There is a clear difference in the way Mark Bennington would photograph Salman Khan and Tom Cruise. He’s watched the latter’s movies, he says, and this would colour his artistic approach with notions of celebrity. In the case of Khan, with whom he hung out for two days during a shoot in Pune in 2011, he saw the “guy from high school who became popular through sports”. Vidya Balan was like the girl he had a crush on when he first moved to New York. Dharmendra reminded him of his grandfather’s best friend.
This attitude shaped Bennington’s approach towards photographing stars for his book Living The Dream: The Life Of The ‘Bollywood’ Actor (HarperCollins India), which released two weeks back. He describes it as something that “humanizes Bollywood rather than celebrates it”.
Bennington used to be an actor, and one might assume his empathetic gaze is rooted in his former profession. But before that he was a drummer in a band, and likens his portraits of actors to an instrumental solo, where everything else is shut out: like the image in which Boman Irani unconsciously makes a face while the make-up is being applied.
There’s another kind of photograph as well, where the surroundings provide more information than the subject. In one such photograph, Parineeti Chopra is seen sitting on a wall, hordes of fans on one side, the Bandra-Worli Sea Link on the other. Taken right after Ishaqzaade, her second movie which made Chopra a star, it is of special significance to Bennington, who was present when she was offered her first film Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl. He was having coffee with casting director Shanoo Sharma in her office when she called Chopra, then a marketing intern at Yash Raj Films, into her room and broke the news to her.
Some of the photos delight in seemingly mundane background details: like the one with Lillete Dubey near an under-repair swimming pool, with a worker looking at her looking at the camera. Or the bored guy staring into space while Chitrangda Singh talks to the media.
A striking aspect of some of the photos is their lack of glamour. The idea of the book is to show the acting world as it really is. Perhaps that’s why the subjects who pose most eagerly aren’t the stars but the strugglers, on dusty roads and in cramped tenements. Bennington’s five-year-long project, for which he shuttled between New York and Mumbai, gives equal importance to TV actors, the theatre circuit and reality-show celebrities. “People ask me if this book is about Bollywood stars or if it is about strugglers,” he says. “I have followed no such hierarchy.”
Bennington, who is married to an Indian anthropologist, is aware, and critical, of the Western lens through which international photographers capture India. He hopes his own gaze is more humanistic. “There is one kind of photography that is practised by Steve McCurry, which is very romanticized and exotic. They are beautiful but unrealistic and glossy. My photos are more like ghar ka khaana (home-cooked food),” he says.
For his next project, he wants to shoot portraits of his friends from the film community against a stark white backdrop.