Beginning Data Science: A New Journey

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For over a decade now, I have chased the dream of becoming a Bollywood star. It has been an amazing ride full of ups and downs. There have been some minor breakthroughs but nothing significant enough for me to make a living out of. So, while this journey as an aspiring Bollywood actor has taught me a lot and I have thoroughly enjoyed and loved every bit of it, I have come to realize that it is time to pull the plug.

It has taken a lot of effort for me to come to terms with the fact that my acting career is going nowhere. For over 15 years, all that I wanted was this. No matter what I did, no matter where I went, I always felt that it will connect back to my dream. But now, I feel like I do not want to invest any more of my youth in this “struggle”. I need to accept that I have failed. And it is now time to move on.

It makes me very sad. I feel like something is dying inside me. After all, it’s a dream I have chased since I was 16. However, I have found some solace in the knowledge that acting is now a part of who I am and I can always continue being an actor on the side. This is where acting becomes a hobby for me like playing the guitar or dancing or travel. May be I can get back to doing theatre and join the countless number of doctors, engineers, working professionals who use it as a way of expressing themselves! With that in mind, I have made my peace with my decision of giving up my Bollywood aspirations.

Once I made this call, I started looking at other things that excite me – other areas where I thought I could make a difference. I have worked as a Senior Travel Writer, Editor and Manager over the last few years. During this time, I have had time to travel, volunteer, teach, write, think and reconsider my career options. After a fair amount of self-discovery, I have concluded that the best combination of what I would like to do and what the world needs right now is data science in the solar energy sector.

The world of renewable energy, like every other field these days, generates huge amounts of data and there is a need for analysts and scientists who can make sense of this data. With skilled effort in the right direction, a lot can be done to bring down solar implementation costs. That to me is an exciting future to work towards. With my background in Electronics and Telecommunications engineering, and my interest in programming and statistics, it felt like the right thing to pursue next.

I started my data science journey last year with an introductory course on the R programming language on a website called Datacamp. I have followed it up with an MIT OCW course on Introduction to Computational Thinking Using Python. I have also applied to several universities for my Masters in Business Analytics/ Data Science/ Information Systems. If all goes well, I hope to begin higher studies in Fall 2018.

This is a new beginning and as one would expect, I am nervous and anxious just like I was at the beginning of my Bollywood struggle. I am 32 now and it scares the shit out of me to restart my whole career. Nevertheless, I am driven by the fact that I now have a new purpose – one that can add some value to the world and also help me meet my true potential. I realize that this may look like a clichéd choice, a silly one even. But what matters to me is – it feels like something worth doing no matter how people perceive it. It is what my heart is pointing me towards.

This post also marks the end of my blog – “Chasing my only dream”. A big THANK YOU to all the readers who have followed my journey so far! I will continue to blog on my personal website – dilipmerala.com. If you still wish to know what I am up to or know more about my Data Science and Solar Energy journey, feel free to drop by and follow me on my website! There might still be the occasional theatre or acting post there 😉 But now, it won’t be with the motive of “chasing a dream”.

I wish each one of you all the best and once again, thank you for staying with me virtually all this while!

Love,
Dilip Merala

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Leh Ladakh road trip 2016 video – a message of love from Jammu and Kashmir

It is one of the most hyped-up, celebrated, and even feared routes of India. Manali-Leh is on the wishlist of every biker. Having done bike trips to Rajasthan, Karnataka, Goa, Assam, Meghalaya and the interiors of my resident state Maharashtra, my friends kept asking me when I plan to do the mighty Ladakh trip. As tens of my friends posted their own Ladakh pictures on social media, I must confess, I was losing interest in doing it.  Leh Ladakh felt more and more like one of the destinations that are on their way to becoming commercial tourist hot spots with huge crowds during the peak season.  But then I thought that may be we still have a couple of years before it reaches that stage and  a trip during the end of season (September it gets quite cold) could still be worth it. I am so glad that I took that call. Some of my close friends joined in and before we knew it, we were on our bikes riding from Chandigarh to Leh. It was one hell of an adventurous trip which I will soon write about on my travel blog. But what I would like to share here is a video that I made during the trip. While I was riding, my favorite song was playing in my head and I though why not make a little dance video with the people I meet featuring the stunning landscapes of Ladakh. I did not know how it will turn out but I thought “What the hell?!? Let’s try it.” I got back home, watched some Adobe Premier Pro tutorials and edited the video in a couple of hours. The end result is a message of love to my soulmate, wherever she is!

Hope this reaches you 🙂

When I played Kans during Janmashtami in a village in Uttarakhand…

When you really want to act, opportunity presents itself in one way or another. So when I was far away from Mumbai in the hills of Uttarakhand, some kids were putting together a skit for their annual Janmashtami celebrations. Upon learning about my theatre background, they were kind enough to offer me the role of Kans in their skit. I was stunned at the organized way in which they rehearsed weeks before the performance date, arranged their well-labelled costumes in trunks, got their make-up done… they could put professional theatre artists to shame! I will post my Uttarakhand story  on my travel blog some other day but for now, I would like to share my Kans performance (just because I am missing the kids terribly today! ) While I rate the performance quite low, the experience of playing the villain before 200 villagers who got extremely emotional and engrossed in every scene is unforgettable! You won’t believe how much they cried when Krishna was bidding goodbye to Yashodha to go to Mathura for a duel with Kans. The day and the performance has stayed with me ever since.
Best. Audience. Ever.

Quit acting? Not yet…

When I named this blog ‘Chasing my only dream’, I was being honest. It really was my only dream. Yes, I am saying WAS. Things have changed in the past couple of years and in my journey so far, I have reached a point where I have picked up other interests, other skills, other DREAMS!

After my corporate life ended in 2012, I decided to focus only on acting. It primarily meant looking for acting work and rehearsing as much as I could at home. I started going to every studio I knew and checked if i was fit to audition. 9 out of 10 times, I wasn’t. This was not new to me but when you have nothing else to do, this gets depressing pretty soon. Yes, I got a small role in a major film. However, my total number of work days was less than 25. Add to that a few days of assisting on ad films, shooting for a short film, and some theatre rehearsals and shows. It still summed up to about 50. What does a guy do for the remaining 315 days of the year?

While I don’t think this is the case for all aspiring actors, I was not okay with this for myself. I was in my late 20s and did not want to spend most of my adult life just “looking for work”. This is when I remembered the words of a teacher in my life  I have always looked up to.

I had worked with Neeraj Kabi as a production controller for his production of Hamlet which till date, is the finest play I have seen in my life. I was fortunate to be part of a team which included terrific actors like Shivani Tanksale, Neil Bhoopalam, Reshma Shetty, Mandar Gokhale and Ujjwal Chopra amongst others. Although I only did backstage, admin and production work for a whole year, the time I spent with Neeraj Sir gave me the light that still guides me through.

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When I took his 10-day acting workshop, he used a phrase I can never forget – “shopping for life”. I can never be as articulate as he was but the gist of it is – you need to live your life, have all the experiences you possibly can, to become a better actor. He said acting is a craft and you need at least 10-15 years to be good at it, may be even more. But you keep living your life, and you keep doing your riyaz as an actor! He also said that there is no point taking pride doing a huge number of shows if you are not growing.

This is when I thought – can I really become a better actor if I spend all my time looking for acting work, doing these little roles here and there which finally just come down to memorizing lines and reproducing them in front of the camera. Even if I do get an excellent role, what experiences do i have to be able to do justice to it? While I was lost in this thought not knowing where to head, I saw in the news that Uttarakhand was hit by floods and there was tremendous loss of lives and property. I spoke with my friend Nikhil Bangera, made some arrangements, and 10 days later, I was in Uttarakhand as a volunteer.

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My trip was supposed to be a 10-day trip where I was just help as much as I can and get back. But the most wonderful thing happened then. I met a bunch of kids who lived in a school named SNC. We connected in our first meeting and they insisted I stay with them. I took an English session for them (these were all Hindi medium kids) one morning and continued doing my volunteer work the rest of the day. I met several families with old parents who had lost their sons – some very young, others who were themselves fathers to infants. Along with local volunteers, I traveled to villages for surveys, delivering food and solar lamps, and sent reports to organisations for more help (all under SNC which is also an NGO). No matter how bad things got and how low I felt, getting back to the kids was a delight. I ended up living in Uttarakhand for 2 months.

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In this time, as a payback to these little sweethearts, I started teaching them English since they had enjoyed the session I had conducted. They were all extremely sharp kids but were not exposed to the English language. We started lessons at 7 am every morning and by the end of 2 months, we had completed an entire basic English module. I sat with each one of them and gave them feedback on their progress as some of my teachers used to give me. I was overwhelmed by their enthusiasm and quest to learn whatever they could. I also ended up doing two plays with them – one on the story of Snow White (a version they narrated to me in Hindi and then we translated together in English) and Krishnaleela on the day of Janmashtami where I played Kans! I was surprised at this opportunity to act arising out of the least expected place. Also, the dedication and zest with which these kids worked on their lines, costumes, song and dance sequences put all of my preparation as an actor to shame. On the day of the performance, the girl playing Yashoda burst into tears during the scene when Krishna leaves for Mathura. She went on and on even when she was backstage and stopped only after I consoled her for a few minutes (right till the time of my entry). I could see around 200 villagers in the audience, all getting emotional at each and every scene. I was only hoping that they do not hate me after I played Kans! But mercifully, nothing of that sort happened and the show was perhaps the most memorable performance and experience of my life! I said to myself that if I really wanted to act, life will present me with an opportunity one way or the other. But if I give up on these experiences, I will probably never grow.

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After I came back to Mumbai, I tried to get a fresh perspective on things. I got another film project, a couple of stints with TVF and a wonderful short film. I started traveling more. I did a bike trip from Mumbai to Rajasthan where my friend and I covered Barmer, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur,  Pokhran, Osian and Ranakpur. A couple of months later, I did another Delhi-Agra-Rajasthan trip with my actor friend Deshik Vansadia and two lovely ladies from the U.S. of A.

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This was followed by some Goa trips and another snow trek in Uttarakhand and some adventures in Rishikesh. Recently, I backpacked solo across Himachal where I visited Kasol, Tosh, Kheerganga, Rewalsar and spent one crazy night in Delhi. I also did a solo bike trip across Assam and Meghalaya. India is absolutely stunning! All you guys reading this – please PLEASE go see as much of India as you can. You will be amazed at how much it has to offer! You can read about my travel experiences on my travel blog here.

The teaching experience in Uttarakhand was quite fulfilling so I thought I should take it forward. This has led to me teaching street kids in Mumbai as a volunteer. My friend Nikhil, who gave up his managerial job to pursue a career in Education, is my inspiration for this. I have always believed in the power of education to solve India’s problems and may be, as part of the youth of my nation, I can play a little role in it.

The auditions have dried up a bit recently but life goes alright. Every once in a while I do get called by some casting directors like Abhishek Banerjee and Anmol Ahuja for an ad audition. I have taken up a job as a Travel content writer so that I can save some money to be able to travel more. I have met many new people in my new office, made new friends, and had embarrassing  and awkward experiences. I continue to look for theatre work and performance opportunities more than auditions.

So what I am trying to say is this – things have been changing and I have been trying to embrace the change. Call it loss of focus if you will but I am actually enjoying this – trying to juggle acting, travel and teaching. I can’t see where I am going from here. I am anxious. I am also excited to see what happens from here on. I know for sure that I am in no way going to give up acting. I still text casting directors to ask for work. I still look for theatre opportunities. But now, I don’t have the craving to be a “star”. I don’t like the cost benefit ratio. I want to live my life, see the world, and in the bargain, I believe I will become a much better actor than I am today. It’s time to “SHOP FOR LIFE”.

TVF Qtiyapa – My first experience with the genius gems of The Viral Fever

In early 2014, my friend Nidhi Bisht called me one evening. She asked me if I was free to shoot a video with TVF in a couple of days. The role was that of Eeshwar Bhagwan – a south Indian choreographer/director who is making a 200-crore film starring the “Bhai” of Bollywood. You can connect the dots. I didn’t have to think twice before saying ‘Of course, I’d love to’. She asked me to coordinate with Amit Golani a.k.a Golu who was to direct this video.

I had met almost the entire team of TVF when they came to watch our play ‘Who let the dogs out’ which incidentally is directed by Bisht. However, fate never presented me with an opportunity to work with them until this project. Bisht thought I would be fit for the part as she had seen me do a South Indian accent in our play and also some of my dancing skills.

I was called to the TVF office at Aaram Nagar at 1pm. I reached a few minutes before Amit and was staying out of the sight of some stray dogs (I’m very scared of dogs) when a rickshaw came and stopped before me. Amit paid the driver, greeted me and we walked inside. My experience has shown me that the most talented guys are also the ones who are the most humble. It took just a minute with Amit to know that he was one of them – a simple, earthy guy whose talent could intimidate you but presence, never will.

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Many of my friends had already visited the TVF office but this was my first time. It was a new office they had recently moved into and everything looked messy. The door opened to a big room (more in length than breadth) where few plastic Nilkamal chairs were placed. I was surprised when a couple of days later, I saw the same room converted into a magnificent set for our shoot. A month later the left quarter of the same room was converted into a writer’s bay covered with hanging mats. (This is where all those terrific scripts now come from!)

Amit gave me a short narration of the script and called me for a reading later that evening. It was in the same office but further down from the main hall. The other end of the hall had a door which opened to a lobby attached to a small cabin. This was Arunabh’s office and the Edit bay. It further led to an open backyard with trees, and some benches where people chatted over chai and sutta. The whole team of TVF was already there – Arunabh, Bisht, Bisso, Jeetu, Raghav, Amrit, Prem, and Golu of course.

They told me that it was actually Arunabh, the founder of TVF, who was to play the part but had to back out at the last minute due to some other commitments. This is when Bisht had suggested my name. We started reading and everybody seemed to like the way I was reading my part. By the time we ended, I knew exactly what was required of me in the shoot.

I spent the next couple of days watching the south Indian director’s interviews and several of his dance videos. This guy was unbelievably spectacular! Out of the 100 steps I tried, I could only manage to get around 4-5 right. I practiced the accent and spoke with my roommates in the same accent till the day of the shoot. I read about his life and tried to get an insight of the kind of person he might be. Two days later, I still felt I wasn’t ready but it was time to go. There is no denying that I was nervous as shit. It was probably the most challenging role I had ever played on camera, certainly the meatiest and it was for TVF! I knew that thousands of people were going to watch this one.

The shoot was scheduled across 2 days. Day 1 was at the TVF office in Aaram Nagar and through the night into Day 2 at an office in Powai and an outdoor set in Madh Island. I had no clue how so many shots could be covered in such a short duration. I just went with the flow.

We started with the static bits where each actor just spoke to the camera like you see in the “making of” videos. This was followed by the dance sequence and other indoor scenes. Finally, the outdoor scenes were shot in Madh island. And so, we kept shooting scene after scene. Some scenes were wrapped up in no time but there were some so funny that the actors and the crew could barely control their laughter – like the scene where bhai learns his dance moves or the one where Khatrughan delivers her dialogue (Nidhi Bisht brings on her A game!). Every take left people in splits causing more retakes. Needless to say that it was all totally worth it!

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The most irritating part for me was the beard. This was the first time I was shooting with a fake beard. It had to be stuck with a solution which was very… well… sticky! We were shooting in the beginning of summer so it was pretty hot. And while I hardly noticed anything when I was performing my part, the long breaks with the beard on were quite annoying.

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Mercifully, one of the greatest things about working with the guys at TVF is that they are all at their humorous best regardless of how tense the situation or how hectic the schedule. Of course, they are all thorough professionals who know when to shut up and focus too. In general, they are a happy, hilarious bunch of people on set who maintain a convivial atmosphere and never make you feel bored. I guess this is what transpires in the work that they do.

Anyway, while it seemed impossible to me at first, the way the TVF team wrapped up the entire shoot in such a short while blew my mind away! I was eagerly waiting for the edit and when I saw the final video, I fell short of words to praise the team. I had seen their work but being a part of it was just an outstanding experience.

It is obvious that these guys are supremely talented. But that is never enough, is it? They are also smart, funny, efficient, and professional. But that doesn’t suffice too. I guess what does the trick is – how badly they want to do this and how much they are willing to put at stake. May be this is what the ridiculously overused word ‘passion’ really means! Be it the art direction team, the ADs, the actors, the director, the writers, the musicians or the founder – every person you see on the team in any TVF project is someone who really realllllyyy wants to be there. They love what they do and they put their heart, sweat and soul into it. It would be fair to say that they have dedicated their lives to this.

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Regardless of who you are and what you do, one day with TVF can inspire you to follow your dream. And also make you feel how TVF deserves every bit of the success it has achieved.

If you guys at TVF are reading this – Bisht, Bisso, Golu, Anand, Deepak, Jeetu, Amrit, Raghav, Prem, Vaibhav and of course, Arunabh – I love you all and I have enjoyed every bit of my work and association with you! More importantly , you are a huge inspiration for me and so many others. Keep experimenting… Keep leading the way!

2 States is done.. Now what??

I was sitting on the couch at my place in Andheri. It was 3 in the afternoon and I realized that my life had returned to being pretty much the same as it was before I shot for 2 states. Most part of my day was being spent just lying around doing nothing. This bothered me because I had always believed that no matter what we do, we should try to build an upward graph otherwise all your previous work goes wasted. However, I was suddenly feeling reluctant to go hunting for auditions. I dreaded hearing the “Not fit” that I usually heard almost every time I walked in for an audition that I wasn’t called for. I felt very uncomfortable with the thought of going back in those huge crowds of aspiring actors who flock audition studio doors waiting for their turn. And there are always some smart asses who jump their turn in the cue-sheet and end up getting in ahead of the others. I asked myself if I was getting complacent after doing a Dharma film. But that was certainly not the case as I clearly knew that my role is 2 States wasn’t big enough for me to even relax thinking that I have done a big banner film. It was more like the role of a background artist. Then what was stopping me from getting back out there? It was FEAR. The fear of getting back into the world of auditions, meetings and the so-called “struggle” which always made me think that I was a misfit there. I had loved every bit of the shooting process though. Being on set, acting in a film, rehearsing my part and playing it in front of the camera… was every bit as cool as I had imagined it to be. I had brushed shoulders with Arjun and Alia.. had little conversations with Remo and Binod Pradhan. Now, getting back into the crowd where I was a nobody and the urge to crack it again to be on a similar set-up was frightening me. It was making me extremely nervous. It took me a while to tell myself that life moves on. I should be prepared to even think that the Dharma gig was a fluke and I might not work with a big banner again. Does that mean I will stop acting? No! Does that mean that I will put my acting life on hold till I get a call again from Dharma or Yash Raj or any of such big names? Of course not! And not just me, even the biggest of stars don’t do just big banner work. Everybody from Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan, from Madhuri Dixit to Vidya Balan, from Paresh Rawal to Anupam Kher… EVERYBODY has worked in all kinds of films made by all kinds of banners. So who am I? With that in mind, I started looking for auditions again. However, before I could go hunting for an audition, it found me. I got a call from my friend Manoj Kirdat, who was my ex-roomie. He was assisting in a small-budget film which was to cast all new actors. He told me it was being directed by Sunil Subramani, who has been Anurag Basu’s assistant for many years. He asked me if I would be interested to audition for it. I immediately said Yes. I was called to the Santacruz office of Mahima Productions for an audition. Manoj met me there and gave me a brief of 2 characters. AD Avinash then auditioned me for both the characters – one a chawl hooligan and the other an office guy – both were to be the protagonist’s friends. My auditions were recorded and I was told someone will get back to me. A few days later I got a call from Sikander bhai from the production department informing me that I was selected for the chawl guy Pakya’s role.  I then had a meeting with the director, Sunil, to discuss my character and look and in about a week’s time, we were shooting my first scene. The film was to be called ‘Fuddu’.

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The Ahmadabad Schedule of 2 states – Part 2

The next day was to be the day of shooting the placements scene. When I walked into the costume department, I was given a cool shirt, trousers and a suit. I do not own a suit and the only time I had worn one was for a play. I had loved wearing it. And the one Nikita and Natascha had picked for me was awesome. After I got dressed, Nikita confirmed that I was looking great. I then moved to the floor where the shot was set up. I was asked to wait while some other scene in which I wasn’t required was being shot. It was 9 in the morning. The sun was beginning to shine brighter and brighter making the shirt inside my blazer more and more moist with sweat. Wearing the blazer in the Ahmadabad heat was killing me so after a while, I took it off. Thankfully then, I found my way to an air-conditioned room where some ADs and technicians were working. I pulled up a chair and sat in a corner. After I got there, things weren’t too bad. I waited, played games on my phone, chatted for a while with Sakshi (who kept going out and coming in as per her requirement in shots), and before I realized, it was lunch time. The food counters were set up outdoors next to the WIMWI souvenir shop. I was extremely cautious that I don’t spoil my costume while eating by accidentally dropping food on it. So, I maintained a good distance (about a foot and a half) from the table where I kept my plate and did an entire ab crunch as I bent down to put morsels into my mouth. I got back into the room as soon as I could.

The afternoon passed as people from the production and direction team kept coming into the room for some work or the other. I kept thinking about how cool it would be to see myself on the big screen wearing a suit. The memory of Nikita saying that I looked great kept making me smile and wonder how my friends would feel when they see the cool, suited-up Dilip on the big screen. But as I kept waiting for someone to call me for my shot, pack up was announced at around 7pm. It was the end of the placement scene. This was the first time that I had dressed up for a shot and was not made to shoot. It reminded me of college days when I was a bench player for my basketball team. Of course, there was nothing to complain – I was getting paid for the day, was fed meals on time and was hosted in an AC room. I thought this was perhaps one of the better treatments beginners get in this industry. Kriti, Karina and Ishaan might have sensed that I was disappointed about what happened. Ishaan walked up to me and told me that this happens sometimes. It is part and parcel of the process. I understood what he meant. It was just new to me and I was feeling a bit disappointed on losing an opportunity to be filmed in a suit. Also, I was very nervous about the extent of my appearance in the film. So far, it was looking as if I won’t be seen in the film at all. However, little did I know that from that moment onwards, things were only going to look up. What followed in the days to come was the most enjoyable time of my Ahmedabad schedule.

Later that night, Karina informed me that I was not needed to come in early the next day. She made sure that I reached the set only when I was actually needed. Once I was on set (around 1 pm), I was informed that we were to shoot some song cuts in the classroom for which I was to be in the same frame as Arjun. We were also to shoot a small scene later between Arjun and Alia where I had a line to say and all the 5 Mohits had a reaction to give. This got me super excited! Finally, I was to do something more than just standing in the background. I was dying to PERFORM and as small as this scene was, here was my chance! My costumes were being changed as per what Arjun was wearing. It had to be made sure that the frame looked pleasant. I sat next to Arjun and while the shot was being set up, we had our first little chat. I told him about his fan Harshita who had contacted me and asked me to give him a message. He smiled and acknowledged that he knew her. We spoke a bit about other stuff and then a couple of minutes later, the best part of the day came upon us. The part when the gorgeous, stunning Alia walked into the room. This had now become an everyday routine. Amidst a regular day of work with usual on-set activities when things would look dull and boring, Alia, wearing Manish Malhotra’ amazing creations, would walk on to the set and everybody’s jaws would drop. I could hear girls sighing “WOW” and boys saying.. well.. all kinds of stuff! She changed the entire atmosphere as soon as she walked in. The Ahmedabad heat did not burn as much. The wait for Abhishek’s “Action” did not seem long anymore. Like they show in Bollywood films, it became breezy and smelled rosy all of a sudden.You just did not want to take your eyes off her beautiful face, her cute dimples, her wavy hair and that smile which could cast a hypnotic spell on anybody. I am an actor and I hope to do many films, and shoot in several schedules and be on many sets in my life. But I am sure that these will always be my favourite on-set moments – Alia Bhatt walking in to give a shot!

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Anyway, the shot was almost ready when Nikita walked up to me with a red kurta just before Binod Sir was about to roll and asked me to change. Abhishek was not happy with what I was wearing and wanted a change in colour. As always, the team was extremely determined to get the colour combination, the background and the look exactly as per their vision. Now, as you might have read in one of my previous posts, I am very shy about taking off my shirt in public. I wanted to rush to a corner but Arjun’s make-up man Raju Bhai noticed my shyness and shouted out – “Arre yaar apun artist hai.. sharma mat.. nikaal shirt idhar hi bindaas” (We are artists.. don’t be shy.. just take off your shirt). Thanks to Raju Bhai’s loud announcement, most of the background artists who were doing their own stuff so far were now looking at me. That was fine. What sucked was that Alia stood right in front of me chatting with Arjun and Abhishek. When you go shirtless in front of a girl, you want to be confident about what lies underneath. And when that girl is Alia Bhatt, you want to have the best physique possible. I, on the other hand, had what could probably be the worst physique in that classroom. And yet, there was no way out. I quickly turned my back towards Arjun and Alia and changed looking at Raju Bhai who kept giggling as I did so. Thankfully, they were so busy chatting that Alia never looked at me. At least I hope she didn’t.

Then, there was some problem with the light and the set up was to take longer. So I just sat next to Arjun waiting for it when the weirdest thing happened. Alia walked up to Arjun from my left and Abhishek walked up from the front and the four of us formed a small little quadrangle. At this point Alia held the bench I was leaning on and her hand slightly touched mine. I got very nervous and moved my hand inwards. And now, Alia, Arjun and Abhishek got into a discussion about some shoot schedule stuff. All I can say about that discussion is that it made me realize how professional Arjun was. He had some other projects going and was very particular about keeping all his commitments. He was absolutely certain that he wanted to accommodate everything that required his attention. This whole discussion went on for about 10-15 minutes and all this while, I just sat there between the three of them.. not moving an inch.. not saying a word.. and very very conscious that Alia was standing so close to me! There were times when I wanted to contribute to the discussion but I thought it would be awkward as it didn’t concern me at all. So I just kept quiet. And just as I was getting used to and comfortable with the 3 of them near me, Binod Sir was ready to shoot. There will be a time when I might get very comfortable with stars and superstars around me but I will never forget these restless moments spent between Arjun, Alia and Abhishek!

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After this incident, shoot was fun. It was easy to look at Arjun and Alia and smile normally as a normal person would. Then, the little scene was shot where I had a line to say to Arjun and I thought “Yaaayyyyy! At least I now have as many lines as I had in The Dirty Picture… ONE!” :D. We shot some more song cuts in the days to come. A few days later, on a hot Ahmadabad afternoon, we shot a scene with Alia wearing hot pants (the one you might have seen in the promos). I was supposed to be sitting in the campus reacting to Alia’s shorts as Arjun and Alia walked in front of me. This scene was shot right in the middle of the afternoon and the heat was the worst I had witnessed during the entire shoot. Our chief AD, Pravesh kept instructing me to move into the shade every time the shot was cut. Acheet Dada from production kept getting everyone water bottles to keep them hydrated. And Arjun and Alia did their best to wrap up the scene as quickly as possible. However, by the end of that day, I was so tanned that one could notice the difference on my face. It was almost like a burn. I had a word with Binod Sir about the Ahmedabad heat and he said, “Have you never been to Ahmedabad before?” I told him that I had visited once for a few hours but this was the first time I was here for so long. He said “Ahmedabad is known for this. This is how it is over here..always!” Nevertheless, it was a good experience and once again, was a reality check that acting outdoors is not child’s play. Actors need to be prepared to work in such conditions or even worse.

Sid came back in a couple of days and we shot the convocation scene, once again under the hot Ahmedabad sun. The job done by all the ADs on this day is commendable. They had to manage a huge crowd of a few hundred people and they did it very efficiently. AD Karina, who has the most adorable accent when she speaks in Hindi, exercised the full capacity of her throat as she kept shouting and asking artists to get ready and reach the set. I will never forget her trying to tell a few girls – “aap log… (pause and hand gesture)… udhar pe… (pause and head shake)… jaao”. The shoot was also interrupted by rain due to which it had to be carried over to the next day. But the team managed it quite easily and actually ended up wrapping up the shoot earlier than expected. It was a pleasant sight looking at the ADs playing in the rain and clicking pictures, taking some time off their super busy schedule.

And then came the day when I saw how supremely popular our choreographer REMO was amongst the people of India. We were shooting for a song called ‘Locha-e-ulfat’ in the new IIM campus. As usual, Kshamata and the rest of the art department had done a marvellous job setting up a colourful background against which Arjun was to dance.

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I too was one of the many people dancing behind him. Remo was at his best throughout the shoot. Although he was very serious about his work, he had a lighter side to him which often showed in his one liners. For one of the cuts he asked people at the back to do any activity of their choice while Arjun walked forward. After one take, he shouted “Cut” because he realized everyone behind did just one thing – Look at the book they had in their hands. He announced on the mike – “ Waah, yeh kaunsa college hai yaar jahaan itni padhaai hoti hai?? Aur koi activity hi nahin hoti!” (Which college is this where the only activity done is studying?) Everybody burst out laughing. When pack up was announced after a fun-filled day of dance, crowds had already gathered around the campus to see the shoot. When artists started leaving, the crowds came in and I thought they would all flock Arjun and Alia for pictures. But what I saw was that they all ran straight towards Remo. Group after group, people went to him, shook his hand, and clicked pictures with him while he obliged. What should be a 10-minute walk to the main entrance took Remo almost 30 minutes. I was amazed at the love people had for him. And why not?!?Such a great guy – an immensely talented and successful choreographer and yet so humble!

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On one of the last few nights of shooting in Ahmadabad, we were to do a little scene where I got my second line in the film. This last minute addition came as a pleasant surprise to me. I was happy that it gave me a chance to be a bit more visible in the film. At the same time, I felt a bit disheartened that this came at a point when I was looking the worst I have looked in a long time. Due to shooting in the sun over the last few days, my face was messed up and make up was not helping. However, I said to myself that my role was such that I did not need to look “good”. I was playing an IIM nerd and my own understanding of my character said that he doesn’t care about how he looks. Plus, after this entire experience, I was extremely happy to just be a part of 2 states. It had given me an opportunity to be an actor in a Dharma film, to be present on a Dharma set, to witness something fantastic being made. I was working with the likes of Binod Pradhan, Abhishek Varman, Arjun Kapoor, and Alia Bhatt. Line or no line, looking good or not good was just not that important. I was just HAPPY to be there. And I just wanted to give it everything that I got – my 100%!

We shot the scene with Arjun and Alia standing near a tea stall in the campus. We did a couple of takes and Binod Sir also took a close up of mine. This is where Arjun sweetly volunteered to stand behind the camera and give me an expression so that I could react to him. He didn’t have to do this… not for a new actor like me whom he hardly knew. But that was just how dedicated he was to a scene. He wanted everything to work perfectly. And being a humble, grounded guy by nature, this gesture came pretty naturally to him. I was also very impressed with his wit and humour during the entire shooting process. I remember for one of the song cuts , we shot an exam sequence where we were asked to submit our answer sheets one by one on “Action”. Seconds before our AD Arif was to call “Action”, Arjun pointed out that he hasn’t been given an answer sheet to submit and said – “There is only so much I can act, you know!” 😀

Exam

On the last day of shoot in Ahmadabad, I was given a half-sleeved, Eureka Forbes kind of a shirt for a little song cut that was to be shot in the library. Alia looked at me and smiled as we said ‘Hi’ to each other for the last time. Her smile was a bit more like a laugh. I guess it must be because of what I was wearing. After that, it was a wrap for Sid and me. I met Arjun, Alia, Abhishek, Binod Sir and the team of ADs and Production before leaving the set. I thanked them for what had been the greatest shooting experience of my life. A day later, I was back in Mumbai looking for work.