Just before leaving the famous Cafe Leopold on Coloba Causeway (known from the novel Shantaram, as well as one of the first sites attacked during the 2008 Mumbai attacks), a short man in his twenties approached me on the busy sidewalk. While waving his business card in front of me with one hand, he pulled my arm with the other. At that time, I was already quite used to having short local people pulling my arms on the crowded streets of Mumbai, so I looked another way while trying to get loose.
Then I heard something like “Bollywood production”, “need Europeans,” “serious production”. Quickly I remembered what I had read before heading to Mumbai: That it’s not unusual that tourists are being head hunted on the streets by Bollywood production scouters. I looked at him and excused my ignorant behavior with a smile, before saying things like: “Seriously? Filming for a REAL Bollywood?”, and the scouter started to explain eagerly.
Although I found him very young looking, and had some stories regarding scout scams in the back of my head too (apparently false agents are fooling tourists to pay for an experience with Bollywood movie maker), my intuition told me that what he said about the next day’s production was true. We made an appointment for pick up at that very spot the following day at 7am, and he assured me I wouldn’t be the only tourist meeting him then.
As I walked down Coloba Causeway the next morning the most beautiful pink light of sunrise painted the streets and shabby buildings. Sun rays hit the many sleeping faces that slowly appeared behind ragged blankets too, and for a while I seemed to be the only one awake on that street. Until I spotted the rats. Suddenly there were rats everywhere: Crossing the empty streets around me, crawling around litter cans and under cars looking for leftovers.
Before I reached my destination, I spent some time reflecting over who was more miserable: The countless rats or the countless homeless people who shared their habitat with rats. It’s hard to say, but one thing´s clear: They were all totally careless about my presence that morning.
Soon my own memory of their presence faded too, as my first day in a Bollywood production started.
At the pick up point in Coloba Causeway, I met a good looking Austrian couple that also was booked for the Bollywood shoot. After being picked up by a nice van in which a British couple were sitting already, we sped through the city – that now was fully awake – while giggling and chatting, obviously excited for what the day would bring. Halfway, the cheerful tone in the car took an end as the driver had 1) crashed with another big van, and 2) jumped out of the car only to yell at a poor biker laying on his back in the middle of a busy conjunction because he had ran into us. It was a complete madness, now that I think about it.
When passing the Dharavi slum we got to see people doing their morning necessities next to the traffic jam, and minutes before entering the spot in which the production crew had rigged for the day, we passed by extremely skinny people washing the dishes in the middle of a muddy road.
Needless to say, I was full of contradicting feelings and rather bizarre impressions when arriving to the site of the Bollywood production, which looked like this:
What to do? I guess we all decided to just suck it in. This is India, right?
And honestly, approaching the film scene by car really took my breath away. Up a gravel road alongside a green park, through a huge golden gate and up a beautiful road towards this Disney looking castle of a building. The pink pretend-to-be-curtains were blowing in the wind and at least fifty workers were moving around yelling at each others. We got out of the cars with our cameras close, but were instantly told there were no time for that.
A stressed lady came out and presented herself, before dividing us into different roles of the upcoming act. Turned out we had arrived late (the accidents on the way!), and they needed us to get dressed and styled NOW.
I’ll let some pictures speak for themselves:
At least the British couple were happy about their dresses.
Ah.. Show bizz life.
What we hadn’t been told the day before, was that we were going to be many more foreigners on the set. We were: 1 couple from England. One couple from Austria. 3 guys from Argentina and 3 persons from Australia (two of which were on their honey moon and one girl dated one of the Argentinians after having met backpacking in India (edit January 2015: They are married today, yeaaah!). And myself from Norway.
And the happy campers from Austria:
The gorgeous Australian (who later married the Argentinian in the middle above):
After some mingling, the lead director (an Indian expat living in London) came over and briefed us about the plot of the upcoming commercial. We had been styled to look like guests in a fashionable wedding, as if the Indian couple whose wedding we were in, had white friends over from Europe. It’s common that middle class Indians either would have come from England or London, he said, or at least have white friends in their wedding. Well, we live in 2009, I thought.
As long as I remember I’ve dreamed of attending an Indian wedding, so I was pretty thrilled to attend my first one. Never mind it being fake.
Before beginning we had to wait for the real Bollywood stars to come, so while waiting I walked around in the venue and photographed other people who were waiting. These boys are from Mumbai and didn’t act as excitedly as the rest of us did. But they had found the best spot.
Meanwhile, as an enormous crew of around fifty people was fixing the last bits in the room we were going to shoot the add, the place filled up with young and old local actors. Many of which apparently take assignments as extras in a movie or commercial production while some – I’m sure – dream of one day nailing a major role.
Whether they’ve taken part in a Bollywood production before or not, I don’t know, but they definitely must have had the starstruck-day of their lives, because as the proper Bollywood stars came in, they starred and giggled non stop.
The two stars – that I can’t say I know as I watch too few Bollywood movies – where young, glossy, pretty and both taller and lighter than the others. The girl that was getting married in the commercial, was rather shy looking and silent all the time, whereas the main acting boy (drum roll please…..) looked confident and happy. Just like one see from pictures of Indian wedding.
The add was for a Ponds face creme (Ponds is the biggest cosmetics brand in Asia, due to their whitening cremes (!)), and the plot was that the groom’s best friend, responsible of filming the wedding, got distracted when spotting the most beautiful girl he had ever seen among the guests. The girl obviously uses Ponds creme every day (thus her remarkable lighter skin), and the groom’s best friend starts filming her instead of the newly weds.
The rest of us “normal wedding guests” doing what people do in a wedding:
As tend to occur, we had to shoot each scene numerous times. Thus, the above flower scene which is key to any wedding, had to be shot over and over. So we threw flowers over the newly weds, wooed and laughed over and over.
After each “cut!” we had to stop to wait for light fixes, new make-up and that these poor men swept the flowers of the floor. This, as well as somehow serving the rest of us, seemed like their only task on set that day. As much as I tried, I really never caught their eye contact, or saw them smile.
The Indian caste system still seems prevalent to me.
Later on we were told to just wait. Like in any other commercial production with fixes, extras and models, things take much longer than what’s planned to begin with. So. while the film crew were busy filming the main stars, including a make-up break every 10 minute (it was mad!), us normal wedding guests sat in a corner of the beautiful building waiting.
Soon bored and ready to leave, we were instead finally given some delicious food. We counted six hours since arrival at this time, and a few of us started acting a bit tired of it all. Food helped on everyone’s mood though, and this way the film crew managed to convince us to work a few hours more.
In the end however, it turned out this was NOTHING like an eight hour day of work… In fact we were done eleven hours after arrival. And the payment? Well, it started with all of us having been promised up front a payment of 10 $ for the whole day, but it ended with no one of the crew even commenting on salaries as we were wrapping up. As much as found the promised salary symbolic anyway and agreed to just be happy for the unique experience, one of the Argentinian guys still confronted the crew with the salary promise, and so our contact person – the earlier mentioned scouter – came over and started counting some bills to pay us. He even took advantage of the situation to ask everyone to please be quiet about getting paid as the other extras (the locals) were not paid for their roles.
Thus we also got a good glimpse into the exploitative movie industry practices in India. I couldn’t help but to tell the guy I found this hideous and argued how they locals probably needed those 10$ more than the rest of us do. To be totally frank with you, their working morals were a lot higher than ours too. We were just spoiled travelers looking for an adventure.
Not that he cared.
Oh well. India.
Still though. I’ll never forget this day and the people with whom I shared it. From the very early morning stroll through the grim reality of people’s lives on what’s probably Mumbai’s busiest street, to the end of the glamorous shoot, I’ve felt oddly grateful for just being. Traveling tends to do that to me: Reminding me how grateful I am to even be walking on a random street.
But, let it be said. Not once has the rats on Coloba Causeway’s destiny crossed my mind since that stroll. As for the naked kids sleeping together with their families I feel completely powerless. Not to mention speechless over the absurd contrasting lives, after hours spent in a meaningless whitening creme’s commercial shoot up the street.
Part from being blessed as a privileged traveler with yet more random, bizarre and fun experiences in a city, I’m mostly pondering about what was behind the on-the-ground hard working men’s faces that day. They were constantly yelled at regarding constructions, camera equipment, lights, curtains, cooking table and the flower decoration, and I really wonder what they are paid on days like these.
Anyway. Thanks for an interesting day, Bollywood.
Now, back to reality.