Andheri’s Link Road, every Mumbaiite will tell you, is a commuter’s nightmare. But hidden under all the exhaust fumes is a repository of celluloid dreams. A dusty lane off the road leads to Balaji Studios, the production house owned by Ekta Kapoor, the czarina of television soaps. As you approach that lane, turn right and you can’t miss the new board that says ‘BJAS’—Barry John’s Acting Studio.
A few years ago, you wouldn’t imagine John here. The veteran acting guru, thespian and film actor, then based in Delhi, was candid about his reservations about Mumbai’s money-driven theatre world. In his mind, Mumbai was antithetical to creative freedom. But at 60, John is taking a new jab.
The stakes in Mumbai have become bigger and better for his students (Shah Rukh Khan, Manoj Bajpai, Shiney Ahuja), who learnt their ropes with him and moved on to make Mumbai their home. With it, John’s cynicism has mellowed. He says the fact that he’s Ekta Kapoor’s neighbour hasn’t crossed his mind. His school, which opened its doors with its first class (of four students) on 14 April, is attracting aspiring actors who have passion for theatre, but are desperate to straddle roles in TV and film because that’s where the jobs are.
John, they believe, has the magic formula.
The teacher isn’t surprised—“Mechanical as it may sound, all actors need a bit of servicing. Especially now, when they’re moving from TV to film to theatre.” The workshops at Barry John’s Acting Studio—a beginner’s Certificate Course, the Advanced Master Class for professionals and the Customized Training Workshops for TV and Film Productions, among others—are attuned to today’s market for actors. Sanjay Sujitabh, executive director of the school and John’s partner, is the director of Set Makers, a company that designs sets for reality and game shows for television.
The 5,000sqft studio space is littered with setting-up paraphernalia—wall paint brushes, half-mounted racks and rolls of canvas paper. Posters of the Edinburgh Fringe theatre—where John’s most acclaimed play as an actor, Othello: A Play in Black and White, won an award—hang on the walls of John’s office. Delhi, in John’s mind, is already a dream that turned sour. “It’s my age to be making a shift, I guess, but more than that it’s the fact that theatre is dead in Delhi. It has been, for the last couple of years. I was trying to cling on. The final straw was the Delhi government’s seal on buildings. My school in Noida was shut down,” he says.
He conceived, wrote and directed his last work, the Honey trilogy (It’s All About Money, Honey; It’s All About God, Honey; and It’s All About Sex, Honey), two years ago, keeping Mumbai in mind. The shift to Mumbai may have begun in his mind then—it’s the story of an aspiring actor and his painful pursuit of stardom in Mumbai. “I had heard horror stories from my students about how difficult it was to get into the industry here. The camps and the politics and the competition, it really is a dog’s life for actors who are starting out in Bollywood.”
John came to India as part of a youth exchange programme of the British government in 1968. “It was so cool to be in India then,” he says. “I somehow avoided the hippie destinations and landed in Bangalore to teach English.” Already a trained teacher of drama, he moved to a theatre group called Yatrik and, in 1971, he was in Delhi, designing workshops at the National School of Drama when Ebrahim Alkazi, NSD’s first director, invited him.
He spent the next 36 years acting (in Pradip Kishan’s Massey Saheb, Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi and numerous plays) and teaching in Delhi.
His British-ness is now just a matter of birth. The clipped accent has acquired the twang of Indian English and Hindi words punctuate his daily vocabulary. John’s childhood in World War II-ravaged Coventry, where he dreamed of being on the stage despite constant disapproval from his parents, could be the story of Billy Elliot. “Except Billy Elliot’s father came to his first big performance, and mine never landed up,” he laughs.
“The emotional connection with my family was never there, so settling down in another country was never tough for me.” His only regret is that he missed out on the best days of English theatre—the 1960s, when many British playwrights finally broke out of the Shakespeare hangover and pushed the boundaries of writing and directing plays.
But he’s not comfortable mulling over it, or his theatre days in Delhi—“I want to explore film, it has always been a dream. There’s an Indian novel that’s been haunting me for years. That’ll be my dream project. Why hold on to something that’s not realistic. Kya faida?” he says, walking me out of his studio’s door, back to the din of Andheri’s Link Road.