In one of India's poorest, most violence-wracked states, being a movie star means doing your own make-up in a car mirror and then dancing to a soundtrack from a mobile phone.
Los Angeles has Hollywood, Mumbai has Bollywood -- and then there's Jhollywood, a tiny but enthusiastic film industry in the eastern state of Jharkhand.
"This is the biggest problem of working in our movies, you have to do everything yourself... apply your own makeup, supply your own costumes," Jhollywood's leading female star Varsha Lakra grumbles with a smile.
On a sunny Sunday morning in Ranchi, the scruffy state capital, Lakra, 24, is on location at her latest shoot.
She sits in her small car, applying pink eyeshadow, eye-liner, layers of foundation and powder as the traffic whizzes past.
"Our films are made keeping our culture in mind and our culture is not that glamorous," she admits. "We show our villages and how, as Jharkhand develops, people are leaving the villages to go work in towns."
"Jhollywood" prides itself on telling the stories of the state's low-caste and tribal people, making movies on shoestring budgets with minimal equipment.
Producers raise capital by cashing in anything from parcels of land to cars, and some of the film industry's key players are shopkeepers who have day jobs selling mobile phones and CDs.
Jhollywood's stars may have lives far different from Bollywood's adored big-name screen legends, but they are hugely popular in the state.
Lakra and her actor husband Monuraj, 25, are household names, and are regularly mobbed by fans.
"Recently I was out with my family and some village women saw me. They just grabbed me, and wouldn't let go. They kept saying, you must come to our home for a meal," she says, smiling at the memory.
With limited funds and few cinema owners willing to screen Jhollywood over Bollywood fare, however, the industry -- barely two decades old -- is fighting to stay afloat.
Lakra, who said she earns up to 30,000 rupees ($600) per film, does not let such grave concerns get in the way of her art as she starts shooting a song against a backdrop of wooded hills.
As butterflies flit around, she improvises the choreography while one of the crew members holds up a cheap mobile phone playing the soundtrack.
Jhollywood films often follow the same basic plotlines as Bollywood, featuring a dash of romance, a few fight scenes and multiple musical sequences.
Lakra's most recent release, "Karma" was a saga about a villager who avenges the murder of his sister's boyfriend.
But, unlike Bollywood, most Jhollywood productions are shot on digital video and in the local languages of Sadri, Nagpuri and Santhali.
Lakra told AFP she began working at 15, when a local composer asked her to act in a music video.
Now, with four films released and five more on the way, Lakra says she hopes to move up to a Bollywood project some day.
She admits to waiting outside Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan's home in Mumbai for hours, just to catch a glimpse of him.
"Bollywood is like an ocean compared to us. Even if I get a small role there, I will go ahead with it for sure," she says.
The first Jhollywood film, "Sona kar Nagpur" (Golden Nagpur) was released in 1992 and director Dhananjay Nath Tiwari did so many jobs that his name appeared a reported 13 times in the credits.
Tiwari sold some land to make the film and, once it was ready, he went from village to village putting up tents to show the movie.
Not much has changed since then.
Filmmaking budgets are tiny, usually between 250,000 and 500,000 rupees (less than $6,000). The last few years have seen just three Jhollywood films released annually.
"There isn't much money so sometimes you just have to make do with what you have," Ranchi-based filmmaker Anil Sikdar told AFP.
"It's like you need an elephant for a sequence, but you can't find one, so someone suggests getting a horse, but then you can't find a horse, so what do you do? You use a dog," he said, laughing.
Sikdar's latest venture, "Jharkhand ka Chhaila" (The Boy From Jharkhand) attracted good audiences last year in local cinemas -- though no official figures are available -- but he was still unable to recover its costs.
His situation is not unusual -- in the last 19 years, only one Jhollywood production is thought to have broken even, meaning film-making is a costly labour of love.
And fear of violence by left-wing Maoist insurgents is another problem as villagers are reluctant to make the trip to city cinemas after sunset.
"They are afraid to go on the roads. If they do go out, then they will get stopped by the police and questioned. So why would anyone take the risk?" Sikdar said.
A thriving piracy racket also means that the market is flooded with fake copies just days after the original film is released.
Such difficulties mean that the harsh realities of film-making are testing the dedication of even the keenest Jhollywood insider.
Producer Shahid Akhter, who runs a music shop in Ranchi, said he was ready to quit the film business after the failure of his second venture, "Pyaar kar Sapna" (Love's Dream) earlier this year.
"I have lost the strength to make a third film. I think it might be time to start selling electronic goods instead. I have to keep my family going."
* * * * *
Published on 1/31/12