When Shah Rukh Khan offered her his towel and asked her “Are you cold?” on the sets of Kaal, everyone turned around to see who she was. She danced between Bachchan senior and junior in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. She hung on for sheer life while dancing on a fake ship mast in the climax of Bhagam Bhag. She danced on the roof of a double decker bus with Sanjay Dutt in Lage Raho Munnabhai. She wore the Baywatch costume in Garam Masala. She said a line or two in Salaam-e-Ishq and will say no more in Kites. She was in almost every big budget blockbuster and flop of 2006 and 2007. But chances are you won’t remember her.
An American, Lianne Shepler was part of the first wave of professionals brought to Mumbai to work in Bollywood. Her one-year-long stint in Mumbai marked a change in the way the industry dealt with foreigners. She was among the White extras who said they will not accept bad treatment. Unable to digest Indian thalis, they demanded orange juice and Subway sandwiches. Twelve-hour plus shifts were unacceptable to them. And they got what they wanted.
Films, serials and ads are replete with scenes in New York and London. Although the characters speak Hindi, White people are essential for make believe. But that’s not what makes them indispensable. Indian fantasies are incomplete without White women. Doesn’t matter if they’re tourists or professional dancers, Russian or Australian; in a samba costume or swimsuit, they all look the same. Lianne found it particularly odd to work with midgets, another element in the fantastical world. “Bollywood loves throwing in midgets for unknown reasons,” she says laughing. The midgets, like her, are professionals too.
An orchestral flute musician by training, Lianne had no background in modelling or dancing. She just had a desire to break out of the homogenous world of small-town Pittsburg. For many foreigners, this means travelling in India. After eight months of living on a strict budget of $7 a day, she had saved enough for a one-way ticket to Delhi. It was empowering, since it didn’t spring from hardship but the spirit of challenge. “In India, people say anything can happen. In America, we say you can do anything,” she says.
After learning Vedantic philosophy from a Swami in the Himalayan forests near Rishikesh, picking up Hindi abuses from rickshaw drivers in Delhi, Lianne arrived in Mumbai. Between attending concerts at National Centre for the Performing Arts and exploring Colaba, Lianne met an agent who collected foreigners for shoots. Backpackers make non-fussy extras. A meal or Rs 500 is enough for a day’s work. It’s the anecdote of working in Bollywood they look forward to.
Lianne’s first role was as a judge in London in a Hindi serial. Her affable nature got her more roles, but she was interested in travelling and declined. The agent got a choreographer to see if she could dance. Lianne, it turned out, was surprisingly quick to learn the dance routines. Lack of dance training gave her an edge. “When it comes to Bollywood dancing, all professional training goes out of the window. There are no counts. Steps are learnt to the music and words.”
A year later, after she returned home, the agent offered her a year-long contract to work in Bollywood. That’s how Lianne became part of the first few foreigners who arrived in Bollywood on contract. Together with three other girls, the group did more than 50 songs, advertisements, performances in award shows and events.
When Shah Rukh spoke to her on the sets of Kaal, Lianne had no idea who he was. But “you know who is a huge star by the reactions of other people”. Another day, she did not know she was dancing on top of a bus with a huge star until the sleepy, office-going crowd went into a frenzy, yelling, “Sanju Baba”. Lianne was hooked to the national Indian pastime, celebrity gazing, in no time. She can now tell you that Shah Rukh is mild mannered on sets, while Abhishek is gregarious.“When we came, there were no rules on working with foreigners,” says she, “People didn’t know how to interact with us.” Lianne’s group refused to work for more than 12 hours: “We told them you can’t keep us till 2 am saying the work isn’t over.” Although the union of Indian dancers have similar rules, they are never followed. Thanks to Lianne’s protests, all the shoots they worked on were kept under 12 hours. “We also demanded ‘foreigner food’—that’s meat, potatoes, pasta or sandwiches. The Indian set food is one big thali. It’s oily, unclean. If we ate that regularly, we would be too sick to work.”
Lianne didn’t find learning steps on the spot as stressful as being compelled to dance in shoes two sizes small, or even worse, in hideous makeup and clothing. She always protested till she looked aesthetic, not just glamorous.
But the biggest shock was the safety standards on the sets. “I have seen more than five fires on the sets, and at no point was there more than one exit,” she says. Lianne remembers the filming of the blockbuster family drama Babul as one of the strangest things she has ever witnessed. The scene involved John Abraham performing a song on stage, while the foreign dancers danced on the periphery. Right next to the stage were two 4 ft-deep holes that were painted the same colour as the stage so that the holes were not visible. “While dancing, one of the Russian girls fell into the hole. Couple shots later, another dancer fell into the other hole.” Meanwhile, the producer kept yelling to keep rolling. “Few stage hands fell into the hole too. At number 8, we began counting. We reached 14 and it kept going. It was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen as no one bothered to fix the holes. People only complained, but no one did anything. We got up to 22. Then the cameraman fell in and broke his hand. At number 23, everyone flipped out and put mattresses in the holes.”
Chaos has its advantages too. Lianne probably learnt as many life’s lessons on Bollywood sets as she learnt with the swami in the Himalayan forest. “In the West, there is a lot of preparation, practice, tests. Lot of things before the thing. If you want to be a professional in any field, you must work hard on that skill for many years.” In India, Lianne saw dancers who had no foundation in jazz or hip-hop, perform the dances with indomitable style. “They watch videos and pick it up. Out here, you don’t have to have ten years’ training to do something, all you have to do is do it well.”
On Indian film sets, Lianne also learnt one of life’s biggest truths. “When something gets stolen, it’s really close by.” Once, Lianne’s British colleague Rachel’s camera was stolen from the vanity van. They searched the entire unit, turning bags up and down. Both suspected the men in charge of the van, but plain requests led nowhere. “So I told Rachel to try one final time. Tell them to look you in the eye and say they don’t have the camera. Such things work in India.” True enough, the man couldn’t look them in the eye and began hurling abuses at them. Lianne blocked the vanity van door so no one could escape while Rachel ran into their room in the van and searched it. The camera was lying inside. Rachel stepped out and slapped one of them, while Lianne pulled another one by the collar and prevented him from escaping till the police arrived.
It has been three years since Lianne finished her contract and returned to the US to start her music company, promoting Indian and American artiste exchange. The state of foreigners in Bollywood has deteriorated. In their bid to get the cheapest labour, agents hire girls directly out of college. They bring them to Mumbai with preposterous rules like ‘no talking to males on set’ and 10 pm curfews. Also, for some reason, Russians and Ukrainians are paid the least, Australians more, and British dancers the most.
Meanwhile, Lianne stays busy by volunteering to promote Asian cinema back home. She also makes presentations on her Bollywood experience, and once taught CEOs of IT firms the chorus dance of Rock n Roll Soniye. When visiting India on work, she teaches dancing to kids in Dharavi.
“People respond to Bollywood,” she says.