When Period. End of Sentence. — a documentary on the fight for menstrual hygiene set in Uttar Pradesh’s Hapur district — won an Oscar in the last week of February, the entertainment industry took to Twitter to congratulate its Indian executive-producer, Guneet Monga. Amid all the adulation in hashtags, a tweet from screenwriter Harneet Sethi stood out: “A big win for India. A giant win for
. #PeriodEndOfSentence #Oscars @guneetm”
Sethi’s salute to Aram Nagar was an indication of the significance of the Andheri suburb in Mumbai — and not just because the 35-year-old founder of boutique production house Sikhya Entertainment has spent the last decade of her career in this neighbourhood. Aram Nagar has risen to be the Silicon Valley equivalent for the media & entertainment industry of India.
Spread over 40 acres, this colony — an erstwhile post-Partition refugee camp — is now home to 30 casting agency offices, two dozen production houses, several celebrity management companies, studios, rehearsal halls and experimental theatres. It is a colony where a lot of independent filmmakers such as Ram Gopal Varma, Sudhir Mishra, Anurag Kashyap and Tigmanshu Dhulia set up shop at the beginning of their careers. Some, like Mishra and Dhulia, continue to work from Aram Nagar. Content company TVF, which runs a multichannel network, started its journey from here. Actor-filmmaker Sohum Shah (of Tumbbad fame) and writer-director Anand Gandhi (of Ship of Theseus fame) have their offices here. So does The Wedding Filmer, the production company behind the three major celebrity wedding videos from last year — Virat Kohli-Anushka Sharma, Deepika Padukone-Ranveer Singh, and Priyanka Chopra-Nick Jonas. Stalwarts in the music world drop in at Tarsame Mittal’s talent management office, TM Talent Management. About 40% of the pitches to OTT platforms like Eros Now come from creators based in Aram Nagar, says Roshni Ghosh, VP of content & creative at Eros Digital.
Rents are dirt cheap here and space is available for flexible durations — from one day to one year. It is especially ideal for independent filmmakers working on shoestring budgets. “Every filmmaker, big or small, has used office space in Aram Nagar at some point or the other,” says real estate agent Mitesh Mehta, who grew up in the area and has brokered office deals for many industry heavyweights.
All these offices are set up in bungalows and cottages. There are no high-rise buildings or chrome-and-glass offices among the 350 residential and commercial bungalows in the area. Thousands of aspiring actors, film writers and technicians tread the colony’s uneven tree-lined kutcha roads on a daily basis.
With intertwined alleys that refuse to show up on any GPS tracker, the place is practically a maze for a first-timer. In fact, everything about the area screams “unorganised”, yet Aram Nagar is uncannily quiet and peaceful. It is free from loud honking and cacophony that is characteristic of the rest of the suburb and the city.
It is a paradise for aspiring actors as every hotshot casting director and film producer’s bungalow is 30 seconds’ walking distance from each other. It is also a place that teaches them to adapt. An aspiring actor from Haryana, who did not want to be named, says he now knows the alleys like the back of his hand, after having walked into each of the bungalows in the past one year. “Most studios ask you to keep your shoes outside the door,” he says. He now wears skin-coloured loafer liners to protect his feet. “I always carry a couple of spare shirts and a formal suit in a bag so that I am prepared when casting guys ask for a particular kind of look,” he adds.
Salons, cafes and fitness centres have mushroomed all over Aram Nagar to cater to the “filmy” crowd. There are at least 10 gyms that, in addition to being body-builders’ havens, serve as landmarks for newcomers to navigate the web of bungalows.
Dnyaneshwar Udafe, who runs Daljit’s Gymko, says the location is great for business. At least 300 users enrolled in his gym last year. JamJar Diner sees 250-300 patrons at its Aram Nagar branch a day. The daily footfall at its branch in Bandra, an upscale locality, is 150-180, says coowner Anup Gandhi. The 50-plus cafes, restaurants, bars and lounges in the colony double up as meeting rooms for this creative crowd. “We do a lot of meetings in such places as it is easy to meet more than one producer at a time,” says Ghosh from Eros Now. “We even go there to do edits or script sessions with producers, directors and actors.”
Cafes like Chai Coffi and CCD are famous for casting meetings. The Tanjore Tiffin Room and Tea Villa Cafe are where the indie crowd unwinds. “At the Tea Villa Cafe in Aram Nagar, we discourage people from taking selfies with celebrities to respect their privacy,” says Roopanshi Bhatt, owner of the cafe chain in Mumbai, referring to the fact that a lot of famous people mill around in the crowd here.
Space, a bone of contention everywhere else in Mumbai, is another thing Aram Nagar seems to have in abundance. Author and filmmaker Devashish Makhija shot a short film called Agli Baar in one of the bungalows. “There is open land between cottages so it is easy to bring in vanity vans and manage production logistics. Every cottage has a lawn and a backyard. You can play with that geography for anything,” says Makhija, who has spent the last 16 years of his career working out of the bungalows in this area.
It’s a permissive ecosystem, with locations for shooting readily available within the region. TVF has shot most of its initial sketches in Aram Nagar, says Nidhi Bisht, the content company’s creative director. “Once we were shooting inside a temple for a parody on Breaking Bad called Breaking Good, and Anurag Kashyap walked in. We asked him to give us a passing shot and he agreed,” she recalls.
Its idyllic location — the colony is next to a beach — first caught the eye of fashion & film photographer (and actress Antara Mali’s father) Jagdish Mali in the late ’70s, says realty agent Mehta. In the decades that followed, the place attracted advertising agencies and production houses for its “creative vibe”. When Ram Gopal Varma and Anurag Kashyap began launching newcomers from their offices in Aram Nagar, talent went there in droves.
In the last five years, this combination of abundant space and talent has pulled leading casting agencies as well towards Aram Nagar. Besides standalone offices, there are studios that casting directors can take on rent for Rs 5,000 a day for auditions. It is hard to find an ecosystem so conducive to the casting process anywhere else in Mumbai, says casting director Kunal M Shah, who moved his casting office to Aram Nagar two years ago. “Any new producer/director I work with first asks where my office is. If your office is in Aram Nagar, no further questions are asked. If not, they worry about the extra logistics cost. It almost becomes a deal breaker,” he adds.
Aspiring actors looking to strike a deal line up outside casting agencies between 12 noon and 1 pm on weekdays to submit their portfolio and interact with casting directors. On weekends, the likes of Harkat Studios conduct alternative performance programmes in their studio that doubles up as a coworking space for artists during weekdays. Aram Nagar was already a casting hub when Harkat was started here three years ago. “Five more experimental theatre spaces have come up since then,” says the studio’s cofounder Karan Talwar.
Despite these newer initiatives, outsiders still know Aram Nagar for its casting agencies. Bungalows that don’t have casting offices have a “No Auditions” board on the gate. But that does not stop aspiring actors from knocking on the door. “We still get enquiries,” says Michaela Strobel, cofounder of Harkat Studios. “When you tell them you aren’t conducting auditions, they ask, hopefully, if there will be any the next day.”
Audition-seekers are an interesting breed, says actor and screenwriter Mayank Tewari (of Newton fame), who did his share of audition-hopping before seeking space at Harkat to write movies. “I’ve seen a Gujarati family of three — parents and son — shut their business to pursue acting because the seven-year-old got a small role in a series once. I’ve seen a woman come for auditions with a thermos of hot water and sachets of Nescafe. She goes from one studio to another carrying these so she can drink her version of f