India: Making it in Bollywood

By Charles Anderson

A shot at the big time ends in frenzied humiliation for Charles Anderson.

Charles Anderson poses with Ukrainian model Natalia. Photo / Charles Anderson
Charles Anderson poses with Ukrainian model Natalia. Photo / Charles Anderson

The second floor of Club Escape in the teeming Indian city of Mumbai is pumped full of an intoxicating blend of artificial stage smoke, can't-make-this-stuff-up stereotypes and a gorgeous Ukrainian model by the name of Natalia. This Bollywasn't.

Along with dozens of other foreigners, I had been promised a chance to experience celluloid dreams up close. I had been regaled with stories of dressing up as a maharaja and meeting Miss Universe while working as an extra in Bollywood.

Iman, a fat, balding casting agent, waddles Colaba Causeway most days spouting the same line to hapless Europeans: "Hey buddy, you want to work in Bollywood?"

That morning he had lured me with promises of big things.

"A big movie," he said. "Big Bollywood movie."

On set, it doesn't quite feel like a big movie, but something is happening. Natalia is getting her make-up done by a small legion of dedicated professionals.

A man with designer glasses, tinted despite the windowless gloom of the club, seems to be a director.

A plump woman with clipboard in hand, barking orders, could be a producer of some sort.

"Quiet when we are not shooting. I want quiet," she screeches. "Get to your positions!"

We are lined up and sort-of screen-tested. The prettiest ones, including a young musician from New York called Sonia, are picked out for make-up.

A young woman from Austria is given the once-over by the director.

"You are forgettable," he says, before moving on. Her face drops.

We are told to make our way to the dance floor, where an unseen machine is spewing out smoke. It is choking and stings the eyes.

I am positioned next to Haile, a 24-year-old Indian model, who holds an MBA but does this sort of thing on the side.

Haile is unsure what is about to take place, but he is adamant this is not Bollywood. For a start, he is not an actor. It turns out we are in a mouthwash commercial. The story begins with Natalia. She is a little drunk and vomits into her white leather handbag. So far, so tasteless.

But Haile has not seen the barf. He is transfixed by this girl's long dark hair, skinny hips and Slavic cheekbones. He makes his way through the dance floor and, without even returning pleasantries, Natalia rushes forward to plant a big kiss on his lips. That, apparently, is how you sell mouthwash.

Before the camera starts rolling, I stick to my spot beside Haile, because I'm sure to get some camera time here. But suddenly I am moved, replaced with the forgettable Austrian girl's equally forgettable boyfriend.

"This is just an exercise in destroying our self-esteem," Sonia the New Yorker declares. "We should strike."

True. But we carry on jumping to the cries of "action". We throw our hands in the air, throw our hips left and right, then do it all over again.

For the next eight hours, the 45-second shot is repeated over and over. The combination of choking, dehydration, light deprivation and repetitive beats begins to affect our minds.

By 4pm, I am flailing my arms around and screaming maniacally. The director shows the video to the clients sitting in the VIP corner. They begin to laugh. The director laughs. Even Natalia is laughing.

The director walks over to me and says: "In that last scene, you were brilliant."

I beam. I want to tell him how actually I've done a bit of acting in the past, small-scale stuff mainly, but quite arty. For some reason, I am suddenly struck dumb.

"OK, last shot," the director shouts. The music starts again.

An hour-and-a-half later, the masterpiece is finished. There is clapping, hollering and the release of hours of over-hyped, pent-up expectation.

We give back our costumes and receive 500 rupees each. It is the hardest $15 I have ever earned. Exhausted and still sweating in the record March temperatures, we are herded into the bus and driven back to Colaba.

The next day I see Iman waddling in front of me. I walk past, trying to ignore him, but he speeds up and taps me on the shoulder.

He doesn't recognise me. "Hey buddy, want to work in Bollywood?"

Charles Anderson paid his own way to Mumbai.

- NZ Herald

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