September 30, 2010, KOLKATA (Calcutta Tube): SHUKNO LANKA, also known as THE RED DRY CHILLIES is a Bengali Film where Mithun Chakraborty plays the role of a junior artiste. Enjoy the exclusive anatomy of SHUKNO LANKA at CalcuttaTube.
The ‘fate’ of a film extra was essayed briefly but eloquently in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s film Guddi. It was a sub-plot that shows how a village boy, portrayed by the debut-making Asrani, fresh out of FTII, Pune, with dreams of making it as hero in Hindi films, runs away with his widowed mother’s money and jewelery, only to land up as an ’extra’ in films. The etymology of names and labels is rather ironic, when it comes to junior artistes in the film industry. They are labeled ‘junior artistes’ perhaps in order to vest their disrespectful profession with some semblance of dignity. But it does not work really, because they are aware of their status in films, and out of it.
There was a wonderful, well-researched documentary on junior artistes made by Jill Misquitta meaningfully called Clap-Trap. The name was metaphorical in the sense that it signified the ‘trap’ that junior artistes got caught within, attracted by the clapstick used before a shot is taken. Every single man, woman and child enters films to become a hero, heroine or child artiste. But by the time they realise that not everyone can make it to the large posters on street corners, it is too late to seek greener pastures elsewhere. The film featured the life stories of two major junior artistes in Mumbai, one a man with a hero-like body and the other a woman. Both of them confessed that they had entered into films with dreams of making it big. The man had also landed himself the role of hero in his first film. “But the film was never made and after waiting for another dream role for some months, I began to accept bit roles in big films,” he says. He is one among the higher hierarchy of extras and maintains a telephone in his small flat where he lives with his wife and children. “It was destiny that came in my way and who can I blame for it, tell me?” he asks, philosophically.
[ReviewAZON display=”searchquery” query=”databazaar” count=”5″ category=”DVD” page=”1″ sort=”default”]Decades later, Gaurav Pandey decided to make a film with a junior artiste as the central character. The name of the film is Shukno Lanka and though it has been made in Bengali, it is universal in its appeal because junior artistes are a presence across the entire film industry in the world. He chose Mithun Chakraborty to play the central role, a difficult proposition for an actor who has been at the top of the box office and critical charts for many years. Mithun identifies with the national common man who has a common face and a common voice and therefore, is someone the audience can identify with easily and smoothly. When asked, why the film is called Shukno Lanka, meaning the dry red chilli, Mithun said, “Junior artistes are like the dry red chilli that is mandatory in any Indian spicy dish that no one can identify once the dish is cooked and presented on the table. Yet, it is an essential ingredient for any Indian dish. No films can be made only with the hero, the heroine, the comedian and other character actors if there are no junior artistes.” Few people remember that Mithun himself featured in a one-minute rule in the Rekha-Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Do Anjaane. No one knew him at that time.
Junior artistes are neither ‘junior’ in the chronological sense of the term, nor are they ‘artistes.’ They are the ‘extras’ who dot a crowd scene or a procession, or a fight scene, or, at best remain in the background doing ambivalent gyrations in a dance scenario where the frame is hogged by the lead pair. They are men and women who will remain a part of the crowd, a dot in a morcha, may be with a short line or shout to be delivered on cue and then recede and fade into the background. Among them are old men and women, teenage girls, some beautiful, some not and some hiding their faces behind layers of cheap make-up. They have to register themselves with the official body of junior artists, take out their identity card and then begin the long wait to what – stardom, or anonymity? Which one will it be? Looking back on reality, Mumtaz is the only junior artiste to make it to the top in Bollywood.
The film world is like Ali Baba’s magic cave and if you do not know the magic word, you can never come out. So, in time, they reduce themselves to become ‘extras’ without even being aware of it. By the time they wake up to the brutal truth, it is too late to turn around and go back to where they came from. Jackie Shroff made his maiden appearance as one of the villain’s henchmen in a Dev Anand film called Swami Dada. The girl Pallavi who made her debut in a noticeable role in Umar Qaid as Sunil Dutt’s blind sister, who gets raped and murdered, was last heard doing her rounds of Mumbai studios as a junior artiste who no one wanted to marry. Children, who step into films in important roles, begin to dream of becoming stars when they grow up. Many of them are reduced to becoming extras because a childhood wasted in film studios deny them of a decent education so they cannot find work any where in any other capacity. The beautiful Alka who did several lead roles in some films and is still remembered as Sanjeev Kumar’s girlfriend who puts herself aflame and jumps to her death in one of the best films of Sanjeev Kumar, had to become an ‘extra’ for many years for want of good roles. She was lucky to have met someone who married her and took her to the US. But not everyone is that lucky.
They must wait for an agent outside the compound of a film studio anywhere in Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad or Kolkata, who might make the long wait worthwhile, if at all. If the agent or ‘extra-supplier’ selects them for a particular scene or shot to be filmed on a studio floor, their prayers will be answered. The selected ones will hurriedly pat on some make-up on their faces, some will be given costumes depending on the need of the particular scene, while some will have to go back home and come again the next day, to queue up for a bit part. Some of them will form a part of a crowd and in this way, the chosen will be herded inside the floors like a flock of sheep waiting to be ‘butchered’ for that proverbial loaf of bread.
No provident fund, no leave travel allowance, no house rent, no fixed pay but casual wages given at the rate of work done for the day is the fate that dogs the life of a junior artiste. Though a senior extra named Kader says that the credit for raising the status of the ‘extra’ by bestowing him with the honour of ‘junior artiste’ goes to the late M.G. Ramachandran who later became the CM of Tamil Nadu, the change in the label has in no way changed the status quo of the junior artiste within the industry. What one seems to conveniently ignore is that the cinema that runs on black money, the mafia and sex, also runs on extras. And this is what comes out clearly in Shukno Lanka where Chinu Nandy, elevated to the status of hero in a feature film directed by an internationally renowned filmmaker, remains the ‘extra’ he was when he stepped into the hero’s role because the large billboard that carried his picture did not carry his name!
Shoma A. Chatterji