Monday, December 17, 2007

the true (and last) bollywood extra experience

We got approached by a Bollywood agent to appear as extras in a big action comedy movie named Singh is King. I didn't like guy and he offered us shit pay (400 Rs / 5 USD while the normal rate is 1000 Rs) but we figured it might be good for making Tessa some Bollywood contacts (untrue, we rated less than cattle (bad comparison, treated as cattle would be wonderful in this country, people would pay old women to feed me and paint me in crazy colors).

We met at 8AM outside a McDonalds. We counted on the Golden Arches to be open but of course, they do not open until 10. It always amazes how late shops open around here. 10 AM seems to be average with many opening after noon. We had little options for food so we got some jam sandwiches and chai from a street vendor. Those guys love us when we come by. It appears most foreigners fear the food and never eat on the street, even just sandwiches. A trick I learned for street vendors: go to the places where women and families eat. They will most likely be local people who know the ropes.

The extras agent herded us (the perfect term for it) towards a rickety bus for our trip up to Bandra. I sat in the back of the bus with the cool kids and started talking to Ross, an austrailian guy on his last fling before the final year of med school. I glanced behind me to notice a commotion. A black guy with a big bamboo stick kept yelling at a beggar with a gnarled foot, missing most of the toes. As the entire bus of foreigners watched. He started interspersing his remarks with long hard blows from the stick. I wanted to charge in as soon as I saw this beating and even got off the bus to be closer to the action. Everything in me wanted to run in, throw the stick over the fence and stop this. I just stood there with clenched fists of rage thinking to myself "It's not my country. It's not my country." I don't know how things work here yet. Most of the pedestrians stopped to watch, talking quietly and laughing at private jokes. It left a sick feeling in my stomach for the day: partially from witnessing the casualness of the violence and partially anger at myself for not being man enough to stop something wrong.

We drove about forty five minutes north to Bandra ( a hot neighborhood of Mumbai and a possible new home so Tessa will be close to the clubs and Bollywood work) into a small compound. In the parking lot of this "giant blockbuster", captive goats roamed the parking lot with their multicolored spray painted horns. Extra agents lie a lot. Many people you meet lie a lot. Lying in India is not wrong. They are not raised with it as a sin like in the western world. In a country with so many people packed into a too small place, lying makes sense as a form of social grease. When you catch an Indian in a lie, they will smile good naturedly and ignore any attempts to call attention to it. Part of it also stems from their unwillingness to say "no" because they consider it somewhat rude. If you ask your taxi driver if he knows how to get somewhere, he doesn't want to be rude and say no. He'll say yes and keep pulling up to other taxi drivers or pedestrians and ask for directions. Overall, I like it. I don't feel guilty making up an event to avoid someone I don't like or giving misleading information to pushy "new friends" on trains. It seems to keep the country running smoothly.

It took awhile to get the girls dressed in some lackluster dresses (Tessa said there's nothing here even worth stealing) so some of the boys smoked hash and cigarettes in the stairwell. You can find hash easily in Mumbai and many Westerners spend most of their trip smoking. You usually receive little hassle from the police (except in Goa where they impose fines payable immediately in cash) and pedestrians don't bat an eye. It helps that hash has little smell but there's also a general acceptance. Many sadhus (wandering hindu holy man) smoke constantly and Nepal even has government issued marijuana for them. People, old nosy women especially, tend to frown on drinking while hash or pot recieves little attention. It's nice to have a culture with a more common sense in this realm. People do so much more damage to themselves and the people around them because of alcohol. I'm not saying hash and pot have no negative effects but compared to alcohol, it's no contest.

I finally got dressed in a fantastic pink satin shirt and a fantastic jacket with faux alligator skin lapels (which I may have liberated later in return for my annoying day). I can't believe I didn't get a picture of myself. I looked great. We wandered into the set where they constructed the posh formal living room of a mansion under a roof made of bamboo tied together with rope and a plastic tarp. I love the contrasts. I started a game of chess with the doctor. Luckily, we got interrupted soon because I had already lost my queen and knight in the first four moves (shame, shame, it pains me to admit this but i strive for ruthless honesty on this blog (lie)).

They put me in the very back because I had no shoes. They only gave shoes to one or two guys when they dressed us but this caused a big commotion when they started placing us for the first shot. I liked it. Grand gestures and histrionics over the shoe situation. I could never work at a place like this. At least a hundred people standing around for 14 hour days and getting a minute of two of usable material. Things seemed to run smoothly like a glacier. They paired me with a girl from the french part of Switzerland who studied economics in New Dehli. Unfortunately, she started to feel sick and went pale as a ghost. She kept sitting down and the extra herder would hiss at her to stand up because they would be shooting soon (rarely true). I told him she's going to faint and we needed a replacement now. He said he'd get one right after this shot and just stood there unmoving. I went back to her and she looked ready to collapse. I resisted the urge to try to cheer her up by jovially asking if it's morning sickness. I once got the wrong and reluctant answer to that one and have never asked it again (unless I felt like it). I went to the extra herder and told him he needed to go get someone right now. He grudgingly complied and she finally got a chance to rest.

After the scene, we got herded out to a tent with a bunch of chairs. The routine became clear quickly: sit around and play cards, talk, listen to music or sleep before the extra herder comes in and pointing at people for scenes. I quickly learned to not make eye contact or any sudden moves. I think their vision, like velociraptors, is based on motion. If you get selected, they rush you to the stage quickly as possible, saying you're needed right away (always always always a lie). Then you stand under extremely hot lights in suits with a random foreginer and have to repeat the Big Five Questions until all of the answers swirl into a meaningless mass of boring facts:
Where are you from?

How long are you travelling for? (a little bit of one upsmanship with the longest stay winning, i'm moving here is the grand champion answer unless the person you're talking to hates bombay)

Where have you been?

Where are you going?

What will you be doing when you get back?

And the dreaded one that I always try to avoid: what's your name? I try to avoid it because if you never learn it, you can't be expected to remember it. I've finally got a trick to remember people's names (one of my notorious memory breaches). Right after I meet someone I want to remember, I write their name down on that day in my notebook or on the card they gave me. Next time, I go to the place where I might see them, I look up their name and any salient details I recorded. I only have to do this once or twice and I can remember the name forever. Of course, people like being remembered but indians especially love when you remember details about their families. Many interactions start with twenty minutes of small talk about various relatives. I often excuse myself to the bathroom and memory dump everything I remember into my notebook for later reference. I think this trick will be extremely important for this country.

During one of the down times, I made my favorite remark of the day. I said how the guys got pretty nice suits but the girls had such terrible clothing.
I pointed to one girl in the circle and said "you got pretty lucky with that dress."
I pointed to a nice british girl, currently teaching english here in india, and said "you got the worst of the lot."
She smiled and said "they let me wear my own dress for the day."
"Well, in that case," i said, "it's very nice."
"Oh no, you don't have to lie to me."
"Alright. The pattern looks like a chair in my grandmothers house."
"OK. You can put away the shovel now."
I'm reminded of an Andy Griffith scene. He says something similar and after she storms out in a huff, he lifts up his foot and peers at it quizzically. He looks at Opie and says "look at that big foot. How do you reckon I can fit that entire big old thing into my mouth."

At lunch, a poker game got started and everyone staked their earnings from the day. We had a med student from sydney, a physicist from London, two funny dutch boys and a fellow biochemist from australia. We used pine cones, blades of grass and cigarettes as our currency. In true family style, I lost all of my money first. I think we may have been hustled by the med student from Sydney. We urged him into the game and he reluctantly joined after pleading ignorance. Then he went onto quickly win it all after playing some shrewd hands.

Having lost our earnings, we had absolutely no incentive to continue working under the brights lights and get yelled at for standing where some other knucklehead told us to stand. We stayed in the grass and kept smoking cigarettes, drinking cokes and playing cards. One of the nicer extra handlers kept coming out to bring us in and we kept saying we'd be there after this smoke. He'd shake his head, grab a cigarette and walk back inside. After dark, he came out to let us know about dinner. We all thought it was a trick to get us back in the spiders lair but we finally followed to find a good spread and an efficient and jostling line of Indians quickly moving down the food line.

The head caterer kept smiling at me and obviously wanted to talk. I asked his good name and he asked mine (indian rule of relations: everyone has a good name and you usually compliment someone's name when you meet them. It's more true with the less contact you will probably have with them). I asked him his favorite dish here. He just smiled and wobbled his head. I wasn't sure if he heard me because he started yelling back to his workers. However, I have learned to be patient. Soon, a half full tray of food came out, looking like big fried potato chips. As he dumped it into the bin a few places ahead of me, he smiled and pointed at the new dish. Everyone ahead of that spot in line started reaching back and filling their plates. He started to get anxious as the guys in front of me went by and took huge helpings. You could see the anger rising as the man in front of me went for the last one. He barked at him in Hindi and grabbed the tongs out of his hand. He took out the last piece and put it on my plate. I tried it and gave an expression of extreme enjoyment. He started beaming and told me to wait. Soon, another tray came out and he personally piled a week's supply onto my plate. I love these little interactions.

After dinner, we made a break for the grass but got roped into the next scene. I talked to a very nice girl from Slovenia who gave guided tours of local countries back home. She told me that most of the travelers were in high school and all of their partying made for a fun yet trying job. I got more and more uncomfortable until I noticed that my two fellow deserters/union employees (Actors Local 666) had disappeared. I wanted to go as well but they had posted a guard on me. I saw the physicist in an empty back room mocking me. My guard finally disappeared for a minute and I made my great escape (after reading papillon, I can't get stop from framing adventures like this as a prison break). We passed the head extra wrangler and he told us we wouldn't get paid. I mentioned that we couldn't keep the money anyway but that he did not seem to appreciate my reasoning. I actually preferred to not get paid because I felt guilty eating their food and doing no work. I felt some justification because I know that this movie paid a third of the going rate for extras and consistently lied about how long the filming lasted each day.

They wrapped up around 10:30 and we finally got our hostage stuff. They cleverly locked our bags in a room for the day, the only reason that kept us from going over the wall. The three mutineers got grilled about who hired us and we all pleaded ignorance. I didn't want them to dock his pay because of us. As we got on the bus, all of us got our money for the day. It surprised me to get my 400 Rs and I temporarily forgot that I had to hand them over anyway. Ross, you hustling doctor bastard, i hope you enjoy our pitiful wages when you sleep on giant piles of money with many beautiful women.

We got some drinks at my favorite local watering hole, the Gokul bar. Whenever I'm there, my group has the only girls in the entire place. You simply do not see women at most bars. They show up at nightclubs but there's less women in almost all public places. Anyway, we left at closing time (1AM) and had to leave through the kitchen that leads into a dark slimy alley until you get back to the street. One of the girls pulled me aside and asked for my number. I told her I didn't know it yet so I gave her my card. She wrote down her number and gave it to me with the funniest line of the day: "You should call me, unlike the last 8,000 guys I gave this out to." Well, if I wasn't interested before, I certainly am not now. However, it makes a funny bookmark.

After those few beers, I got so tired. I went to our room, dark with everyone sleeping, and grabbed my toothbrush. As I brushed my teeth, I thought that the beer must be reacting with the toothpaste in a strange way because i felt a burning sensation. As I woke up the next morning, I realized I brushed my teeth with linseed oil. The adventures never stop.


Ned said...

What do you think is the greatest gift India has given the West? I'd say it's Gandhi's practice of non-violent resistance. Had Martin Luther King Jr not been a disciple of non-violent resistance, the civil rights movement in the 1960s would have been much uglier.

Though probably ineffective with Nazi, Khmer Rouge or the Hutu, non-violent resistance remains a powerful tool. It takes great wisdom and self-control to use it.

When a bully beats a beggar, we want to whack the bully (a problematic response on several levels). On the other hand, if we insert ourself between the stick and the beggar, we change the whole situation.

Gandhi changed India and the world by his use of non-violent resistance. He said better a warrior than a coward, but best to be a non-violent resister. He also credited Jesus for the concept.

I'm proud of your struggles to become a good man. I'm in the same fight myself.

Debby said...

At least you didn't brush your teeth with hemorrhoid cream like your father.

anna said...

you are the strangest family i've ever been in. -anonymous

lisa (hess) said...

i'm glad to see based on these comments that your blog readers come from all over the world and with incredibly different backgrounds.

csully said...

First off I want to be a wandering Hindu holy woman when we come to India. Second, I hope Tessa is hitting on Dr. McDreamy and thinking about a side trip to Austrailia. And finally, I am not getting Indian money exchange because I thought 40 Rupees was $1 so then 400 would be $10 right? If it is only $5 then I have no freaking idea how much I just paid for my Goa condo!!!!!!

csully said...

I forgot to say that I should fit in well in India because I am VERY good at lying and I enjoy it VERY much......
and I know what a velociraptor is because I have an autistic 12 year old boy in my class who only speaks dinosaur.