In the Movies
Does the term Bollywood ring any bells? For those of you in the know, please skip the following paragraph. The rest of you, read on.
Bollywood is India’s equivalent to Hollywood. It has produced around 27,000 films since the early 1900′s and is still going strong, pumping out movies like a hotdog machine. Rediff.com gives a good example of this sheer volume: “Six months. One hundred and seventeen releases…” The majority of these movies are targeted at Indians, and never make it internationally. But inside India it is a different story. There is a massive popular culture surrounding these movies, their stars, and their soundtracks. Rumors abound that organized crime plays a big hand in Bollywood, that they use it as a way to provide a front to launder money. This may well be the case, as the quality of most of the movies is generally quite poor. This is not just my jaded western perspective talking, as the second part of the above Rediff.com quote states, “ï¿½Eight hits. One hundred and nine flops.” But enough of this, what I really want to do is tell a story.
My girlfriend Marcella and I had been backpacking in India for about a month when we first arrived in Mumbai (Bombay). We came in by train, second-class sleeper, which was good value, but anything but quiet. Tea sellers started at 4 a.m., cutting straight through my earplugs with their nasal whine, “chaaai, chaai, chaaaaaaaaai.” We had been on the move for about a day and a half previously, and I was in a dazed, sleep-deprived state that we walked off the train platform and into the dim light of Bombay at 6 a.m.
Mumbai is possibly the most expensive city in India, so for accommodation we headed to the cheapest option in ‘the book’, the Salvation Army Red Shield Hostel. Upon arrival, we were immediately intercepted by a stoned, young Nepali talking a mile-a-minute. He took us to a hole-in-the-wall hotel and quoted some ridiculous price so we brushed him off and went back to the dorm rooms at the Red Shield. It was basic there: no sheets, no pillowcase and no-one to clean the rooms unless you complained loudly and constantly. The mattresses were nasty-looking (and full of bedbugs as we found out later), and privacy was at a minimum. We soon realized that catching up on our sleep was totally out of the question.
After we had checked in the manager of the hostel asked us and our pal Roland if we would like to play extras in a Bollywood film. Even though we were all suffering from lack of sleep, we decided to jump on it. How could we not? We were informed that we would start at 11 a.m. and work till 5 p.m. For this, we would be compensated the sum of approximately $11.00 U.S. (in Rupees). This was peanuts of course, but hell; we were in it for the experience. And what an experience it turned out to be.
At 1 p.m. there were about 30 of us tourists standing around in front of the hostel waiting to get picked up. A half an hour later a couple of shifty-looking guys with cell phones and mini-vans appeared. They packed us in and we took off into the chaos of Mumbai. It was now well past noon and most of us had only eaten the meager breakfast of banana and toast supplied by the hostel. We had a very vocal German guy with us who kept talking about biscuits (pronounced ‘bis-queets’). He became agitated when we stopped at a light alongside a bakery and demanded to be let out. We let him go and while he was in the process of buying something our driver took off. We all thought it was hilarious until we were three blocks away and our driver giving no indication that he either noticed or cared that he had lost a passenger.
We arrived at our destination soon after: a ritzy hotel surrounded by a great big wall and situated on the ocean. The 30 of us were directed to sit on some concrete steps and to “please wait” for the crew to arrive. By then it was 1.30 p.m., and there was discussion amongst our group as to how long this all was going to take.
At about 3.30 p.m. our ‘agents’ came over and started picking people for parts. The scene they were going to shoot was in an airport, and I was chosen as a ‘flight captain’ while Marcella was a tourist. Other people were chosen to be stewardesses, security guards and maintenance men. Those of us in ‘official’ roles were hauled off behind the hotel to the wardrobe department. They handed me a dirty shirt and a stained suit and told me to try it on. Luckily I met an American guy (Paul) who had come separate from us tourists and who had experience with this kind of thing. He showed me the ropes; like how to fight in the dressing room to get the guy to iron my jacket and then track down someone else to find me a tie and then finally try and get some shoes that half-fit.
At about 4 p.m. lunch arrived and they hauled all us dressed-up folk off to eat. I was rushed to the front of the line and told to hurry, which I did, and ran back to the wardrobe room to find out that they just wanted us to sit around again for another hour anyways. Then they herded everyone up and took us somewhere else to wait for another hour as I sweat to death in my polyester suit.
At about 6 p.m. they finally called us in to work. They only needed the tourists – so all the cabin crew got to sit on our asses for another three hours in the lobby of the hotel. I don’t know what sort of arrangement the movie-people had with the hotel-people, but we kept getting kicked out of the lounge and were basically treated like second-class scum. Water was hard to get and more food was impossible unless you wanted to pay the exorbitant hotel-prices. At 9 p.m. they finally let the rest of us work. It was simple; we had to act like people in an airport, pretend to talk, walk around and that sort of thing.
Working was okay. At least it was better than sitting on our asses, but when the clock struck 11:00 most of us had had enough. Or rather, we hadn’t. We had been there for 10 hours and hadn’t eaten anything since 4. Then they told us we wouldn’t be leaving till midnight. We went on strike.
It was a good show of solidarity for a pack of backpacking miscreants. We walked out and demanded to see the producer. He turned out to be the quintessential gangster: a fat guy in white robes with lots of gold chains and a thick stack of fresh bills in his pocket. We requested a raise and food. He was reluctant, but gave in. He said that food was on its way and now we were making another seven dollars. We were satisfied, but still wanted get out of there as soon as possible. At midnight the food arrived and we all rushed outside. By this point a lot of us were fed up again. They had been playing us along with the, “just 2 more shots” line for too long, and now they were saying we would be finished at 1 a.m., which, from the way things were going, more likely meant 3 a.m. Some people had to catch trains and meet friends, but the producer was trying every under-handed tactic to make us stay. We really got to see this guy at his sleaziest; he even locked the wardrobe room so that those of us in costume couldn’t get our clothes back. There was general outrage and one of the stewardesses was in a total panic. Our hero turned out to be a big, blonde Swedish dude. He was furious and laid into the producer with a vengeance, finally cracking him. We managed to get our clothes, get paid, and get the hell out of there by 1 a.m.
From talking to other people I have learned that not every Bollywood shoot is like this. But when approached in Mumbai by a young guy with a cell phone and a lot of slick talk, do keep your guard up, and if you decide to be ‘recruited’, be prepared.
L-R: tourist girl, Paul, tourist girl, French guy, author, and another guy on the set of Kuutch to Hai in Bombay.
Note: The movie we are in is called Kuutch to Hai (There is Something). It is definitely one Bollywood’s flops, and I only recommend it if you have never seen a Bollywood film before.