My Bollywood Close-Up

Working as an extra in Mumbai’s Film City.

My big Bollywood break came while I was walking down a side street in Mumbai, talking on a cell phone to a man named Imran.

“How many people with you?” he asked.
“Just me.”
“No problem. You got long hair, short hair?”
“No hair,” I said.
“No problem. You how old?

“No problem. OK, meet tomorrow at the Bandra train station, west ticket counter. Eight a.m., work till 8 p.m. Give you food, makeup, costume, transport. Pay 500 rupees. Put you in Bollywood movie, OK?”

You could call Imran a freelance talent scout for the film industry of India, except—as our interview suggests—he’s not looking for talent. He’s looking for white people. Bollywood requires a few dozen Western extras every day, to add vérité to crowd scenes in ostensibly exotic locales. Imran’s job is to find foreigners and chaperon them to Film City, an expansive badlands of rocks and shrubs at the northern edge of this megalopolis, where most of India’s movies are made. I got his phone number through a reporter in Delhi, but usually he finds you, trolling local tourist sites.

Slate V: Escape From Bollywood

Until recently, Imran had an easy job. He and his underlings could meet and enlist as many as 50 extras with a day’s notice, no problem. But that was before Nov. 26, when a group of heavily armed men went on a sadistic, three-day rampage that ended with 163 dead. Since then, the tourism business all across India has essentially flat-lined. During a recent three-week trip through the country, I saw way more armed guards than Europeans and scarcely any Americans. Every large and pricey hotel now has a private security detail, and you can’t get near the front door until the undercarriage of your car has been checked for bombs and all your luggage has been wanded. The creepy part is that once you’re waved through, it’s often just you and the staff in a huge and empty lobby.

Every corner of the tourist economy is suffering, Imran’s included. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it,” he told me.

So, good news, all you laid-off American workers: Bollywood is hiring. If Plans B, C, and D don’t work out here in the United States, remember, there’s a guy in Mumbai who can use you tomorrow. And the day after that, and the day after that. There are, of course, easier ways to earn what amounts to $10.50 for a day’s work. But none of those jobs involves tacky outfits or close proximity to celebrities you’ve never heard of. And it’s hard to imagine another job that ends with a grown man pouring bottled water on your head and sternly instructing, “Just walk normal!” as the camera begins to roll.

The day started at Bandra Station, where I was immediately spotted by a lanky 24-year-old employee of Imran’s named Sikander. He bought me a ticket and we both jumped onto a northbound train that seemed to come straight out of Slumdog Millionaire and which, even on a Saturday morning, was packed with commuters. We got off a few miles north, at Goregaon Station, then hopped in a tiny auto-rickshaw, which took us the last few miles, over a bumpy dirt road. When we reached the entrance to Film City, I was expecting something show-bizzy—some lights, a few signs, anything. Bollywood produces more than 900 movies a year, grossing billions of dollars, and this is the creative epicenter of the business, the home of nearly every back lot. But there’s just two desultory guards and a gate, which was raised without any check of ID’s.

Everything about Bollywood, it turns out, is ramshackle and improvised. The area around the set looked like some bargain lover’s idea of summer camp—a dirt road, a bunch of wood buildings with tin roofs. I was promptly delivered to the costume department, where men speaking Hindi started draping me with a variety of dress shirts, ties, and dated-looking business suits. I’d been pegged immediately as “middle-aged business dork” and ended up in a pink striped shirt, a thin black tie, and a tight suit of green and blue fabric that looked like industrial carpeting. I assumed from my outfit—wrongly, as it happens—that the movie was set in the ‘70s.

The only other Westerner to show up was a 26-year-old from Buenos Aires named Maia, whom they put in a colorful frumpy dress with a big red rose in the middle of the neckline. “I look like a clown!” she shouted. “Why do they want me to look like a clown?”

We waited for 45 minutes until we were fetched by a production staffer. He brought us to a massive, two-story structure in the middle of a field that was covered in a black tarp and draped, here and there, with ropes; it looked like a half-hearted Christo. Ushered through a flap opening, we saw a vast sound stage done up to look like the lobby of a luxury hotel with a serious drainage problem. The lobby was under 4 feet of water. Why? We didn’t know. But there were 25 actors already waist-deep in this man-made pond, and they were a bizarre menagerie—a guy dressed like Fu Manchu, a waiter, a bell boy, women in bright purple saris, women in T-shirts, fat guys, thin guys, old men.

“Get in,” said our handler.

I waded into a spot next to a very attractive couple, near the camera floating in the middle of the room, correctly guessing they were the stars. I learned their names afterward. The woman, sporting a tight black body suit, was Katrina Kaif, and among her recent achievements was turning Katrina into the most Googled word in India. The guy was Akshay Kumar, one of the biggest male leads in the business. (“He is basically our Tom Cruise,” a production guy told me later.) He wore a pink “Mickey Rat” T-shirt.

Someone handed me a silver briefcase. A brown-haired elderly man beside me said, “Hold tight!” I thought he was giving me an acting tip—you know, my motivation. You’re a businessman, this is your work. Actually, he was terrified that the case was going to fly out of my hands and hit him in the head. For good reason.

“A wave coming,” he said in a thick accent. A wave? “Yes, big wave. Over there.”

For the first time, I noticed a huge wall of aluminum sheeting at a 45 degree angle at the far end of the room. This hotel flood was just getting started! A small fleet of water trucks was parked outside, ready to pump a mini-tsunami into the lobby.

“Everyone, get on your knees,” said the director into a very loud microphone. A tall, drowsy-eyed man known only by one name, Priyadarshan, he kept the explanations, all of them in English, to a minimum. “When I say action, run for your lives!”

Run for our lives? Tense smiles all around as we all knelt down, so we were up to our necks.

“Don’t run toward the motors!” he added. Suddenly, two outboard motors roared to life, apparently to add some churn. “And don’t run toward the column,” he said, referring to a towering plastic structure in the middle of the room. “It might fall down.”

Overhead, men were moving huge lights and walking around on wooden scaffolding that seemed held together with twine.

“And … action!” Priyadarshan shouted.

The next minute was pandemonium and screams, some of it real, the rest of it hammily acted. The wave slammed into the room, Oster-izing us into a swirl of bodies and red sofas. When Priyadarshan finally yelled, “Stop!” everyone dropped the fake terrified look and started laughing.

“Is everyone all right?” Priyadarshan asked.

We were. Except for one actor who’d been slammed against a wall and was now rubbing the toupee on his head. One by one, we filed out of the pool/lobby, and Maia and I found seats near the costume shack, dripping wet and awaiting further instructions.

“That bastard,” said Maia, referring to Imran as she ran a towel over her head. “He didn’t say anything about water. I have contact lenses!”

The rest of the day was in and out of the pool, for a variety of aftermath shots, mostly between Akshay and Katrina. The shooting pace was brisk because Priyadarshan—who has made dozens of films, I found out—is a strictly one- or two-take kind of guy.

Nobody worried much about continuity. I’d have a black briefcase for a scene, then switch back to the silver one. They put Maia in five different dresses over the course of the day, perhaps in the hopes that she’d look like five different people. The lobby/pool water darkened into light-brown gravy as the day wore on. By the afternoon, everyone was shivering. Now and then Katrina would yell, “Mirror!” in a slightly testy tone and then adjust her makeup.

The whole enterprise seemed so scattershot, it was hard to believe it would result in a movie, let alone a musical-comedy caper that anyone would pay to watch. “Functioning anarchy,” is what John Kenneth Galbraith once called India, and if you want a close-up look at how order comes from chaos, you can’t do much better than a day at Bollywood. A photographer working at the set swore to me that De Dana Dan, as the film is titled, will be a box-office monster when it’s released in November.

“Believe me,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of Priyadarshan’s movies are hits. And with these two stars? This thing will be huge.”