Growing up in the small town of Sri Ganganagar in Rajasthan, Sohum Shah’s understanding of cinema was limited to the blockbuster films that would show at the local talkies. He dreamed of being an actor but wasn’t unaware that his move to Mumbai would make him one among the countless who arrive in this city to “try their luck”. It took some patience and longer-than-usual route but eventually, Shah made his debut in Ship of Theseus. The acclaim was followed by offers and the actor became part of other notable projects, such as Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar. He had success but Shah could never shake off the feeling that he lacked something, perhaps a formal education in cinema.
He felt “stuck”.
In May, he signed up with Prashant Singh for one-on-one acting workshops that the latter specialises in. Shah feels that the sessions have helped “unlock my mind, access my mindscape to look for the characters I may play on screen”.
Acting workshops aren’t new or unheard of. In fact, most notable filmmakers bring workshop directors on board to help get the cast get into the skin of their respective characters. Singh believes that in their most basic function, workshops are a means to help actors undo their inhibitions. “It is difficult to explain what we achieve over a period of time, but in essence, we are trying to help actors come out of their shell. Since ‘realistic’ acting involves playing characters at the most human, visceral levels, it is important for actors to shed their personal baggage before they take up a role. This can be achieved only if an actor acknowledges his or her own personal demons and weaknesses. That in turn will allow the actor to tap the grey shades when they have a nuanced character to play on screen,” explains Singh, who also conducts acting workshops in batches and for films. Apart from a repertoire of actors he personally trains, Singh has also been on board films such as the 2014 Cannes selection Titli, Tiger Zinda Hai and more recently, Hichki. He is currently training the cast of Bharat, Ali Abbas Zafar’s next film with Salman Khan.
While Singh, 35, also a casting director on films such as Trapped, Daddy and Citylights, is one of the most prominent names in the field, there are also other popular trainers, such as Atul Mongia and Neeraj Kabi. Each workshop director has his own method of approaching the subject. Kabi focuses on “craft”. “I use physical and experiential methodology where each exercise is a chapter in how to be an actor,” says Kabi, who was consulting on Zoya Akhtar’s Amazon series, Made in Heaven. He adds, “A performer needs to focus on his physical appearance as well but an actor needs to look beyond that and train physically in order to bring diversity to his performance.”
Singh, instead, believes there is no one method to acting; the workshops help each individual find their own method. He uses a combination of breathing techniques, acting exercises and meditation. On the first day of a 10-day workshop in his studio in Versova, Mumbai, 15 aspiring actors are engaged in a “clowning exercise”. For over half an hour, they have to play clowns, exaggerating each emotion in an impromptu skit. The exercise turns out to be emotionally and physically exhausting. But, Singh says that the exaggeration helps him map each participant’s emotional space, allowing him to work on their shortcomings. By Day Five, the change in some of them is evident.
Singh often gets students who are not aspiring actors but from various walks of life, who want to “unlock” and understand themselves. “It’s not as much about teaching how to act but about addressing one’s weaknesses and strengths. It’s a bit like the need to regularly service your car,” he adds.
Director Sidharth Malhotra feels that the industry is yet to wake up to the true potential of acting workshops. During the making of Hichki, he points out, the workshop helped not only the children acting in the film but also him. “I was able to see the children as people, individuals as opposed to viewing them as actors. It lent a more humane touch to my approach, which reflected in their performances as well,” he explains.
Singh feels that some films could also do with workshops after shooting is over. “When we help an actor get under the skin of a character that he or she lives with for months, it may leave the actor unhinged and in a space they find difficult to exit after the shoot’s long over. Workshops can help bring actors back into a neutral space,” he says.