She debuted with Garam Masala (2005) opposite big stars like Akshay Kumar and John Abraham and has since acted in several acclaimed movies in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. Taking the road less travelled, Neetu Chandra also set up her own banner which produced the national award-winning movie Mithila Makhaan. Narrating experiences from her early years in the industry to Giridhar Jha, she reveals how sly operators of Bollywood try to take advantage of aspiring actresses by using their position of power.
The casting couch is very much a Bollywood reality. I have had to deal with people who wanted to take advantage of me during my early years more than once. A top filmmaker once called me to his office, purportedly for a discussion on an upcoming project. It happened after the release of two of my films, Traffic Signal (2007) and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008). I was very excited and I told him how I would love to work with him. This is when he threw in the hint: “Working with me is in your hands, Neetu.” Barely 23 then, I asked him what he meant by that.
Sitting there, I realised he had not spoken anything in an explicit manner and yet, had conveyed whatever he wanted to. My face turned red and I sought to take his leave immediately. I cried inconsolably in the lift of his office. I had gone to meet him hoping to get a big chance and here I was—returning distraught, all my dreams dashed to the ground.
That was not the only time. Once, a top writer-director told me, “You are working with so many people these days. How come we are not working together?” We had been friends for a while and would even exchange messages on WhatsApp. But when it came to working in his film, he made it clear about what he actually wanted. I had to “be with him” if I wanted to work with him. When I heard this, I told him I did not expect this at least from him. But he was blunt enough to admit that it gave him a ‘high’.
On another occasion, everything about a project featuring me in the lead had been finalised with a big director. We met to discuss the film at length. But five minutes after I left his office, I got his text message: “What are you doing this evening?” “Nothing much,” I replied. “Okay, then why don’t you come over my house for dinner?” he responded. When I expressed my reluctance, he took no time in warning me that the project would not take off if I said no. First, I thought he was joking but when he insisted, I gave him a clear no. “You are saying it at the cost of such a big project?” he asked me, incredulously. “Yeah,” I replied.
The Hindi film industry is a very insecure place. Here, some film-makers think that if they are casting somebody, they get all sorts of rights over that person. They think that ‘yeh toh apna adhikar hai (it’s our right)’.
I think that about 50-60 per cent of the times, I have lost a film because of the casting couch. If you look at my career-graph, I have not worked a lot. And whoever has worked with me once has not repeated me in his next film. Maybe, this has been because either our chemistry did not work out or I was willing to do things only my way. I have been loud and clear about never compromising for a role.
My experiences have taught me that if you remain firm, you can handle such people even if you are a newcomer. You can steer clear of things that you don’t want to do. “No, sir, I am not interested/No, sir, I think you should work with somebody else/Excuse me, sir, I don’t fit the bill/If this is your criterion, I’m afraid we cannot work together.” I have used all these lines to reject a project whenever I felt it was being offered in the garb of a proposition that would never be acceptable to me.
Nobody jumps at you and rapes you at gunpoint in this industry. And nobody can ban you if you spurn the advances of a filmmaker. If one producer will not give work, others will. But then, you have to brace yourself for a journey through a longer route with, of course, your intrinsic talent and confidence.