"I just needed to get my voice out and the only way I could do it was by writing"
Rakesh Dasgupta was born in Calcutta, India, and since he was a child, he always wanted to move to the US. Years later, Rakesh moved to LA and started playing in several films ("I never planned to be an actor, it just happened"). Life seemed to be perfect- Rakesh's dream came true. But then he realized that being alone in a foreign land can be challenging ("I couldn’t open my mouth because there was no one to listen"). Rakesh didn't give up on his dream. He started writing his first feature film "Shiva" ("I just needed to get my voice out and the only way I could do it was via writing").
Shiva tells the story of a South Asian movie star in Hollywood who struggles to hide his troubled family history as his advancing terminal illness threatens to destroy an unfolding romance. Shiva recently won Best Drama Screenplay at LAFA. We asked Rakesh to join us for an interview, and met an actor (now also 'writer') who works hard (harder than you think!) and never gives up on his dream.
Rakesh, congratulations on winning Best Drama Screenplay for SHIVA! Tell about your background. What made you interested in acting and writing, and how did you start out?
Firstly, I would like to thank the entire team of Los Angeles Film Awards for recognizing SHIVA. This was the very first win in my entire career. I was born in Calcutta, India in the year 1984. That's right, I’m getting old. I never planned to become an actor. It just happened. My childhood was not fun. I used to be a very shy kid and every single day I used to get bullied in school. Every single day I was facing domestic violence at home and I had a total of zero friends. In the midst of all these, there was one thing I enjoyed and that was watching television. I used to watch tv almost all day. When I used to see the movie clips on tv, I used to try to act those scenes in front of the mirror and I did it very casually, just for fun. Then something started happening and it was the most weirdest feeling ever. When I used to act those movie scenes in front of the mirror, I used to get this strange feeling that I was kind of losing my physical existence at the time. I don’t know how to explain this but although it was me who was acting in front of the mirror and running the lines, I could clearly feel at the moment that it was not me who was speaking the lines. Every time I acted out any scene, I used to feel the presence of a second person inside my head and heart. I didn’t know what was happening with me but it was a great feeling. I found an escape from all my sadness and depression. But that joy was only temporary, it only lasted for that short span of time, when I was acting those movie scenes. Needless to say, people around me misconstrued that act. I could never convince anyone that it was a great feeling of detachment from the reality. As time went on, I just got hooked up with this acting thing. The writing came way later. Though I didn’t know anyone in America, I was feeling at the top of the world after I moved here. This is the country where I always wanted to live since I was a kid and now finally I was here. My life is perfect - that was my feeling. But I failed to see the storm approaching. I was now in a foreign land, alone, and I didn’t know where to go, who to meet, how to get the ball rolling. It was a mess. I was stressed out. More importantly, I started losing faith in people. Weeks went by and I couldn’t open my mouth because there was no one to listen. Depression and loneliness once again started hitting me. I had to find a way out. I decided to start writing. I didn’t have any plans to write a screenplay but just scribble anything. I just needed to get my voice out and the only way I could do it was via writing because I didn’t need anyone for that. As I started writing, out of nowhere came out “SHIVA.”
What kind of training did you go through, and would you say it was helpful to your career?
I never had the money to pursue a college degree in acting or screenwriting. My first acting lessons started very unknowingly, in front of the mirror when I was a kid. At the time, maybe I was doing it right or maybe I was doing it wrong but most importantly I was enjoying what I was doing. Later on, I always had the regret that I wish I had a college degree in acting. Years later, when I started acting professionally, some of the fellow actors pushed me to take acting classes. They told me that I was missing out on something that is very crucial to progress further in this industry. I decided to give it a shot because I had nothing to lose other than some coins. I then joined a couple of short acting classes for a month or so. But then, that was an altogether a whole new experience for me. I could never agree with the acting teachers. They used to teach me how to act and I could never do it the way they told me to. And I could never explain to anyone how I do what I do. It’s just something that comes automatically from somewhere inside me. I have nothing against acting schools and acting teachers, I think they are great. But I finally realized that it can’t be taught. It has to be in your blood. Either you are born with it or you better seek another career. Because no one in this world can teach you how to feel sad when you are actually not sad. No one in this world can teach you how to feel happy when you are actually sad. It can’t be learnt. There is no technique. There is no formula. “YOU” are the formula. Yes, you would need to know your lines, you would need to know your dialogues. Your dialogue is not your jacket that you would open it and leave it on a chair. Your dialogue is your blood, it travels with you. So you would need to know your dialogues but that ultimate feeling has to come from somewhere inside you, you can’t fake it. Today, I have no regrets that I never went to an acting college.
Tell us about your creative writing process. How do you approach a project? Do you normally do some research before you start writing?
I have no process. I don’t know about any process. I have never been to a screenwriting class. SHIVA is my first screenplay that I have written. It’s not something I approached or planned to write; It just happened. I was just scribbling on paper writing some random cheesy lines/dialogues and while doing so, somewhere in an unknown state of mind I started seeing this face. I knew very well that I know this person, I have spoken with this person, I have shared my thoughts and feelings with this person. In the beginning I kept disregarding it but then his face kept popping up repeatedly and I could hear his voice. I saw that the lines I have scribbled in that piece of paper actually resonates with his voice. Then I just went with the flow. At this point of time I knew I am writing a screenplay. Shiva is not a story, it’s a voice and all I was trying to do is to get that voice documented in a piece of paper in the form of a screenplay. But then, I didn’t know the technicalities of screenwriting and I started getting stuck at every single point in my writing. Due to me getting stuck with the technical stuff every time, what was happening was, that face, that voice was starting to fade away. And to me that voice, that face was more important than the scene headings, actions, parentheticals and all those technical gibberish. You’re right, I do not have a process. I don’t get up in the morning, brush my teeth and then jump into my laptop to start writing my screenplay. I don’t pre plan that tomorrow, I will write my screenplay from 2pm - 4pm. These kind of process doesn’t work for me. Because there is no guarantee that tomorrow between 2pm-4pm I will hear that voice. There is no guarantee that after brushing my teeth in the morning, when I jump into my laptop, I’ll definitely be able to see what happened to Shiva next. I didn’t know when I would get those visuals flashing in front of me. I didn’t know when I would hear his voice. It would come to me when I am in the bus or train, when I am in the gym, it would come any moment. And then all I would do is quickly take a note of what I saw or heard. Then when I come home, I put them in my laptop in the software. I understand this is not a typical screenwriting process but it works for me.
From a very early stage of the screenplay, you take us back to where it all started for Shiva. He is at a very low point in his life, has no money, and is being humiliated for his clothes and smell (“This audition is only meant for human beings”). Do you think that our society should act differently to those who lost direction in life?
Here is the thing, nothing will change. We can write screenplays, we can spread messages via the art form, we can make movies, we can make movies hoping to change the world but the fact is the world will continue to roll the way it rolls. We won’t be able to change the world by making movies.
At some point, after Shiva practices his lines for his first acting role, his family is certain that he’s been talking to himself, and sends him to a psychiatrist. Which struggles did you face as a starting actor yourself?
If you are asking about the real struggles then that would be fear of death, fear of losing my own self, fear of love, fear of trust. Unfortunately, I would never be able to publicly elaborate these points ever. Also because, aspiring actors and artists who are working hard, trying to make it big will get scared listening to my past and might just give up. So I would not focus on these points. I just hope everyone watches SHIVA when it gets made.
Although “Shiva” is definitely an inspiring drama, there are many funny moments and misunderstandings that would easily make a fine comedy. How do you feel about adding humor to a dramatic story?
Comic relief brings more entertainment value in a drama. Life is about living. Stress, sadness, hopelessness, fear, these kinds of feelings will be there in life, that’s how we know we are living. But these feelings are a part of life, not the heart of life. Drama without smile and happiness, I don’t know...it would sound like tea without tea leaves.
Who is a film director you'd love to work with in the future, and why?
I can’t really take any names because I don’t know how those directors are in the sets. I love to work with directors who give actors a certain level of freedom which is very rare to find.
Take us through your daily routine. What does your schedule look like, with auditions, sets, modeling, meetings, rehearsals, networking, and of course writing? Any room for personal life, too? Some people in the industry find it hard to balance...
I don’t have a personal life. I understand it’s something I should start working on but this “time” is very crucial and I just can’t afford to let it pass. Time is so limited and I have so much to finish that I can’t afford to sleep more than 4.5 hrs a night. I wish there were 27 hrs a day, that would've been awesome.
Tell us about your next projects and your career goals. What are you planning for the short term and the long term?
Right now, I am focusing on getting Shiva made. That's the most important pursuit of my life. It is hard to convince people to put money on your project, especially when you demand to play the lead. I want to write another screenplay but I don’t know when I’ll be able to start that.
How can our readers follow your work?
Is there anything you wish to add, and/or anyone you with to thank?
Firstly, I would like to thank Los Angeles Film Awards for recognizing Shiva. I would like to extend my gratitude and thankfulness to those three people who helped me come so far - Therese, Rozalin and Paloma.
And to all those aspiring artists out there - Believe in yourself because it is possible.