Director: K.D. Satyam

Cast: Ashish Vidyarthi, Salim Diwan, Raima Sen, Vineet Kumar Singh, Karuna Pandey

Half a lifetime ago, I was once part of an assistant team auditioning actors for a Hindi film. Instead of feeling power-drunk at the prospect of rejecting actors twice my size, I felt horrible. There was a pit in my stomach every time an aspirant was noticeably desperate. They even performed while being escorted away, pleading for another chance – much like Rohit (debutant Salim Diwan, in ‘Bollywood Diaries’) when he confronts a famous director at a 5-star hotel. For many, like the director’s giggling starlets, this is unnerving and funny. But it’s also the most interactive everyday form of tragedy – or as Yash Chopra’s voice in ‘Darr’ echoed, the result of “When uncontrollable worship/love becomes a junoon (insanity)…”

‘Bollywood Diaries’ is about three unrelated, seemingly ordinary Indians who blur these lines. It’s not about the typically buffed-up starry-eyed Lokhandwala strugglers. Instead, it tells the story of people who weren’t quite brave enough to abandon everything and reach the lanes of Lokhandwala – average folks who let average life happen while they were busy making other plans. As one of them explains pointedly to his wife at the dinner table, “Middle-class existence demands a certain set of rules and sacrifices.”

Rohit is a call-center executive in Delhi, Vishnu (Ashish Vidyarthi) is a middle-aged government servant aching to pursue his suppressed acting ambitions in Bhilai, and Imli (Raima Sen) is a prostitute in Kolkata whose idol is Sunny Leone (“I have both the talent and – skills,” she winks). For all three, Mumbai is the magic word.
Imli is perpetually in search of Mumbai clients, and hits the jackpot when an assistant director (Vineet Singh; looks the part) visits her while researching his next script. Vishnu has gotten his daughter married, finished all his patriarchal “duties”, and now he wants that one final shot. “You promised me,” he weeps to his disillusioned wife Lata (Karuna Pandey; cries with conviction) one night, like a shattered child not being allowed to watch cartoons after finishing all his homework. Lata, even if she doesn’t say it, recognizes that her husband is perhaps on the verge of losing all balance. She knows that if she sets her husband “free”, he might never really come back. And Rohit, who has been a bathroom actor till now, uses a ‘Talent Hunt’ as a crutch to support his unhealthy, self-flagellating obsession. His conflict lies in the fact that nobody has told him yet that he is, in fact, a terrible actor.

All three are set up for heartbreak, yet director K.D. Satyam (wrote ‘Gattu’) explores their psyche with an unrelenting gaze. Throughout, you can’t shake off a disturbing thought – that they’re one rejection away from suicide. That the bubble will explode in their eyes.
But none of them are inherently that fragile of spirit. It already takes an extraordinary kind of strength and foolishness to even consider being any kind of artiste. They are naïve enough to be exploited by the first agent at VT station, but also naïve enough to keep at it. The illusion of Bollywood and stardom and fame is far removed from the reality of breaking in.

Satyam has technically made three separate films. He abruptly cuts between them, yanking us from one three-act world to another. Each of them attempts to mirror the introductions, euphoric rise and falls. But no one portion is inferior to another. There’s a bit of magic in each: The way Rohit becomes a TRP darling for the reality show judges by going all “Leo” (drawing blood) every performance. Or the way an ailing Vishnu turns to a fraud Baba so that he can be reborn in a superstar household (“Hrithik? Shahrukh?” he asks, “No. They have 2 and 3 kids,” Lata retorts). And the way songs and montages are used to scale narrative peaks and lows; the soaring ‘Manwa Behrupiya’ floods our senses when Imli shoots for her portfolio in a brothel.

It seems mildly poetic that a movie about wannabe stars is bolstered by some unglamorous and impassioned acting. It’s encouraging to see filmmakers finally tap in to the veteran stage presence of Ashish Vidyarthi. After the dozens of one-eyed, chain-wearing villains he has essayed throughout his career, one senses that he – much like Vishnu – is finally being allowed to truly express himself. It isn’t the first time Raima plays a commercial worker on screen, but each time she brings an appropriate mix of sexuality and dewy-eyed-ness to proceedings. The revelation, though, is Salim Diwan. It’s extremely difficult to “act” as a bad actor without coming off as a bumbling caricature. He makes you feel sorry, like watching a colour-blind infant admiring a rainbow. He is loud, conflicted and silent at once, and gives perhaps one of the finest contextual renditions in recent times. Again, the way Satyam uses a final burst of violin-driven background music to punctuate the culmination (or the continuation?) of his journey is exemplary.

When the slightly cheesy final slate, “A tribute to the undying passion of Bollywood aspirants” appears, it seems fairly heartfelt. The film preceding it, by now, has already elicited admiration, respect and fear for such souls. And one hopes ‘Bollywood Diaries’ gets the kind of attention it attempts to lavish on its subjects.

(The film releases on 26th February, 2016 along with ‘Aligarh’, ‘Tere Bin Laden: Dead Or Alive’ and ‘Love Shagun’ in cinema halls)