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© Simon Strijbos

Mumbai day 6: Bollywood!

By Simon Strijbos on Thursday 6 May 2010

I got up early, showered, put on my clothes, had a quick breakfast at Manglore Naaz, then I headed off to Colaba. I waited for a while at the far corner of the street where the Salvation Army hostel was located, like Imran had told me, but nobody showed up. The street was deserted except for an occasional passerby, and at about 8.15 I walked back to the Salvation Army. A British couple stood there waiting and I asked them if they too were waiting for Imran. They were, except he had told them to wait at the Salvation Army hostel instead.
Some Indians gathered around us, curious as to what we were up to. I told them we were waiting for our pickup to Bollywood and showed them Imran's card. One of the men took the card from me without asking and said: "I call for you," while reaching for his cell phone. I could hear Imran responding to the phone call. The two men conversed in Hindi and after the phone call was over, the helpful Indian reported: "He send someone to pick you up."
After a few minutes, a trendy looking Indian man appeared in a shiny black Mazda with tinted windows. The three of us (me and the British couple) got in and were driven to another spot at high speed. Though it was still early and traffic had yet to get started, the driver nearly hit a few cyclists and pedestrians who were calmly crossing the road, not expecting someone to appear behind them at 70 km/h. The horn signal called them to attention just in time.

Thursday January 28th 2010

We arrived at a street near the high court, on the other side of Mahatma Ghandi Rd. Imran had managed to drum up about 40 to 50 white people and was arranging them in groups. It quickly became clear that anything he had told me was only tentatively true.
"You guys, and you guys," he said while pointing at a group of mostly women, " the ladies please stand over here. You can go now with my assistants." As the group disappeared around the corner, Imran turned to the leftover group, mostly consisting of men and couples. "You guys, please come back at 10am then we meet at Metro Shopping Centre. Okay? Can we do this?"
We agreed but weren't too thrilled about knowing we could've stayed in bed for another two hours had we known.

I walked around Colaba for a bit and bought some drinks and a city guide, to replace my lost copy of the Lonely Planet. Ten minutes early I arrived at the Metro Shopping Centre and found Imran and his assistant already there. While we were waiting for others to show up, I asked Imran what we were shooting and where. He told me we were shooting a movie instead of a TV commercial. "It's crime, crime movie," he added. However he refused to tell me where it was being shot and I kind of wanted to know where they were going to take us. "Give me five minutes and I show you on the map, okay?" he said, keeping me at bay while he turned his attention to his phone and his assistant.
After about fifteen minutes several other extras had shown up and Imran told us to go with his assistant. He didn't say where we were going but we dutifully followed the assistant, who didn't give any indication that he understood English. He led us all the way to the roundabout near the Chattrapati Shivaji Museum where a bus was waiting to take us to... where? The assistant was now chatting with some other people who presumably worked either for Imran or a movie studio. I asked them where we were going.
"Bandra," one of them said shortly. "Please get on the bus now."

Inside the bus were about 30 hires of the day: Germans, Australians, Norwegians, An Israeli couple, two South Koreans, several British people including the couple I met in front of the Salvation Army, and a few Danes. There was also a Russian girl who worked as a reporter and told me she planned to write an article about her experience on a Bollywood set. I said: "Hey, I'm going to be blogging about this."
There were no other Dutch people on the bus beside me.
Though we were told to get on the bus quickly, it ended up just sitting there for another fifteen minutes until Imran showed up and shortly briefed us on the day. We would be going to set location for a gangster movie. Shooting would last until about 10 to 11pm and we would be provided with lunch, dinner and water or chai.
Imran stepped out of the bus again and it drove off northwards through Mumbai traffic. After about fifteen minutes we drove up the causeway and got a wonderful view of the city.
On the bus I got into a conversation with a German woman. Initially we spoke English but the conversation soon switched to German, a language I didn't turn out to master as well as I thought. Her name was Victoria and she had actually been living in Australia for several years, working there as a massage therapist.
Along the way I tried to follow the route on the map to know where we were going, annd it quickly became clear we weren't going to Bandra at all. We ended up at the northwest tip of the Juhu area at a seaside hotel. Or at least it used to be a hotel; now it only served as a filming location. Some of my fellow actors thought they recognized it from Slumdog Millionaire.
Most of the hotel and the lot around it had been stripped bare of anything resembling decoration and the whole compound looked like it was either derelict or closed for enduring renovations.
The only part of the hotel left mostly intact was the entrance and lobby. Decorated in marble and pine finishing, it had that perennial sixties' hotel style.
One corner of the lobby was notably stripped down to the concrete. This is where the crew had set up shop. It was a safe haven out of view from the camera. There were thick cables everywhere on the floor, even outside. In several corners lamp posts had been set up.
The place was swarming with people: small time actors, extras, wardrobe and make-up artists, technicians and several people who seemed to be in charge of something, but nobody yet that gave the impression of being a well-known star.

Us western extras were sent off to the wardrobe, which was no more than a set of clothing racks arranged in a rectangle in the middle of the compound. Men's clothes were on one side, women's on the other, and we queued up at our gender-specific side. The men were mostly given dress pants and a jacket, then sent off to the next clothing rack to be provided with colorful button-up shirts. Upon close inspection our pants all turned out to be bell-bottoms and we joked about Indian style being stuck in the seventies. We had no idea what movie we were going to be in.
Then somebody told us to queue up at a row of large metal boxes, which turned out to contain shoes. The shoes were all black or brown leather, and lacked sizes suitable for western feet. I was given a pair of black size 9 shoes, even though I'm a size 10. Suddenly the day ahead was looking a lot less bright.

After wardrobe we were sent off around the corner to behind the hotel where two rows of trailers stood in the building's shadow. Pieces of paper on the doors indicated that one row consisted of make up/changing rooms and the trailers in the other row were reserved for specific people. None of the names sounded familiar to us in any way.
I piled into one of the narrow changing trailers with about ten other guys and we were told to wait for make-up. After a while a short, skinny Indian man entered our trailer, carrying a make-up bag. He didn't seem to understand English so we were comfortable joking about him not resembling the make-up artists you usually see in L'Oreal commercials. One of the Koreans had been given a gray suit that more resembled a military uniform, eliciting the remark that he looked like Kim-Jong Il.
One by one we were adorned with long stick-on sideburns and our hairs were coiffed like it was 1972. Together with the bell-bottom pants our make-up gave us a reasonable idea of the time period in which the movie we were shooting for, took place.

When make up was done, one of the shot-callers we had seen before, peeked inside the trailer and, upon concluding we were finished with make up, told us to get out and assemble in front of the trailer.
Outside we were joined by the women who had received considerably more attention from the make-up crew than us guys. They all wore either light summer dresses or skirts with matching tops.
Victoria stood there slightly bashful. She had been given a light dress with cleavage so low that she was unable to wear a bra. This ensured her of the undivided attention of the male Indian extras who acted as if they had never before seen a woman.
A young man came up to us and introduced himself as Bikas. Slightly sheepishly he explained he was here to look after us and that he would take care of our personal belongings. He also introduced the Indian chai wallah (tea man) standing next to him.
"If you want water or chai, go to this man and he will give it to you, " he explained. "When we leave, just give him 20 rupees and it's okay."

The most bossy of the assistant directors reappeared and organized several of us in pairs. Some couples were told to, well, act like couples. Victoria and me were told to do the same and we weren't sure if we were being mistaken for an actual couple or not.
The assistant director beckoned us to follow him and positioned us on a stretch of palm tree lined grass behind the hotel. The grass formed the back end of the compound, right behind it was a chain link fence that separated the compound from the beach. The star of the movie (I later learned his name is Ajay Devgan) was to walk along a concrete path in front of the grass, and we would be background dressing.
Dozens of locals had gathered on the beach behind the chain link fence and were observing the shooting like hawks. On the other side of the grass stood an arsenal of lights and cameras amidst about thirty on-set workers who all seemed to have the same indistinguishable task.
Victoria and me sat down with some Indian extras, whose colorful and expensive looking costumes couldn't have come from the same wardrobe as ours. They were also organized in couples and while the men were excessively soignéd to the point where they seemed slightly sleazy, the women looked absolutely gorgeous.
At first they seemed to treat us with a kind of disdain. After all they were professional actors/extras and we were just hired for the day. We asked them about the movie and about the hotel where we were shooting. They weren't able to tell us much more than we already knew.
Some of the men took a particular interest in Victoria and her light attire and she turned around to chat with them.
Bikas came up to the group and sat down next to me. After a little chit-chat he came to the point.
"Victoria, she is beautiful, yes?"
I concurred, amused at the way her clothing brought Indian heads to a boiling point.
"Do you know where is she from?"
"She's from Germany," I said.
"Oh, " Bikas replied not immediately knowing what to say. "Um, what language does she speak?"
"Well, German of course."
"You speak German?"
"A little."
"Can you tell me, how do you say 'beautiful' in German?" he eagerly inquired with a shimmer of desire in his eyes.
"Schön." I said.
"Schnö, " he replied.
"Very good."

Suddenly the set became more lively and noisy. We looked up and saw several important looking people appearing, prompting all the set workers to try and seem busy.
One of the Indian extras pointed at man wearing a while baseball cap and a purple shirt. "The man in the purple shirt is the director, " he clarified, "he's very famous."
Now the star of the movie appeared, a fierce looking man in a spotless white suit. He was dressed like a '70s era gangster and didn't look unlike Shaft, albeit the Indian version. Four people with umbrellas followed him everywhere he went and prevented even a single ray of sunshine from ruining his relatively white complexion.
Everybody got on their feet, the director took hold of a bullhorn and started calling around instructions. Several assistants independently instructed the 'couples' to walk back and forth across the grass and to give the impression of being newlyweds on their honeymoon.
Out on the beach some men in brown gray uniforms were ushering the onlookers away, so they wouldn't ruin the shot by being in it. The uniformed men carried wooden sticks which were useful in persuading the more hardheaded spectators to go elsewhere.

We all took the places which were assigned to us. Victoria and me stood closest to the camera and I was nervous. This was my first time on a movie set and I desperately did not want to be the one guy that ruins the shot.
Before this, I'd only seen movie sets in behind-the-scenes features and those were usually Hollywood sets. In Bollywood, things went quite differently. Due to all the noise and activity it was often unclear what was going on. Besides the director there were at least two other people with bullhorns. Several different people gave the extras instructions, and these hardly ever coincided. Also of note was the fact that they only used one camera at a time.

One take was done to try everything out. Victoria and me walked calmly across the grass holding hands. We just barely avoided a collision with an Indian couple walking straight towards us.
"Cut, reset!" the director called into his bullhorn. We went back to our starting positions, where one of the assistants critiqued our performance.
"Guys, guys, " he said, "you are walking around like zombies. I want to see some happy people! Chin up, stand straight and make everyone look good!"
The next take went better and afterwards the assistant gave us a thumbs up. We did a few more takes like this before the director called for lunchtime.

All the extras and lesser actors queued up for food while the more privileged Bollywoodians disappeared into their trailers. Our lunch was good enough, if nothing special. We got rice with peas, chicken and some samosas. I sat down with some other westerners and immediately took of my shoes, which were wreaking havoc on my feet.
Some Indian extras joined us. They played hotel doormen and were dressed up in neat cream white uniforms and wore bright red turbans. We asked them about the movie we were shooting. One of the doormen seemed to know more about the shooting schedule. Today we would only shoot scenes of the main star arriving at a hotel. Tomorrow, there would be some action.
The doormen pointed at himself excitedly and said: "I get shot tomorrow!"

After lunch we proceeded inside. The next scene took place in the lobby and involved the main star pacing angrily into the hotel (he did a lot of angry pacing that day). The cool interior was a nice change from the scorching heat outside.
This time, me and my newlywed wife were told to walk towards the center of the lobby, facing the main star as he entered, and looking in puzzlement at the strange, seething man that crossed our path.
After the first two takes the director called out for a change of camera (as I mentioned earlier, they only used one camera at a time) and this took a good twenty minutes while everyone else idled around the set. During this time several makeup artists roamed around and regularly corrected someone's makeup. My sideburns received some extra stage glue and grime to match them with the color of my hair.
One of the assistants came up to us once again with instructions. For the next take he wanted us to walk towards the center of the lobby as before, but this time we were to break into an argument as we passed the main star. Never mind that it wouldn't mesh with the takes done so far. We had a lot of fun improvising a fight, a silent one of course. On our way we would pass a couch where several of our co-extras were seated. After some deliberation we agreed to walk arm in arm past the couch, where my gaze would linger too long on one of the women causing my wife to have a fit of jealousy in front of everyone. How embarrassing.
At the sound of "Action!" we performed our role with verve. When the take was done another reset call sounded. As we assumed our starting positions I asked the assistant if we did alright.
"Yes, just keep doing this, " he answered. "You are my favorite people."
We did another couple of takes this way, showing off all our improvisational acting talent.

The next scene took place in roughly the same setting, but this time the shot focused on the hotel entrance. Me and Victoria were positioned outside the hotel. The entrance had two doors next to each other. The main star would enter through the leftmost door, and several hotel guests, including us, would enter through the right door. Two turbaned doormen opened and closed the door for each couple separately, so we had to wait for them to give us a cue before walking forward. This was not easy as the set was still largely chaotic with people from all sides giving directions. A female assistant had now joined the gang of assistants and was keeping an eye on things on the outside of the entrance. She attempted to cue our entrance but when she told us to start walking, the doormen weren't ready yet and during the first take we almost bumped into the door making our entrance look incredibly clumsy.
We did better on the next few takes and after another twenty minutes of waiting for a camera change, she gave us the instruction to go left immediately after we entered the lobby. One of the male assistants who had coached us before, joined her and added: "I want to see people happy in love, remember this is your honeymoon!"
We heard the call for action and, on cue, entered the hotel. The entrance was always a bit clumsy as the hotel's glass facade was covered up to shun outside light, so we couldn't see what was going on inside until we had actually walked in through the door. Nevertheless, we did alright this time and smoothly walked in while holding hands and exchanging loving gazes in an extremely hammy fashion.
As we walked in and made a left I saw we were walking directly towards the camera. For a moment we were thrown off guard but we whispered 'keep going' to each other and continued walking the same way we had entered.
When the take was done, one assistant who had been standing next to the camera, approached us and whispered: "Immortality is nice!"
Victoria and I smiled contently at this remark. Feeling very good about our performance, we joined the other extras outside for dinner.

Dinner was distributed in the same way as lunch, but consisted of mostly sweet food. There was sweetened corn, sugared corn flakes in fruit sauce and chicken with a sweet, barbecuey flavor. It was good to finally get some sweet food in India.
The last shot took place outside the front entrance. It was dark by now and bright spots were set up around the driveway in front of the hotel.
In this last scene the star was to arrive at the hotel in his car, a menacing vintage model. Several other vintage cars lined the driveway. Once again a crowd of spectators had amassed, this time at the end of the driveway at street side. Since they were out of the shot, they could stay.

Several assistants got involved with preparing the set. The director decided he wanted the vintage cars to be arranged differently. What followed was a fifteen-minute display where several set hands drove the cars around the driveway, getting in each other's way or having trouble controlling the cars, which weren't exactly in mint condition mechanically.
One driver had a big problem. His car was parked bumper-to-bumper with another, but the director wanted him to move his car to the other side of the driveway. The car's reverse gear turned out not to be working so he slowly maneuvered the car from its narrow position.
I couldn't help myself from imagining the Benny Hill theme on top of this bit of situational comedy.
For this last shot, I had been teamed up with Rob, a cheerful Australian evidently of Aboriginal descent. We were to play two cool cats who walked slowly towards the hotel entrance from the far end of the driveway, as the star arrived.
The main guy crossed our path while entering and we had to time our walking so as to avoid getting hit. On most takes, the star employed a driver, but on later takes he took the wheel himself.

After about five takes the director called it a wrap and everybody applauded. It was well past 10pm and I was finally free of the shoes. The ladies were called back in for makeup removal, which for the guys meant no more than having our fake sideburns removed rather unceremoniously.
We all handed in our clothes and shoes and waited for the women to come back. I hardly recognized Victoria without the excessive makeup.
We all got on the bus back to town. Bikas paid us each our hard earned 500 rupees, reminded us to pay the chai wallah and after receiving 20 rupees per head for the tea man, he bid us farewell. I looked at my Bollywood money. Mahatma Ghandi smiled at me from the 500 rupee bill.
I sat next to Victoria on the way back. We chatted for a while, but my ability to speak anything other than Dutch diminishes severely when I'm exhausted and she was too tired to talk in any language.

Along the way several of the guys asked if we could stop at a liquor store. The bus driver complied and they hurried out of the bus to a store across the street. They came back with a box of Kingfisher beer and a few bottles of liquor and we drove on.
When we finally came back at the [Blabla] mall everyone said goodbye and returned to their hotel. I had to hurry back to the Fort area to be in before my hotel's midnight curfew. I barely made it and went straight to bed. With that, my Bollywood career concluded.

Swadha recently told me that the practice of hiring foreign extras for cheap had once again led to riots by local actors losing work to tourists who value the experience more than the money. It's not the first time this has happened, but this time it led to a ban on using foreign actors. All this apparently took place not long after I had my fifteen minutes of fame. Looks like I got to see Bollywood just in time.

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