Article — From the October 2008 issue

Bollywood Shuffle

A white actor tries to break into Hindi film

( 2 of 9 )

On one of my first mornings in Bombay I rode the train to the city’s northern suburbs, where many of the Bollywood studios are located. At most stops on the Andheri Local, hundreds of people scrummed aboard its beige metal cars, elbowing, yanking, shoving so hard that I ended up practicing a kind of yoga (train tantra?), limbs braided against my will through the limbs of other men (women, mercifully, have their own cars). Clusters of passengers sat on the train’s roof; others, clinging to various handholds, hung like bunched grapes out the open doors. Each year Bombay’s trains kill an average of 4,000 people, many of them in falls from the doorless carriages. Squeezed in like this, I couldn’t help but consider the slaughter of the summer before, when Islamic terrorists stashed bombs in trains on this very line, leaving 209 dead. When I arrived in Bombay, local elections were scheduled to take place in two weeks, and the same groups threatened to disrupt them by once more bombing the trains.

At Andheri, I hired an auto-rickshaw, a hellish three-wheeled scooter with a bench behind the driver and a vinyl canopy stretched over a slipshod metal frame, that dove without hesitation into a tornado of exhaust, dust, and other snarling rickshaws. Every trip in this area involves twenty minutes of asphyxiation. I had been invited to Andheri by Ketan Mehta. Mehta was among a group of commercial directors who no longer wanted to make masala—the standard spiced-up, chopped-up, throw-everything-in-and-if-there’s-a-problem-toss-in-another-musical-number tradition of Hindu stani cinema. Instead, they have been working to make films more attuned to Western conventions of realism and character development, that are geared toward English-speaking Indians who live in cities or abroad. Between these productions and the ever-greater number of masala movies demanding the glamour of international locations and characters, I was sure that some director would have a need for a gora like me.

But when I finally found Mehta in his office, he told me he was not filming now. He did know of a movie being made in Film City, a complex of studios to the northeast of Andheri. The movie was a 1970s spoof starring Shahrukh Khan, one of Bollywood’s leading men, and it was sure to require white faces for its club and bar sequences, to build the right aura of Western decadence. “Why not go today?” he suggested.

On my way out, I called another director, Madhur Bhandarkar, whom a Bollywood-beat reporter I knew had talked to on my behalf. The reporter told me that a film Bhandarkar was about to start shooting would have a role that fit my profile, and he gave me the director’s phone number. Since then I’d been dialing Bhandarkar several times a day, reaching only his voice mail. This time he answered. Try cold-calling a busy director in Los Angeles and see how far you get; see if you can even get his cell number. But in Bombay filmmakers have to patch together so many deals, solicit so many people, that they must keep lines open and talk with strangers. Their accessibility also could have something to do with the particular hospitality of Bombayites, whose default mode seems to be to please visitors by promising to satisfy their every wish. Hinduism does suggest that any guest might be a god in disguise.

I explained to Bhandarkar who I was. “Who?” he replied. “Who?” I told him again about our mutual friend, the reporter. I asked about a part in his upcoming film. “We will definitely get together,” Bhandarkar said. The connection fizzled, and he hung up.

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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