MUMBAI – I’m in Bandra, a suburb northwest of Mumbai, on the promenade by the beach. The sun is about to set, and Altaf Mehta* has just bought himself freshly squeezed melon juice.
He’s tired after his eight-hour day at a job requiring him to do the opposite of what most of the touts do along this stretch – instead of trying to sell tourists something, he’s proposing paid employment. Day after day, he recruits white Western tourists as extras in Bollywood movies.
"Americans, Europeans, Kiwis, it’s all the same to me, you all look alike," he says. He takes everybody, really? "Well, I don’t approach the ones that look like they’ve been here a long time. After six months they start to look emaciated, and too tan. The paler, the better. The blonder, the better. The main thing is that I get the number the studio’s asking for."
How about today – did he meet the quota today? "A studio needed 25 young people for a dance scene. They’re headed for the set now; I just packed them into a bus. Come on, let’s go, I’ll take you out there too."
Fantastic! A Bollywood set, interviews with extras, and who knows maybe I could be in the movie too. I particularly wanted to meet Indian extras, the thousands upon thousands of people that pour to Mumbai every year hoping – for what – a role? Some of them are pragmatists, figuring that a job in the movie industry would help feed families back home in Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Bengal – after all, 2.5 million people make a living out of the Bollywood industry. Some of them are hoping to become famous, to get roles in some of the 200 productions filmed here annually.
But hey, just a minute here, Altaf: Why would an Indian director require Europeans for Indian dance scenes? No tourist can dance anywhere near as well as the people here. If you want to make it in Bollywood, you have to be able to move perfectly – the choreography is often a lot more demanding than the acting. "The scene they’re filming today is supposed to look like a party on Ibiza. So they need people who can hop around, each one in their own little world, like you guys dance,” Altaf says. To illustrate his point, he bends his knees, lets his shoulders drop, and starts gyrating flinging his arms gracelessly into the air a couple of times.
Just then his cell phone rings. And the news is not good. The bus with the 25 tourists has been stopped by authorities. Altaf explains that all the studios have to pay bribes to the political parties, and sometimes the parties – particularly one specific party – get hot under the collar about certain groups taking jobs away from Indians. So this time it’s Europeans. And – well, they’d been asking for more money and the studio didn’t pay it, so anyway, there goes his busload.
Now the studio is asking him for replacements – and since Europeans are not on, they want “Chinks" instead. “No problem organizing those,” says Altaf, “one phone call and I can get 150 of them.” However, this development also means he won’t be able to drive me out to the set, and I will have to take a cab.
"Gimme more! More body! More hips!"
The drive takes two and a half hours; we get there at 11:30 p.m. And just exactly where “there” is, is a mystery. There are no street lights, the place smells like fish, we seem to be in a mangrove forest – from which a watchman carrying an antiquated gun suddenly emerges. "You want movie?" he asks.
He takes me down to a beach where there are boats, and a couple of fishermen’s huts converted to beach bars. On this set, dancers are kept working until the wee hours, work as strenuous as it looks boring, and all for 800 rupees (around $17.50).
The first row of dancers is Russian – six slim girls surrounding Saif Ali Kahn, the star of the movie. Behind them, a row of Indian women dancers. In the background, as a kind of filler, come the “Chinks.” They have replaced the Europeans, and managed to get there before me. They looked like they might be Chinese, maybe Burmese: “Chink” is a derogatory word for Asians. But it turns out the “Chinks” were as Indian as Altaf. They hailed from northeast India – states behind what is now Bangladesh, some of the poorest areas in the country.
The production manager keeps breaking the dance scene up after about a minute and repeating to the Russian girls: "Gimme more! More body! More hips!" How this hot number fits into what I’ve been told is a zombie movie I can’t figure out. Because the Europeans failed to make it, the setting has been changed from Ibiza to Rio and the Russians and the Asian-looking Indians are now supposed to be South Americans. The nearby city of Malad, with its tall buildings visible in the background, stands in for Rio.
When there’s finally a break, the extras seat themselves in the food tent the same way they are lined up to dance: Russians on one side, Indians on the other – with the “Chinks,” Indians from Mizram, Assam, Manipur, outside the tent.
Anything and everything
The women dancers from Mumbai talk about how frustrating it can be to spend so much time filming and then be edited out of the movie. Anjali from Bangalore says her biggest success so far was when she was in a production starring actress Sonal Seghal. "Did they leave you in?" the others ask. "Briefly." How do you get a role? "Rule of thumb for women: the shorter the skirt, the bigger the chance."
Shailesh, 23, a male extra, shrugs. "That’s the way it is. I’d do anything to be famous, anything.” To laughter his friend Maddy says: “I’ve already done everything!”
Outside the tent sit Kuri, Alvas and Hring. Twenty-one-year-old Alvas comes from Manipur, where he worked as a dancer and model and achieved modest local renown with a song on the Internet. He’s been in Mumbai for three years. At first he hoped for a breakthrough, but here on the beach tonight he seems homesick and dejected about his movie future. "Life doesn’t do what you want it to," he says.
He and his friends are making 100 rupees ($1.8) less than the others because they are all otherwise employed and just do this as a sideline. "None of us can afford to hope for fame,” says Kuri, 30. "If a production wants an Asian for a role it wouldn’t even occur to them to ask one of us. They’d fly somebody in from Bangkok."
The break over, everybody gets back to pretending they’re in Rio – and this time a German guy manages to squeeze into the scene, there, way at the back, hopping around gracelessly, flinging his arms in the air.