My Journey From The UK To Bombay

Anisa and Shuja Ali
Anisa Butt with director Shuja Ali on the set of Baat Bann Gayi

Although I grew up watching Bollywood films, (some prefer to stick to saying Hindi cinema) I am not sure if the realistic me thought that I would ever go out there and work in the industry. During university, I auditioned for a feature film to be shot in India, and to my surprise was selected and flew to Mumbai for a look test (screen test). This lead to a three-month workshop process, but unfortunately, due to differences in opinion between producer/director, a couple of us did not get to do the film in the end. Though this was heart-wrenchingly awful for me at the time, I realised this was just the beginning of a new journey, which would later show me, in India, anything is possible.

A changing Bollywood

I was recently featured in Anita Rani’s BBC 2 documentary titled “Bollywood, The World’s Biggest Film Industry“, we had a very candid chat talking about politics, culture, and sexism. The Indian film industry is the largest in the world and attracts thousands of people to the city of Mumbai every year – not only from smaller towns around India but from all over the world. Mumbai, at present, is more cosmopolitan than its ever been before. And with distribution channels like Netflix and Amazon now running, they’re also creating original Hindi content shows for audiences around the world. This surge is helping bridge the gap between the west and east. On a more positive note, we are also seeing more emerging actors on film. This is definitely refreshing. a major difference I noticed six years go in India, was that this did not exist as it does today. Fast forward to 2019 and the game is changing.

Anisa in BBC Documentary “Bollywood: The World’s Biggest Film Industry” (Instagram)

What’s the difference

As an outsider and an actor born and raised in the UK, there are definitely differences I recognised then, which still exist now. The positive being that web-based platforms are allowing new talent to come through, in what most definitely is an industry based on nepotism. I am super stoked that I have had opportunities that maybe wouldn’t have been possible when I first went out there, as well as seeing fellow actor friends thrive as they have never before.

Nonetheless, there are a few observations I have made, which I argue is still lacking in the Hindi film industry. The major one for me is work ethic. Through education in the UK and the work I have done professionally, be it on stage, or short films, I can definitely say the work ethic has been fantastic. There is a respect for all levels of cast and crew and no differentiation of treatment between actors, that I have noticed.

In India, the A-list actors are definitely treated in a different capacity to the crew and extras. Extras are often never paid and are sold the opportunity based on it being be part of a big budget Bollywood film. The concept of minimum wage, or specific unions such as Spotlight, do not really exist . There are a few unions, however, if mistreatment has happened on a production, or a production pulls you out after you signing contracts, I haven’t seen any of the unions being able to take any stand.

Punctuality is also an issue within the film industry in India. Things rarely happen on time. I have been blessed to work with bigger productions like Dharma Productions and Excel Entertainment, who have definitely set better examples of this, which is encouraging. I do think there is still much room for greater improvement.

Anisa (on the far left) at the film premiere of Netflix’s Brahman Naman

Working with talent agents

Another difference which still exists is the formality of both industries. In the UK, it is somewhat impossible to hear about great auditioning opportunities unless you are with an agent. I struggled with this when I immediately graduated from university (studying Drama) because I did not attend a drama school. Presently, I feel due to the increase of management companies in the UK, there is a greater chance today to be able to get with an agent. The top 5 agency’s in the UK are still very difficult to get into, unless you’re a big name or cast in something great. I find it can be a vicious circle. As a new actor you want experience and of course you want to be cast ultimately. In order to get this however, you need an agent, yet the best agents want you to have had that experience. Tricky tricky!

In India, the concept of having an acting agent is fairly new. There are many more personal managers who tend to handle celebrities and make sure they accompany them on their shoots. Casting coordinators play a bigger role in the Hindi film industry. They take a commission cut for any audition you get through them, similar to how agents work in the UK.

What’s being made

Last but not least, I feel another major difference is the type of content being made, and hence the demand on the artist is different. Bollywood is known for creating fantasy worlds of escapism, with beautiful costumes, sets, music, and dance.
Though the industry is changing, and we now see more writers and directors emerging with their own styles. There are also more indie films being made for festivals, but the commercial popcorn cinema (as some call it) is still very much existent though. These are the kind of films the masses in India want to see.
For the commercial films, the typical model-like features of being tall, with a great figure is essentially what is in demand. The actor is seen as a product, and though this is of course true worldwide, there is definitely less demand on being physically “perfect” in the UK. One may argue Hollywood and Bollywood both, for commercial films, do demand a lot more “perfection” from actors in terms of how they look. The male actors, normally have a ripped physique and are required to have some basic dance skills. Though this was what was dominating at one time, the surge of young fresh actors, not always linked to film lineage, has meant we are now diverting our attention more to the craft than the actor’s body. Again, I think we have a long way to go, but the small changes are an indication of what is to come, and I am happy to see this.

I hope this article was able to shed some light on the differences of working as an actor in the UK and India. There is definitely no formula or guarantees for success. I believe hard work and perseverance is the ultimate characteristics to have, and the focus to keep getting better at the thing you love to do. I could have gone on and on about more intricate differences, but then I think I could write a book on this one day. Till then, I hope I was able to share a peak of life between both places. They’re both incredible and fascinating, and both have so much to offer in their unique ways. I am blessed to be able to work in both places.

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Anisa Butt

I studied Drama (performance) at Queen Mary's University of London, and started by doing a number of fringe plays. I was part of Flex FX Dance Company, as an actor/dancer for 2 years and performed at venues such as The Royal Albert Hall, London. I auditioned for a Bollywood Film in London, which opened the door to other opportunities in India, and hence travel a lot between London and India now, and have agents in both countries. My career essentially took off on TV for Disney India, with the series 'Ishaan,' produced by Red Chillies Idiot Box. Amongst commercials, theatre, i have also got the opportunity to be part of wonderful features, such as Bollywood's "Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Half Girlfriend and international film Brahman Naman, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival (In Competition in the World Dramatic Section) in January 2016 and was picked up by Netflix for distribution. Other than acting, i have been an avid poet, and occasional blog writer, for websites like Female Hustlers, and now the Big Picture film Club. My passions include dance, fitness, everything movie related and everything hustle!

1 Comment

  1. You write so beautifully. I will be waiting for that book!❤️

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