It's Teachers' Day. But Barry John, the man famously known as Shah Rukh Khan's acting guru, is not rejoicing. No celebrity student visits him on this day. Nor on Guru Purnima, a festival dedicated to spiritual and academic teachers. "Except Manoj Bajpayee," he said, adding, "but he comes on my birthday, because we go back a long way. Manoj is like family to me."
None of them come on Teachers' Day. Why? I don't know! Maybe they didn't appreciate what they learned under me.
The date on which Teachers' Day is celebrated varies from country to country. Here it is 5 September, the birth anniversary of Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, one of India's most distinguished 20th century scholars of comparative religion and philosophy and our second President.
I didn't think Barry would have heard of Dr. Radhakrishnan. He is an Englishman from Coventry in the UK who came to Bangalore in 1968 to teach English, and then acting in Delhi from 1970. That's where SRK went to him. And after he hit stardom, so did a whole lot of others, including Manoj Bajpai, Frieda Pinto, Jacqueline Fernandez, Richa Chadha, Arjun Kapoor, Varun Dhawan and Sushant Singh Rajput, from among today's Bollywood stars.
"Strangely, none of them come on Teachers' Day," Barry said uncomplainingly. "Why? I don't know! Maybe they didn't appreciate what they learned under me. Or maybe it doesn't mean so much to them. But I'm not in touch with any of these stars. They are all busy people. Shah Rukh is in the stratosphere. Frieda Pinto's on some other planet. I guess it's understandable. I'm not disappointed. People have to move on. I didn't go back to any of my own teachers. It's like living in the shadows while my students are in the limelight."
I met him one rainy afternoon at the Barry John Acting Studio in Mumbai. His office is a jaripuranawalla's junkyard. Overflowing with stuff. He sat at a desk spilling over with what looked like a lot of scripts, DVDs for Omkara, Maqbool and Pyar Ka Panchnama 2, an Apple laptop, the iPhone 5, headphones, colourful stationery and a book titled Wisdom of The Rishis. At 72, I thought he looked like an unkempt and chubby Robert de Niro. They are the same age. But Barry's also got the vast paunch of the Laughing Buddha on him.
It's like living in the shadows while my students are in the limelight.
He ordered coffee for us in pathetic Hindi. After being in India for almost 50 years, acting on stage and in films, and preparing students for theatre and Bollywood, Barry hasn't got the hang of the language. Manoj Bajpai must have a grand time conversing with him. "I haven't been able to perfect my Hindi," he admitted unblushingly. "I don't have a knack for languages. In school, I had trouble with Latin and French. Language is not my strong point; expression is. I have managed to be a foreigner, yet try to feel at home in India through my work."
Barry went the whole nine yards with theatre in Delhi till it slipped into the doldrums. He started the Theatre Action Group in 1973 with Siddharth Basu, Roshan Seth, Lilette Dubey, Mira Nair and Pankaj Kapoor, and then launched his Imago Acting School in 1977 which he shifted to Mumbai in 2007 ("that's where Bollywood is and every actor wants to be a film star") as the Barry John Acting Studio. In between, he worked on the faculty of the National School of Drama where he guided Irrfan Khan, Anupam Kher and Anu Kapoor. Theatre remains in his blood, but aspiring actors identify Barry with Bollywood now.
An actor must have talent, perseverance and a bit of luck. Shah Rukh had all of them. I can't take credit for what he is...
"Can acting be learned?" I asked. "Amitabh Bachchan didn't go to acting school. Doesn't it run in the blood? Which of the Khans (apart from SRK) and Kapoors learned acting from you?" Barry was indignant. "What do you think I'm doing?" he asked. "Acting can be taught. Today, the multi-media skills required for the modern actor make training compulsory. But sadly, the film industry is full of so many untrained people, so many nephews and nieces, so many nice faces with designer muscles who haven't done a thing. As with most things in India, film is a family business. To some extent it does run in the blood. But how sustainable are these actors going to be? That depends on the effort they put in. Not on their genes."
Shah Rukh Khan is a shining example of somebody who came up without anybody's push. Modestly, Barry doesn't take any credit for his success. "An actor must have talent, perseverance and a bit of luck. Shah Rukh had all of them. I can't take credit for what he is. His life is the stuff of dreams. It's like a fairy tale. There's tragedy, loss, comedy and success. He was destined to be a somebody. He joined my Theatre Action Group in Delhi. I think I had a profound impact on his formative years as an actor. He was energetic, hard working, intelligent and humorous. He had a great desire to learn, he was extremely committed and put in a lot of effort, just like he does today for any film. But I think Shah Rukh's main interest was the girls!"
"I can dance like Shah Rukh Khan!" they say. "Forget it," I tell them, "Shah Rukh Khan is already doing that!"
It is Shah Rukh Khan's name that draws lots of star-struck youngsters to Barry John's Acting Studio today. "It's the national pastime to want to become a Bollywood star and live a life of glamour while making crores of rupees," he revealed deprecatingly. "They all tell me they want to be like Shah Rukh. I say to be an actor you have to study, read, think, do homework. They are staggered. 'But I can dance like Shah Rukh Khan!' they say. 'Forget it,' I tell them, 'Shah Rukh Khan is already doing that!'"