It was my birthday. I was in Kochin. And I was a Bollywood film star.
We had slept in late, savouring the sounds of the ocean from our hotel room. On account of it being my birthday, we had splashed out and stayed the night in a plush hotel that fronted right onto the water, a pleasant change after several months in cheap hotels without hot water or air-conditioning.
[Context: When I finished law-school I set off on an extended voyage of discovery across Asia and Europe, with Camilla, my girlfriend at the time. This included backpacking in India for more than three months. I wrote a series of short stories about our experiences there. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to see them published, they have languished in my cupboard ever since. Not many people have read them but recently, a friend who has suggested I should dig out my India tales, edit and “publish” them via this blog – an online book of sorts. There are 18 “chapters” in total, and from time to time I will post the next one, although each can be read standalone. In revisiting these stories now, almost two decades after they were written, it amazes me how little things have changed in India. In many respects, the events described back then could just as easily have happened today. I hope you enjoy].
We were enjoying a leisurely breakfast in the hotel’s sunny dining room, gazing out at the scenic views across the bay, and debating what to do with our day. It was, after all, my birthday, and we therefore felt the need to do something special; something that would set this day apart from any other average day of moseying around India with a backpack.
While we were consulting our guidebook and a range of tattered tourist brochures, we were approached by a man in an extremely floral shirt. “Excuse me”, Floral Shirt said, “we are making a movie in the hotel today. Would you like to be in it?”
I squeezed Camilla’s hand – this had to be yet another inventive “how to part a tourist from his cash” ruse – and we both eyed the floral-shirted one with what must have been an intense look of cynicism and distrust, because he immediately began protesting: “No, no, I am serious. We are filming a scene in the hotel’s garden next to the sea – it is a restaurant scene – and we would like some English people to sit in the restaurant, and eat, you know, it is good background in the film”.
So we finished up our coffee and followed Floral Shirt, and sure enough, as we rounded the corner, we found ourselves on a real live film-set. There were two camera crews, and the usual film-set complement of grips, lighting people, sound people, stylists, make-up artists, and general hangers-on with no apparent purpose other than to make it look as if something really, really important was happening. There must have been at least sixty people milling about and another twenty people holding umbrellas to provide shade from the scorching heat for those important enough to be milling about.
There was a young boy holding a clapper-board on which he kept scribbling, in English, things like: “Take Eight”. The boy seemed to derive great pleasure from clicking the two prongs of the clappers together, over and over and over and over, in the process almost inspiring me to change the genre of the film to a homicide drama. Besides from Floral Shirt, our self-appointed agent, there were an inordinate number of people wearing obscenely loud floral shirts. It was like we had arrived on the set of an Indian version of “Hawaii 5-0”.
And at the centre of this hubbub was the director, who was a perfect fit for the Hollywood film-director stereotype. He was short, fat, and middle-aged, wearing a tattered t-shirt, trendy sneakers and knee-length denim cut-offs. His hair was scruffy and shoulder-length. He sat on a canvas chair which had the word “DIRECTOR” stencilled onto the back. He was constantly surrounded by a mob of people, and had his very own personal umbrella carrier. He even wore a baseball cap with an American college logo on the front. Clearly we were dealing with an honours graduate from the Stephen Spielberg “how to look like a movie director” school.
Our floral-shirted agent attracted the attention of “Mr Director”, who ambled over to where we were standing. He said hello, thanked us for our participation, explained that we may have to sit around and wait for a while – “but that is the movie business, ha ha” – and then he vanished into a cloud of people. Mr Director was obviously too much of a giant to deal with small-fry bit players like us. Instead, we had to make do with Floral Shirt. He seated us at a table covered with a red-checked cloth. At the next table were two hairy-arm-pitted German girls, obviously also recruited as last-minute extras. They smiled at us politely.
Floral Shirt began explaining our roles: “In this film we have a hero and a heroine. The hero will be in the restaurant. He will attempt to sell you a used car. You will ask him some questions. Then he will see the heroine, who he loves, and he will run off to join her”.
That would be it – our fleeting moment of glory on Indian celluloid. But, to achieve this kind of cinematic greatness, we would have to wait. The crew first had to finish filming a love-scene where the hero and heroine talked, and almost kissed, on the jetty that poked out from the garden into the bay. “In the meantime”, said Floral Shirt, “enjoy the sun, and would you like some lemonade?”
So we waited, and waited, and waited. And waited….
After an hour and a half, the German girls got fed-up with the delay, and left, despite heartrending pleas for them to stay from our floral-shirted agent. Their departure left us as the only foreigners on set, bravely carrying the flag for all Western film-extras in Indian cinema.
The heat was sweltering, and being but lowly extras, we didn’t even warrant an umbrella, much less an umbrella carrier. Each time we protested, Floral Shirt appeased us with more lemonade, which in reality was actually lemon juice mixed with water, and then poured into a Sprite bottle.
I struck up a conversation with a man who had been hovering nearby for an hour or so. He was somehow involved in the film, but even he wasn’t exactly sure how. He informed me that we were very lucky, as the film being made was, in Indian terms, a big budget production, and we were thus watching the making of a “high quality film”. Our new friend also told us that even though the movie was being filmed in Karnataka, the local language of Kerala, it would ultimately be dubbed into Hindi.
This, apparently, is the be-all-and-end-all for an Indian film. Many people don’t know it, but India is home to the world’s most prolific film industry, with something like 800 full-length feature films being produced in the country each year. By means of comparison, the USA, which as far as Westerners are concerned is the world capital of film production, churns out only about half that number of films each year. The Indians have dubbed their film industry “Bollywood”- a play on the fact that the business of film-making tends to be centred in Bombay.
Indians are obsessively passionate about their films. Each Indian state supports a thriving film industry in that state’s regional language. And with India’s massive population, this means that even a solely Bengali language film, for example, has a potential market of fifty million viewers. That’s similar to the market for your average French film, say. What’s more, a massive proportion of the potential viewers go to the cinema on a regular basis: in India films are cheap; many Indians don’t have access to television; and movies often provide the masses with their only escape from the otherwise grim realities of life.
At the top of the Indian film pyramid stand Hindi language films, or local language films which have been dubbed into Hindi. Hindi is the official national language of India, and a Hindi film with nation-wide release has a one billion plus potential audience. We’re talking big biscuits.
As a result, Indian film-stars enjoy celebrity status in their country of the type that would make Brad Pitt blush. They are paid princely sums of money by Indian standards, and they are revered, on a par only with members of the Hindu pantheon and cricket players. I am not exaggerating here: in almost every Indian market you will invariably come across a picture-wallah selling an assortment of posters. Roughly half will be multi-coloured images of Hindu deities, and the other half will be glossy pin-ups of film-stars and national sportsmen.
Indeed, Hollywood films as a genre are often given pretty short shift in India. They are generally not popular unless they feature a muscle-bound “hero” of the Sylvester Stallone type, explosions, a few gory fist fights, and lots of speeding cars. But apart from this rather lamentable form of Western cultural export, Indians are addicted to their own particular, not to mention peculiar, genre of films: massalah cinema.
Massalah is the Hindi word for a mixture of spices used in cooking, and is an apt description of a typical Indian film. Plots are simplistic – usually a basic love story with a hero, a heroine, and the odd villain thrown in for good measure. In every film massalah you will find a hint of drama, a pinch of comedy, a smattering of melodrama, and equal measures of romance and tragedy. And dominating the flavour of each of these other spices in massalah films are the two most important ingredients of all: music and dancing.
An Indian feature-film without at least five choreographed song-and-dance numbers involving a cast of a hundred wildly gyrating dancers is as rare as a penguin in the Sahara. Indian film-goers will often see the same film a dozen times over, and will identify each film in terms of its soundtrack. On Indian MTV, for example, most of the Top Ten video clips will be musical sequences lifted from current blockbusters playing at the local cinema-house.
Anyway, after almost three hours waiting in the sun, it was time for lunch. We still hadn’t featured in our promised scene, and so the floral-shirted one, in an effort to coax us into staying, invited us to join the film crew for a meal.
As with any other film-set, a catering wagon had been set up nearby, and we wandered over. I guess I was still applying my Western preconceptions when I envisioned that there would be a table groaning under the weight of smoked salmon bagels, freshly shucked oysters and pumpkin ravioli. Instead we got an authentically Indian film-set meal: three mounds of different curries and a steaming mound of rice, accompanied by assorted papadums, pickles, and condiments. We helped ourselves, and sat down to eat at a nearby table.
All around us, the famished crew were tucking into their meals. It was strange to see these people in floral-shirts and Reeboks, who only moments before had been fiddling with cameras and dollies and cables and microphones, now scooping rice into their mouths with their bare hands. Even the leading man – idol and hero to millions – was sitting nearby and messily shovelling assorted curries into his mouth with his fingers, much to the obvious dismay of his hovering make-up attendants.
The film’s leading lady, carrying a plate piled higher than I would have thought scientifically possible, seductively swayed her way over to our table. She sat down and introduced herself as the “heroine of this picture”. “I am the star”, she informed us, without the least trace of self-consciousness.
Then Madame Heroine began eating, stuffing rice-mush into the deepest recesses of her oral cavity, with long talon-like fingers. Each time she pulled her hand away from her mouth there was a flash of ferociously red nail polish, which each time I mistook for blood, thinking that she had finally bitten off a finger in the rush to devour her lunch. As she spoke to us, we could clearly see food being masticated inside her mouth, and occasionally we were flecked with grains of rice, ejected from her gnashing jaws like little white missiles. Star or no star, this heroine was a first-rate piglet.
While we ate I had the distinct feeling that we were being watched. I looked up from my food, and noticed that many male members of the film crew were hovering close by, staring at us with their tongues hanging out. There was also a crush of several hundred Indian males gathered outside the gates of the hotel, straining anxiously to get a glimpse of our lunch companion.
Only then did it dawn on us that a living icon of the Keralan film industry had graciously chosen to honour us with her presence during the lunch break. Seeing that we had finally cottoned on to just how lucky we were, Madame Heroine chose that moment to inform us: “They say that I am a great beauty”.
One of the fans managed to break through the cordon of security guards surrounding our table, and begged me to take a photo of him with the heroine. “Sure” I said, only to discover that what was implied in the request was that I take the photo on my camera, and mail it to the fan when the film was developed. I agreed anyway, and so the fan posed dramatically with the heroine. Being a true star, she managed to stop chewing for the few seconds it took me to snap the photo. The fan almost began hyperventilating and hurriedly scribbled his address on a scrap of paper, and made me swear by all things holy to send him the photograph one day.
We finished our meals, and after the make-up artists performed some emergency repair-work on the heroine’s now curry-smeared foundation, we returned to the film set. Another hour went by, and then finally, it was our turn. The director explained to us that we should ask the leading man random questions about the car he would try to sell us, and “just be natural”. Two lush fruit salads were placed in front of us as props, there was a lighting check, and then: “ACTION”.
The Scene: Two foreign tourists, one male, one female, are seated in an Indian restaurant, eating fruit salad. Man approaches table.
Man: Would you like to buy a car?
Male Tourist: Umm, well yeah. I guess so. What type is it?
Man: A red car.
Female Tourist: How many kilometres has it done?
Man: Very many. It is a great car. It goes nyeeeee, nyeeee [pulling funny faces, making strange car-like noises and pretending to steer].
Film crew: [hysterical laughter, this is obviously the funniest thing they have ever seen].
Man: Nyeee, nyeee, vrooom……..
Heroine: [walks into restaurant; tosses her hair imperiously].
Man: Excuse me, but I must go. [more funny faces as he runs towards heroine].
Young pimple-faced assistant: Wrap [snapping take-board prongs loudly].
Director: Great. Absolutely Wonderful. Good work everybody.
Film crew: [Cheering and clapping].
Male and Female Tourist: [look utterly bewildered].
So that was it – our day in the sun, both figuratively and literally, when we featured in an Indian film. Once the filming of our scene was over, we looked around for our floral-shirted agent, but he had vanished. No-one seemed to want to know us. We were now obviously has-beens, expendable nobodies, and the director’s assistant was less than thrilled when I asked that we be sent a copy of the film. Instead, he scribbled the name of the film onto a scrap of paper, virtually threw it at me, and stalked off to a wardrobe session with the heroine.
Some months later the scrap of paper, along with most of my belongings, was stolen in Spain, so I never did get to find the film. Still, it was a birthday to remember.
[The next post in this series will be in about four weeks time: Chapter 8: Jew Town, Kochin, Kerala]