbaiya slang that literally translates into ‘giant pain in the ass’. “Getting bitten by the filmmaking bug is the worst thing that can ever happen to you. It is an epic bug. If it bites you, you’re done for life,” he says. Thousands at Aram Nagar would agree.

(*Names of all the ‘strugglers’ have been changed, as they hope to make it big one day.)