As a New Yorker, I was pretty excited to meet Prashaant Kumar, an up-and-coming Bollywood actor who was entirely raised in the New York metro area. Prashaant was born in Booth Memorial Hospital of Flushing, Queens and lived in locales such as Forest Hills and Manhasset on Long Island while growing up. Prashaant decided to leave the United States behind for good four and a half years ago to try and make it in Mumbai’s legendary film industry. His previous role was in India’s first-ever creature-based horror film called Kaalo released in 2010, about an evil old desert-witch. The 29 year old Kumar’s next film called Issaq will be out in July.
This man’s personal story arc intrigued me for several reasons. How and why would an Indian-American actor- who was getting some acting experience Stateside, who had family and friends there- head to India to find his destiny? How does an American adjust to the pollution, traffic, chaos and craziness that is Mumbai, or the dramatic ins and outs of Bollywood life and its infamously dark side, with no contacts in the industry? My goal for this face-to-face interview was to find out these things.
It was a searing hot late-April Mumbai afternoon when Prashaant and I sat down at the Sun ‘N Sand Hotel cafe at Juhu Beach. Just as we were sitting down to table and arming ourselves with cold mineral water, A-list actress Karisma Kapoor walked by a few feet away from us, working a promotion event for her new comeback film after a long dormant stretch, Dangerous Ishq. It was both fortunate and appropriate that Prashaant pointed her out to me, as I had no concept of who this was except perhaps just another pretty face. I saw it as a good omen for the interview.
KUMAR: Bollywood! I was in New York harboring dreams of being a film actor. For me it was either L.A. or Bombay. I grew up watching Hindi films, and I was more passionate about them than English ones. So I asked myself, what the hell am I gonna do? I made the plunge on June 30, 2007.
How has it been going so far?
KUMAR: Only in the last 6 months have I thought I’ll even survive. I had no contacts in the film industry when I got here. I networked like a maniac, read a lot of publications and papers for openings, made a lot of phone calls. If you’re good, and at the right place at the right time, things happen. During my first year here, I got lucky. For the following three years, I got unlucky. I have not been healthy at times. Creative people go through a lot of struggle. And as an actor, you either make it or you don’t.
Did being from New York help you?
KUMAR: It helped me get into a lot of offices. It didn’t help me get work. I had to be ruthlessly ambitious and aggressive. I’m OK with you saying no to me, but you can’t ignore me. I can’t accept being ignored.
Tell me about your films.
KUMAR: Issaq is a pretty big movie coming out this summer, in July. It will be released all over India. It’s another version of the (Hindi) word ishq, or love. It’s a romantic film. My previous film Kaalo was released in 2010, but we shot it in 2008 and it was just stuck for two years. I didn’t have work for almost three and a half years after that was shot- it was a struggling gap until November and December 2011, when Issaq was shot. Movies normally release 5-6 months after finishing of filming.
How do horror movies do in India? I’ve hardly heard of any.
KUMAR: Horror unfortunately is not yet a huge genre. It has a very small audience and most of them wait to watch it on TV, or pirated DVDs. There have been some very good horror movies made, and it could be a very good genre.
How do these films make money with all the piracy around here?
By getting satellite rights. That means all-India rights for TV, telecast, DVDs which would be available within 30-40 days after release- but piracy makes it much harder. Just think about it. If Bollywood could fight piracy, within a couple years it would give Hollywood a much closer competition. Look at DVD shops anywhere in India, almost none of them sell all their DVDs legally.
That’s a good segue to the next question. I’ve heard so many evil stereotypes of Bollywood, that the mob is running things or you need to sleep around to advance your career. Is any of this true from your experience?
Funding from external or illegal sources has been long occuring, to my knowledge. Early in the new millennium, vigilance came in and major crackdowns occurred. The business started legitimizing. Four or five big media companies, like the equivalent of Paramount or Disney or Time Warner, started funding films legally. Some though are still funded the old-fashioned way. As for the sleeping around, or being asked to sleep around, or to pay bribes- I’ve seen it all around me already. I don’t see it stopping.
In politics, finance, and the corporate world: everyone is doing it. The stakes are high. It’s a glamorous industry. This is bound to happen. I see the dirtiness of it and I find it disrespectful.
What are actors here like? I’ve heard some stereotypes about them too.
KUMAR: Some of them are nice. Some of them are not. Bitchiness is about insecurity. I can’t stand the ones who treat their fans badly. God has given you the opportunity. You owe the people. Don’t come and treat me like shit or disrespect me because I’m not as big as you.
Any advice for Indian-Americans trying to make it in the Indian entertainment business?
KUMAR: There is a very active scene of Indian-Americans here. There are so many coming. My advice would be to follow your dreams. You only have one life to live. You have to ask yourself, “Why am I doing it? How do I view myself?” Think you have talent? Understand yourself first. If you answer these questions honestly enough, then start your training. Don’t think you’ll be the next big star without the work. Read books- keep reading the bios of actors, books on acting. Audition. There is always the possibility of work. Take courses for a year or two. Watch a lot of films. Eat, breathe, drink cinema. Your whole life has to revolve around that. Hustle, and move to the city. Work on your body, work on your looks. And then leave it in the hands of God or destiny.
One thing I didn’t do, that I was told to do was to have something to fall back on. If I could have had a Plan B, I would have put aside a couple of hours a day, and had other work to do. I’m very lucky to have had a lot of resources to follow my dream, and not be on the streets.
Any advice for non-Indian Americans trying to make it in the Indian entertainment business?
KUMAR: I haven’t met a single American guy working in Bollywood. We don’t easily accept outsiders as a society. There do seem to be a lot of girls who don’t belong to this country or speak the language. They are usually models or also accompany people as escorts to parties. Fashion companies get foreign girls to wear their saris, it might look more exotic to Indians. I think we are still very much in awe of white people.
There isn’t much of an industry here for Americans. It would be a slim chance. It’s an Indian industry. There may be bits and pieces of opportunity here and there, but it mostly involves networking and being seen at parties. Maybe as backup dancers in the song and dance numbers. We do know how to entertain people.
Are you Indian or American?
KUMAR: I’ve always considered myself to be Indian. As a teenager I called myself Indian-American. The only time I think of being an American now is at the airport or when I see my passport. I have an OCI card.
I’ve heard from someone that the early 1970’s were the Golden Age of Bollywood. What movies and actors do you like?
KUMAR: No, I would say the Golden Age was the 50’s and 60’s. The 70’s was a rebellious and revolutionary era of Hindi cinema. New politics, new action, and new music were introduced.
My favorite Hindi movies are from the 1950’s. My father liked them and he has a big influence on me. My family is made up of huge movie buffs. I love the music and acting of that era. I love movies from both Bollywood and Hollywood. My favorite actors are Dilip Kumar, Aamir Khan, Anil Kapoor, and Amitabh Bachchan, who is my favorite all-time. From the West, I like Al Pacino, Tom Hanks, Marlon Brando, and Denzel Washington.
What do you think of Indian filmmakers copying Western story lines and themes?
KUMAR: It’s less than before. There have been major lawsuits in the last several years. Fox, Disney, etc. have an Indian presence now which makes plagiarism more difficult.
Are Hindi movies getting better?
KUMAR: As much as we say the audience is getting more intelligent, involved in film, and ready for more, we still want to see quintessential Bollywood “masala.” There is absolutely no dearth of good actors, producers, and directors. But there is a serious dearth of good writers. They are paid nothing and the critical phase right now is to get writing sorted.
And your opinion on the state of affairs in India?
KUMAR: If India taps into the opportunities, it can exploit them to the fullest. There are a lot of people, here, and a lot of money. We could be a superpower. If we could just access the “black” wealth of all the politicians, we’d be a richer country than America. There’s scope for more. We can do things smoother, faster, healthier.
You’re one of the few people who was in New York on 9/11/01 as well as Mumbai on 26/11/08, two of the largest terrorist attacks of the new millennium.
KUMAR: Yes. And I applaud Mumbai for showing the same spirit as New York did afterwards.
A big thank you to Diana Sonis for the introduction. Prashaant left me with the recommendation to watch the Hindi comedy with various U.S. references, Phas Gaye Re Obama. Find it strange that two New Yorkers sat around in Juhu for two hours to discuss the inner workings of Bollywood? Welcome to U.S. – India Monitor.
by Mahanth S. Joishy, Editor-in-Chief