ROB IN BOLLYWOOD
From 2009 through June 2012 I spent three years living in Mumbai, India, as head of the acting department for Whistling Woods International, Asia’s largest film school, and, according to the Hollywood Reporter, one of the top ten film schools in the world. Introducing Method Acting to Bollywood, I developed a unique curriculum for actors, directors, film students, and professionals acquainting them with the different elements of acting and the creative process between actors, directors and writers. In addition I enjoyed writing and directing many custom scenes for my students.
When I accepted the position at Whistling Woods I looked forward to the challenge of introducing my work to a new culture. Welcoming me immediately, the students were curious, interested, and inspired to learn about this most famous approach to an acting craft – a technique based on an in-depth process rather than presentational results. Before they were exposed to The Method, their acting programs included a limited number of generalized improvisational exercises. The typical traditional emphasis was always on theatricality rather than organic life – and result oriented training rather than a process that leads to the desired results.
It was a heart-soaring experience for me to guide the students in the exploration of their talent, craft, and script analysis discovering the truth of the human condition. My teaching there reinforced my understanding and belief that the work is valuable for all people no matter their culture, religion, or economic status. I was deeply moved by the beauty of the students’ sensitivity and the exciting growth in their skills. Many students found the work changed their lives personally as well as creatively.
Bollywood films, which tend to follow a formula of love conflicts expressed through song and dance, are a unique genre of storytelling that evolved from the traditional folk, tribal stories, and plays that were expressed with theatrical hand and body gestures that are presentational. Although many of the films in this genre are similar and follow the same predictable formula they continue to be blockbusters. However, due to the growing popularity of Western films in India the audiences are beginning to demand more – which is why it was such an honor for me to be invited to introduce Method Acting.
I was honored to coach the leads of an upcoming Subhash Ghai film, “Love Express,” starring Sahil Mehta, Mannat Ravi, Priyam Galav and Vikas Katyal. All four actors courageously took risks and stretched their instruments while learning more about craft tools in my classes. One strange anomaly in Bollywood is that they don’t usually give any part of the dialogue or script until the day of shooting – and only that one scene!
I also coached Sidharth Malhotra who is currently starring in “Student of the Year,” a film by Bollywood’s award-winning director, Karan Johar, known for directing and producing some of Bollywood’s highest grossing films in India and abroad. (Johar’s 2010 film “My Name is Khan,” much of which was shot in California, is currently the sixth highest grossing Bollywood film with a worldwide distribution.)
Many of the students I taught and/or coached went on to work or star in the film and television industry. Currently, here in LA, I am working with former students from WWI including former Miss India, Ami Vashi, who lives here in Southern California and is pursuing her acting career in Hollywood as well as Bollywood.
Now that I’m home everyone wants to know what it was like living in Mumbai – formerly Bombay – the densest populated city in the world with the accompanying traffic and pollution problems. How bad is the traffic? The 405 is a quiet country road in comparison. Whistling Woods provided me with a Škoda sedan replete with a conscientious driver who traveled two hours by train every day to take me on the 10-mile journey that could last anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes depending on traffic. Along the way we would travel a 10-lane highway packed with auto-rickshaws and thousands of motorcycles with women in bright saris sitting sideways on the back. Once in a while a cow would be in the mix. Yes, a cow. And, because Film City has very few paved roads, one must drive slowly to avoid the potholes, goats, and the occasional wild boar.
Whistling Woods is architecturally majestic, modern, and impressive. But its location in Film City bordering a dense forest presents a unique challenge. On several occasions unusual alerts came over the intercom. One announcement warned there were a couple of cobras in the restrooms near the acting studios. And, one afternoon when I was alone in my office, “Attention all, please stay behind locked doors because there is a panther roaming the halls!”
As for my living quarters, Whistling Woods set me up in a beautiful, spacious, and modern high-security high-rise with an incredible view from my well air-conditioned 16th floor flat. Cooking for myself was a chore in my kitchen without an oven, which is common in India, but I did have a microwave. When I was able to find fresh produce I had to jump through hoops to prepare it by soaking it in a purple solution that killed unwanted microbes and rinsing with filtered water from a complex set-up in my kitchen. If that task seemed too overwhelming after a long day I often opted for take-out on my way home from school. And yes, I succumbed to Pizza Hut and KFC more than once.
Indians are kind, beautiful, and motivated people who celebrate their holidays in a big way – dancing, singing, playing horns, drumming loudly, and setting off colorful hypnotic fireworks that bathe the skyline into the wee hours of the morning. Unfortunately for me the cacophony of celebratory sounds accompanied by the howling of wild dogs kept me awake many a night.
And then there was the morning I woke up to a swarm of bees on my balcony. There were literally thousands vibrating, moving, and holding on to the ceiling with several scouts constantly coming and going. Clearly a swarm of this size was dangerous but disregarding my wiser inclination I opened the sliding glass door and tossed a pitcher of soapy water toward the mass. This only resulted in a few hundred bees searching for the intruder while I cowered in the safety of my living room. It took the exterminators five attempts to get rid of them finally having to resort to using fire!
India is a country that owes its modern existence to the British who brought many tribes together separated by distance and more than twenty-six separate major languages. Traveling through the many different areas is not unlike being in a time machine sometimes going back to tribes operating and surviving as they did thousands of years ago.
Living and working in India was the chance of a lifetime for which I will be forever grateful. From the chanting fishermen to the wise and gentle elephants…from the ancient temples to the traditions…there is no place on earth that compares.