Alekh Sangal is anything but the lower middle class, immigrant character he plays in Kshay. I discover this over a cup of coffee with the actor at Di Bella Coffee shop in Versova on a lazy Monday afternoon. Dressed in a casual T-shirt and a pair of comfortable jeans, Sangal comes across every bit the privileged Mumbai western suburb inhabitant, his character, Arvind, in Kshay wasn’t. But life hasn’t always been this kind to the 28-year-old Sangal.
Alekh’s father was yesteryear film director, the late Ambrish Sangal. Ambrish was best known for his films Aatish (1979), Aap Toh Aise Na Thai (1980), Dard (1981), Door-Desh (1983) and Wanted (1984). The last two as Alekh claims, with great pride, were, “India’s first film to be shot entirely abroad and India’s first Western [respectively].” Yet, having tasted the pinnacle of success in the early ’80s, Ambrish stumbled thereafter. He wasn’t able to make a successful transition to the film industry of the early to mid ’90s when an entirely new generation of filmmakers, in collaboration with a bunch of new actors, began calling the shots.
“My dad found it difficult to make the shift where the actor was also telling them what to do because they [Ambrish and his peers] were the bosses in their time,” said Alekh rather candidly. “He found it difficult to make the transition. So he did a few B-grade films with the ageing Dharmendra and Jeetendra. Then there were a lot of phases when he had no work.”
It was here that Alekh’s mother, Aruna Sangal, stepped in. Aruna has been a television actress since 1985. While the memorable Buniyaad was her first teleserial, Hum Paanch went on to become her most successful and most prominent television appearance. She still does a show on Sahara One called Niyati, which has been running for a year-and-a-half. Alekh recalled his mother playing a crucial role in stabilizing the family’s fortunes and setting him on the path to becoming an actor as his father’s career nosedived.
“She kept things going. I had seen my father in his highs and then in his absolute lows, but my inspiration to become an actor in a lot of ways is my mother.”
His mind made up to pursue a career in acting, Alekh found his luck playing truant as he set out on his journey. With his mother having a strong background in theatre, Sangal junior started with an improvisational form of theatre called ‘playback theatre’. Here, Alekh found his mentor, Sanjay Srinivas, who would write the play, ‘The Dressing Room’, with Sangal junior acting in it. The Dressing Room was extremely well received; vindication of its success coming by way of it being adapted into a film within eight months (in 2004) of making its debut on the theatre circuit. However, the film tanked. As Alekh himself said of his first film, “While the play was brilliant, the film was not.”
Around the same time, in 2004, Alekh won the Sahara Mr. and Mrs. Bollywood contest. As part of the winning proceeds, Alekh was supposed to land a certain number of films handed out by the promoters of the contest. But, here too, nothing happened. “It was one of those television hoaxes,” Alekh said. “Within six months everyone involved in that project had left. There was no one answerable.”
Theatre kept Alekh going at this stage. But fate dealt him another cruel hand when he lost his father in 2005. “I was doing this play, ‘Legacy of Rage’, directed by my acting guru, the great Joy Fernandez. I lost my dad and a month later I was opening a show [Legacy of Rage]. In a lot of ways that helped my recovery from the shock of not having my dad around,” remembered Alekh.
With this kind of a tottering start, several others may have lost their will to continue entirely. But Alekh persisted. He met Rasika Dugal (Chhaaya in Kshay) on the sets of his second film, Summer 2007 (released in 2008, another dud), who, a short while later, recommended him to Karan Gour for Kshay. Alekh recalls, laughingly though, that Rasika called him a “Juhu actor” while recommending him to Karan.
“I don’t blame her. Juhu actors are the quintessential Juhu, Oshiwara, Lokhandwala actors who behave in a certain way. They are all born with stars in their eyes, so they just behave in a certain way until they settle down.”
Kshay took four years for Gour, a first time filmmaker, to make. With his DOP, Abhinay Khoparzi, by his side, Gour made the film on the proverbial shoestring budget (a few lacs). Kshay took time to make because Gour and Khoparzi, alone, did what was the work of several other technicians – from raising money to shooting the film to editing it to doing the sound. Alekh never lost his patience with Gour during this time even though his Mum would often ask him, jokingly, “Karan ki Mughal-E-Azam khatam hui kya?” (Has Karan finished making his Mughal-E-Azam?).
“An actor has the advantage of doing other things, but imagine Karan’s frustration, his state of mind because he was with it for four years,” Alekh added. “[Also], Karan had told me that you either have time or you have money [to make a film]. We didn’t have money so we had to put in the time.”
Kshay began doing the rounds of international film festivals much before its low profile release here in India in mid-June 2012. It won awards at the South Asian International Film Festival in New York (2011 – Best Director) and the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (2012 – Best Film) before bagging its first cash prize-award for Best Film at the recently concluded Shanghai International Film Festival. With a purse of USD 23,800, the SIFF award covered the entire production budget of the film. When Karan asked Alekh, who had both travelled to Shanghai, to bring this to the notice of the audience while receiving the award Alekh says, “The English speaking audience was left astonished. And when the interpreter translated it, the entire auditorium was dumbfounded. Our film’s budget was USD 10,000. The next smallest budget film in the competition cost USD 150,000… We’re the smallest film ever made.”
The general reception to Kshay has given the people involved with it a lot to be proud of. Alekh, nonetheless, was left disappointed with the high-strung attitude of some film critics, who ignored Kshay because of its lack of scale and star-power. These critics, the very custodians of Indian cinema at international film festivals as Alekh calls them, told him, “We don’t have time to watch your film. We have a packed week.” Alekh was left stunned by their response, which leads him to ask rhetorically, “You’re telling me, I don’t have time to watch your film when your job is to watch films. You don’t have time to do your job?”
Alekh, in the same breath, however, recounts the tale of the wonderful Aseem Chabra (freelance writer in New York City), who wrote an email to Shaan Vyaas, co-producer of Kshay, asking him why the big critics weren’t reviewing the film? Shaan told Aseem the exact same things that had left Alekh disappointed with the critics. Aseem, as Alekh puts it, then asked Shaan to send him a screener for Kshay and in two days put up a glowing review for the film. Aseem wrote, “I do commend those who put their faith in this film. There is a special place reserved for them in heaven!”
The other vote of confidence that Alekh talks about is when he saw Anurag Kashyap standing in line on the first day to buy a ticket for Kshay. “I ran and gave him my ticket. Anurag took my ticket and said, ‘I don’t want to miss the movie, don’t want to miss the start, but I want to pay for it.’ I said, ‘Nahin, just take it, it’s for you.’ Anurag replied, ‘Picture dekhna mazaa tab aayega jab ticket ke paisey doonga. Paanch sau rakh, do sau baad mein waapas kar dena.’ And he ran up. He didn’t want to miss it. He came and he came a week before the release of Gangs Of Wasseypur.”
Kshay’s success, though, hasn’t necessarily translated into more producers approaching Alekh for leading roles in their films. As he himself honestly admits, he will still have to audition for television serials to keep things going. “The idea is to keep doing. Ultimately, everything gets sorted out. I feel, every actor gets to be a part of three great films. The really lucky ones and the really good ones get five. I feel I’ve got one.”
Well said Alekh!