Would-be actors dream of stardom at London 'Bollywood Academy'

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Far from the glitz of Bollywood, young hopefuls in a small film studio in London are honing their acting skills and dreaming of making it big, in the latest sign of Indian cinema s expanding reach.

In the west London suburb of Ealing, a young troupe of budding actors are improvising a scene as director Hemendra Bhatia casts a watchful eye over the proceedings from behind the camera, picking up on every detail, ready to pounce on any mistake.

His face gradually tensing up, 22-year-old Hassan Khan screams in Hindi: Why are you lying to me? I know you ve been having an affair!

Do you want a divorce? he asks.

A moment of silence passes, and his wife Anu, sitting opposite him, replies coldly: Yes.

As she gets up to leave, Hassan grabs her hand but, without giving him even a farewell glance, she pulls away and departs.

Behind him, Hassan s faithful former schoolmate Ranjit walks up to him and puts his hands on the broken man s shoulders, trying to support an old friend.

Before any of the trio have a chance to catch their breath, however, Bhatia steps in and dissects their performance – criticizing Hassan for talking too much, Anu for not pausing enough, and Ranjit for waiting too long.

After several years, he says, referring to Hassan and Anu s make-believe marriage, this is the final break!

Bhatia then replays the scene and the multitude of takes before it, on the television screen nearby so they can all watch, and learn.

Such is life at the Actor Prepares school – dubbed a Bollywood Academy – where seven would-be dramatists are hoping to pick up the skills and contacts needed to break into Bollywood.

Six weeks into their intense three-month acting course, devised by Indian cinematic legend Anupam Kher, the group is working on acting for the camera, a module in which Bhatia, the school s international dean, specializes. And he is not letting them off easy.

The school is the latest sign of the growing international interest in the Indian film industry, and equally of Britain s interest in Indian cinema, thanks to its large south Asian diaspora.

In England alone, according to official estimates, there are around 2.5 million Britons who describe themselves as being of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin – approximately five percent of the country s population in mid-2006.

Bhatia is keen, though, that his pupils not fulfill the Bollywood stereotype of melodramatic over-acting, and he even chafes at the very mention of the word Bollywood, seeing the link to Hollywood as demeaning to the Indian film industry.

We are not brother to anyone or second to somebody, we have our own identity, he insists.

He also stresses that the school is trying to give its students, who each pay £4,000 ($6,500, ?5,000) for a three-month course, a grounding in basic acting so that they can, if they choose, try and succeed in India or anywhere else.

His students have taken that on board, and are keeping an open mind as to where the course will eventually take them.

Hassan, in particular, has boundless ambition.

When it comes to acting, I believe acting is universal, he says.

I believe at the end of these three months, I m ready, be it for stage, TV, film, and then I m open (to offers), be it here in England, be it in America, or be it in India.

If Bollywood comes calling, I m running there.

Beyond that, he feels he has a higher calling: There were no real British Asian actors that I could look up to. It s always had to be English actors, or Indian actors in India.

I want to change that, he says, before adding with a wry smile: I ve got a lot of things I want to do right now, it s just about getting started.

His dreams are mirrored by the other students, most of whom said Bollywood was not a goal in itself, and were instead aiming at making it in film or television anywhere they could.

For now, though, that will have to wait – Bhatia is relentless, and shortly after Khan s scene, he is calling on the next group to re-enact it.

One student shows a shade of doubt as to the dialogue, and Bhatia pounces: Didn t you listen? If you do not know, then you have already failed. -AFP

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