Reel Ferangi

first_imgI gave my credit card to the hotel receptionist, knowing there remained only £50 that was reasonably useable, some credit, but it would buy me one night’s sleep in air conditioned bliss 10 floors up and overlooking the Bharati-Disneyland that comprises Ramoji Film City near Hyderabad.I had been cast as the ‘Maitre d’ Hotel’ in an action flick by U.S. producers. The director, a doppelganger of Steven Speilberg with greyer hair, all manic, but focused energy; his assistant, a glamor model and recovering coke addict, so the English production designer told me. He was a broad set tattoed shaman who moved stateside to Los Angeles many years ago. He never looked back, he said, but had been warned by his spiritual guides not to come to India. I assume they were here to make the movie on the cheap, low labor costs, no union trouble, who quite knows. I had been sleeping in the shared rooms of a hostel with the multifarious others who made up the extra list of foreigners as “junior artistes,” making their way around India and happy to be in a fillum for some small remuneration – hippies, yoga-bunglers, travellers, ashramites, the confused, the possessed and the dispossessed. For myself, I was living the life of a Hemingwayed near-vagabond poet on the east coast near Pondicherry and was happy to accept the invitation of a trip to Neverland and help tell a story, embody the myth or explain a dream. I’ve not had a credit card since. Perhaps in that, as British author Arthur Koestler posits, “there are no co-incidences.”As the bell boy drops my rucksack by the bed, he turns on the television set, the first I’ve seen in months. An aeroplane is crashing into one of the Twin Towers in The Big Apple. A worm in the heart of a fruit? The bell boy yelps with glee “Great action-movie!” With some difficulty in my broken Tamil cum Teleguese I try to explain the calamitous real time events as a ticker-tape runs an eastern standard time commentary underneath the astonishing images. I offer my profuse apologies to an American film-producer, checking out in the lobby downstairs, frantically trying to re-arrange a flight back to New York via Canada, “Whadda ya apologisin’ for? Your coun-tree is the Motha and Fatha of my coun-tree!” I acknowledge the gravity of his remark with some incredulity and although English by nativity, I am happy I am home in India at this time.Lucky is the man who has not lived in someone else’s Empire at some point in history. My being a foreign actor in Bollywood, Colly, Tolly and Mollywood is what I suspect it was like for an actor of Afro-Carribean or Asian descent in “the west” during the 1960s or 1970s – there just ‘aint the parts. Even here in Mumbai, with its sea of daily arrivals, I will ever be foreign and never an immigrant or migrant. As life imitates art, so film mirrors India and her myriad villages. On a commercial film-shoot recently in Mumbai, the visiting crew of Bangalorians collectively asked for Bombay’s famous vada-pav for lunch; the local Mumbaikers wanted pizza from Domino’s. I can’t begin to extrapolate the sociological dimensions of that scene. Sometimes I feel I have as much in common with a Tamilian Brahmin as he does with an apple farmer in Himachal Pradesh. The village is a common humanity – that and KFC. Pursuing my burgeoning Bollywood career after a spat in publishing, I am resigned to portraying cameo roles in Saas Baahu soap-operas: as the visiting American Dot.Com millionaire enticing the top desi-IIT’ian to cross the Atlantic with offers of work in Silicon Valley, earning mega-bucks to remit back home to the family; a foreign professor offering a place at a prestigious college overseas; a phoren man on a train; ferangi man at a party; a ferang doctor or a foreign tourist. You should have seen me as Sherlock Holmes or Spaceman and that time I fought Ahmed in a bar with a knife.Abishek Bachchan stood over my blood stained body and asked me how it felt now I had chosen to be an actor. It felt like I had been lying in a pool of blood for four hours waiting for the stunt-director to get the rope trick right. How was he to know I’d given up the mantle of experimental theatre-director “as vehicle for social change,” for this playful lack of responsibility? No socially relevant message to hang on Shakespeare for an audience. Only to profer help to Priyanka “Piggy Chops” as “Steve the Baker” to save AB from the hands of the evil dark-forces on a cave-like film-set in a hangar at Film-City. A classically trained Czech actress of some repute, who the producers have flown in to play a kindly nun for the shot, is astonished at this country, “this this, everything,” having fought through a revolution or two to find herself here in the exasperating heat.Ah, my many avatars, how are you? I have been killed three times in my last three films and am expecting another death at the hands of the Mallayalam superstar Mammooty(ka) next month, clad in a scarlet uniform and sporting the appropriate moustache and side-burns. Of course, I shall kill a few natives before that, hang a few period freedom-fighters and laugh with my colonial accomplices who are also eeking out a living in Mumbai when not dressed as oppressors or penguins and the like. Luckily, I am not oppressed, though it sometimes feels like it, sitting on my backside for 14 hours dressed in scarlet body-hugging uniform in tropical heat waiting for a shot that might last a minute or so.The number of foreign actors waiting patiently by their cell-phones hereabouts can be counted on one hand and a small foot. The rest of those you spy in Hindi dance sequences gyrating their hearts out, are mostly coke-snorting Colaba-hostelled tourists following the Lonely Planet guide for a vacation experience in Bollywood. So come on over boys and girls, plenty to see here, if you can live in Mumbai and its attendant paradox. And bring a panacea. Donned in the uniform of a Muscovite police commandant, during a gun-shooting sequence in the middle of a post harvest paddy field in Tamil Nadu, set-dressed to look like the Siberian bad-lands, I am acting with a couple of Tamil stars whose names I cannot recall. We were not introduced, it was a stand-off and we all killed one another, blood bags exploding in our chests from a small electrical charge. I was holding a revolver which backfired, wounding the knuckle of my thumb. The director instructed me not to move from my death position as the camera man changed his shooting angle. Underneath the mid-afternoon sun, expecting someone with antiseptic wipes to clean my wound, I only find a make-up man adding fake blood to my own to exaggerate the bleeding, for the authenticity of the shot. “Vil make look bettera!” says the make-up man with a smile as demure as a dentist’s advertising campaign. Staring up at the blue sky from my prostrate position amidst the rice stubble, I wonder, fingers tingling, maybe that day job behind a desk is not such an horrific option after all?Some unscrupulous film co-ordinators often send an actor to an audition merely to collect a payment per attendant model from a producer, knowing that the model is unsuitable for the part and wholly unlikely to be cast. Standing in line for six hours amongst 80 young Indian hopefuls, preening themselves with oil, getting that perfect hairstyle and the like in full length mirrors for the part of a cricket umpire is not my idea of cricket. When I was asked to audition for the part of the head of the CIA for a film, no one could explain to me at the time, but my only commensurate local competitors were Gary, Harry, James, Brandon, Simon and Alex. Sorry boys. The two emaciated young Russian men, resembling rough sleepers from the streets of Goregoan (or had they fallen out of the Gulag that we have all forgotten existed), failed the assistant director’s obligatory “look test.” But, maybe undercover CIA? They stare at me walking through the doors of the producer’s office and the less hungry-looking of the two exclaims “Ah, zo you vant to be vamous Bollievood movie ztar too, huh?” Casually feigning indifference, I brush them aside with a “Whaddya mean, wanna be? I am.” Oh, the trappings and conceit of Bollywood bit-parters.“What’s the fillum?” I ask the young man trying to size me up with his video camera, “It’s a fantasy rooted in the global reality of terrorism, post 9/11. Do you carry your photographs?” he says. Like, that is it. Each of us embodies the myth that gives scant regard to geography.Two months later, long after I had forgotten the experience, I was in a rickshaw on a Sunday morning travelling to an abandoned cotton mill in the middle of the city, to meet The President. Unusually I had been given a couple of days notice. The President is called Brent, recently flown in from Kansas City for the gig. “Ah yoused ter be in cohn-struh-cshion,” he will tell me later as we sit in an air-conditioned vanity van rehearsing our repartee for the President’s office aboard a mock-up of Airforce One.At the gate I notice a small barber shop and decide to get an American crew cut worthy of the Secret Services. A small Muslim man in a vest and lunghi greets me at the door and sends his errand boy off to fetch a milk rich chai. He gestures to my head with a pair of scissors in a question only meant to mean “How would you like it sahr. Short, krew cutta,” and he’s clipping away with an exactitude I have only found in India. Afterwards he douses my neck with talcum powder and we exchange “Asallams” and a small amount of money. I feel American.Standing on a train station platform in suburban Mumbai, returning home after an audition to play a blond haired German gentleman in an auction house – don’t mention the war – an apparently frail, but what seemed similar old man, sporting a long wiry white beard dressed in white kurta, pyjamas and skull cap turned, looked up to me quizzically and asked “You Ah-merrikan or You-roh-pean?” “Neither,” I answered, “English.”With that and a rare sparkle in his eyes he began to dance a little jig. Merrily like a bingo-winning dwarf tripping out on a psychotropic substance, singing “Ah-hee, divide and rhule! Ahh-hee, dee-vide and rhule…” As the train pulled out of the station, the old man still jigging on the platform to the amazement of the gathered crowd, I wondered if it was history jabbing my side or just the density of the packed train, bodies crammed beyond capacity. Ah-heeeee…The “fantasy rooted in the global reality of terrorism,” the director explains to the press, in what must be the beginning of a relentless world-wide promotional campaign, is set: “…in a world where Osama bin Laden is the rock star of terrorism. The pace is relentless and the action, mind boggling.”Rock stars of terrorism eh? Bono wielding an AK 47, Bowie blowing holes in the United Nations? Simple minds doing things with semtex. It all seems a very long way from the dereliction of post-industrial Mumbai in the cotton mill.Brent sweating his proverbials off exclaiming, “Ah diddun thank there’d be so murch poverdee here hiv yoh seeyen the sdreeds?”Thirty eastern European turquoise panti-clad dancing girlies are running around from the set next door arguing with a smiling artists’ co-ordinator about the lack of suitable drinking water. On film, I am explaining to The President (he looks extraordinarily like the real thing on the playback images) that “the Turkey siduashion” is not to do with a Thanksgiving bird shortage, more a “country thing” and he’s having a really difficult time pronouncing the name of the Indian Prime Minister, “Mahn, moh, harn Seengh? Coord ah git a glahss o’ wahder?”We must have travelled some distance from that time in Hyderabad, yet perhaps no distance at all, if instead of reacting to images flickering real-time on our television screens we are now portraying them on that silver screen. I hope that somehow we are making history and putting it somewhere in the past where we can watch it in fiction in a darkened room. The chips on both my balanced shoulders tell me to doubt it. As my friend Anne says, each generation will try again to live the dream, save the planet, ease the suffering and bring love and peace to the world. Until they discover what is happening is the dream. For me, I’ll certainly keep dreaming. That – and pay the rent.Peter Handley Evans is an English writer actor and theatre director. He will be seen later this year in Goldie Behl’s Drona, Ketan Mehta’s, Colours of Passion, Apoorva Lakhia’s Mission Istanbul and Hariharan’s Mallayalam magnum opus Pazhassi Raja. Related Itemslast_img

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