Life as an aspiring actor begins…
Kunal was looking forward to embarking on a new and exciting journey with some trepidation and a lot of excitement. He started acting and dancing classes on April 7. Mumbai here I come was Kunal’s attitude as soon as he stepped off the plane. He had mixed feelings initially and although he was incredibly excited about the experience, he was also nervous and apprehensive.
He had several questions; most of them legitimate fears and anxieties about being in a new and different environment. He said to me, “ Mom, do you think they will like me?” my rhetorical response to him was “ What do you think beta?” His immediate reaction was “ I think they will love me for who I am.” That is Kunal for you, a bundle of nervous energy, lots of love and an indomitable spirit.
Kunal’s first day was wonderful. We met some of the faculty, Nitin, Vishal and Yashraj. Kunal introduced himself to them and said, “ I am a born actor.” No sooner, did he say it, he turned around to look at me and said to the staff as he continued to glance in my direction, “Don’t ask me, ask her, she says it.” Everybody was in splits. Kunal was in his element, he added, “You know something, my dad and Anupam Kher have one thing in common, both of them are bald, but both are very good men. “
As I was describing Kunal to them and telling them that his passion for the performing arts began very early on in life: Kunal interrupted me and said, “Mom I am passionate about dancing and acting not the arts.”
I proceeded to tell them that neither my husband Ravi nor I had an acting bone in our bodies. Kunal turned around and touched my forearm as he said, “ Mom let me check your bones.”
Kunal felt comfortable with everybody right off the bat and initiated conversations with them. He was evaluating the situation in his own way and reassuring himself at the same time that he was going to be fine.
Kunal’s official classes began on April 8. He enjoyed being in the limelight, basking in the sunshine and absorbing all the positive energy and the attention from the staff. The people at Mr. Kher’s school are incredibly sensitive, warm and nurturing. The people who made an instant impression on Kunal were the administrative staff, Ashwini, Rimal and Herman. Everybody exuded warmth and took an active interest in Kunal.
Yesterday, Mr. Kher stopped by at the school for an interview and said hello to Kunal. He gave him a bear hug and said he was glad he was here, where he rightfully belongs. Kunal’s second day today and he already loves it.
Kunal was all charged up and eager to go to his program. It is wonderful how many near and dear ones are rooting for him. Padma atha / ajji accompanied Kunal and me. She was his moral support. Kunal actually surprised me today, as soon as he got off the auto rickshaw, he started advancing towards the school entrance leaving ajji and me far behind. He enjoyed his session today reportedly and was visibly tired at the end of the session.
Suraj one of the faculty members explained to me that Kunal worked very hard on his dancing and acting routines. Kunal demonstrated it to us at the very end and did an awesome job as usual. He learned voice modulation, projection and exercises to practice.
Suraj and I got talking later and I went on to tell him about our chance meeting with Mr. Kher in Boston. I also told him about Mr. Kher’s speech for Pratham and how he alluded to Kunal in his extempore speech. Mr. Kher said at the outset that he learns as much from his audience as they learn from him. He added that he met a young man named Kunal Sharma who has Down syndrome, and he learned three things from him, unconditional love, acceptance and guilelessness. To which Suraj added, “We have learned so many things from him, especially me, I have learned to shed my inhibitions and break barriers and let my true feelings come to the fore. “
Suraj told me Kunal had a very good day today, however, he was reluctant to show his true emotions apparently. He was tentative and afraid to confront his innermost fears and anxieties. Suraj asked him to talk about them so that he could come to terms and make peace with them.
Today Kunal enacted a scene where he held my hands, looked into my eyes and spoke from his heart. He said the following, “Mom, I love you very much and I want you to be proud of me, I will work very hard.” He added, “ Now my mom will cry.” Although the lines were rehearsed, they seemed authentic. I guess that was the beginning of his acting career.
Suraj established goals for him at the outset, he said, “ Kunal now we are going to start working on your focus, eye contact and voice projection.” He also taught him how to exaggerate his speech and work on individual syllables. He asked him to slow his rate of speech and demonstrated it for him.
Suraj and I talked at length after the class on how things were going to be ramped up, the pace would pick up from now on and Kunal would have to step up to the plate.
Anupam Kher walked into the room and all hell broke loose. He gave Kunal a big hug and started joking around with him. Kunal asked for an autograph and Mr. Kher promptly asked for a piece of paper on which to write, the autograph read, “ Kunal I admire you and your love of life, love, Anupam Kher.”
He told me about the tweet and the picture of himself with Kunal that he posted on twitter and the responses he got from Kunal’s cousins. He has a supportive extended family indeed!
Anupam Kher’s tweet was the following, “Kunal is my student from Boston and he is superb.”
I truly love Mr. Kher’s grounded attitude and humility.
Later on that day, Mr. Kher asked us to join him for dessert and a cake cutting ceremony because it was Kunal’s teacher Suraj’s birthday. We took pictures and of course, as usual Kunal was in his element. He said something humorous and Kher sir said to him “You have a very charming personality but we teach acting here not overacting.”
Kunal was reasonably lethargic today. He was unable to focus on anything today and kept getting distracted. Vishal came up with a wonderful idea, he said to Kunal, “ Enact your day from the time you wake up until the time you go to bed.” Kunal was embarrassed at first. It was rather difficult to get his attention.
Vishal and I talked at the end of the session about tools and strategies to help Kunal. He said he was treating him like an adult and starting to get firm with him. We talked about Kunal’s connection with his past and his refusal to move on. He likes acting like a child because in his mind if he refuses to grow up it will not happen; in addition, he obsesses on the fact that he got a lot of attention as a child and consequently wants to freeze time.
Kunal had an excellent day today. He was making relevant conversation with everyone and was completely in the zone. Very proud of you Kunal.
It was a non-working weekend for Kunal because of up coming auditions for the next batch of students.
Kunal had an excellent session again today, very connected with all his instructors and people around him. Vishal and Suraj talked to me about the self-discovery exercises they did with him.
A hat trick, another awesome day for Kunal. He was incredibly cooperative and followed directions consistently.
Nothing much to report today other than the fact that Kunal is undergoing a metamorphosis. He notices it himself and talks about it constantly. I notice a difference, a sea change in his behaviors and attitude. He is much more interactive and communicative with everyone.
Kunal had quite an active day today as he underwent several different emotional experiences and activities. It was an emotional rollercoaster ride for him. The instructors wanted him to emote both positive and negative emotions.
Nitin has been focusing on teaching Kunal relaxation and breathing techniques. He demonstrated breathing exercises to help Kunal increase his breath support and his speech volume. He also worked with Kunal on eye contact, focus and giving a firm handshake.
Nitin worked with Kunal on learning how to cope with life like a man and the curve balls it throws in your direction. Vishal and he have been giving Kunal tough love and increasing his tolerance for positive criticism and critical remarks said in jest.
Watched Anupam Kher’s play kuch bhi ho sakta hai today and Kunal rode a bike from Juhu to Nariman point with Nitin. He loved the experience.
Vishal hung out with Kunal and discussed ways to increase his awareness quotient. He talked about awareness being an integral part of the training to become an actor, in addition to learning how to conduct yourself and acting like an adult.
Herman graciously offered an opportunity to Kunal, to spend the remainder of his time with the office staff and the faculty all day for the next week. Kunal loved the suggestion and was looking forward to it.
Kunal started painting classes with a family friend Shama, he enjoyed expressing himself on paper and Shama said he was a natural.
Kunal brought some of his art- work to school and shared it with his instructors. Interestingly enough, they were going to do a similar art exercise with him today. The instructors wanted Kunal to talk about his art and describe to them what he revealed in his paintings. Yashraj talked to me at the end of the day and said the art was very descriptive and expressed his emotions. He said, “You can see a deep attachment to his family, especially to his mother in one particular painting.” It was insightful to me too, because the painting looked ordinary at first glance, but had so much depth to it.
Today Kunal had an enjoyable session with Vishal and Suraj. He had to role- play and play act scenes from his favorite movies. He did an awesome job acting, dancing and lip-syncing. He enacted a bike scene from Sholay, a death scene and a romantic scene from DDLJ. He danced to his favorite MJ’s number.
A culmination of sorts…..
Kunal had an emotional breakthrough finally. He was able to let his hair down and free himself from the shackles of all his pent up emotions. He finally broke down and cried, hugging all his instructors especially Vishal. He has made a deep spiritual connection with everybody. He said to Vishal, “ I can look into your heart.” To which Vishal said “ And what do you see there?” Without batting an eyelid Kunal said, “I see Kunal.”
Vishal and Kunal watched the movie King-Kong together; the movie had a tremendous impact on Kunal. He cried during the movie. He later said he could relate to the gorilla that wanted to break free. He also added, “ I feel like a caged person trying to be free.” Vishal and I talked about the relevance of that statement especially in the present context and what it meant to be independent and free from Kunal’s perspective.
It was truly an educational experience for me as well, trying to understand Kunal’s point of view and respecting the fact that Kunal wants to be his own person make his own decisions and live independently with a companion. However, I am also deeply aware that letting go is going to be a challenge for both of us, since we share an inexplicable bond.
All the instructors have a wonderful insight into Kunal’s core being and assessed him correctly. It has been a meaningful journey and a memorable one for both Kunal and me.
Kunal’s grand finale. Kunal is incredibly intuitive and realized that this was the end of his journey with actor prepares. Although, I kept reiterating to him that this was only the tip of the iceberg and that there was more to follow, he knew I was trying to reassure him. He was subdued and not as talkative. However, his face lit up when Mr. Kher shared his lunch with him, which was becoming a common occurrence. Mr. Kher wanted Kunal to share his experiences with the staff and asked Kunal some open- ended questions, such as, “What did we teach you here? “ To which Kunal replied, pointing to all his instructors, “All of them are the best, they taught me how to be confident, speak up and be a man.” Mr. Kher said “ What about me, did I teach you anything?” Kunal smiled in his characteristic way and said “You are the master.”
Kunal enjoyed the presentation given by the part time batch and at the very end Mr. Kher was handing out certificates to the students. There was a surprise element, he made an announcement that a special guest, named Kunal Sharma was going to hand over the certificates to the students. That is Mr. Kher for you, an epitome of humanity, genuineness and sensitivity. I was tremendously touched by his gesture.
To add to my surprise, Mr. Kher asked Kunal to dance to one of his favorite numbers, and he asked for a private performance along with close family and friends of ours.
Kunal transitioned out of Actor Prepares, a changed person with a lot of positive energy, and a zest for life that he always had, but was lurking somewhere these last few years.