Published in The Daily Independent Weekend Magazine, 23 April 2010
“It was the chicken neck. I know it was. That stupid, stupid chicken neck…”
Those were the last words I heard from my travel companion before leaving him in a dingy hotel room for the next 14 hours. I was about to spend the day as an extra in a Bollywood film. We were supposed to be going together, but Mark was in the grips of a terrible case of food poisoning and he wasn’t capable of making it down to reception, let alone a film set on the outskirts of Mumbai. His decision to have a dalliance with cheap meat in India could not have been more poorly timed. I could see in his sorrowful eyes that he knew it. The missed opportunity was a double blow to Mark – he’d already been turned away from an all-male Bollywood casting because he was wearing cheap sandals. As they say, the world of show business is cruel.
I tried to shrug off the feeling that I was abandoning a fallen comrade on the field. It was putting a dampener on the excitement of witnessing the happenings of a film industry that fascinates and mystifies me. Mark and I had deliberately loitered around the Colaba Causeway in Mumbai for a significant portion of each day, hoping to be spotted by a talent scout looking for foreigners to work as extras. I thought my hopes were dashed until we were finally approached, just a couple of days before we were due to leave the megacity. A young guy with gelled hair and tight jeans had flashed his business card at us – we flashed our best smiles back and expressed our deep enthusiasm for a 12 hour shoot the following day. We would be paid 500 rupees – but I would have done it for nothing. In actual fact, I would have happily paid a fee and walked over broken glass to be a part of it.
When I turned up at the designated meeting point around 7am, there were masses of other foreigners already there. I was instantly deflated – how would I get my face onto the screen amongst all this lot? As I boarded one of two large buses, I resolved that a strategy to achieve fleeting “stardom” would have to be formulated on the spot. I knew it wouldn’t arise through my acting skills, because I didn’t have any. Even the most gentle of high school drama classes had made me cringe, and I’d quit them at the earliest opportunity. But this was Bollywood, and I was prepared to act as though I enjoyed acting.
Bollywood churns out over 900 movies each year, so I was very fortunate to be cast in Ta Ra Rum Pum, which became the eighth highest grossing film in India in 2007. It stars Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukerji, along with child actors Angelina Idnani and Priya Singh. Ta Ra Rum Pum follows the up-and-down-and-up-again career of racing car driver Rajveer Singh or “RV”, as he becomes known to fans. After becoming the number one driver in the United States, RV has a serious accident and thereafter loses his courage. His performance drops, his manager fires him, and shortly afterwards he’s out of a job. His family struggles financially, and when RV’s son swallows glass after eating out of a garbage can, the hospital tells RV and his beautiful wife that $65,000 is required for their son’s treatment. With no other option to raise the cash, RV returns to racing. He beats his nemesis in a thrilling race, taking the number one spot. The gorgeous young family live happily ever after – The End.
The majority of the film was shot in the USA, but for whatever reasons (possibly financial – extras come much cheaper in Mumbai) the scenes involving the racing car spectators were shot in India. After a two hour journey through Mumbai’s choked streets, we arrived at a huge set comprising a partially painted racing car track and a set of bleachers. We filed into a huge white tent and were handed either red, yellow or green caps and a matching flag. Some of the luckier ones were asked to change into something from the wardrobe – unfortunately my yellow singlet top fitted right in with pre-existing requirements. A thrill of excitement passed through me as I saw the racing car outfits of various sizes hanging on a rack. I munched on some snacks and took in all the showbiz bustle.
Hanging about was a mistake. By the time I ambled over to the bleachers, the front and middle rows were taken. I made my way up to a rear stand, feeling like I was a kilometre away from the cameras. The director was a handsome man who looked like a star in his own right. He addressed us with a megaphone, explaining that we were about to film the scene when RV wins a big race. We were told to clap, to cheer and to chant “RV.” Optimum enthusiasm was essential, we were told rather unnecessarily. The excitement was palpable. And then the words that every Bollywood wannabe loves to hear – “Lights. Camera. ACTION!” After about 12 takes, our hands were clapped red raw. We then feigned sadness and despair when RV crashed, and cheered up again when he won the race of his life. I realise that this doesn’t sound particularly complicated, nor time-consuming – I’m not really sure where all the hours went. There was also a lot of standing around in the sun – but I wouldn’t expect anything less from a film set.
We were given regular breaks, and I used each one to return to a seat slightly closer to the action. By this stage the big stars had appeared – Rani Mukerji emerged from a pastel coloured trailer, with a man carrying a sun umbrella hovering close behind. Wearing jeans and a tank top, with her long thick hair in loose curls, Rani looked every inch the mega starlet. Her beauty was over-powering – almost shocking. The child star, Angelina Idnani, looked as cute as a button in a red racing outfit and didn’t appear to complain about the heat. She took her place in the middle of a row and was handed a pair of bongo drums to beat.
The director looked around, laconically scanning our “pick me!” faces. Eventually he pointed at me and said, “You – in the green singlet. Come down and sit here.” Full of exhilaration, I glided down a few rows and realised “sit here” meant occupying the vacant seat next to Angelina. I was beaming like an idiot – which was presumably a perfect expression for the RV’s victorious finale car race. After a few takes, I attempted to make small talk with Angelina. She was very polite but it was the first time in 15 years that I felt intimidated by a 10 year old. I wondered how many multiples of a hundred (??!) her bank account exceeded mine.
I was still travelling in India when Ta Ra Rum Pum was released, so I bought a pirated copy on a street corner. Before watching it in full, I skipped to the scenes I thought I might see myself in. It was proving fruitless and I was consigned to having been relegated to the cutting room floor. And then I spotted my toothy smile and crooked cap. Yes, it was me. In Bollywood. For three whole seconds.
I’m wearing a green singlet, left of Angelina Idnani (in the very last part of the finale scene below).