Lights, camera, India: Before travelling to India, I’d had a vague interest in appearing as an extra in a Bollywood movie but no real motivation to do anything about it. Once settled in Mumbai, however, drama was rarely out of sight and often on my mind.
Feeling drowsy on another hazy Mumbai morning, I’m jolted from my breakfast by a man’s screams. He’s indecipherable, furious and terrified, all at once. A crowd clusters. My cafe faces the action and from my stool I see a policeman swipe at him, attempting an arrest. His subject slinks away and then, suddenly, my view is obscured. The crowd has now completely enveloped the duo. I hear what sounds like a Velcro fastener being undone and someone screams in agony. I look again to see the policeman holding a tangled patch of matted hair – he’s just ripped off a clump of the man’s beard with his bare hands. He drops the clot of knotted hair to the ground and it floats away in the breeze. From nowhere, three other policeman swoop upon their stunned target, hoisting him to the air. They disappear into the distance and everyone walks away as though nothing has happened. I remain at my table, aghast and dazed, awakening only when a scout appears and asks me to appear in a film scene to be shot the next day. The morning has been unsettling, the proposition is interesting, I say: “Why not?”
At 4am the following morning I’m picked up and driven from central Mumbai to the film set, along with the other pale-faced amateur participants. It seems that the scene we’ll appear in is set in Canada and involves the hero of the film being bet $500 that he’ll be unable to pot what seems to be an unfeasible pool shot. Just as he sets out to play, the heroine appears, accidentally bumps into his cue and it pots the shot successfully. Cue hysteria and elaborate choreography.
Our job is to act as revellers on a night out in the sports bar where this all takes place, crowding around the pool table and gasping incredulously and appreciatively over the success. A dance sequence will then follow. After having breakfast we are put into costume. Bollywood, it seems, has an odd concept of what constitutes western style. I am offered a billowing, navy polyester suit with a beige shirt and a golf-themed tie, but apparently no footwear. The girls are all marinated in make-up before having their hair puffed up and being wedged into ridiculously tight, low-cut streetwalker tops. Indian girls may be expected to dress demurely, but that doesn’t seem to apply to the female extras. Finished in wardrobe, they totter to position bashfully.
Filming commences and, although we are momentarily impressed to see the older, moustached guy from Bend it like Beckham appear in front of us, the experience is tedious almost from the outset. The director shoots parts of the scene again and again and again, from numerous, just-slightly-different angles. We’ve fallen into a stupor when, suddenly, there’s a flurry of activity… A young man joins the set amidst the kind of excitement and panic that should be accompanied by popping champagne corks and fireworks. None of the foreign extras have any idea of his significance but I am informed that he is Shahid Kapoor, the lead actor in the film, an Indian heartthrob and a bona-fide Bollywood megastar. Apparently he’s akin to Orlando Bloom, or, we’re told, a young Leonardo DiCaprio. After each take a minion appears from nowhere, produces a mirror and Shahid brushes his hair and preens and pouts à la Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli until it’s time to film again. Meanwhile, for the extras, boredom has again set in like rigor mortis.
Bollywood, it seems, has an odd concept of what constitutes western style. I am offered a billowing, navy polyester suit with a beige shirt and a golf-themed tie, but apparently no footwear
As time drips by, it occurs to us that we are unlikely to finish at 7pm as promised. The thought of spending more than 15 hours stuck here for 500 rupees and an anecdote isn’t appealing. The foreigners form an ad-hoc union and at 4pm I’m enlisted to tell the producers that we’ll be leaving at 7pm on the dot, as agreed earlier, and that they should start making more constructive use of us. The producers listen, dismantle part of the set and then rewrite the script for two hours. We sweat away in our polyester costumes and fume when a production assistant admits that extras are routinely misinformed of how long shoots are – we should, we’re told, expect ours to continue for some time yet. We reiterate our threats but remain ignored while the script is reworked, so at 7pm we change out of our clothes and demand our money.
The production assistant tries to stall us by explaining that the money hasn’t yet been sorted so we’ll need to remain on set to wait for it in any case. Why not remain in costume just a bit longer? Our beleaguered trade union hosts another emergency meeting and I’m again selected to voice our decision: we’re not going to change back from our civilian clothing or participate in any more filming, but we will remain on set, in shot and within earshot, until we’re paid. At this, the assistant realises that he does, in fact, have the money. We can go.
As we’re leaving the studio, an English girl behind me lets out a scream and I turn around to see her smacking a stranger. She shouts to say he has just grabbed her breasts from behind and squeezed them. I push him away and pour my bottle of water over him before he scurries off. She’s very upset, everyone’s exhausted, we’re ready to call it a night.
Having said goodbye to the others, I pass a cinema in central Mumbai with a lengthy queue forming outside it. I look at the billboard above and there he is – with pomade-perfect hair and a dazzling smile, an enormous Shahid Kapoor looks down on me and over the city. Tomorrow an unwitting batch of extras will likely be filming a dance sequence with him; I go to my hotel wondering what the wardrobe department has in store for this next batch of unsuspecting wannabes.