Every day at 5 a.m., hundreds of people gather in a nondescript lane behind Annapurna Studios in Hyderabad’s Krishna Nagar. They are junior artistes waiting for casting agents to take their pick. The chosen will have work for the day. For the rest, it is a choice between going home and finding other employment.

Tollywood, as the Telugu film industry is called, is the second largest in the country after Hindi. In 2011 the Censor Board’s Hyderabad office certified 192 films. In addition, many low-budget films stalled at various stages of production for various reasons. The city’s studios also make a number of films in other languages. And Krishna Nagar, behind the swanky Jubilee Hills and Banjara Hills, is where most of its junior artistes and low-level staff reside.

The 6,000-odd aspiring actor, technician and director residents of Krishna Nagar and surrounding areas live in the daily hope of making it big in the movies. “Starry-eyed youngsters from small towns and villages may not know much about Hyderabad, but they know all about Krishna Nagar,” says Harsha, an artiste.

“People are categorised into junior artistes, dialogue artistes and dancers. Junior artistes make up the crowd or are passers-by, while dialogue artistes may have a line or two. They are also divided into class and mass, depending on looks. As for dancers, they start by joining dance groups and may slowly work their way up as choreographers,” explains casting agent Rama Krishna.

It is the casting agents who call the shots. Though supposed to hire only members of the AP Cine and TV Junior Artistes Union (membership costs about `15,000), they hire part-timers and
newcomers, paying `100-150 a day against the `350-500 for members, and pocket the difference. The lack of opportunities means even artistes with over 40 years of experience often look for work every day.

For dialogue artistes, paid `1,000 to `5,000 a day, the opportunities are fewer. A no-work day is spent visiting production offices with portfolios or simply hanging around cafes in the locality. As the industry is hierarchical, so is life at Krishna Nagar. If dialogue artiste takes a junior artiste’s role he may never get another chance at dialogue. Where one hangs around—Sri Sri Restaurant, Green Bawarchi, Manga Hotel or Ganapathi Complex—defines the pecking order. At Sri Sri, which ranks high, four to five artistes often share a cup of tea. Many work part-time catering or painting. “I left my family at my village in Anantapur because I can't afford to have them living here,” says Krishna, a father of two. “I send them `1,000 a month, but even that is difficult at times. I see my kids once or twice a year, but I tell them whenever one of my movies releases so that they can watch me on screen.”

Krishna Nagar is about that one chance at the jackpot. Exploitation is rampant but the dream of being the next Chiranjeevi or Ravi Teja is what drives them all.

As Krishna puts it, this isn’t the place to cry about your hard lot. “Your sob story couldn’t be sadder than that of the guy next in queue.”

For a handful of stardust 0

Ashok, a young artiste who also works with film set construction crews, on his bed that he rents for `30 a night at a lodge in Krishna Nagar.

For a handful of stardust 1

Photos of aspiring actors on display at a dance institute that also doubles as a casting agency.

For a handful of stardust 2

Early morning activity in Krishna Nagar.

For a handful of stardust 3
Syed Adil (24), a junior artiste, in the production company cab on his way back home after the day's shoot.
For a handful of stardust 4
Dialogue artistes hanging around at Sri Sri, one of the more popular cafes in the locality.
For a handful of stardust 5

Junior artistes as Taliban fighters in a Telugu movie which is partly based in Pakistan.

For a handful of stardust 6
Junior artistes providing the “ambience” as passengers and crowd at a railway station during a Bengali film shoot in Hyderabad.
For a handful of stardust 7

Pavan (32) came to the industry more than a decade ago. He now works at a hair saloon in Krishna Nagar, while also keeping an eye open for opportunities in the industry.

For a handful of stardust 8

Frenzy at the union office as an agent chooses artistes for the day’s shoot.

For a handful of stardust 9
An artiste’s visiting card is also his CV.
For a handful of stardust 10

Young actors at a dance institute in Krishna Nagar.