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Behind the Scenes in Bollywood

October 21, 2014

Not everyone wants to be a star. Some are content to don funny costumes and down fake cocktails for a day in the background. Suzan Crane takes a little-known tourist trip through the movie sets of Mumbai. Illustrated by Wasinee Chantakorn.

Published on Oct 22, 2014

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I came to Mumbai to be discovered. Well, sort of. I actually came to India's most populous city to secure my fifteen seconds of fame as an extra in one of the approximately 1,000 Bollywood extravaganzas—twice Hollywood's output—that are churned out each year by the prolific fantasy factory. In this three-plus-billiondollar annual industry, Hindi filmmakers regularly seek foreign faces to provide international human wallpaper for scenes ostensibly shot in the likes of London, Dubai or Sydney. And I wanted to be among them. By bizarre happenstance, I'd had a brief flirtation with the fame monster several days earlier in, of all places, Kathmandu when, returning to Thamel district from a hair appointment, I walked smack into the filming of a music video by Nepali actor/comedian Hari Bansha Acharya. Next thing I knew, I was on set alongside four other pale foreigners dancing to a folk-inspired pop concoction lacing the sweet strings of a traditional sarangi with the djimbe's percussive groove. It was catching. And left me keener than ever to clock additional screen time across the border in India, impending 14-hour workdays for a measly 500-rupee "fee" be damned.

I headed out my first Mumbai morning in the tourist enclave of Colaba—a favored haunt for recruiters—in the hopes of being noticed. Up and down the road behind the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel I pranced. In front of the lowbrow Salvation Army Red Shield Guest House I preened. Through the Causeway and around India Gate I strutted. To no avail. Only touts trumpeting "good cheap room" paid me any heed. Clearly streetwalking was not to be my ticket through Bollywood's rarified gates.

Taj Mahal Palace
Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai's historic

So, I reached out to veteran "foreign models" guru Imran Giles, a fast-talking used-carsalesman sort who herds human scenery into many of Bollywood's biggest films. "I must get on set," I implored the hotshot agent. "What's in it for me?" he queried opportunistically. "Your fifteen seconds of fame in my story?" I offered. "Well, I actually need a favor," he countered in a machine-gun staccato. He needed 25 Westerners under 30, and he needed them in the next four hours for a shoot later that day on Happy New Year. While I was "age inappropriate" for the blinged-out song-and-dance spectacle directed by Farah Khan and starring "King of Bollywood" Shahrukh Kahn, I was assured my moment of celluloid glory later in Bombay Velvet, a high-profile period opus featuring heartthrob Ranbir Kapoor, scion of an acting dynasty. But first, I had to deliver Giles's quota.

And so it happened that I became a Bollywood scout combing the streets for tourists who prized fleeting infamy, and perhaps a different insight into modern India, above monetary compensation. They were to receive about 500 rupees per day; I, 100 rupees per fair-haired head. Piece of cake assignment, I assumed. After all, I'm a friendly Western female slinging a benign pitch that usually began with "Excuse me, this might sound strange…" But I had more roles on offer than there were "suitable" foreigners wandering about, and guidebook warnings about shifty pavement pounders severely hindered my efforts. Eventually, however, I was able to corral 15 multinational travelers and off we went to Film City, center of the Bollywood universe. Through a heavily guarded entrance we encountered a second layer of security before reaching the inner sanctum, otherwise known as the soundstage. Cameras and phones were confiscated, the veil of secrecy enshrouding these costly colossal productions thick as a thundercloud.

Since I wasn't to be "acting" in this film—being "age inappropriate" and all—I killed time by learning a few Persian dance moves from a group of Iranian and Afghani extras culled from Pune's Middle Eastern student population, and practicing my Spanish with a Minorcan couple I'd drafted earlier near Colaba's renowned Leopold Café. I also gleaned some hot gossip and spicy Bollywood trivia, including the little-known fact that on-screen kisses were more passionately rendered prior to 1954, when India's Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru addressed complaints about the "corrupting influence" of "precocious sex habits" displayed in films. As for the heat quotient that may or may not ignite Happy New Year, I've no idea, as the bit I observed focused on a high-octane dance contest rather than any scripted relationship between Shahruhk Kahn and his comely co-star Deepika Padukone. I'll get back to you on the sizzle factor upon the film's Diwali (October 23) release.

As day turned into night and back into day again, enthusiasm among the juniors—as Bollywood refers to extras, who in this case were festooned in flamboyant getups that evoked a Michael Jackson video circa 1985—began to wane. Frustration and a few complaints filtered through the hazy studio, even among those earning 1,000 rupees daily and free accommodation in exchange for longer term commitments to the project. Lizzie, a young British backpacker in garish green sequins, was more sanguine. "I'm making some cash and the hotel is better than the hostel in which I'd been staying," she shrugged during her interminable, chai-fueled wait to be called on set. Still, despite the obvious tedium, I was eager to get my chance to be on camera. Two days later, it finally arrived.


SIX-THIRTY A.M. ON THE deserted street in front of Starbucks.  But for a few early risers and vagrants, the music of this chaotic city has yet to kick off. Slowly, a handful of foreigners ambles toward the meeting point, all bleary eyed and undoubtedly questioning their sanity. A Chinese couple emerges from the shadows followed by a German Rasta dude. A Latvian choreographer is accompanied by her father, a French professional dancer and her Egyptian boyfriend loping close behind. Some lug rucksacks as they'll be dropped at the train station after filming. We're marshaled onto a minibus bound for the venerable Mahalaxmi Race Course about 20 minutes away to participate in the neo-noir epic Bombay Velvet. Inspired by James Ellroy's L.A. Quartet crime novels and based on the book Mumbai Fables by Indian historian Gyan Prakash, the story explores the birth of this metropolis, its dark underside brewing in a cauldron of love, greed, violence and jazz music.

On location we meet another band of foreign extras and hordes of Indian nationals, many of whom are professional juniors. Some are bored housewives, I'm told by a retired Air India flight attendant who does extra work once or twice a week to stave off inertia. All of us are quickly ushered into the frenzied wardrobe, hair and makeup area. Men are shuttled off in one direction, the women in another. Boxes upon boxes of clothing and accessories are helmed by hapless stylists tasked with matching garment to body type. "Too big." "Too small." "Needs to cover tattoo." Needs to cover any number of other unseemly affectations. Even for extras, perfection is the goal.


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