True Life

One Night in Bollywood

Page 1 of 1
What it means to be a foreign extra in an Indian movie

Going to Bollywood is one of the essential Indian experiences that make for a good travel chat among foreigners. Just like rip-offs, spicy food and diarrhoea. Every other day, Mumbai’s filmmakers send off touts to the touristy streets of Colaba to hire foreigners as extras in some of the 800-plus movies produced in India every year. They know where to chase backpackers, globetrotters and roamers. They lurk for their prey at bars, budget dormitories and even souvenir stands.

Unlike many Indians who would sacrifice everything for a ticket to the glittering sets of Bollywood, it was a fairly easy deal for me. No casting, no relations, no bribes. It only required my inborn White nose to enter India’s dream factory for one night. A stalwart’s bloke approached me at Leopold Café, waving his visiting card: “You want to be in Bollywood? It’s a night shoot—departure tomorrow at 7 pm.” 

After more than two hours in traffic, the bus drops our group of 15 foreigners off behind a Thane shopping mall. A youngster comes up to the semi-circle of plastic chairs where we are told to wait, and lets us know that he is in charge of our well-being. As proof, he takes out a notepad and takes our orders for a nearby McDonald’s.

A buffet of Indian food has been laid out for the rest of the crew, but it seems as if they feel safer offering fast food to foreigners.

One veg burger and a few French fries later, I find out that I am soon to become an American. The film I am going to act in is a Karan Johar production, set in the United States. Shortly after this discovery, we are led into a supermarket and told not to touch anything. The life of an extra includes a lot of waiting. It is already past midnight and we are sleepily watching the crew prepare the set. Suddenly, a blonde Polish girl utters a high-pitched scream, waking us all up. A fat rat has whisked past her and disappeared into a dark hole below some vegetable baskets. For a short moment, everybody in the crew looks up.

The crew consists of about 30 people, of which 20 are only staring without moving an inch. A plump fellow—I will call him Bob—carries documents and runs from A to B, shouting orders at everybody in his proximity. His young colleague, whose role is not clear to me, looks like Mr Bean, and the recordist struggles with an oversized microphone. Two bullish men in grey shirts keep yelling “Silence!” in a deafening volume.  Are they mocking each other?

Suddenly, she is there, among us. Like a fata morgana, the diva has emerged out of nothing. As soon as she sits down, Kareena Kapoor transforms the place. She is constantly cared for by a personal stylist who buzzes around her like a multi-armed Hindu deity: waving a comb, hairslides and a mirror at the same time. Kareena is in her own world and totally absorbed in the role. She constantly reads and rehearses the lines. “She didn’t practise her role?” a fellow extra asks me. None of us has great appreciation for actors we have hardly ever heard of—Kareena Kapoor, and then Imran Khan, who joins her later. Kareena seems utterly unreal and unapproachable to me. She is treated not as a star, but like a living goddess. Even the staring men are spellbound by Kareena’s invisible halo and keep their heads down.

The crew now gives us instructions. For the first scene, I am placed beside the deep-freezer. By the command “Background Action!” I have to start walking from the green peas. Slowly pushing a trolley filled with a giant bag of washing powder, I am the background for Kareena. She comes running with a shopping basket and blubbers into her mobile: “He cheaaated on me!” So the movie is the usual soup of love, jealousy and intrigue.

It takes ages and dozens of trolley-marches until the director, a short guy with glasses and casual jeans, is satisfied with the take. The black patent-leather shoes they gave me—to make me look more American—have started hurting my feet.

It’s deep in the night and we are getting more drowsy. Again, all we’re doing as extras is waiting. For the first time in India, we as Whites are not at the centre of attention but mere background decoration. Two Aussies and a New Zealander have retired on camping chairs in the outdoor section of the market. I join them and start dozing on a colourful bean bag.

The next scene is shot at the cash-desk. While set-up is underway, Imran and Kareena pick up two glossy Bollywood magazines from the shelves of the real supermarket. Uninterestedly turning the pages, they seem to be reading the latest news about themselves. In this shot, Kareena is to pay for her shopping. Bob makes our part clear: “I want a lot of movement in the background.”

It is past 3 am and many of us don’t feel like moving at all. Nevertheless, I want to be productive and create my own show as a random shopper. In this scene I unfold and test the softness of a brown towel, smell soaps of different quality and compare the prices of milk chocolate. This continues for at least two hours. I take it in good humour, but I can sense the tension rising around me. The blonde lady starts swearing in Polish. It sounds ugly.

Finally, the two British girls burst out in anger: “We were to be dropped back in Colaba at 7 am! We need to catch a plane at noon!” Nobody takes notice of them. Apparently they haven’t considered the notorious Indian timing that always implies sizeable delays. How naïve, I think. Two shots later, they are ready to explode: “Listen, we are tired. Let us go! We are not animals!” Finally, when they refuse to continue their background action, Bob gives in and orders a taxi to have the two rebels sent back. But only on the condition that the others must stay.

At 6 am, things are getting stressful. “Come on, I want this quickly!” the director bellows, followed by his cranky assistant: “Let’s go, let’s go, hurry up!” Their words sound like last orders in a battlefield on the verge of defeat. Again we rehearse and shoot. Then, as suddenly as she came, Kareena takes her leave. She has had enough and nobody can object.

Now that the celebrity has disappeared, the crew seem to have lost their decency. I cannot help but compare their harsh commands to the orders once given to slaves. Is this reverse colonialism? I muse.

It is 7.15 am when the crew finally declares the shoot over. As we step out, two employees of the supermarket prepare the pastry counter for a new day. We receive our Rs 500 from the youngster. Back in Germany, you could make that amount in an hour as a waiter in a good restaurant. But this was not about the money, it’s the experience.

Back on the bus, all of us sink into a sleepy haze. We will have a story to tell for a long time, but something strikes me: nobody had given us a single word of thanks, not even a hint of praise for our work. Maybe this is the fate of an extra in the place where India’s dreams are made.