In the recent post The exploited Long-neck women in SE Asia (I), I told about my long time interest in the women of the Kayan tribe from Burma. In particular I forwarded concerns from the field of Responsible/ Ethical tourism and Human Rights about the Kayan tribes’ involvement in the tourism industry due to their special tradition of decorating their necks with metal rings. I mentioned that I’m finally going to South East Asia, and that one of the purposes with the trip is to investigate this subject further.
Before embarking on such a trip, I’ve done some research online in order to get a better picture of the situation. Yet, I’ve not fully understood how big this tour product really is, how the tours are conducted, what guides communicate or how involved the Thai government is – despite of human rights organisations’ campaigns against it for years. However, as with other similar issues of concern in the tourism industry; I can only imagine that whatever impression I get through published articles, blogs and Tripadvisor reviews, the situation is a lot more complex than I’ll ever understand.
Still, as mentioned in the previous post; what´s clear is that there exists lots of information about the history of the Kayan people, including their origin, myths about their decoration custom, historical western fascination with them and key to my initial interest: Debates about the exploitation of them as tourist attractions in Thailand.
If the latter isn’t true, the question arises: What’s in it for them? Which clearly is the main reason why human rights organisations like Tourism Concern work on subjects like these.
Before discussing the ethics, lets go through some history.
The origin of the long-neck women is quite known even through tourism nowadays. The so called long-neck women are members of a tribe called Karen (by themselves pronounced as Kayan), out of which many fled from Burma to Thailand in the 1980s after having been one of many harshly oppressed ethnic minorities in the country. Soon after, there were built specific villages in the Chiang Mai region in Northern Thailand for – amongst other fleeing tribes– the Kayan people.
As most of the Kayan women stuck to the old custom of coiling rings around their necks, Thai authorities soon realised their value as tourist attractions, and built separate villages for them to where visitors could pay to come and see them with their own eyes and learn about their tradition.
According to a huge variety of sources the mythical stories and beliefs about why the women coil their necks with heavy metal rings then, seem to be presented and believed in numerous forms, but the three most common mythologies explain that:
- It’s done to prevent tigers from biting them
- It was originally done to make the women unattractive so they are less likely to be captured by slave traders.
and the opposite of the latter:
- That an extra-long neck is considered a sign of great beauty and wealth and that it will attract a better husband. Adultery therefore, is said to be punished by removal of the rings.
As tempted as I am to rabble on about the ways so called “culture tours/ tourism” can develop, and why it often represents an issue of concern within the field of Responsible Tourism – it be visits to tribe people in African countries or the Inuits of Canada or the Samis up North in Norway – I’ll keep to four sentences:
- Culture tours/ tourism is B I G business, and it’s increasing in popularity every year as today’s travelers are increasingly keen to discover whatever they see as authentic in a destination.
- The very people of interest (when it comes to this tourism form) often represent historically marginalised groups of people due to their status as indigenous/ ethnic minorities.
- Due to the longtime oppression of the latter, they often struggle with poverty, stigmatisation and language barriers which make them easy to exploit in industries like tourism.
- Additionally and unfortunately, currently existing tribe people often live in areas with poor standards of human rights’ protection.
Back to the Kayan tribe, it’s important to have in mind that the international knowledge about its people – and especially its women’s customs – didn’t actually start with tourism in recent times. The truth is that the long-neck women first got internationally known through Western adventurers and anthropologists that “discovered them” and brought pictures back to Europe from Burma during the Colonial times.
Here’s an example I found when … yeah, googling.
According to content I find on the world wide web about their modern history (meaning from 1900), Kayan women were even taken to England in the 1930s for cultural-educational purposes, which reminds me of what I learned in school about a black man who was displayed in Oslo 150 years ago, and in University about miss Sarah Baartman, that was exhibited in London during the same era.
As for the Kayan women, they were invited to join theater plays (!).
And invited to drink tea the Brittish way.
Those were the Oh mighty colonial days, you may be thinking…
Today however, we tend to think that in terms of human values we’ve come much longer since the colonial racist 1930s… It would be seen as completely unacceptable to exhibit people less powerful in a Western country today, right? Besides, think about it: Today we’ve seen it all. One way or another, we know about all kinds of people and ethnic groups that live on the planet. It’s not like it used to be back then when traveling was seen as an extreme luxury even for most Westerners.
Instead, in the increasingly globalised world and with our increasing travel opportunities we are constantly given the chance to learn about real people with other traditions than ours – in their very own habitat. Wherever it is, we just travel there! Where there is a demand there will be a supply as it works strikingly well in an overly market oriented world. And it’s in this very reality that sightseeing the villages of the long-neck women has become a popular experience for travelers to tick of their lists.
One can start wondering when seeing the above pictures, whether that early display and fascination – and the fact that we even had pictures of them in school books in European countries throughout the 20th century – has fueled the whole concept of the Kayan women as tourist attractions in modern Thailand today? And others alike.
Truth is that for a long time, rather bizarre tour products in which indigenous people are the main attraction, have popped up around the globe replying to the demand among authenticity- seeking tourists. Not seldom are they marketed as beneficial to the attractions themselves, but honestly I’ve yet to see such a concept – developed in a bottom-up, trustworthy and sustainable manner – with my own eyes.
One crucial question however, is whether the Kayan women were more oppressed in Burma before fleeing to Thailand, as opposed to what they are currently putting up with as tourist attractions? Because according to various spokesmen and organisations the treatment and exhibition of the Kayan tribe women is a perfect example of systematic oppression of indigenous people going on around the world. And that oppression grows especially strong in the tourism industry.
Wrapping this up therefore, Ill attempt to give some advices for travelers to be, so to assure they don’t take part in the vicious circle of exploitation of indigenous people, but rather find ways to support initiatives that work for a fairer treatment of them, as well as a fairer tourism industry. That is to say: The problem with organised tourism to marginalised areas we count as interesting, is that we as travelers often don’t know – and we’re certainly not told – in what way the people we visit benefit from, or feel about it. We don’t know how much power the hosting local people actually have themselves over the situation. Thus is it very clever to investigate such matters before visiting places that might be reasonable assuming didn’t plan tourism development in their backyard themselves.
Or simply avoid them, just in case.
For over three and a half years now, I’ve been working voluntarily for the UK-based charity Tourism Concern, that through campaigning- and lobbying try to fight exploitation in tourism. The organisation’s vision is that tourism always benefit local people and their work often concerns awareness raising of the sector’s different stakeholders about serious issues in the industry.
If this is the first time you’ve ever heard of such a concept, let me quickly inform you that the tourism industry (part from being a force for good in terms of increasing mutual understanding between people and cultures and a facilitator of peoples’ possibility to enjoy a holiday), also is – like many other industries – notorious when it comes to facilitating powerful actors’ means to earn money in a dirty way.
Personally I’ve given good reasons for why the work for a more ethical/ responsible tourism is so crucial. I’ve written about orphanage tourism, and suggested what it takes of responsibility policies among tour companies and governments to hinder that slum dwellers exist as pure tourist attractions, and I’ve mentioned why I’m so interested in the topic myself.
Today I’ll write about something that’s been on my radar for long, since I first started studying issues within the field of exploitation in tourism.
I still remember the picture in the brochure; of three ladies with Asian features sitting on a bench in traditional colorful clothes and metal rings around their long necks. In front of them was standing a corps of tourists shooting pictures with their massive cameras. The women with the metal rings were of the Kayan tribe, living in Northern Thailand, and the photographing charade was categorised in the brochure as a ‘human zoo’.
In tourism they go under the name “long-neck women” and occasionally also giraffe women, although they refuse to adapt the latter themselves.
Since working with Tourism Concern I’ve learned that they’ve – together with other human rights organisations – flagged their concerns about the exploitation of various tribe people in tourism. With regards to the Kayans, Tourism Concern has campaigned against tourism that involves them, and pushed tour operators to stop offering trips to their villages.
From what I’ve understood there are also several organisations that have pushed for governmental actions. But as with other similar stories of exploitation in tourism, it’s very complex. Poverty and means of oppression are complex. So is tourism.
Back in 2011, one of the first in-depth articles I posted on my blog concerned the exploitation of the Kayan people. I called the post the trapped giraffe women, unaware of the Kayan’s own opposition to the Giraffe- reference, so my apologies for that. I also referred to the women and their tribe as both the Kayan and Padaung in that post, but recently learned that Padaung isn’t really what they like to call themselves either. According to new sources I came across Padaung is a Thai-implemented categorisation of the Kayan tribe. Lets thus stick to calling them the Kayan (people).
In the mentioned post, I shared my frustration over not finding more than a few articles online about the Kayan people despite quite a lot of research. I was looking for content concerning the exploitation of them and their current situation, and most of the articles and blog posts I found were typically based on people´s tour experience in a tribe village. Commonly, (uncritical) travel writers seem to retell stories that guides have told them, and write about the situation in supportive manners. This isn’t new at all in tourism of course, nor very illogical, yet it can be dangerous if what people are told isn’t not true at all.
Since the last time I wrote about the long-necks, Ive not investigated much about the topic, but as I’ve just made a dream come true and booked my tickets to South East Asia for 2015, I recently went back to it.
For now my plan is to travel in three countries (Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia) for approximately three months, and I’m of course going to the region where the 1 day sightseeings of the long-neck women’s villages are taking place. I want to find a way to not only see it with my own eyes, but also talk to people involved in the sector and understand more about what is actually going on. How tour companies are marketing it, what the guides say, what tourists think about it and especially what the ladies themselves feel.
The latter is the most difficult part though; also considering I’m not going as a long time researcher with the access to a neutral translator. Nevertheless, Ill do my best in getting a local translator, and who knows: My previous research experiences make me believe Ill be lucky this time too, and that things will fall into place.
So, preparing for my trip, I’ve done some new secondary research in order to renovate my knowledge about the matter, and found out that not only has the subject been flagged again since late 2011 and throughout 2012 and 2013, but the history of Westerners’ fascination of the women that coil their necks with big brass rings is much crazier and longer than I knew of!
Just take a look at this picture! What does it look like to you?
To keep posts in suitable lengths for reading, I’ve made a new post about the matter. Go here to learn about Westerners longtime facination with the long-neck women from Burma and to get some additional information regarding the reasons behind tourists’ interest in visiting them. I’ll also present some reasons for travelers to think twice about supporting the concept of so called culture tours, as they often include complex issues of exploitation.
Yes, such a thing exist. Orphanage tourism. Sounds bizarre right? Especially if you’re living in a so-called Western country…
Can you imagine that young foreigners that don’t even speak the language of your country show up at orphanages’ doors getting the responsibility for a bunch of parent-less children? Didn’t think so.
But that’s what’s going on in Cambodia – and many other poor countries – to where travellers flock, searching for ‘doing something meaningful’ while abroad. I don’t know what you think about it, but there are many reasons to believe this is a problematic trend that entails far more (potentially) damaging aspects than what a few occasional positive stories can live up to.
Here is a short documentary on the business behind the booming orphanage industry in Cambodia.
As one does now and then, I’m sitting here thinking about what I want to do with my life, what drives me professionally and why I’ve applied for the master in Responsible Tourism Management – starting next autumn. One bizarre, yet complex situation within the field of tourism impacts (widely categorised), came to my mind.
You may have heard of it or perhaps even done it yourself; the sightseeing of tribe villages in rural Northern Thailand inhabited by the Padaung people, whose women maintain an old tradition of wearing heavy metal rings around their necks. There are many explanations and beliefs for why the women started coiling their necks (even discussed on main stream Youtube and Wikipedia), but the common saying is that they do it for beauty, and/or to prevent getting killed by a tiger (who would attack the neck). Another commonly stated ‘fact’ is that the rings are put onto a girl’s neck from an early age, and that she – if they’re never taken off – gets an abnormally long and weak neck within adulthood. Important to note; it’s actually not the neck itself that stretches but the collar bones that sink down – making the impression of a longer neck.
Peoples’ curiosity and (Western) visitors’ awe over this unique tradition has probably both fueled and replied to the marketing of the females of the Padaung people as astonishing and incredible giraffe women/ long-necks. Today however, the custom is diversely rewarded amongst the women themselves, as the rings’ current purpose is questioned amongst both visitors and indigenous peoples’ groups. It is in other words, a situation that thrives both mythological and ethical debates, with the latter mainly concerning the exploitation of the women as tourist attractions Thailand since the 1990s.
Now, let’s first of all remember that the fact that people are tourist attractions themselves isn’t really new at all. Some Scottish men line up on touristy streets in London with their skirts and sack pipes for a living, and although we’re living in the 21st century some Norwegian youth still choose to work on remote farms in summer with traditional clothes on so that tourists can come and see “Real Norway”.
Not to mention the Masai people in Kenya jumping their asses off everyday inside any game reserve to show tourists what authentic Masai culture is about. They’re not doing it because they’re constantly jumping elsewhere, they probably wear jeans and t-shirts when off duty. Point is, people working in (a place with lots of) tourism often entertain their visitors in an attempt to add value to the tourist’s experience. It’s their job: They entertain, earn money and proudly or not, show off bits of their culture. Thing is however; the Europeans doing this probably all have a health insurance, and could even easily get another job. Some of them probably earn good money and feel their lives are much freer and flexible this way as opposed to if they were working for a corporate, or in a post office.
The Masais on their side, despite of living in a third world country – and having been oppressed in various ways throughout history with regards to land grabbing etc. – are actually quite known for being in control of the way they’re part of “cultural commodification”. Studies I’ve come across state they earn fair money on tourism, interact a lot with visitors, move around freely and thus aren’t considered very exploited (I’m sure there are many sides of that story, but for now I leave it at this).
As for the tribe women in Northern Thailand, I’ve learned that they’re most likely not earning much at all through tourism. Truth is that although they represent major tourist attraction in many places, it wasn’t actually their own idea to become such magnets, and due to language barriers etc. they’re actually not in too much control over the whole phenomenon. As one could argue a Scottish man is if he become one, or as I’ve exemplified how the Masai people seem in control of their work as attractions.
The giraffe women on the other hand are members of the originally Burmese Karenni people – specifically the tribe called Padaung as previously mentioned (FYI: The tag giraffe women or long neck is (re)invented for tourism marketing), but commonly call themselves Kayan – just to complicate things a little. Due to their “unsuitable” religious beliefs (Christianity) and major ethnic conflicts in Burma over two decades ago, the Padaungs were allowed to settle in small villages in the Northern regions of Thailand (as other Burmese hill tribes had done before them). However, the Padaungs still represent a small group of stateless people, as the Thai government never entitled them the same rights as other citizens during all these years! In which regard they were given limited access to electricity and water, and still live in very poor conditions.
But quite quickly someone predicted there was a potential solution to this: With the Padaung women’s special neck-coiling-customs they could attract people willing to pay a fee to see them with their own eyes. Which with the ever-since booming tourism industry in Thailand proved them quite right as long-neck tourism turned into a big thing in the 90s. There is only one major problem to this according to Tourism Concern (the watch dog organisation I’m assisting), and other human rights organisations: that tourism revenue doesn’t really go back into the tribe members’ pockets. It’s left with the tour operators. Moreover, women have reported they’re forced to stay in the villages and work as tourist attractions – which seems to prove the main issue here – that the Thai government is keeping these people as if in prison, due to their appeal (more on their rationale for this later).
This article by Cultural Survival tells about how women that wished to remove the coils, where forced not to, so that they could continue working as attractions. And in this article from 2009, a former giraffe-neck woman called Zember, tells how she removed the rings in anger when the Thai government refused to let her and other family members refugee to New Zealand, even though they’d got their asylum applications approved there through UNHCR. According to the article, the Thai government rationalised their refusal by claiming that the Padaungs are regarded a Thai tribe hill now (after decades of not being regarded as such – which was part of the reason they lived under such bad conditions in the country), and crucially: that their culture needs to be protected. This protection-of-their-culture argument is confirmed on this tourism promo site about Chiang Mai.
Supported by UNHCR officers in Thailand, Zember therefore speaks out on behalf of her community about the longtime exploitation of her tribe in tourism due to their special custom of coiling their necks with brass rings: A situation she states they became part of quickly – and unwillingly – after settling in Thailand. “We didn’t know they’re getting money from the tourists, we couldn’t speak English or Thai. The older generation were grateful to have a means of surviving, but did not understand tourist comments that they were a “human zoo”. Ours is the first generation who can read and write.” For herself therefore, Zember decided to remove the rings in order to look for a better life, not because she rejects her culture, but because they’re a weapon of exploitation by powerful local Thai authorities. “Long-neck tourism is big business in Mae Hong Son, but little of the money returns to the Kayans — the operations have always been run by Thais”.
Similar to what I’ve read of human rights organisation work on this, Zember describes how the Padaung are exploited in tourism. Women who wear the rings are paid 1500 baht a month to run souvenir stalls, and can earn a little extra by selling traditionally weaved scarves. Men in the villages receive a rice allowance of 260 baht a month. In one village, Hway Su Thao, the women have had their tourism income deducted for riding motorbikes, talking to foreigners outside the village or attending educational courses that keep them away from the village during the day.
Though I find it very admirable of Zember to speak out this way, I get frustrated to see there is little information available on the subject. When searching online for information about the giraffe women and their inclusion in the Thai tourism sector, I find bloggers writing about their amazing experience watching them (and posting pictures), but little on people’s concern. One reason to this is obviously the fact that most travelers don’t know about the background of the current situation, and a guide working in the field won’t possibly tell them that they’re fueling exploitation.
Of online media content about the matter I only find a few published things, in addition to some academic research. Then again – and related to similar subjects – it’s for sure challenging and time consuming to research such topics in-depth. The language barriers for a foreign academic or journalist can be massive, not to mention how it’s often difficult to get members from marginalised communities to speak out due to their status as oppressed and fear/threat of punishment. Unfortunately, this is ironically part of the reason why marginalised people stay marginalised.
Despite of having few sources telling us what the Kayan women themselves feel, my impression remains that of the ones that speak out, either are:
- young women speaking out on behalf of the community stating they’re exploited for tourism revenue (some of whom have taken of the rings and fled in order to do something else with their lives)
- old women stating to wear the rings to protect their traditions and culture, and that they don’t mind tourists coming to watch them
This all fosters important questions like: How to deal with this situation if we assume both the above groups are right about how they see it? More essentially: What if everyone stopped going to their villages? What would actually happen to the income level of these women and their tribe? How would they be treated by the government if they refuse obeying like they’ve done for decades?
When debating rights and wrong in tourism, one quickly finds a lot of polarizing opinions and realistic, yet complex, intertwined truths. Some think it’s better that the tribe people – who aren’t given the same freedom as regular Thai people to look for jobs, or get an education despite of having lived in Thailand for decades – earn some money through tourism, rather than nothing.
Others think that the Thai government should take responsibility and first of all stop exploiting tribe people for tourism revenue, as well as entitle them the same rights as any other Thai tribes, so that they can choose what they want to do with their lives themselves. Judging from common sense and the interview with Zember, Id go for the latter suggestion. Realistically though, we also know this isn’t happening. Yet.
My little research and blog rambling however is based on some understanding of the situation. To actually have a job projecting me to get a deeper understanding of these bizarre, yet complex situations would be a dream! An understanding whose results could be shared with the involved stakeholders, including good recommendations on how they all can do something about it. And then I’m not only referring to involved actors related to the Kayan/Padaungs, but all kinds of exploitative operations in tourism. Unfortunately they’re way too many.
Thus I’m very excited to soon learn more about how to approach, detect and change them. In the meantime; please go here to get some advices on how to take action with regard to topics like the above.
Today I’ll present some of the radical creativity I came across in Mumbai, whose variety I firmly believe I spotted in the first place because I was traveling on my own.
Like I stated in a previous post about Mumbai, I’m stunned over peoples’ friendliness and endless creativity there. In fact, all of it – the crowded streets; the colors; the traffic; the cows; the food stalls; the shops – simply is a delight to a traveler’s eye!
Saying this doesn’t mean I’m unaware of the many severe social and economic issues in India, because indeed; they are very visible too and certainly not a delight for anyone. They’re as real as the summer sky is blue, and they concern me as much as it concerns me that George Bush is the president of the United States.
This post however, isn’t about Bush or poverty stricken India. It’s about the fabulous, logical and intelligent endless creativity of every day Mumbai. And sure! I can only imagine what’s to be found in other parts of India.
The first moment here, is a common sight on the streets of Mumbai. People taking a nap. Anywhere. At a fruit market I visited it made perfect sense: No such thing called a home near by? Then get comfortable on a wooden trolley that’s survived the entire 20th century, and just close your eyes. Ohm.
Strolling the streets, you’ll quickly notice the vast amount of scooters with side cars in Mumbai. Many of which also seem to have survived the entire 20th century. No wonder, as they’re constantly being taken care of by someone with mechanical skills. And a lot of love for useful and valuable antiques.
Same thing goes for this man’s bike. Not only functional as a bike; it’s upgraded to a pencil sharpener. Indeed. Poverty thrives peoples’ creativity to a whole new level. This chap even gets to exercise while working. Kudos!
Then there are the street barbers. Everywhere you go that has a side walk, an old beer crate, an edge or just longed-for-shadow; there will also be a barber in action. Oh, how I love the sense of freedom to an open-air-barber.
Not daring to get myself a hair cut at one of the barber shops, I wanted a hat to hide my bad-backpacker-hair-days with. One day I somehow stumbled upon a high end silk shop run by two brothers near by Taj Mahal, where I was offered tea and stories about the good old Silky way days and their family business.
Hat’s price = 50 bucks. Common purpose of use = weddings or other traditional parties.
Keener to hang out with the more regular crowd of Mumbai, I later stopped next to a crowd of people on the streets. They were watching and wooing over their kids sitting in a tiny popup Ferris wheel. Its placement on the edge of a busy main road went without asking.
As I had been told that one of Mumbai’s most famous tourist attractions took place a bit further North, I got a tuktuk driver to take me there one day. On the way, which took like twenty minutes, I nearly fell out of the tuktuk while trying to capture the many hilarious alternative transports we passed. Hilarious to me that is. To an Indian this is nothing new.
My favorite moment was this guy.
Not only was he transporting a cage with eight canary birds on the back of his scooter. He was driving like a mad man, and the birds were singing beautifully to the sound of traffic jam.
Hens being transported like this is just boring now.
The trip up North was worthwhile solely for the experience of Mumbai’s buzzing street life. However, when I arrived to ‘one of Mumbai’s main attractions’ Id been recommended, I got it: The gigantic public open air laundry Dhobi Ghat (Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat) is a must see.
Ladies. Men. Children. Separating the clothes by colors and washing them. Children mostly separating. Women mostly washing. Men mostly smashing the wet clothes a bit drier before hanging them up. A beautiful busy symphony of hand laundering put into system.
I stood here for an hour.
I even got a new friend. With a creative hair color.
More about him and a couple of his creative moves in an upcoming post. Trust me; you don´t want to miss it!
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.