A few months back, I got my first chance to prove my incredible acting skills as an extra on Bollywood smash Housefull, which came out a couple weeks ago and stars big hitters Akshay Kumar, Ritesh Deshmukh and Deepika Padukone. It was a nightmare and I’m pretty sure the movie is absolute garbage, although I haven’t had a chance to see my moment of stardom yet, which no doubt lasts all of three microseconds if it’s there at all. Here’s what I wrote about my experience back in December:
Western audiences might immediately think of the grit and grime of Slumdog Millionaire when they think of India on film, but it is glitz and glamour that remain the key ingredients for the country’s own film industry. Bollywood remains a big believer in bright colours, huge stars and dazzling dance routines – a formula that draws an estimated 14 million Indians to the cinema every day.
Many expect Housefull, released on 30 April, to be one of the biggest draws of the summer – a $30 million romcom studded with such Bollywood luminaries as Akshay Kumar and Deepika Padukone. As an extra on set in Mumbai last December, I got the chance to take a peek behind the curtain of the world’s most prolific movie industry, but if I had been hoping for a taste of that glitz and glamour, I was sorely disappointed.
As a westerner wandering the Colaba Causeway – Mumbai’s chaotic tourist artery – there Is a very good chance of being accosted by one of many “foreign talent scouts”. ‘Talent’ is something of a misnomer, of course; looks and experience are entirely secondary to the need for a western face and, as I soon discovered, its implied willingness to be brutally exploited for the sake of a good anecdote and 500 rupees (about £6.50) cash.
My day began outside the infamous Leopold’s Cafe at 7am where a group of tired-looking travellers were all wondering whether this was some sort of scam. Suddenly, we were bundled into the back of a dilapidated minivan and hurtled out of town by a driver who somehow managed to out-crazy even the fatally insane Mumbai commuters.
In a blur of white-knuckle terror, we were deposited at Film City on Mumbai’s outskirts. This sprawling campus of movie sets is home to dozens of big-budget shoots at any one time, and yet it looks like the scene of a recent urban war – crumbling buildings and shattered windows, men sleeping in doorways and peasant women huddled around small stoves. Perhaps they are extras, I thought, but no cameras were rolling.
Our dreams of stardom were immediately knocked down a few pegs as we were ushered into our “dressing room”, a tiny hovel replete with a few plastic chairs and a filthy spring mattress that looked more like a place where kidnap victims are tortured than somewhere to prep for impending fame. The men were handed disposable razors and a bar of soap and instructed to shave.
Bleeding from our necks, we then discovered that we would not be playing FBI agents as the scout had promised the previous day (conjuring schoolyard fantasies of sharp suits, cool shades, talking earnestly into walkie-talkies). Instead, I found myself kitted out as a Buckingham Palace guard. This meant a tightly buttoned woollen coat, gloves and a ludicrous, plumed helmet. Even with the cool early morning breeze, the implications were becoming horribly apparent. By noon, it was over 35 degrees.
How can I do justice to the heat that my body experienced over the next thousand (eight) hours? Stood motionless in the Bombay sun for long endlessly repeated takes, sweat streaming down back and front, black shoes like individual ovens for my feet. We would scurry for shade at every interval, looking jealously over at the makeshift awnings and outdoor fans given to the stars, who included Akshay and Ritesh Deshmukh, although unfortunately none of us knew who they were at the time.
Oh dear, Akshay
It might have lessened the agony if the handful of scenes we were forced to witness on repeat did not present such a dispiriting image of our debut film. Set at a shoddily assembled worker’s entrance to Buckingham Palace, they involved two portly Sikh jokers – apparently India’s answer to the Chuckle Brothers – delivering some laughing gas which would no doubt result in all manner of hilarious mishaps.
“More ham!” barked director Sajid Khan on take number 755, which sounded like a highly unreasonable, even impossible, request. And yet somehow the heroes delved deep inside and found hitherto unexplored reserves of ham that left the director doubled up in laughter and the gaggle of melting extras all the more perplexed.
Speaking with the crew at lunch, it is clear they are on to a winning formula. “This film has nine principal characters and some huge stars so it’s bound to be successful,” said assistant director Avni Bathija. “We Indians are always eagerly awaiting the next Friday’s releases. Supply can hardly keep up with demand.” When I bring up the fact that actors’ unions went on strike in 2008 over the use of cheap, non-union foreign extras, she glosses over it: “The industry is becoming increasingly professional, so there are less problems than in the past.” However, when I tell her how much I’m being paid, she struggles to suppress a laugh.
As we talk, the light blue Bentley of famed executive producer Sajid Nadiadwala, the boss of bosses, pulls up beside us and Avni leaps to attention. The reek of wealth he exudes seems to confirm Avni’s confidence. Just like Hollywood, the top end of this market is nothing if not a finely honed business.
Our day finally ends at about 6pm and we are rocketed back to Leopolds to spend our 500 rupees. Although I lost a lot of fluids, it was still a fascinating look at the resolutely un-glitzy reality behind Bollywood’s polished veneer and I can’t wait to see my few nanoseconds of screentime. You’ll be able to spot me – I’m the English guard who looks like he is about to die of heat exhaustion.