Friday, May 10, 2013

Bollywood here we come!

Prior to arriving in Mumbai we had read that it had been known for tourists to be asked to be extras in Bollywood films to give certain scenes a more “Westernised” look, and had joked on a number of occasions about how great it would appear in a Bollywood film (I imagined some sort of huge dance scene with us being the token white people at the back), albeit with the awareness that it was never going to be a possibility for us.

It was therefore with some surprise that just a couple of days into our stay in Mumbai that a member of staff at our (smelly and, we had just realized, bedbug ridden) hostel asked us if we wanted to be extras in a Bollywood film the following day.  I was skeptical at first, not least because of the location at which our talents had been “discovered”, and was keen not to fall for an in-joke at tourists’ expense, so I asked a few questions whilst trying not to appear too keen.  It started to sound like it might be legit, so we tentatively agreed and were provided with some extremely vague information about being picked up and taken to the studios.

Early the following morning we boarded a bus with about 30 other travelers, and were driven north through Mumbai for about 2 hours during which time the realisation that this was actually happening slowly dawned on us.  However, shortly upon arrival we were informed that the day’s shooting had been cancelled due to a collapsed stage.  The disappointment was cushioned by receiving payment of half a day’s pay (250 rupees – approximately $5 or 3GBP –each, which more than paid for that evening’s dinner).  We were suitably convinced that this was the real deal, and so agreed to return the following day.

After the same journey the following day we were taken into Reliance MediaWorks Studios, one of the most prominent film studios in India.  The talk on the bus was that the film was entitled “Dhoom 3”; we had somehow managed to miss Dhoom and Dhoom 2, so this didn’t mean anything to us.  After breakfast we were taking to our dressing areas.  For the men this consisted of an open air shed-type structure filled with a variety of mis-matched clothing, well used shoes and very Indian looking ties.  I was provided with a white shirt, an extremely ill-fitting polyester suit, and left to fight it out for shoes (I ended up with some backless loafers which ended a good half inch before the back of my foot as these were the only ones that I could get on my feet) and a tie.  No make-up required, I was ready for my debut in 5 minutes flat.  The ladies, on the other hand, had a relatively swanky dressing area (by which I mean it had walls and a semi-permanent roof) where they were provided with a variety of hideous dresses, and had their hair and make-up done.  Monique was allocated a rather fetching brown sequined number, a not insignificant amount of blusher, and a hairdo consisting of a hair-sprayed ‘poof’ increasing her height by around 2 inches.  We made quite the glamorous couple.

After some waiting around we were taken into the studio to find a quite impressive theatre set and what seemed like a huge number of studio staff.  It was explained to us that we were to play the audience of some sort of a show, and one-by-one we were filmed against a green-screen applauding, standing and applauding and telling our non-existence neighbours what a good show it was, the whole time being encouraged to be enthusiastic with prompts such as “you’ve just seen a great show”, “it’s a fabulous show”, “it’s an amazing show” but without any explanation as to what it is we were supposed to be applauding (I really needed more information to understand my character’s motivation in the scene).  We were amongst the first to be filmed, and as the morning went on our fellow extras were asked to add actions such as admiring the theatre, and watching someone flying over them and landing on the stage “you’re amazed, you're astonished” which resulted in reactions becoming more and more over the top (to the director’s encouragement).

This went on for what seemed like an eternity before we eventually broke for lunch.  In the afternoon the extras were seated together as the theatre audience, and it slowly (very, very, slowly) became clear that we were watching some sort of circus performance which involved performers jumping from the stage and swinging over the audience on a strap/rope.  After hours of the expert acrobat swinging around, and tinkering with the set-up to get it just right, a short Indian man with sticking out ears and scantily clad in leather and body-paint came to the stage to start shooting the scene.  The director’s standards appeared to be pretty low as the actor was praised for his efforts despite them being somewhat underwhelming.  This was followed by a similarly scantily clad and body-paint adorned, but much more attractive, actress doing the same scene.  She was significantly better than her male counterpart, but pushed by the director to film more takes.

The afternoon progressed on those lines; the actor and actress alternatively filming identical scenes painfully slowly.  He, Aamir, repeatedly received praise for his performances (including what was clearly his stock moody scowl) and slowed down the proceedings by insisting on having his hair and make-up touched up between every take.  She, Katrina, was pushed further to film more takes despite the strain of being swung around by her wrist taking its toll, but remained cheerful.  As extras, our only input was to watch the ‘performers’ in “shock and awe” as they dangled above us, and to applaud on command.

Only late in the day (around 7pm) did we find out more about the film from talking to two employees of the company brought in to handle the rope-swinging elements.  Apparently Dhoom is a massive film franchise in India, and Dhoom 3 is going to be the most expensive Bollywood film ever made.  Moreover, the guy whose performances we had criticized all afternoon long was Aamir Khan, one of the biggest Bollywood stars and a household name in India.  That explained why the director had been sucking up to him so much.  His female counterpart was Katrina Kaif, also a hugely popular Bollywood star (and who, it turns out, is British).  The actor and actress who had been performing all afternoon only a few metres in front of us, had been standing right next to us while discussing the scenes, and practically landing on top of us after swinging around the "theatre", were apparently the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of Bollywood (although we think Aamir Khan is more of a Tom Cruise - make of that what you will)!  This revelation prompted a bit more interest from us for the remainder of the day (the long, tedious day mostly spent sat around waiting for something to happen had previously  been quite sleep inducing).  Even so, by 9.30pm, 13.5 hours after being collected by the bus, the extras had had enough and decided to leave en masse.  We collected our days’ pay of 500 rupees ($10) each and made the journey back to South Mumbai.

The long and tedious day spent sat around in awful clothes waiting for something to happen had been far from exciting or glamorous, but will all have been worth it if we make the cut into what will probably be the biggest Bollywood film ever.  Although we didn't make it into a dance scene, and I suspect our solo green-screen performances may be overlooked for some of the more over-the-top performances given by our fellow extras later in the day that are probably more in keeping with the Bollywood style, there is a good chance, given my height, the size of Monique’s hair and where we were seated, that there will be a glimpse of us in the final film.  Not quite our 15 minutes of fame, but the backs of our heads might well be seen by several million people.  For anyone interested the release date is set for 25th December 2013 and photos of the backs of our heads can be provided on request to facilitate identifying us.

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