Article — From the October 2008 issue

Bollywood Shuffle

A white actor tries to break into Hindi film

“Come to Bombay. You can act in movies, no problem.” A number of Bollywood insiders I spoke to all told me the same thing. Although it had the ring of the too-good-to-be-true, I had long wanted to better understand the Hindi film industry, and through it India, so I allowed myself to be seduced by the promise. In so doing, I was succumbing to the fantasy created by the movies that a celebrity might exist under our daily guise, that a role in a film can reveal and confirm this extraordinary self. My industry contacts also assured me that I had one crucial advantage over the thousands of would-be actors surging yearly to the city with the same dreams: unlike almost all of them, I was white, a Westerner—a gora, in the local parlance.

India produces more films than any other nation, an average of nearly three a day, and Bollywood movies—with their multiple subplots and lavish song-and-dance numbers—often employ casts of hundreds, even thousands. Given India’s increasing prominence on the world stage, many of the films call for Westerners; with so many films in production, with so many parts to fill, the demand for gorae often exceeds supply. Most of these roles are for extras, white faces to add international sheen. But once onscreen, once inside, an actor who is gifted, or merely lucky, could move on to bigger roles. Or so I was told. “It’s not like Hollywood,” Gary Richardson, an American who has worked in Hindi films for the past decade, told me. “Here everything is fluid. Next week you really could be a star.” Brandon Hill, a struggling stand-up comedian from New York, moved to India three years ago and within weeks landed a role in a con-artist movie called Bunty aur Babli. Soon after I flew to Bombay to pursue my own big break, I contacted Tom Alter, the most famous white actor in recent Bollywood history. Alter was between a film shoot in the Andaman Islands and engagements in Madras, and he said we could talk as he hurried to a promotional appearance for the De Beers gemstone cartel in the north of the city. When I entered his cab, I found a thin man hunched in the rear-seat gloom. Alter was in his fifties, with a white beard and clear blue eyes. This veteran of more than two hundred Indian movies, I noted with an uptick of hope, looked a bit like me. Like my other contacts, Alter believed I would be able to find acting work. But he was quick to point out that his was a special case. He grew up in the Himalayan foothills and speaks Hindustani perfectly. “You have to understand,” he pronounced in a mellow Hindi-flavored baritone, “I’m not Western. I am Indian.”

I had been a child star of sorts, at least for the one holiday season when I played Joseph in a Nativity pageant that aired on network television. Although this break did not do for me what, say, Lassie Come Home did for Roddy McDowall, I never abandoned the belief that I could be an actor. At the end of high school, I studied for two seasons at the Cape Playhouse School of Drama, in Massachusetts, performing scenes from Macbeth and Summer and Smoke, taking roles as an extra in the theater’s summer-stock productions. The “stars” at the Playhouse were usually faded TV actors on break between the occasional commercial or soap opera. (I had a no-line part in Pal Joey with Arlene Francis, the star of What’s My Line?, who complimented me on my ability to mime a dark jealousy of Joey.) Auditions for small roles in plays and movies led nowhere, however, and college, family, and other interests intervened.

The stories out of Bollywood reignited the old hope. The week I arrived in India, one of the many movies in production was Om Shanti Om, an inside-the-industry melodrama about a provincial nobody, Om, who longs to be a leading man. Om’s dream comes true, in a roundabout way: a villainous producer murders him in a studio fire, and thirty years later Om is reincarnated, with his spirit returning to inhabit the body of a present-day movie star. Even if Om’s metaphysical path to fame served as a poor model for my own ambitions, I couldn’t help but be taken by the idea that I, too, could be made anew, reinvented in India’s movies.

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is the author of twelve novels, including Mettle and The Art and Practice of Explosion. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Burning Olivier,” appeared in the July 1999 issue.

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