Not easy being a soap star...

Not easy being a soap star...

She was born in a tiny city somewhere in Maharashtra. Daughter of an Army man, she went to schools across the country, finally settling for a college education in Pune, an MBA, and a job as a Human Resource consultant. The building she worked in happened to house an advertising agency though, and, one morning, she was coerced into doing a commercial for Pears soap. That was over four years ago. Today, far from her quiet, corporate past, Sampada Vaze is a face gaining recognition on the small screen. After playing lead character Minakshi Pillai in the unusual soap Pyar Ki Kashti Mein set aboard a cruise liner, she now tackles the part of Tejaswini in Sony Entertainment Television's family drama Rishton Ki Dorr. We knew it couldn't be easy, living the life of a soap star. What we weren't prepared for was how hard it really is. As Sampada gears up for what will definitely be a tiring day of shooting, we crouch behind her in the make-up room, recorder and camera in hand. Long hours, back-to-back shifts, poor medical facilities, the casting couch -- who would have thought these tales lay behind all that glitz and glamour?

Interview: Patcy N | Photographs on set: Jewella C Miranda

We come to that tricky casting couch issue. Sampada doesn't flinch. "Of course it exists," she tells us, adding that all actors face the problem at some level. "I remember going to a big meeting about a jewellery brand. The shoot was in Dubai and I was told everything would be on the house. The person in charge said he would take me shopping, but added that I would have to accompany him to all his conferences even after the shoot was over!"

Interestingly, she says this happens in the corporate world too. "It's up to you to take it or leave it." What does she do in situations like this? "I usually promise to get back to them, then start ignoring their calls. I also fire the coordinator who has fixed the meeting. I don't think people are going to change by my getting aggravated or lecturing them on morality. This is not cinema; this is reality." Surprisingly, Sampada says the problem is worse for men than women, especially in the fashion industry. She talks about male models close to male designers, but refuses to divulge names. "They are friends," she says, "but some of these stories are open secrets."

As the make-up team does its job, Sampada tells us about her move from the corporate scene to the arc lights. "I never planned to be an actress," she says, "until that first commercial." Within a few months, she was modelling full-time. More commercials followed, as did a music video. Offers for serials did crop up, but she was happy just modelling. "I got to see the world. I was happy with the money. But, three years into it, I felt I had done enough and decided to examine the offers from TV." Unlike the horror stories that abound, she didn't have to struggle. "I simply auditioned for my first serial and was selected. The best part was the entire shoot on board a cruise liner moving from Singapore to Malaysia." The shift from modelling to acting wasn't that simple. "With modelling, you need a good figure and have to look unusual, though not necessarily attractive. Modelling and acting are very different, and the latter is a lot more difficult." For every success story, there are more than a few about failure. Sampada tells us about a former model who has been trying to get into acting for years but fails at every audition because she can't emote. "I don't think anyone can take acting for granted," she says. "Modelling may give you your first break, but if you're not good enough, people will throw you out."


Outside, the crew sets up props. There is much noise and bustle. Inside, all is quiet. The make-up continues, interrupted every other minute by a constant barrage of phone calls and messages. "Our working hours are really bad," says Sampada. "An average shift for actors in television is 13 hours. I have worked for 22 hours while in advertising, but this can happen in films too. I have also seen people do two shows back-to-back, sleeping in their make-up rooms for two hours in between! But that is a question of choice." She admits it can be extremely tiring at times, adding that it is sometimes difficult to find the time to exercise. "I balance it by working just 20 days a month," she says, "and go on regular holidays to rejuvenate myself." Sleep is always at a premium. "If there is no bank of episodes with the channel, you have to shoot. You can't take off even if you are ill or someone in your family passes away! That is when some actors cave and begin fainting on sets. In some cases, the actors should be blamed because they need to know when to stop. They should know the amount of work they can take."

Apparently, there isn't even First Aid available on sets. "If an accident takes place by day, the production people get a doctor or medicine. But there is no insurance policy." Sampada mentions a co-star who recently fell and hurt her spinal cord badly. "In such cases, the production house pays the bill if a doctor is called on sets, but I don't think they take care of hospitalisation. In fact, an earlier contract of mine clearly stated that the production house would not be held responsible for any accidents on the sets!"

What about not getting along with co-stars? Or directors? What about gossipmongers? Sampada is candid about it all. "I have been lucky enough to have always had good co-stars, who are now friends. Sometimes, you may not get along with somebody, be it an actor or director, but you still have to work."

She admits there's a lot of gossiping, especially because of the long gaps between shots. "You are forced to sit more than 50 per cent of the time and there's a lot of time to kill. Some stars read, others watch DVDs on laptops, some sleep, some gossip. But that happens in other professions as well." Spending so much time with the same people also inevitably leads to relationships. "A number of TV actors and film stars opt for marriage. When you work with somebody for long hours, you tend to become compatible." She says she wouldn't like marrying someone from her profession though. "I think it's tough if your shifts are different. I may not see my partner for weeks, which can't lead to a very strong relationship."

And no, as far as romantic scenes are concerned, they don't bring actors closer. "The cameraman is constantly instructing you on keeping your face at a particular angle. There are hundreds of people looking at you. It is anything but romantic!"

Our talk moves towards money. Which is inevitable, considering the stories about huge salaries, big investments and buying and selling of property dominating the media.

"Bigger production houses are more professional, and the pay scales are better," says Sampada. "People in this profession are paid very well -- per episode or per day. Payments depend on the production house as well as which channel your serial is aired on. Some are paid Rs 5000, some Rs 40,000 a day. There are also rumours about top TV actors taking home between Rs 50,000 and Rs 70,000 per day. Huge salaries also mean bigger lifestyles. "There are a lot of expenses," admits Sampada. "I spend Rs 5000-10,000 a month shopping in India. When abroad, it could be anything between Rs 1,00,000 and Rs 1,50,000."

Finally, it's time for her shot. There are finishing touches being made, and a little time to prepare before the director yells 'Action!' Sampada takes her time, safe in the knowledge that there's a long wait after what may be a quick first shot. She tells us about the importance of networking, adding that it can be done even without the rigorous partying some stars depend on. She loves partying herself, but mentions hazards like dark circles the next morning. "My make-up man takes care of all this," she says. "I do it because it's work. I avoid partying late because I don't want to mess with my profession." She takes other precautions too, such as avoiding dinner and dessert, drinking lots of water, and eating a lot of fruit. "I am a foodie though," she adds, "So I rarely deprive myself." Before we leave, we mention the love-hate relationship stars seem to have with the media. Sampada has a surprising comment to make: "When it comes to stories about stars in tabloids, people think such things cannot happen; they assume the media is making it up. However, we have responsible journalism in India. In such a scenario, 60-75 per cent of the stories carried are true." With that, it's camera time. It could be the first day's shoot for a new episode. Or the 55th day, for that matter. Like most of us, Sampada Vaze goes off to work. Unlike most, she's not so sure about when she can pack up and go home. Soap operas...they can go on forever

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