Celebrated acting teacher Barry John, has uprooted himself and his company from South Delhi to Andheri West; the heart of the Hindi film industry. Since his arrival from England in the late sixties, John has thrived on challenges, on pioneering into new territory, and encouraging others to join him on the journey. In launching his new venture, Barry John speaks to Steven Baker on his move to Mumbai, recent successful students, and his most famous ex-pupil Shah Rukh Khan.
After 36 years in Delhi you are relocating to Mumbai. What prompted you to move?
Delhi has become a haven for corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, land and property speculators. Culturally, it is a virtual desert. Theatre activity has sunk to an all-time low; television offers few and uninspiring opportunities; and film is virtually non-existent. So, just as my students have little option but to migrate to Mumbai to improve their prospects, the same now applies to me.
You have changed the name of your Theatre Group. Why?
Imago Acting School has been renamed as The Barry John Acting Studio in order to capitalize on the excellent reputation that I have in Mumbai. I understand it is to do with something called 'Brand Equity'.
Shah Rukh Khan has credited you with teaching him all he knows about acting. Do you agree?
On the basis of my own education and experience, I do not believe that any one teacher or mentor can be credited with delivering every skill or quality that an actor possesses. Acting is a complex alchemy of inner and outer experiences, awarenesses and skills that are drawn from many sources, and then filtered through the unique persona of the actor. And the learning never stops.
I imagine that I had a profound impact on SRK's formative years as an actor, which are vital in laying positive foundations, fostering aptitude and self-confidence. His training was more of a traditional apprenticeship than a formal schooling, and he brought to it his trademark energy, hard work, intelligence and humour. The credit for the phenomenally successful development and management of his career goes to the superstar himself.
More recently, Kunal Kumar and Shiney Ahuja, amongst others, have passed through your doors. Did they have star potential from the beginning?
In the light of Shiney Ahuja's and Kunal Kapoor's more recent achievements, I might be tempted to say, in retrospect, that they had star potential that was evident during their training. But the fact is, I was not aware of it. Both were good students to work with: committed, involved, questioning and responsive. Shiney had a maturity of years and experience in business and in marriage, which set him apart from the average student; it resulted in greater self-belief and a deeper level of involvement. Kunal was from Mumbai, and therefore blessed with greater exposure and awareness of what was expected of him.
Can acting be taught?
Yes, acting can be taught. It always has been. And the multi-media skills required for the modern actor make training compulsory.
Private acting schools are not cheap. Is economic status a factor in the success of an actor in India?
The typical Indian actor, rural or urban, is poor; a bohemian who sacrifices material prosperity for the freedom, passion and transcendence gained through his art. Film and television have distorted these traditional systems. They offer far greater financial rewards to actors, greater celebrity status, and greater demands that actors follow the dictates of commercial markets.
It all comes down to what sells, and thus, far there has been little concern about whether an actor has been trained or not, especially if he is a relative of the producer or director. As with most things in India, film is a family business. Economic status is definitely a factor in the success of an actor, but the door is always open for exceptional talent also, and rags-to-riches stories are still a possibility.
Will your new courses in Mumbai have a greater focus on film rather than stage?
Yes, the courses have been redesigned for Mumbai, and now accommodate modules on acting for the camera and experience of shooting a short film. Beyond the technical and aesthetic aspects, there are further modules on the launching and building of careers for actors.
Are you nervous about your move to Mumbai?
It's a move to 'The Big Apple', with a lot at risk financially. There's lots of competition, and I am the new boy on the block. Of course I'm nervous!
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