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.

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.

Film City lies inside a nature preserve, and newcomers are told not to wander off into the bushes, since leopards there have developed a taste for gaffer. And for squatters, who live in shanties along the hillsides, in hollows amid the trees. I talked my way past a guardhouse and soon came upon a Greek temple, which stood beside sets framed up to look like a Rajput palace and a Bombay high street. The studio where the Seventies spoof was being shot resembled the fortified lair of a Bond villain. But filming had been canceled for the day. Shahrukh Khan was away hosting a game show. No one needed a gora here. Try Studio 10.

Several soundstages were grouped together in a nearby valley. Through one door I watched a man and a woman gaze passionately at each other, their profiles hard as nacre in the klieg lights. An actor I vaguely recognized tried to break through a cordon of meaty guards outside a building labeled municipal court and was severely thrashed for the camera. The director demanded take after take. Behind the scene, auto-rickshaws and women with packages on their heads passed without concern. Continuity did not seem to be an issue. I trudged around a dusty hillock, under trees bearing a hand grenade–shaped fruit, on which monkeys played and parrots flitted. Two rows of buildings that looked like abandoned airplane hangars stood to my right. A family of squatters tended a campfire on one side. I spotted a young white woman in tights standing in the doorway of an orange blockhouse. She was slim and blonde and whirled what looked like twin bolas, dipping to their rhythm. Her name was Katya, and she had eyes the color of jade. “I am dancer,” she said, jerking a thumb toward the door. “They don’t ask me now because I have dreads.” Katya was a silk-screen artist from St. Petersburg, and the blockhouse was base camp for a ten-girl dance troupe made up mostly of other Russians. All but Katya had been flown there on contract. A tall Goan, also in dreadlocks, called out, “Girls! Girls!” and the dancers drifted toward the nearest hangar. I followed, uninvited.

Inside, a tacky dance club, brilliantly lit, appeared out of the air-conditioned dark. Black-red walls in Marimekko shapes, an elevated dance floor, posters for French films, a cocktail bar on the right. Beside the bar a bearded man in a black fedora sat glowering at the stage. There were people everywhere: lighting men, assistant directors, camera crew, chai men. Others loitered, just taking in the girls as they climbed onstage and shed their shirts to reveal lace-up leotards. “Music!” a choreographer yelled. A thumping, Hindified disco started to pulse. “Roll camera.” A spot boy held up a board bearing the name Dhol. “Action,” someone shouted.

The girls went through their routine, legs flashing like sabers, rumps thrusting arrogantly; they did something pretty with their hands, then froze in place. The music stopped. “Number ten,” the choreographer’s voice echoed over the PA. “You were slow. Do it over.” Spot boys brought the girls Bisleri water.

Russian dancers are treated relatively well in Bollywood. They rank second in a four-tier system, with white dancers from English-speaking countries in the top position. This hierarchy is steeped in India’s colonial history. Although interracial sex and even marriage were not uncommon in the early days of British rule, such unions ended with the 1857 revolt. Thereafter, if the odd sahib could still enjoy his native concubines, Indian males were granted no reciprocal license. White women became forbidden fruit: a symbol of the wealth, and inequity, of colonial power. The third tier among dancers consists of educated, bourgeois Indian girls, dancing for a lark or because they hope to break into film. The lowest in rank are the “junior artists,” who do the dancing in most of India’s myriad films. The first three groups are rarely mistreated, but junior dancers work exhausting hours for a pittance. They are beaten, coerced into sex, abused in other ways.

Take nine. Take ten. Props were broken, lights dragged around. For every change or repair, a dozen men stood ready to haul kliegs, scale staging, buff the disco floor on hands and knees, fetch chai for the director, who sat aloof, smoking, watching a monitor. I was impressed, despite the overstaffing, by the rough efficiency of the operation. Everyone, from upper-caste Punjabis and masked Jains to the skullcapped Muslims and Dalit errand-runners, seemed dedicated to getting this fifteen-second sequence exactly right. This was old-time masala, cobbling together everything—Brooklyn nightclub, Russian dancers, Hindi pop, Punjabi star—to craft something that would wow them in the hills of Uttar Pradesh, in the slums of Surat, in the exile video stores of New Jersey. Standing there, I found myself longing to be part of this fantasy. I could be that sinister guy in the fedora; I could play the Ukrainian pimp, the L.A. dealer. I could be the boyfriend of Katya, say, hanging by the bar.

Finally the star sashayed onstage. Payal Rohatgi was a former computer engineer who won the 2001 Miss Tourism World pageant before moving to Bombay and on to film. She strutted through her moves flanked by two lines of Caucasian dancers, then froze, as they did, when the music stopped. Between takes Rohatgi uttered not one word to the Russians; just stood there as her makeup artist applied lip gloss. During one of these intervals, I sidled up to the director. “Can you use a Westerner here?” I asked as he lit a cigarette. He stared at me, smiling, nonplussed. “You know, an extra, hanging around the bar,” I continued, waving at the drinks. “It’s a disco—”

“No,” he said.

“What about later, tomorrow?”

He turned away.

I walked outside between the hangars, among the squatters and parrots. The fug of Bombay had stretched its tentacles deeper into the hills. The dreadlocked girl-wrangler trailed behind me, barking into his cell phone. “No, Annabel’s in Goa,” he said. “You need four girls, but they are busy here.” I asked him if he represented Western actors. He gave me the curious figure-eight head bobble that Indians often use. “I’ll talk to Annabel,” he said. “She’s the cousin of my wife. You’ll get something for sure.”

When I first arrived in Bombay, I roomed at the Sea Green Hotel, a dank, pea-colored concrete cube facing the Arabian Sea. But I read in the Times of India that the Sea Green was where the team of Hindu extremists who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi stayed prior to carrying out their plot in New Delhi. I changed hotels. My new hotel was a Victorian mansion of rotting stucco. Crows cawed in the banyan trees and in the bougainvilleas outside; cats and rats ambled companionably in the courtyard. But these lodgings were in Colaba, the tourist center of Bombay. And where Westerners visit, Bollywood fixers flock.

I was in cell-phone contact with one of these street agents, a guy named Darwesh. He plied his trade next to the Regal Cinema at the northern end of the Colaba Causeway, rounding up tourists when the studios needed white people for a shoot. Darwesh gave me the number of his associate, Jesse. Over the phone Jesse sounded young, American, catastrophically hungover. He was too tired to see me but assured me there was always work. “I’ll let you know if I hear of a job,” he said. Warren, another contact, advised me to call Kiran. I haunted Leopold Café, a traditional Parsi restaurant that ordinarily would be dark and full of old men drinking chai and smoking except that the owners had dressed it up with waiters in uniform and posters of James Dean to attract the kind of foreign clientele that is wary of dark smoky places full of old men drinking chai. Standing there, I overheard Raja, a California-born Indian with a bindi dot and a pure Encino accent, talk a young Australian into a tour of “Bollywood studios.” I asked if he found work for extras. “Yeah, that’s what I do, man, for 2,000 rupees,” he said. “I’m an actor too, I’ve worked in L.A, but I’ll be up front with you, it’s a business for me.” I bought him a beer and agreed to pay him his agent’s fee, about $50, if he secured me a part. He introduced me to Iman, another agent. Iman identified himself as a dancer, actor, choreographer, and yoga adept who said he would be anchoring a Hindi show on British cable next year. “Your broadness is huge,” Raja said admiringly to Iman when we met.

Every day I telephoned Madhur Bhandarkar, the director who was due to start shooting; each time I triggered his voice mail. Yet the touts remained optimistic. There was a shoot coming up at the airport, Kiran told me. I should be able to work on that.

Gary Richardson, the American actor, invited me to the release party for a pop CD by a second-string actress named Sarika. Gary is tall, blond, in his fifties, handsome in an Eagle Scout sort of way. He told me he was proud of the many roles he had played in Indian films—prouder still of his theater work and of a locally published novel. Gary wanted me to like this city he had adopted, so he was keen for me to get a movie part. We rickshawed to 11 Echoes, a trendy club on Juhu Beach. Juhu is the Malibu of Bombay, and 11 Echoes looked Californian, with pickled beams and Spanish-style stucco. A terrace faced the sea. Bouncers screened us at the entrance, cameras flashed at Gary, even at me on the off chance I was newsworthy. “You see,” Gary said, clapping me on the shoulder, “you’re famous already.”

I watched Gary as he made the rounds at the party. He draped an arm around the smaller, darker film people, smiled into the cameras tracking him. People seemed to like and respect him. But Gary’s relationship to Bollywood was complicated. In one film he played a British general: a character, he said, who in an Indian movie was “the equivalent of Hitler.” Gary believed white actors in Bollywood now occupied the same position blacks did in American movies in the 1960s. The analogy was not totally off. Gora roles in Bollywood have always been fraught with racial tension. The first significant white presence in Hindi film was female. Hindu culture before the Second World War considered acting an indecent job for women, and Europeans, along with a few Parsis, took up the slack. Patience Cooper, an Anglo-Indian from Calcutta, starred in forty films from 1921 to 1944. A half-Greek, half-British circus rider named Mary Evans became the Subcontinent’s first female superstar. She was blonde and blue-eyed, wore skimpy clothes and a mask—a cross between Lara Croft and Zorro—and went by the moniker “Fearless Nadia.” Nadia’s success in the Thirties and Forties was in part attributable to her close ties to two Parsi producers but was also a function of India’s desire to escape the strains of nationalism and war. When she tried her hand at more realistic drama, criticism was harsh.

White actors of any gender found work scarce immediately after Partition. The taboo against filming Hindu women had withered. More to the point, perhaps, Indians were now able to focus on their own culture. In the mid-Fifties, while most filmmakers put their money into escapist fantasies, a few directors hired Russians for films celebrating the Soviet-backed non-aligned movement. This was also the period when Hindustani cinema rediscovered the Raj. Mining the past to forge India’s present identity, Indian filmmakers hired white actors to play twisted colonels, racketeers, bigoted district commissioners. (Tom Alter may be able to speak poetic Urdu and chaste Hindi, but he often has been cast in these sorts of roles: a sadistic British Army officer, an underworld capo’s pilot.) By the Sixties and Seventies, white actors, when they were being cast at all, were portraying characters who seemed to represent a certain kind of low-life Other: drug-dazed hippies, heroin smugglers, hit men. In many films, Christian (and sometimes Parsi) characters stand in for Westerners to represent the eternal alien in India who must be either integrated or expelled. On celluloid these characters are often cowards, fools, or drunkards, providing dramatic contrast or comic relief for what Tejaswini Ganti, an anthropologist who studies Bollywood culture, calls the “unmarked” persona in Hindi film: the middle-class Punjabi, the hero.

One might expect today’s movies to reflect India’s soaring influence in the global market by including more nuanced Western characters: the Australian entrepreneur who funds a call center in Bangalore, the bold American intelligence agent tracking radical Islamists in Kashmir. But although Western actresses have picked up a few positive roles in recent years, such examples remain rare. When I asked Gary Richardson about the new wave of Indian directors making films with complex Western characters, he scoffed. “I’d like them to say that in the same room with me,” he said. Whites might score speaking parts here and there, Gary explained, but the roles often made you feel dirty, because you were promoting a negative stereotype—white men as brutes and buffoons. The role landed by the New York comedian Brandon Hill, for instance, was that of an American billionaire who is duped into “buying” the Taj Mahal. And in one film whose premiere I attended, the character portrayed by Corin Nemec—an American actor known for such immortal works as RoboDoc, Operation Dumbo Drop, and Mansquito—travels to Gujarat to learn more about Gandhi but (like E. M. Forster’s Adela Quested) suffers a breakdown when confronted with the “real” India. He ends up smashing furniture and getting bombed on country liquor. Bollywood’s racism toward whites, Gary said, was most pronounced when it came to a white man dating an Indian woman. The grievance was personal for him, since Gary’s wife is Indian; he leaned on the point repeatedly.

Later, Gary told me a director had just offered him a part in a film. “An actress comes into my hotel room,” he said, describing the role. “I see her, throw a fit, call her a prostitute.” This character, Gary said disgustedly, pressures the girl for sex; she rejects him in horror. I asked him if he took the part. Of course not, he declared. “I said, ‘I’m not interested.’”

My pulse quickened.

I’m interested,” I breathed. Gary lifted his eyebrows.

“You don’t mind being seen as a rapist? Because every time they need a white rapist, they’ll call on you.” I didn’t mind, I told him. I jotted down the number of the director whose part Gary had refused.


I had attended so many showbiz parties that I earned a mention in “Boomtown Rap,” the film-gossip section of the Bombay Times—two lines that would have cost me 50,000 rupees ($1,200) had I contracted for them. On a night when no parties were scheduled, I went to see a movie at the Regal, a beat-up Art Deco theater with a khaki-colored lobby, gloomy paneling, and a vast ocher orchestra section filled with steel seats. The film, Salaam-e-Ishq, was three hours and thirty-six minutes long, not counting intermission; it was crammed with song-and-dance routines and featured the stars Salman Khan and John Abraham as well as hordes of gyrating women. The narrative was familiar: a married man tempted by a luscious stranger; an eloped couple whose better half has lost her memory. Balance, in the end, is restored. Lighting and camerawork were first-rate, but otherwise Salaam-e-Ishq seemed loosely put together: choppy continuity, flaccid editing. English sentences were dropped in randomly and without subtitles (just as Hindi dialogue is tossed into Tamil, Bengali, and Telugu films, and vice versa). Songs bubbled up without warning. This looseness was something that I, accustomed to more tightly produced Western fare, at first found wearying. But I had become accustomed to it, even started liking it. The movie included a white South African actress who played the unlikely love interest of a taxi driver. Her character was as clueless and alien as that of most whites in Indian cinema, but the part had comic pith. I thought as I watched her: I could do something with a role like that.

There were few customers in the Regal. I sat in the seventy-rupee seats, toes practically touching the screen, surrounded by two dozen moviegoers, all male, all between the ages of twelve and twenty-five. I supposed the low turnout might support what the new directors say about the decline in the cities of traditional masala and the growing influence of TV. Yet this audience seemed to make up for its size by its expressions of love for every aspect of the film. They called out to the actors, sang snatches of songs, guffawed at gags, slumped distraught in the face of tragedy. The older, wealthier crowd in the hundred-rupee rows made less noise but appeared no less rapt.

The next morning I called Anant Mahadevan, the director in need of the sexually rapacious gora, and reached him first try. Mahadevan was friendly. He asked me to send a head shot. He was shooting three films at once, and the scene he said I might work in—part of a noir-style thriller called Aggar, or If—was buried far down his agenda. Come to Andheri anyway, Mahadevan urged, ten days from now, to watch him shoot something for TV.

Gary had made another suggestion: to check with the Salvation Army hostel in Colaba, where backpackers sleep. Recruiters from the studios visit the hostel daily, trolling for extras. When I went there a couple of days later, the desk clerk just shrugged no. I dialed the numbers of my acting agents: Kiran, Amjad, Warren, Jesse, Patrick. They had no work but put me on to two more touts named Tiran and Hussein. Raja wanted more cash and insisted that I deliver it to him at home. He exploded when I balked. “You’re gora, I’m Indian!” he screamed over the phone, as if my reluctance were proof of deepest bigotry. “You’re gora, I’m Indian!” I noticed that the number for “Tiran” was the same as that for “Kiran,” Jesse’s contact. Jesse, who worked with Annabel, also worked with the dreadlocked agent from Film City. Amjad told me that the airport shoot he had in mind for me had been scrapped. Because of the elections, no one could obtain security clearance. Warren didn’t answer. Kiran/Tiran hung up when he heard my voice. It occurred to me that my lines of contact were starting to cross, causing short circuits.

I returned to the Salvation Army that night. The clerk told me that there was a job the next day. “Eleven a.m. For a Bollywood movie,” he said. On the Causeway I bought a little statuette of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god known for removing obstacles and bestowing success on new endeavors. I set him on the table of my hotel room and placed a two-rupee coin at his feet.

But when I showed up at 10:15 the next morning, the Salvation Army clerk told me I was too late. Three extras had already been chosen. I offered him money—this was, after all, India, where bribery is so common that courts have debated whether to make the payments a tax-deductible business expense. He smiled sadly, shut his eyes in refusal. The agent showed up. He was a kid in his twenties called Vikaz. He needed only three people, he said. “For Bollywood film,” Vikaz added, as if the blaze and glory of this association might console me. He stared, astonished, as I pleaded with him: I’m sure they can use a fourth extra, I’ll work for free, just let me tag along! Finally he made a call. I could come and watch, he said.

The three who had been selected by Vikaz were all about his age: an Italian couple, Joseph and Maria, and Simon, a teacher from London who was of Persian descent and looked it. We hopped the cattle car north, to Goregaon, and rickshawed the rest of the way, along a traffic-strangled road in the shadow of the hills. A loft on the third floor of a rot-block building contained three sets: a wedding banquet, a living room, a Western Union office. Thirty people tinkered, lounged, watched monitors. A plump woman sized us up, talked fast Hindi to Vikaz. The woman pointed to Maria and Joseph. She pointed at me. My pulse quickened. Vikaz dropped a hand on Simon’s shoulder. “She says you look Indian. I’m sorry.” I offered Simon my condolences, but I was exultant. I was in.

We were led to the top floor. Corrugated tin shielded us from the sun. Wardrobe consisted of a set of trunks, on two of which men snoozed. A photo of a white-bandannaed saint named Sai Baba gazed down on a wardrobe-wallah ironing suits. Sai Baba was the most popular saint in Bombay, partly because he had lived in the surrounding province of Maharashtra, and partly because his rite combined Muslim and Hindu practices. With elections only a few days away—with the local nationalist party, Shiv Sena, campaigning on what amounted to a “Hindustan for Hindustanis” platform—Sai Baba’s popularity seemed a good omen, a reminder of India’s assimilative genius.

The wardrobe-wallah fit Maria, Joseph, and me into cheap Western office-wear. Spot boys served us big metal dishes of chickpeas and chicken in savory sauces. Then Vikaz led us downstairs to a dressing room with chipboard walls. Gary Richardson had told me, should I score a part, to be sure to get a script before going on-set. Directors worked from notes, he said; they made it up as they went along. “You’ll be pulled into a scene with five minutes’ notice and told to speak lines written on a napkin in Hindi, and it’s very hard for an American to speak Hindi. And make sure you get a song.” It was the songs, Gary assured me, that audiences remembered. But I was so excited to be chosen that I didn’t ask about lines or musical numbers. I recalled Strasberg tips, I muttered monologues from Macbeth.

After an hour Vikaz returned us to the set. The plump woman explained our parts. Maria would play a Western Union cashier; Joseph would stroll behind her, busy with files; I would stand at the counter completing a transaction while the Indian star of this scene, a chubby, pleasant-faced actor named Dinesh Tohol, waited in the queue behind me. During run-throughs I thanked Maria, turned and strolled away; I added a line or two to amuse her, scrawled a note that read, “This is a hold-up.” I decided to use the note as a prop. I would be a tourist in Bombay whose wallet had been stolen, picking up cash wired from home; I’d feel both residual anxiety and relief at having funds again. The set went quiet. “Camera,” someone called. “One, two, three, and—action.”

On the first take, I spoke my lines and turned away—to find my exit blocked by lighting equipment. I stood there, confused. “Do it again,” the voice called from behind the lights. The second time I walked under a black scrim and the director yelled impatiently, “He is bending down, why is he bending down?” They told me to brush aside the scrim with my head. I worked on relaxing, smiling at Maria, adding words before my “thank you.” Two more takes. I projected from the diaphragm, stashed the note with relief, lost my smile turning. I felt better and better about all of this. Okay, it was a nothing part, but I was doing it fine; I felt natural, convincing. I was acting, dammit, in a Bollywood movie.

Between takes I chatted with the star, pro to pro. As Tohol and I talked, he passed between his hands a stack of British fifty-pence pieces. Why not use pound notes for a Western Union office? I asked. He hefted the stack in one palm. “This will become an animated character,” he said. “It jumps on my shoulder and then flies away. It will show how quickly Western Union sends money.” I nodded. My face went numb. An ad, I thought. It wasn’t a movie; it was a fucking advertisement. And for an American firm. I might as well be doing this in Burbank. I tracked down Vikaz.

“It’s an ad, isn’t it?”

“It’s an advertisement,” he agreed. “For television.”

“But you said it was a film!” I yelled. Vikaz nodded, his smile unchanged.

The temperature had been comfortable, in the 80s, but now it climbed to well over 90 degrees, and the humidity shot up too. I spent more time in my room, lying under the ceiling fan, listening to the crows beyond my balcony. Shiv Sena had won almost all of Bombay’s wards. It was as if upstate New Yorkers—white, conservative Christians suspicious of immigrants—had taken over Queens. I finally got through to Madhur Bhandarkar, the director the Bollywood-beat reporter had put me in touch with. Bhandarkar told me to talk to his publicist. His publicist said he couldn’t see me, ever.

One morning my cell phone rang. It was Amjad, the agent. He sounded excited. “There’s a shoot,” he said. “They need someone this morning.” The pathetic excitement started up. “George,” Amjad asked, “are you tall?” “Six foot two,” I answered breathlessly. “George,” Amjad continued, almost lovingly, “do you have blue eyes?” Blue-green, basically, I said. “Are you blond?” No, but with a wig— “George,” Amjad interrupted, “how old are you?” This was no time for truth in advertising. “Thirty-eight,” I answered firmly, lopping off a good decade. “Oh,” he said, disappointed. “They want someone young, to be with a girl. Young, blond—heldy.”

“What?”

“Heldy.”

“What do you mean, ‘heldy’?”

“Heldy.” Amjad became impatient. “Do you know a blond heldy guy, maybe twenty-five? Can you ask him?” I didn’t know anyone heldy, I replied bitterly. Amjad asked me to look on the Colaba Causeway. He would give me a cut of his commission. He couldn’t find work for me, but he wanted me to be a tout. I agreed. I thought that if I called back in an hour without having located a young, blond, heldy guy, he’d have to settle for this middle-aged, brown-haired gora.

I read newspapers for an hour and rang back. The studio had found someone else. I threw myself on the bed. When Mark Twain stayed in Bombay, he wrote that its crows sounded like “a low comedian, a dissolute priest, a fussy woman, a blackguard, a scoffer, a liar, a thief, a spy.” To me, it sounded as if they were jeering, “Go-ra, go-ra.

In Colaba people start to recognize the Westerner who sticks around. The souvenir sellers stopped hassling me. A sixteen-year-old named Dinesh quit begging me to buy his maps of India. One day, outside Leopold Café, Dinesh confessed that he had traveled to Bombay, after running away from a drunkard father in Jaipur, to be in Bollywood movies. “That is my dream,” he said, as we were jostled by other boys peddling cheap telescopes, T-shirts, flashing figurines of Ganesh; “I can be an actor.” That week I met an Australian, Harry Key, who lived at a hotel down the street. He was twenty-four, light-haired, blue-eyed. Heldy. Harry, through one of the street agents, had secured a contract to act in a film. His girlfriend was dancing in a shoot at the Kamalistan Studios outside Jogeshwari, just south of Goregaon. A British woman, who did the hula as a Hawaiian girl in the same movie, told me that India’s film industry wasn’t for every foreigner. “You either hate it or you fall in love with the madness,” she said. “You handle it or go home straight away.” She loved Bollywood. Already she had appeared in a handful of films and settled in a village outside Goa with her husband and two children.

A few days later I traveled by train and rickshaw to Sahara Studios, in Andheri, to see the television shoot Anant Mahadevan had invited me to watch. I arrived at the studio an hour early. Near the compound half-naked children played in the dirt while their mother cooked rice beside their lean-to. One thing Bombay never lets you forget: amid all the speed and glamour, 6 million people—half the population—live in slums, in shantytowns, or on the street. A spot boy led me around back. An old dog licked her dugs in the shade. I waited in a corridor full of ironing boards and wardrobe trunks, wishing I’d brought a book. Finally the spot boy returned. “Come,” he said. “Come.”

“No,” I told him. “I’m early.” Mahadevan appeared behind him. He was an affable man of forty-nine, with longish hair and thick-framed hip-
ster glasses.

“Come, George,” he said, placing a hand on my shoulder. “I want to use you.” Great, I thought. My skills were finally in demand—for another TV shoot. I wanted to tell him I could play the movie part he had offered to Gary: I could force myself on helpless women with the best of them. He led me to a soundstage set up to look like a TV news show, a glassed-off studio with two standard video cameras and another, bigger camera. I smiled indulgently. TV ads, current-events shows: Foy could do it all with ease. A well-groomed man in his forties sat at a news anchor’s console on the soundstage; a logo to one side read “The RKB Show.” Mahadevan introduced the anchor as Rajiv K. Bajaj, the Indian equivalent of Jay Leno. Rajiv would interview me prior to a news segment. What was he interviewing me about? I asked. Hands reached around me, adjusting my clothes, fitting me with a lavalier mic. “Anything you want,” Mahadevan replied, checking the cameras. “You can say anything.”

“Look,” the Indian Jay Leno suggested, “your name is French, right? I will ask you about your connection to that general at Quebec.” Huh? But already Mahadevan and his crew had retreated behind the cameras. Lights glared. Rajiv was straightening his tie, clearing his throat, staring at the lens. “George, look at the camera on the right,” he instructed, and then Mahadevan was calling, “Three, two, one, and—action.”

It’s strange how those words work to silence noise, throttle up attention, rev the nerves. They’re the password to story, of whatever nature, and a story always imposes respect. Although, as stories go, this one was pedestrian. Rajiv launched into his talk-show spiel. He introduced “our famous visitor from New York City.” Then Rajiv turned to face me. “Your name is French, you are a relation to that famous French general from the battle of the Plains of Abraham?” he asked. What? Montcalm? I stammered a reply, trying to appear relaxed before the blankness of the lenses despite what suddenly seemed weirdness on a Rod Serling level.

“I mean, there are two branches of my name, but one was, well, French mercenaries who went to Ireland to fight the British. I mean, my family stayed in France.” I was warming to my genealogy, but in that second an aide hustled up to Rajiv and slipped him a note. Rajiv read it, then turned toward the biggest camera, his expression grim.

“We interrupt this show to bring you an urgent news bulletin.”

“Cut!” Mahadevan yelled. “Let’s do it over,” Rajiv said. Mahadevan agreed. “Give George some more lines,” Rajiv suggested. I watched them both carefully, wondering what “urgent news bulletin” could turn up in what was clearly no live segment.

“You see,” Mahadevan explained, walking over to me, “after this, Rajiv appears on the screen at the airport. He says the killer has been spotted there. The killer sees this, and he flees.” I stared at him. My mouth hung open; I might have been drooling.

“You—you mean,” I stuttered. “This isn’t really a TV show?”

“Of course not,” Mahadevan said. “This is Aggar.

“The film,” I whispered. “This is a film.

“Of course,” Mahadevan repeated, turning away now. “The noir film I told you about.”

“That was good,” Rajiv told me, fiddling with his tie once more. “I’ll ask you about your family again, and you tell me about them.”

“Montcalm,” I whispered. Already I was planning how to liven it up. Was I a smooth habitué of the interview circuit, the kind who trades quips with “Jay” and mentions the new book at least three times? And my motivation, after all: was it just to sell myself, or was there at the core some fear of not belonging; of being, in the end, irrelevant? I pasted on my cheeks the kind of confident smile such a character would wear. I looked straight on-camera, as he would. “Three, two, one,” Mahadevan called. “And—action.”

Single Page
Share
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.

More from George Michelsen Foy:

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2015

Come With Us If You Want to Live

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Body Politic

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Problem of Pain Management

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Game On

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love Crimes

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content