This is a story of hope. Of dreams. And of a city that was just till earlier this year, synonymous with making them come true. On celluloid, on stage, in laughter-filled clubs, and bars that doubled up as performance venues, dotting the city's many neighbourhoods. And yet, there looms despair.
The pandemic has hit artists, actors, writers and performers all over the world, hard. Unlike many of us, it isn’t just their routines, but their livelihoods that have been disrupted. Even in normal circumstances, pursuing a creative calling can be a difficult choice to make. The talent is rarely ever rewarded with good money, opportunities are limited, the supply is a lot higher than the demand, and support from the government or other agencies is negligible. While the city of Mumbai seductively beckons those married to their creativity and offers them the kind of opportunities that few other Indian cities can match, it demands in its wake sacrifices in the form of crushing rents and living costs. Now, as the pandemic stretches on, these artists who had dragged their bags to the city in need of a canvas for their dreams, have no choice but to head back home.
“This was supposed to be my year,” says 23-year-old actor Anmol Oberoi, over a phone call from his hometown Chennai. It was Oberoi’s passion for theatre that first led him to Mumbai two years ago to sign up in a programme at the Drama School Mumbai. He completed the course in 2019 and spent the next six months auditioning for shoots and learning the ropes of professional theatre with different troupes in the city. He was almost certain that his big break was right around the corner.
However, his last show as an actor, at G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture, and with theatre critic and writer-director Vikram Phukan's “Even Mists have Silver Linings”, was called off mid-run, due to the lockdown. Following a week spent in an empty house while his three flatmates (all actors) returned to their hometowns, Oberoi decided to leave too. “But I was convinced it was going to take a few weeks and I'd return,” he says. “I even left vegetables in the refrigerator.”
Is this the end of the Bombay dream for him and others grappling with similar circumstances and costs?
For Oberoi, this is a triggering question and he takes a few moments to gather himself. “I don't have dreams of becoming a star. I want to be a working actor only. I want to live in that city. That's enough for me,” he says, almost apologetic.
Oberoi left the city in March, but continues to retain a room in his shared Andheri apartment. “Our landlord was considerate and did not want us to leave. He has agreed to charge us a smaller amount once we are back in the city.”
Exorbitant home rentals (a shared room could cost an average of Rs 10,000 per month in suburban hubs like Andheri, Versova and Bandra), markedly higher than other Indian cities, and even international ones like Shanghai, are high on the list of reasons that have forced artists to give up accommodation in the absence of regular work.
Madhuri Adwani, a storyteller, arrived in Mumbai (from Vadodara, a city in the Western state of Gujarat) in March 2019, armed with a production job at IVM Podcasts. In a short time, she had her own show, Tapri Tales, of stories in Hindi told from a female gaze. She knew it was only Mumbai where her dreams of making a living off stories, could come true.
She quit her job before the lockdown in March 2020 to go back to her hometown for a break, at the end of the first season of Tapri Tales, and hoped to return as a full-time performer. But the dream wasn’t meant to be and Adwani returned to Mumbai in August only to clear out her belongings from a rented Goregaon East apartment. “I never thought I'd have to leave this way and my Bombay dream would be crushed so soon,” she says, adding that her departure was an emotional one. With no possibility of returning to a physical stage any time soon, Adwani now tells stories on her YouTube channel and produces podcasts for a Delhi-based organisation. The capital city of Delhi is also where she will relocate once things get better.
Ashish Choudhary, a reality-show contestant-turned actor, director and singer, has had two stints in Mumbai spanning the larger part of this decade. But once the lockdown began, his projects lined up for the year were postponed, work had collapsed altogether and three months in, he decided it was time to give up his Lokhandwala apartment. “While something about this city makes me come back every time, this time I have decided not to. Unless, I am offered a big project,” he says firmly.
The art of leaving
Every year, droves of aspiring (often struggling) actors make their way to the city to work in films, theatre and television, thronging the studios lining the lanes of Aram Nagar and becoming an inextricable part of the Mumbai landscape. It's an archetype that finds mention in popular culture and cinema itself, and despite the clichés, one that rings true in these conversations.
Priti Shroff who belongs to Kolkata and has returned there temporarily, quit a well-paying corporate job for a life in theatre and film in Mumbai. Over time, not only did she find her feet in these industries, but she also fell in love with the maddening city. “It isn't just about being available for auditions but it is where I am at my creative best. I feel like I am a part of something bigger,” she says. When her father was diagnosed with cancer in February 2019, Shroff decided to shuttle between the two cities. “I would fly for any work that paid for flights. Last year, I flew to Mumbai 20 times.”
And yet, the unprecedented lockdown has ensured Shroff hasn’t had an opportunity to return to Mumbai since March. Film and web series projects that she was to be a part of in May, June and July were indefinitely postponed. “I've had no income from Mumbai since the lockdown began,” she says. Shroff retains her rented apartment in Versova with a rebate from the landlord but will likely only return when work picks up in earnest.
Musician Subid Khan of The Many Roots Ensemble (a Mumbai-based jazz collective) also left early this month to be with his elderly parents in Kolkata. “Rents and bills in Bombay are quite high and it isn't something that can be dismissed. I live in Andheri and pay a good chunk of my earning on rent. In addition, my landlord was unrelenting,” he says over a phone call while still packing up, to drop off his belongings at a friend’s place. “Also, it made sense to go live with my parents and help them out for now and return in 2021.” Live acts were Khan’s mainstay, playing the guitar for bands including his own. But Khan believes performances aren't returning for a long time. His plans of spending his 30th birthday playing a jazz gig at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) never saw the light of day. Instead, he spent the day alone, locked down in his apartment, in what was then being dubbed the epicentre of the pandemic in India.
In the interim though, Khan has taken to teaching music online for Gino Banks’ music school and volunteering with Artists for Artists, an emergency response service providing grocery kits to vulnerable artists, by performer Prince Mulla, in the absence of state support for artists. “I offered to man their helpline and was struck by the number of calls coming in every hour,” he says. “From Marathi theatre actors to dhol players and technicians, the city has a huge underbelly of artists who work for Bollywood and its allied industries. They've all been left to fend for themselves at this time.”
While some out-of-work artists have volunteered for COVID relief, some others have used the time to diversify and pick up new skills. Oberoi has taken to working out while other actors are devoting time to learning classical music and martial arts. Earlier, Choudhary spent three months working on a feature script in a bid to counter the negative atmosphere with an outburst of productivity. In some cases, rehearsals and performances online are keeping artists busy though these aren't as lucrative as live performances.
No end in sight
Stand-up comedian Anny Thakkar’s story could well be the quintessential Mumbai fairytale (charming yet replete with struggle). From a career in advertising to comedy, to now juggling content, it has all the elements, with the city in its backdrop. It’s in Mumbai that she discovered and honed her many talents and came face-to-face with her role model, popular comedian Prashasti Singh. Her office was in the vicinity of several comedy clubs and she had found herself the perfect little Andheri apartment, a fortnight before the lockdown began. “I could finally afford a single room,” she says. Everything was falling into place.
But in August, she drove down to Mumbai from her hometown Ahmedabad to collect her belongings and vacate the house. “I didn't mind paying the rent but it had stopped making sense. Our landlord wasn't reducing it either,” she says.
For another actor, Sarthak Kakar, the journey back home to Gurgaon was a long and painful one. “We [his flatmates included] couldn't afford to pay rent for two months and I was evicted during the lockdown,” says the theatre actor whose work and hence income have totally dried up. “It took permissions from the police to have help come into my society, an eight kilometre-long walk to have photocopies that needed to be submitted at the local police station, before I could book myself a flight back. But the flight got cancelled and since I didn’t have a place to stay, I took the first train back. Over the last few days in the house, I lived only on bread and butter.”
A glimmer of hope
And yet, Kakar wants to return. In fact, he is already in the process of finding his way back to the city. “I am collecting pending payments and giving auditions in the hope to secure enough funds to return to Mumbai,” he says.
As many put it, Mumbai is non-negotiable. Khan says in agreement, “The Bombay dream is far from over. It may, however, have come to a bit of pause.”
Sayalee Meshram, a theatre actor, now based in Nagpur, also left her Mumbai apartment early in the lockdown with her belongings stored away in an art godown for a nominal rent of Rs 2,000 per month. She has over time seen her actor friends explore other avenues of making money and on occasion, returning to a family business. “I believe there will be a reduction in the number of people who land up in Mumbai each year to try their hand at acting,” she says, further elucidating the impact of these times on her ilk. "I want to come back but I don't know when that will happen. I know I won't be able to afford a rent of more than Rs 6,000 and will probably find accommodation in the not-so-upscale Versova village.”
It's hard to tell whether it is the city’s much-talked-about resilience that rubs off on the dreamers that arrive here or if it is their living, breathing dreams that it is made up of in the first place. Whatever the case may be, most artists long to return, as quietly as they left, and find their place in the expansive fabric of the city of dreams. Like we said before, this is a story of hope.
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