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Excerpt: Shocking culture of the casting couch

July 11, 2012 11:07 IST
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We bring you an exclusive excerpt from Neeta Shah's debut novel -- Bollywood Striptease.

Neeta Shah's first book, Bollywood Striptease is about a young chartered accountant wanting to make it big in the film industry.

Bitten by the Bollywood bug at 15, Neeta's protagonist, Nikki chucks her stable job and dives into the world of glamour, to the chagrin of her family and a naturally skeptical world.

The book takes a light-hearted view at the way the industry works, the strange quirky people that inhabit it and exposes the dirty secret of the practice of casting couch!

Here's an excerpt from the book where Nikki visits the house of a prominent south Indian producer. Read on!

One evening I was sitting at the Lokhandwala Barista nursing my still-fresh disappointment over a tall glass of frothy cold coffee. Akshay was busy in a meeting so I had to kill an hour before we could meet up. Can you believe it!! I hadn't been to a single audition for a week. I still kept getting my daily calls but I just couldn't make myself go. I was seriously having second thoughts about my choice of profession. I should never have left my secure job for this struggle. Two cold coffees later, just about when I had decided to give up my Bollywood dreams forever, I heard someone call out to me.

It was an old friend, Rajesh Gill. I was shocked to discover that Rajesh had become a big name in the South with his debut film. I had met him during my various audition rounds during my advertising days. He had been struggling in Bollywood for almost ten years but destiny had given him a break in a Telegu film. Though that film was a launch pad for a Telegu superstar's son, Rajesh had bagged the role of the main villain. This had all happened by chance, when a friend of his had sent his pictures to the casting director of the film without Rajesh's knowledge. Not only was he going to star in the Bollywood remake of his Telegu film, he was now getting a lot of other Bollywood film offers as well.

When he heard the dismal tale of my struggles and my decision to quit, Rajesh suggested that perhaps I should try the Tollywood route as well. He pointed out how heroines from the south -- like Asin and Genelia -- had made it big in Bollywood. He cited his own example, his determination not to quit even after ten years and he insisted I must never give up on my dream. Wishing me luck, he left after giving me his agent's number. That's when I decided to give my dreams another shot.

Rajesh gave me the contact details of an agent who was based in Mumbai but handled the business of many big Tollywood production houses. After a few initial meetings with the agent, he forwarded my portfolio to the prominent production houses in the South.

One morning, I was surprised by a call from the agent, informing me that I was one of the two girls shortlisted for a role by a top Telegu film director Venkat. He forwarded me Venkat's secretary's number and asked me to get in touch with him immediately.

Venkat was known as 'the director with the golden touch' in the Telegu film industry. Every newcomer he had launched had gone on to become a superstar. He was also a very senior and highly respected film personality.

I had a very pleasant conversation with his secretary, who informed me that they would be sending me an air ticket and putting me up in a hotel in Hyderabad, as I would have to stay there for a couple of days. Unable to contain my excitement, I shared this great news with Akshay and Shonali. I would have loved them to accompany me but both of them were tied up at work.

Then came the time to convince my family to allow me to travel to Hyderabad and stay there on my own. Initially, there was a big world war between Papa and me. They felt I had gone completely insane to now try Tollywood.

Papa shrieked, 'So now you are going to leave Mumbai forever and shift to South in pursuit of your stupid dreams?'

'Not forever, Papa … there the films are shot in a span of thirty to forty-five days. I can keep shuffling between Mumbai and Hyderabad and it's a great platform to get noticed too.'

Finally, I had to unleash my final weapon on them, the TEAR BOMB. Powerless against it, he and my brother finally relented and gave me permission, albeit very reluctantly. I boarded the flight for Hyderabad, with their countless advices and priceless little gems -- 'SMS us the taxi number as soon as you get into it' and 'Always have dinner at the restaurant and never order room service, god knows even a bellboy cannot be trusted these days' -- still ringing in my ears.

Cut to Hyderabad.

Day 1:

I was very impressed when Venkat's secretary came to pick me up and checked me into a five-star hotel. He told me to relax and wait for his call, stating that due to Venkat's busy schedule the meeting could happen at any time. The next twenty-four hours went by anxiously for me. Every time I called up the secretary he told me that 'sir' was not yet free and I should just wait for his call. The rest of the day was spent eating South Indian food, watching South Indian channels and calling up Akshay, Shonali and Rakesh every now and then. Finally at 11 p.m. I gave up and went to sleep.

Day 2:

10 a.m.: Finally the secretary called and asked me to get ready in half an hour. Then we drove to Venkat's office … or so I thought till I realised we were on our way to his residence.

The secretary said with a pompous air, 'As you know, sir is sincere, disciplined and decent. He is also very religious and superstitious. Today is a very auspicious day for him. This was the date when sir had launched all his newcomers, who you know have become superstars today. Sir has the talent of spotting the spark which he has also seen also in you. If he puts his hand on your head, no one can stop you from becoming successful. So make sure, whatever happens you don't spoil his mood.'

On hearing this I felt very fortunate that finally I would be meeting a god-fearing and decent director. But as I waited in the hall of his over-the-top, opulent mansion, I got the most freaking shock of my life.

'Sir' was descending the stairs, completely naked (and I mean completely naked), waving lighted agarbattis in the air and chanting prayers. At first I was too shocked to react. Sir was moving all around the hall with his eyes shut, chanting away. Soon the whole hall was full of smoke. In between this farce he kept opening his eyes to instruct a servant standing next to me to offer me something to eat or drink. His servant looked even shadier and scarier than him. Embarrassed, I avoided his line of vision. It seemed to me as if I was part of a porn film and felt utterly repulsed by this outright hypocrite.

The secretary's words kept ringing in my mind: '… If he puts his hand on your head, no one can stop you from becoming successful. So make sure, whatever happens you don't spoil his mood.'

Now I understood the real meaning of his words. I broke into a cold sweat and felt very nervous. I was stuck in a situation from which I did not know how to get out. No one knew where exactly I was at that moment. As I realised the full import of my predicament my accelerated heartbeat set up a drum roll in my ears and at the same time sir seemed to finish his rituals and started walking towards me. I panicked, did an about turn, shot out of there, hailed a taxi on the road and fled summarily; mercifully I was not followed.

On the way back to the hotel, I felt that I could not talk about this to my family and so I phoned Akshay and narrated the entire incident to him. Akshay was equally stunned and angry and insisted that I immediately take the next flight to Mumbai. Shonali was attending an important conference, so her phone was switched off but I did send her a text to call me back urgently.

Next I called up the agent and narrated the entire incident. He should have known the kind of people he was introducing innocent girls to. He coolly replied that in the past a few girls had complained to him about the same situation. In that case why did he send me? What did he think I was? In a fit of anger I abused him left and right.

On reaching Mumbai, I did tell Shonali about this incident. She was not at all amused. 'You should sue this guy, set the police on him! This is outrageous. We can't let him off like this.'

As she ranted on I calmed her down, 'This is India, Shonali and this guy is big. What can we do? Relax, I'll be very careful next time.'

She was not convinced, 'What careful! If as you say he is big, then what is to say the same won't happen in Bollywood?'

'It might, but like I said, I'll be careful. Besides, nothing happened.'

'No, but it could have. You and your brainwaves … Tollywood indeed … humph!'

Thank god I could fob off Papa and Rakesh with some madcap story about how the producer and the director of the film had a fight and they had decided to call off the film. My family was so ignorant about the ways of the industry that they believed whatever tall tales I fed them and for once I desperately needed a tall tale to save me from their genuine (and in this case righteous) wrath! After all, a lie which does not harm anyone, is not a lie, right?

Strangely enough, there were no nightmares that night despite my close brush with a very dangerous situation. I think the funny side of the incident struck me soon enough and it still brings a chuckle to my lips when I narrate this incident to friends. Papa and Rakesh of course still do not know any of this!

I was still coming to terms with my hair-raising experience and going slow on the audition rounds when I got a call from Rahul asking me to meet him the next day. I wondered what fate had in store for me now...



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