Smile, number four, smile!” The 14th take of a split second clip for the Bollywood film Thakan has just been scrapped thanks to my sulky face. It is around 4am and filming equipment is making the muggy night even more unbearable on the studio rooftop in Mumbai, where I arrived 24 hours ago. But jetlag, heat and a rebellious zip on my costume can’t dampen my excitement for long and soon I’m grinning from ear to ear again.
India is the world’s most prolific filmmaking nation, thanks to the annual production of around 900 full-length features. One fifth of these are the Hindi blockbusters largely made in the city formerly known as Bombay, and consequently dubbed Bollywood. Romance, action and comedy combine in a triumph of good over evil, though, of course, there is no kissing.”
The personification of this struggle through an outsider hero fighting against all odds for a chaste heroine and against a corrupting Western influence, can make for culturally uncomfortable viewing.
On the upside, Caucasian tourists are always in demand as extras. Filmmakers can rely on an eager supply in downtown Mumbai. The Leopold Café on the Colaba Causeway and the nearby Salvation Army Red Shield hostel – the cheapest bed in town – are regular haunts for Bahman, a jumpy scout whose mission is to find six white girls for Thakan.
Five hundred rupees for the night, OK?” he asks. Mindful of the price of organised studio tours, I mutter to the tourist he has already recruited – Kelly, a teacher from Canada – that I’d pay that just to see the set. Kelly gives me a funny look. I realise that they are actually offering to pay me.
Later that evening, we meet at one of Mumbai’s many architectural reminders of India’s colonial past, the Victoria Terminus. Bahman travels in the male-only carriage and I find out a bit more about the other extras. Julie and Sandy are from England and on a gap year before starting university. Kelly was put off teaching after a few months in a London school and is considering working in India. Bahman has only found four girls. Maybe that’s why he’s jittery.
“I’ve been in Mumbai a fortnight and Bahman’s got me into a few films, but he says this money is nothing compared to what I could make doing lingerie modelling,” Kelly explains. We talk about the failings of inner city schools in England. We don’t discuss how different advertising billboards are in India to those in England, or if there’s any connection between the portrayal of Western women as sexually promiscuous and the stares and groping that Julie and Sandy say have marred their travel.
In the rickshaw from the suburban train station to the studio, I ask Bahman what Thakan is about. “It’s a historical drama,” he says. “About Europe and India.” British imperialism, I ask? Bahman colours. “No, all of Europe.” There is a pause. “Johnny Lever is in it. Have you heard of Johnny Lever? He is very famous. Very, very funny. Maybe you will meet him if you are lucky.”
At the studio we are shown our costumes. They couldn’t be further from the bangles and bindis of Bollywood glamour. The fabric compares unfavourably with my grandma’s curtains. The dress barely passes my knees and the zip at the back is conniving to return to the base of my spine. Though ostensibly the right size, our sandals are a good two sizes smaller than anticipated.
We wait for our scene. And wait. And wait. The female lead runs into a moonlit pagoda to the sound of strings and gusts from a bubble-making machine for an interminable number of takes. Bahman is not happy that I keep drifting off, but it’s the most comfortable way to pass the sticky night.
The atmosphere livens up when Lever arrives on set, gamely glad-handing the big shots and joking with the crew. Our appearance is imminent, we are told. Oh no it isn’t. It takes another hour before the female lead sings four lines while Lever capers about in the background. The clip finally canned, he whisks past us. “Hi Johnny!” I call out. He looks faintly confused and is gone.
Now it really is our turn. We are shown the steps – forward and centre, back and centre – and paired with Indian male dancers. As the tallest of our respective genders, I’m matched with the male lead, which I reckon guarantees me at least an arm on screen. A pale Indian girl is placed at the back and a sixth male dancer is left without a partner. I ask him if he will still get paid. “Yes, but that is not the point,” he says. “I am an actor in Delhi, I have come all the way to Mumbai for the night and I am not even in the film.”
Unfortunately, my prominent position leaves me exposed to the crew’s sniggers as the zip again chooses to undo at the moment when I am required to bow to my dancing partner. It’s at this point that my smile starts to fade.
We gather round to watch the rushes, which, despite the shoddy set, mismatched costumes and jetlag, don’t look too bad. “When will this film be released?” I ask Bahman as we are hurried out. “In India, in a few months. In England, a short time after that.” I don’t quite believe this, but later learn that Bollywood films are completed with astonishing speed. However, legal wrangles can delay releases for years.
Rickshaws return us to our hotel just before sunrise. Later on my trip I mention casually to a local I meet that I was a film extra and met Johnny Lever. “He’s OK,” he sniffs, “but love films are better. I hear there’s lots of kissing in American films. What are the best ones?” While Bollywood may not be to everyone’s taste, the Colaba Causeway can lead to a memorable night in Mumbai.
How much can you make?
Extras can expect to be paid around 500 rupees (around £6.50) for a night’s work plus travel and food. See www.sobollywood.com for Bollywood news and chat. Thakan has not yet been released.”