The acting coach to the stars, Kishore Namit Kapoor, remembers getting off a train in Mumbai in 1972 and being in awe of a city utterly different from his hometown, Delhi. Kapoor wanted to be an actor, and he felt the city of dreams call out to him. After whiling away time in Juhu for a few months, he decided that the only place he could afford to stay, maybe even buy a house, was the one place nobody wanted to venture into—Andheri. It was a marshy wasteland, people told him. The film industry had its centre in Bandra at that time, but Kapoor couldn’t even think of staying where the stars did, given the astronomical rents. Today, as he sits in his acting ‘lab’ in the Maharashtra Housing & Area Development Authority area (MHADA), he laughs as he recalls the struggle to find an autorickshaw driver who would take you to the unfortunately-named Andheri. “Autos would drive away in haste. To get to Lokhandwala from the station, you had to change at least two autos, two buses and then walk it. But in Mumbai, a dog wags its tail vertically, not horizontally. And hence, people eventually had to move to Andheri. There is that lovely Gulzar song ‘Bhaade se oonchi building mein, building se ooncha bhaadaa hai.’ That’s true for Mumbai, right?”
A bald veteran and champion raconteur, Kapoor is given to spouting truisms borrowed from popular culture. He calls himself the ‘Monk Who Sold His Ferrari’ and refers to Andheri fame addicts who can’t handle rejection as people who’d wonder ‘Who moved my cheese?’ He is ultra filmi but also pragmatic. He abhors people who are delusional of either their talent or struggle for success. After all, he gave up his acting career because he realised that he was a better teacher. He sold his Lokhandwala Complex house and bought plots of land in MHADA, near Four Bungalows—where he says “actually only four bungalows once stood”. This is where he eventually started his Kishore Namit Kapoor Acting Lab.
He has taught all of them: star kids like Hrithik Roshan and Kareena Kapoor, as well as the faceless aspiring actor who defied his parents and left Lucknow in a huff. Talent can be duplicated, he feels, it’s what you do with it that matters.
And that’s when he tells us what Andheri really stands for, to him. “It’s an action-oriented area. Everyone asks ‘What’s in it for me?’ Let me tell you a joke: a guy standing in the shade asks a guy standing in the sun to come stand with him in the shade. The latter replies, ‘I will join you in the corner, but what will you give me for that?’”
But Kapoor doesn’t see anything wrong in that attitude. “If you’ve left your home behind, how does it matter leaving inhibitions behind as well? Everyone lives for themselves. Once their work is done, they disappear. Woh mohalle ka sukh-dukh nahin hain. (There is no camaraderie among neighbours)” Referring to the famous image of the Andheri struggler who hangs around the suburb’s coffee shops to get spotted, he grins before shattering the myth. “Nobody gets spotted here at all. The last person who I heard was ‘spotted’ was Vinod Mehra [supposedly by director Roop K Shorey at Gaylord near Churchgate]. This struggle is also such a myth. These wannabe actors would rather sit in a coffee shop and talk about their struggle instead of getting a job. There are many jobs. But talking about the struggle makes a good back story. But you have to say this—the dreams people come here with are as big as they come. It just doesn’t get any bigger.”
It’s true. From a marshy dump, the star planet (Andheri West, henceforth referred to as ‘AW’), its moons Versova and Oshiwara, and its sparkling star Lokhandwala, have become the one place where all dreams can come true. There is ambition, money and a will to survive. One of Mumbai’s largest suburbs (a 2001 survey shows AW’s population as 700,680, among the highest in the city), it was a swamp before it was reclaimed in the 70s as a residential area.
Today, it is called all sorts of things—the Concrete Jungle, Traffic Monster, Struggler Haven. The last is its most notorious, yet compelling, identity. AW is home to the TV industry. It is Mumbai’s audition hub too. Yash Raj has its headquarters here, Balaji has made it its home, and Priyanka Chopra and Shahid Kapoor are more than friendly neighbours in Versova. In the last five years, it’s become a big rival to cool Bandra with its malls, movie theatres, gyms of the hot yoga kind, cafes and stylish restaurants. AW has its own kind of crowd—the Lokhandwala fashionista-cum-aspiring actress in her oversized shades and glossy gym gear, the struggler with his waxed chest and Delhi accent, the businessman with the flashy car with bullet-hole stickers on it, and the young scriptwriter-director couple aching to make that ‘hatke’ movie. Andheri has room for everyone. It has also recently been a hotbed for crime—sometimes with a model/ actor at the centre. The Maria Susairaj and Vijay Palande cases both involved aspiring actresses.
It is a crazy town but rarely dull. Nearly everyone has a story to tell. Raju Manwani, the Lions Club International Multiple Council Chairman, who among other things owns a few shops in the Lokhandwala Shopping Complex, came to Mumbai from Chittorgarh in the 70s to become an actor (of course). After squatting at Dadar Station with Satish Kaushik (now a director, then a struggler) for six months, he decided to move to the suburbs to try his talent at theatre. Manwani’s parents had cut him off and he had to make a life for himself. Like Kishore Namit Kapoor, Manwani found that an acting career would take time to take off, so he got into real estate.
“I used to travel by camel as this area was all marshes,” Manwani says. “Where Lokhandwala stands now, there was only a garden. The cost here was Rs 140 per sq ft at that time. Can you imagine that? Now it’s not less than Rs 16-17,000.”
Ironically, Manwani is a bit of a Lok- handwala snob, who says “Lokhandwala carries weight, not Andheri. That’s the address you need.” And though he hates strugglers and advises you not to rent your home to a bachelor, he insists the best thing about Andheri is its cosmopolitan nature. “We at Lokhandwala have lived in peace for a long time. There were never any riots here,” he says.
There’s the underworld, though. He remembers clearly the 1991 ‘shootout at Lokhandwala’, immortalised by director Apoorva Lakhia in a movie with that title. The then additional commissioner of police, AA Khan, had turned up at Lokhandwala Complex on 16 November 1991 on information that gangster Maya Dolas was hiding there. “I came out of my shop and saw the chase. The police was running after Dolas,” says Manwani, “The whole of Lokhandwala shut down in five minutes.” But as though he has divulged something he shouldn’t have, he adds, “But it’s so safe here. You can get food at 4 am. Real estate is booming. We just need to control the crime, and that will happen if we control the bad elements. Strugglers need to be given homes only if they are verified. It’s got to be strict.”
It would seem that ‘the struggler’ is a creature well-off Andheriwalas would want to shun, even though it’s the Andheri Aspirant who gives the suburb so much of its charm. You can almost feel the heat of their dreams as they hold ‘meetings’ at cafes and shape their bodies at gyms. It reminds one of the Green Day song, Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Because a Shah Rukh Khan story is only one in a million.
Says aspiring actress—not ‘struggler’—Archana Vadnerkar, “If you call yourself a struggler, you will remain a struggler.” She has been here for six years, and is still to see her first movie released (she has just completed a movie with Ashmit Patel called Supermodel). Archana is from Hyderabad, and says she is a software engineer and an MBA. She wants to become a Chartered Accountant next. Her father, a BHEL employee, was conservative. But Archana loved to model. She dug her heels in and moved to Mumbai after winning a talent search contest. And though she says that not everyone in Andheri wants to live here, it’s the one place everyone can afford; she pays around Rs 20,000 for a one-bedroom apartment (no boys allowed).
One look at Archana and you see that she fits the Andheri Aspirant archetype—she is hopeful, aware of her limitations, independent and ambitious. She doesn’t want to give up, at least not yet. She also possesses that all-important survival skill—she knows how to pick herself up after a rejection. “This is not easy, the kind of life we lead,” she says, “But I like a challenge. And Andheri gives me that opportunity to live without tension.” She knows that the ‘naas’ are going to far exceed the ‘haans’. But she doesn’t mind. “You need to make that investment of time and passion. Then only it will happen for you.”
Gym owner Nitin Gupta agrees with Archana. He can’t stand people who don’t try but are all talk. A Delhi-born Punjabi from Bandra, Gupta not only tried, he did it his way. Ten years ago, he opened his gym Sykz in Andheri. With a name that drew inspiration from the word ‘psyched’, it was India’s first ‘lifestyle’ gym, he claims. He went ahead even though people advised him to avoid the suburb. He had originally come to AW to set up a juice bar, but it was a gym that he finally built.
Today, Sykz is among the most popular gyms around, full of hot bodies and brimming talent. Nestled in the heart of Lokhandwala at the Millat Nagar circle, surrounded by Barista, Café Coffee Day and Dominos outlets, it’s where many of those filmi interactions happen. It’s not uncommon to see a big-time director working out next to a wannabe actor dying to ask for a break. But decorum must be maintained. Gupta has even thrown out a few people who became a bother for his high-profile clients (Ram Gopal Varma is among the regulars).
“The charm of Andheri is that it’s the place to get noticed, but that could also be in a negative way. Sitting at a coffee shop for hours is not going to work. Go out there, try, and then do something [within] your limitations. This attitude of ‘for fame, I will do anything’ is what I hate. Andheri suffers because of that attitude,” says Gupta, who has now made Andheri his home. “My home is now almost eight times its value. Mumbai is a city where people have got tired of travelling, and their suburb is becoming their life. The life you can lead in Andheri is a good life to have.”
It’s a city within a city for sure. Even though traffic is harrowing, Andheriwalas are proud of their suburb. They have the best at their fingertips. The malls, high street boutiques, swanky high-rises and fine dining restaurants all ensure a social life that’s the envy of other suburbanites. Many would say that Andheri lacks the culture of Juhu or Bandra, but that’s where Andheriwali Shruti Seth differs. The actress, seen in films like Rajneeti and TV shows like Kahaani Comedy Circus Ki, has lived in Andheri for 34 years now. Born and brought up in Andheri (her parents bought a house years ago for only Rs 28,000), she remembers being teased by her college mates at St Xavier’s College for living in the back of beyond.
“I was a subject of derision for a long time,” says Shruti. “I have seen it become what is has—the first mall, the first multiplex. It’s a young population, and is developing on a massive scale. I have become a reverse snob. ‘This is where it is,’ I tell everyone. If the people who live here are so cool, it has to be cool, right?” Shruti has a one-member company, aptly titled My Company. She wants to make the suburb a cool cultural hub as well. She has been organising comedy nights at Apicius, a continental restaurant, and Sunday brunches at Svenska, a boutique hotel. “My aim is to tell people, ‘Everything you go to Bandra for, I will bring here.’ It’s time we made Andheri as cool as can be. I am working on having an Andheri festival, which will have the works. You want a yoga workshop? It will be there. You want to shop at a flea market? I will make it possible.”
Shruti is unhappy that the image of the Andheri Aspirant has stolen the suburb’s reputation, though. “Just because it has room for everyone, it doesn’t mean that those are the people who make up this suburb. There are people like you and me, who want to see this neighbourhood culturally charged. People need to be proud of being Andheriwalas.”
Whoever you may be, an original Andheriwala like Shruti or a new occupant of a 1-BHK in Lokhandwala Complex, Andheri and its satellite spheres embrace everyone. Kishore Namit Kapoor could be right when he says that “Ek baar yahan koi aa jata hain, woh wapas nahin jaata. (Once someone moves in, s/he never leaves)”, as in the Eagles’ Hotel California. “It makes you dream like never before,” says Kapoor, “Isn’t that an addiction hard to quit?”