Renowned Film, Television &Theater Actor Mr. Benjamin Gilani conducted a guest lecture at Digital Academy-The Film School.
He is a noted Indian Actor, especially for portraying Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1993 film Sardar. He also acted in the hit movie, ‘Hum Dum’ along with films like ‘Hero Hiralal’, ‘Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon!’ ‘Waqt: The Race Against Time’, ‘Barah Aana’, ‘8 x 10 Tasveer’ & more.
He took admission for the Economics Honors course at St. Stephen’s College. He soon shifted to English Honors & thereafter joined the staff of St. Stephen’s college in August 1970 and taught undergraduate classes for two years. An accidental look at an advertisement for the acting course at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune led to an impulsive decision to apply and, when he was selected, he resigned from the job at the College and proceeded to Pune for the two-year course. Over the years, he has worked with film directors like Shyam Benegal, Basu Bhattacharya, S. Ramanathan, Ketan Mehta and others. In 1979, he started a theatre company with Naseeruddin Shah and Tom Alter, called Motley.
Mr. Gilani commenced the lecture with a discussion about creativity; he felt that it is most important for one to learn to use one’s imagination to develop new and original ideas or concepts. Film being an expensive medium does not allow indulgence, but what it does allow is consumption, which results in a demand for quality. According to him an artist is not an ordinary professional who can update himself once in awhile, but rather someone who has to constantly fine tune himself & broaden his sensibilities to create films that are of high quality.
On the subject of acting he said, “What can I say about acting? It is plainly human behavior… the details of it are endless… but overall an actor is a communicator, in the sense that he is the façade of the entire filmmaking process…” He expressed that communicating is largely about transferring knowledge and that whatever he passes on to the students can find true fulfillment only if they themselves figure out what to do with that knowledge, as Acting simply cannot be taught but only learnt.
He reported some of the growing statistics of the Film Industry in India; he felt that the whole process has become commoditized to a great degree and that although the numbers of films have increased, there hasn’t been a parallel improvement in the quality of the films. He asked the students about what defined quality or how it can be recognized. Summarizing the attributes of good quality he said, “One can recognize good quality by the means of comparison… also there are certain formulae that govern a story, but one has to approach it with creativity…Stereotypes have to be dissolved and made to suit the story and many more such things have to be thought out seriously”
The root of creativity in cinema is a thought, a thought requires a body for it to take shape and words provide that body. Every individual has a different concept for every word and hence an idea can be born in many avatars. It is absolutely necessary for Filmmakers to have a take and to possess clarity of thought, which can be achieved through developing an idea into several directions. To illustrate the riotous nature of the process of filmmaking he said, “As a Filmmaker, you have to be a saint, a sinner, a psychiatrist, a sane person, an insane person, a servant and a master to come even remotely close to understanding human nature… and what are films if not ways of delving deeper into the human psyche? Either ways you have to make a film that elicits a reaction…” He also declared that as a stage performer he realized that one must never give up no matter what the circumstances are if one is truly convinced and conviction comes only if one recognizes their own abilities. He advised the students to evaluate themselves honestly, without fearing their limitations and said, “As a Filmmaker you will have an identity and you have to know your limitations…knowing them doesn’t mean restraining yourself from expanding or experiencing more… Paradoxically limitations can often lead you to your style…”
Narrowing down the subject to just the Art of Acting, he asked the students what they felt acting was all about. Finally he said, “Acting for me is “Doing”. An action should have a beginning, middle & end. But somewhere between not doing anything and doing to an extreme lies Acting…” Examining the general attitude of amateur actors he observed that there tends to be a lack of confidence and a hesitation. Then he initiated Acting exercises by dividing the room into a stage area and an audience area. A volunteer was called upon and asked to walk from one point to another; as the tasks he had to do with walking became more complex, his gait, pace & body language changed, suggesting that, the more preoccupied the actor was in actually doing the task the less self conscious and contrived he seemed. Elucidating, he said, “When I pick up this cup… I have to be intimate with it… I have to learn to be friends with it… I don’t have to exaggerate, but rather realize how I or others do things in real life…” He felt that the situation in the script must absolutely compel the actor to behave in a certain way. The act should become part of his very reality; only then will his actions lose their self-consciousness and become natural, truthful and meaningful. Apart from this he felt that an actor must constantly observe how people do things, how they move, speak and aspire to match the entire presence of that body.
Since acting is a physical expression of an internal script, concentration is key and one’s physical reflexes must be at their sharpest. He conducted another exercise wherein a group of students were asked to randomly walk around in the makeshift stage area without bumping into each other; they were to freeze as soon as they heard a particular sound. The exercise demonstrated how much effort is needed to stop all body movements immediately after the sound. Scrutinizing this Mr. Gilani said, “It is absolutely necessary for actors to have crisp physical reflexes… he should constantly be alert to external stimulus like sight, sound, smell & movement… Always find a reason to move slowly or fast…use logic and reason to design your actions…” Another exercise he made the students do was to make them walk around and then freeze their body in an exaggerated or contorted position and maintain it, simply to illustrate the importance of body balance. Other exercises were aimed at making the volunteers make extensive use of their body, explaining the need for this he said, “We must be able to make our bodies suggest or communicate something, the more we understand our bodies the more we will be able to express with it…”
In the final exercise they were supposed to speak out the numbers 1- 25, in series and with only one voice saying one number at a time, an error meant that they had to start from the beginning. This exercise required all the students to be calm, to listen, to anticipate each other and exhibited the dynamics of the group. Observing the many attempts the students made Mr. Gilani said, “There is rhythm in nature, rhythm exists everywhere and we have to learn our body’s rhythm…and an actor must be receptive, he must learn to listen, to accept what comes to him, to become conscious…” Speaking about the relationship between Director & Actor, he said that a good Director should be able to communicate to the actor, what is needed, especially when he is stuck. He suggested that the best way to act is the simplest use of body & mind, but slightly more than what is used in real life.
He concluded the lecture by saying that Acting for stage is most difficult since there is no space for mistakes, but he also advised them saying, “The actor’s world is full of mistakes…we don’t want artificiality or Xeroxes or parrots…be really observant and operate with conviction then you can make great even the smallest role…”
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