‘Home’ becomes a very different place when you’re a struggling actor. The rooms, the people who live there, the neighbours — nothing really changes, nobody really changes. But the struggler’s mind paints a dark coat over all of this, and it gets darker with each passing year. For 29-year-old Rajesh, home is now a place he visits only during night. He has no new answers for the same questions the people at home ask: “How did it go? Did you get it? How long are you going to continue doing this?” So he waits until everyone’s asleep to sneak in, “like a thief”, and head straight to bed.
Waking up the next morning is even harder. “Why should you wake up when your daily routine is a choice between getting rejected twice, or thrice?”
Despite the many changes Tamil cinema has undergone, the routine of the aspiring actor remains much the same. Thousands like Rajesh spend their days travelling from one production office to another, distributing their photographs and hoping for that one call-back that will change their lives. But deep down, even Rajesh knows that these photographs seldom reach the film’s director. “I once waited an hour to hand over my portfolio to an office assistant. Later, when I was smoking outside, I saw the cleaner dump a big bag full of photographs into the garbage bin.”
A Fistful of Rupees
Even the most basic portfolio shoot costs upwards of Rs. 8,000. Acting classes and film schools (both legit and ‘fake’), thriving businesses in Chennai’s Kodambakkam-Vadapalani (the film district) area, are expensive too. “Money is constantly at the back of every aspirant’s mind,” says Satheesh T, who moved to Chennai from Kanyakumari four years ago. “Having it or not decides how long you can pursue the dream of acting and even what kind of actor you will become.”
No one really comes to Kodambakkam (The ‘Ko’ in Kollywood comes from this place) to become a junior artiste; it’s a job aspirants invariably end up with when time and money start running out. After a point, even buying clothes and grooming sessions get out of reach. “You need a lot of money to get trained as an actor too,” Satheesh adds, explaining how he balances his acting dreams with a full-time IT job. “But I needed to keep switching jobs every year; people start looking at me differently when they learn I want to become an actor. They see my FB posts promoting the plays I’m acting in and mark me as a guy who just isn’t interested in the job. So when I ask for my shift to be changed or take leave for practice, things start getting really difficult.”
A job, even part-time, becomes important to keep the passion alive. “That’s usually what keeps the family at bay as well,” adds Manikandan, who works three days a week as a Dunzo delivery executive. “Even if your family and friends are supportive, money will quickly start causing friction. And there’s only so much you can borrow. A job becomes important for one’s self-respect, even if it might prolong the process.”
But that’s not how Satheesh sees it. He says he has already spent close to a lakh to train himself and needs the time. “I too came to Chennai to become a hero but I slowly fell in love with the process. I now admire actors such as Nawazuddin and Naseeruddin Shah and I’m constantly learning acting theory. But the technical side of acting is something few people understand.”
He talks about the people around him who think ‘acting’ in TikTok videos amounts to real acting. “They don’t know the difference between visual-to-visual and text-to-visual. What an actor does is the latter. The rest just amount to mimicking.”
But what’s really upsetting is when even respected directors fail to appreciate THE PROCESS of an actor. “A role like Ken Karunas’ in Vetrimaaran’s Asuran is one someone like me could have tried. But it feels like there’s no point in learning or training when a person can just get a role without going through the process,” he says.
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
For someone like Gabrella Sellus, who acted in Sarjun’s recent Nayanthara-starrer Airaa, the challenges were different. She moved to Chennai from Tiruchi when she was just 19, after dropping out of college. “How can you become an actor when you’re so dark?” is one of the questions she’s been facing ever since she decided to take the plunge. “I didn’t even know that one’s complexion would be such a major obstacle when I first moved here. Each time I got rejected for being dark, I used to run home and cry in front of the mirror. What can I do about my skin tone? At times, they don’t even bother to see if I can act. This is the phase where I understood the real reason why my school teachers insisted on making the fair girls stand in front, and pushed me back, during assembly.”
The relatively recent concept of attending casting calls/auditions isn’t particularly fair either, feels actor Ramesh Thilak (Soodhu Kavvum, Kumbalangi Nights). “Film companies crop up almost every day in Chennai. Some of these companies call for an audition and we would attend them even though we knew nothing about their film. They would give us a scene to perform and the test would invariably end with “superaa panneenga”. But their next question would be, ‘We want you to act in our film, but how much are you willing to pay to get this role?’.”
Satheesh too has heard of many such fly-by-night operators. “These guys don’t just stop with auditions. They collect Rs. 10 lakh to Rs. 15 lakh from aspiring actors and even start shooting. But by the third or fourth day, they disappear with the money.”
The Wild Bunch
This is just one of the “scams” intrinsic to strugglers’ lives, he adds. Of course, there are exceptions, but some of the auditions operate like publicity stunts to make people aware that such a film exists. In other cases, certain companies conduct elaborate auditions but they’re just an exercise to recruit junior artistes by side-stepping the industry rule of hiring actors who are a part of the union. And even when certain auditions seem legit, strugglers learn later that those who bagged the main characters had come with some sort of a recommendation.
“There are also middlemen who convince gullible strugglers to take a membership in one of the Unions, with the promise of steady work,” Satheesh adds. “These memberships start at around Rs. 2 lakh. But even with it, it’s not necessary that you end up with better or consistent opportunities.”
Once Upon A Time In The South
Senior actor and film historian Mohan Raman explains this as the result of a surplus of supply. “Traditionally, the route to acting was always through theatre. Then, we slowly saw television contributing in the 90s and 2000s; actors such as Santhanam and Sivakarthikeyan came through this route. It has now changed so much that even TikTok and Dubsmash has resulted in actors.”
The sheer number of people trying has also changed. “Beyond the medium, it is the entry and eventual success of stars such as Rajinikanth, Sathyaraj, Vijayakanth and T Rajendar that gave outsiders the hope that they too can make it big, even if they don’t fit into the conventional idea of what constitutes ‘good looks’,” Raman adds. “Some people misinterpret the success of these people and start believing that they too can become the next Rajini, even though we’ve only had one in the past 40 years. In reality, you need to be one among a lakh to make acting a full-time lucrative profession…getting into IIT or IIM is far easier.”
The film-to-digital shift too has contributed to the Kodambakkam Dream. With the number of films getting made multiplying (the Tamil industry averages 200 films a year), it throws open a lot more opportunities, even if they aren’t all ‘good’ opportunities. Digital filmmaking did to acting what it also did to filmmaking — anyone can become an actor now. But are they all good enough?
“Once filmmaking shifted to digital, even directors became less choosy about their actors,” Raman adds. “They now have the luxury to reshoot; so, an unprepared, untrained actor doesn’t affect production like it used to.”
These are external factors beyond strugglers’ control. For a lot of them, the real challenge is what takes place internally, through all of this. Manikandan and Satheesh speak of the physical and mental exhaustion they go through, trying to balance a demanding job with an even tougher career. “At times, I’ll have a full night of rehearsals after a full day at work,” adds Satheesh. “Studying, workshops and acting classes take up the weekends. It is also physically demanding.”
Manikandan’s family has started pressuring him to get married. “Back home, they don’t usually tell a lot of people that I want to be an actor. But, if I get married and bring her here, she will not be able to cope with my life and the disappointments. My parents don’t even realise how tough it is for us to get a place to stay,” he explains; he stays with seven other strugglers in a small room in Ashok Nagar located near the Kodambakkam area.
What’s intriguing is how the struggling actor must maintain a high level of confidence and a certain amount of self-love through a system that is designed to break the spirit. “Cinema has the ability to swallow you,” says Maathevan, a television host and actor. “It gives you the feeling that there’s no world outside.”
It’s this all-encompassing nature of the field that makes it so hard for people who come to Kodambakkam to leave it behind and return to their hometowns. “Failing at cinema feels like the biggest of all failures,” Manikandan says.
Which is why Maathevan underscores the importance of taking care of one’s mind. “Constant rejection can really take a toll on one’s mental health. You start feeling small and useless. You can’t sleep. And, if you somehow manage to, it becomes impossible to wake up. At times, I’ve met people who struggle to even go watch movies because they would have auditioned for them, but not got a chance.”
All that free time makes it worse. “You start overthinking and your relationships get affected. You will find one set of people who patronisingly say, “You’re surely the next Sivakarthikeyan or Vijay Sethupathi. We will soon be sticking posters for you.” You will also find the other extreme who always look at you with pity and sympathy, which is just as painful.”
The trick, in Maathevan’s opinion, is keeping the mind occupied. “Despite all the effort, we should learn to look at it as just a profession. We have to keep watching movies, reading a lot of books and meeting people to remind ourselves that there’s a world outside.”
Meeting fellow strugglers can be a problem during this phase too. Of course, bonds are being formed and there is the connection of going through the same challenges, but competition keeps coming in the way. “After a point, aspiring actors even compete on individual suffering. It’s as though the more you suffer, the better actor you will become,” Maathevan adds.
All of them disagree with the way their lives are romanticised by outsiders or, even worse, by those who made it. “When you’re successful, you can always connect the dots in hindsight and talk about it like it’s a biopic. There’s great pleasure in doing that, but it’s not so when you’re going through it,” says Maathevan.
Even after all of this, none of them shows any signs of quitting. As Maathevan sees it, “It’s still the best time to become an actor”. The industry too is slowly changing. “Every role I’m getting today is because of my complexion,” says Gabrella. “So, when people call me ‘Karuppi’ or ‘Blackie’, it feels like a compliment.”
There’s always an inspiring story that keeps the strugglers’ dreams alive, invariably the story of actors who made it big in their forties or fifties. At the end of the day, all of them know that it requires the right amount of dream and delusion to make it. “That’s what it takes when you live here. Because even the streetlights of Kodambakkam want to become the next Rajini.”
(Certain names have been changed upon request)