Sunday, 23 December 2007

Lights, Camera, Inaction!

Our sleeper train to Mumbai was comfortable with an endless stream of food and hot drinks carried through the carriages to buy. As the train entered Mumbai's suburbs the apartments loomed in the pre-dawn sky. It was like entering the set of 'Escape From New York'. Dark and decaying apartments with dim energy saving lights competing against the gloom. Early morning commuter trains rode aside us, the open aired carriages carrying the early shifts into the workplaces, half awake people, slumped like zombies as they trundled past. There was no colourful tint to the sky, just horrible murky shadows hanging over the city. It was about five o'clock in the morning.

We disembarked at the final station and avoiding the sinister touts, we found our way out onto one of the dirtiest streets we've seen. Even the rats looked unimpressed at the smell as we walked double pace to get back to the street lit areas. As the first hints of daylight started to creep into the sky we found our hotel after a fairly straight forward ten minute walk. The room was grim, the rates sky high but we had a room which was more than could be said for the next half dozen people who asked for a room after us, as we sat waiting for it to be made up from it's last occupant. We would move the following day but today's breakfast was first. As the city started to wake up we ate breakfast in a local cafe, watching the street scene unfold. Leafy avenues with old vehicles and well dressed pedestrians changed the set to another New York movie, only this time set in down town Manhattan in the 50's. The trucks were old enough to fit the scene, with their big round headlamps and protruding bumpers. The thin men in their suits and hats filled the pavements, side stepping the men with aprons and mops, washing down their little patch of sidewalk.

We spent that day looking at other hotels and hostels. It was hard work finding anything better or less expensive and we didn't fully succeed . In the end we settled for a hotel which was dearer and still not really adequate but in its favour, there was no demolition work happening in the next room. We made do and got on with Mumbai.

We had expected Mumbai to be this fantastic shopping city and were very disappointed in what we found. Everything was overpriced tat, made to the lowest quality standards allowable and overpriced as far as they thought a white person would stupidly pay. We walked around the city a bit, stuck our noses into an art exhibition but did very little else. We admired a couple of buildings in the passing, namely the Gate of India, from where the British Raj departed India and the Taj Hotel, built by an upper class Indian during colonial times, incensed at being refused entry to the 'white' establishments. As sight seeing goes, that was about the extent of our endeavours.

Disappointed in the shopping we decided it was going to be a case of just watching and waiting for the clock to tick down before we would get the plane home. We had promised to catch up with Nick and Esther again (of kayaking fame) as we knew we would all be in Mumbai at the same time but apart from that there was nothing else to do with ourselves.

Then one lazy afternoon as we stepped out from 'Barista Coffee Shop' we were confronted by a man who claimed to be an agent for Bollywood. Suspicious at first we were eventually lured by the promise of fame and fortune and signed up for a day's work as Extras on set. Two mornings later we were on a bus driving out to Bollywood with about a dozen really annoying teenagers who all thought they were going to be the next big thing. Also riding on the bus were Nick and Esther.

We weren't actually filming on a Bollywood back lot, instead we were out on location in a shopping mall. The film, which was part financed and set in Australia was now in India for it's first day's filming here, and the first scene to be shot was set in a mall in Australia, hence the bus load of white folk. For the best part of the morning we wandered back and forth around the mall, up and down escalators, crossing back and forth in the back of the same shot, looking like the worlds most confused couple. If the confusion couldn't be read on our faces it was probably being disguised by our terror of the director who was a big fat sweaty man who spent all morning yelling down a mic and out a Tannoy in the middle of the set. It would seem that continuity is not such a big deal in Bollywood as we were plonked left right and centre, jumping around the mall like magicians appearing simultaneously behind the two opposing characters.

The afternoon was a bit of a different beast. First we had the gun scene. Baddie A, riding down an escalator is trying to shoot Goodie B going up the other escalator. Goodie B is quite oblivious to this turn of events though, not least because Baddie A has fitted a silencer to the front of his gun. There was nothing silent about the pyrotechnic though which blasted the necessary spark from the barrel for the camera. By the end of take 10 or 11 tinnitus was starting to set in.

A little break followed and then it was time to shift down to the front of the mall. The mall had been open all day while we filmed in it and as word spread that there was a film crew, so the numbers of spectators exploded, especially when for the last scene of the day one of the Bollywood Mega Stars stepped on set. It was absolutely chaos with the crowds surging to catch a glimpse of their hero. There were no cordons to keep them back, no line marked on the ground, instead a handful of security men, armed with clubs who would periodically decide the crowd had pushed too close in and would charge at them shouting and waving their sticks at anyone who didn't run back fast enough.

We had a fun day, finishing an hour early and being paid handsomely for our time. When we worked out our hourly rate later we realised we had made quite the fortune, raking in a whopping 34 pence per hour.

Our little brush with Bollywood gave us the momentum to see us through to the end of our time in Mumbai. We found a fab little delicatessen which had good coffee and cakes and made good proper breakfasts (quite the rarity). A few little souvenirs to pick up for presents and before we knew it, it was time to come home. Not before we finally found the time to go and see the Bollywood blockbuster which had opened back when we were in Delhi though - Om Shanti Om. By now, everyone and their dog had already seen the film three times and we had the cinema almost just to the four of us. The final box ticked, we could now leave India.

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