Commentary — September 23, 2008, 4:23 pm

Talking with George Michelsen Foy, author of “Bollywood Shuffle”

foy_300
George Michelsen Foy’s article “Bollywood Shuffle” appears in the October Harper’s Magazine. Associate Editor Benjamin Austen catches up with Foy now that the issue is on newsstands.

1. “Bollywood Shuffle” chronicles your efforts—as a white Westerner—to land a role in a Bollywood film. With few prospects, you travel to Bombay and begin this quixotic quest. What advice can you give other would-be actors not of Indian ancestry who have caught the movie bug and want to be in a Bollywood film?

I’d say the first thing to do is meet people, which is easier than it sounds. Bollywood is huge as an industry, but at least in the Hindi film segment everybody basically knows everybody else. As my article shows, even pretty big names are accessible. And people generally are friendlier and more willing to help than in Los Angeles. So if you know anyone in any way hooked up to Bollywood, call that person. He (or she) will usually welcome the interest. And once you get to the director/producer level, you’ll find that the movers and shakers are often as anxious to score contacts in Hollywood and the U.S. film industry as you are to get contacts in the Indian version. (Hollywood and the American movie-going public—not to mention the growing Indian population in North America—are the new frontier in Indian film marketing.)

You should also do your homework: see some recent Bollywood films so you know the top directors, actors, and songwriters by name and appearance. Check out websites like Bollywoodworld.com and Masala.com for the latest gossip about who’s planning what film with which talent. If a film looks like it will include topics or locations that might involve Western characters, write down the names of the casting agents, directors, producers. Ask your contacts if they know any of these people.

If you can’t find anyone Bollywood-connected while you’re in the United States, you can always fly to Bombay and stay at a hotel in or near Colaba—the center of the old colonial city, where Westerners, apparently nostalgic for the Raj, tend to group. The Colaba area is full of touts who are on the lookout for whites to act as extras when a shoot calls for them. The best places to meet these agents around the Colaba Causeway (the main drag) seem to be Cafe Leopold, the Regal Cinema, the Salvation Army hostel, and the lobby of the President Hotel. Ask around. Hang out. Buy drinks for the touts. And don’t forget to bring headshots and business cards. Touts, casting agents, and directors will all ask for them.

Another, more expensive option for making your face known is to go to clubs and “lounges,” especially in Juhu Beach and Versova. The bars and clubs of the Holiday Inn (oddly enough) and the JW Marriott at Juhu are big Bollywood hangouts, or were when I was there. The best parties in these areas are usually tied to movie premieres or releases of film soundtracks or albums by Bollywood stars. In Juhu, I’ve run across people like Shahrukh Khan and Abhishek Bachchan—escorted by their crowd and bodyguards. The bars and the nightclub at the Taj, in Colaba, attract the Bollywood jetsetters, but given how expensive the Taj is, I’m not sure the cost/benefit ratio of hanging out there is worth it. Still, after only a short time in Bombay, I started to recognize the faces of directors and producers and their friends at these parties. Even if this doesn’t lead to a part in a film, with luck you can at least get invited to better and better parties.

sketch_foy
2. I’m interested to hear more about these Bollywood parties. Were they very different from how we imagine a party in Santa Monica of Hollywood insiders? Do you feel you learned anything about how Bollywood sees itself from these celebrations of itself?

As with Hollywood, Bollywood is full of rumors of its elite being involved in drugs, promiscuous sex, and other decadence. The press that covers the industry is still surprisingly coy about such behavior, yet I sensed that there was truth to at least some of these stories. People I trust told me about parties they had attended where they witnessed the debauchery firsthand. I never got that lucky. The last party I went to looked like it was heading in that direction. It was for a charity I can’t remember, at a club on the harbor at Colaba, right next to a shantytown occupied mainly by the Coli, the tribe of fisherfolk who were the original inhabitants of the Bombay area. There were a bunch of mid-to-upper-level Bollywood people there, as well as many jeunesse dorée–publishing scions and the like.

The party was open bar, and the club was set up as an archipelago of islands and walkways dotting a shallow, black reflecting pool filled with floating candles and flowers. Hordes of pretty girls and boys sashayed up and down the walkways; they even had a competition for the best-looking model. I ran into several people I knew, including a gorgeous would-be actress who had gone to school in Belgium and spoke good French. The party was moving on to after-hours events, and the Belgian-Indian told me to tag along. But I’d probably had one or two too many drinks, and I found myself thinking about the shantytown next door, and the people sleeping in the streets not fifty yards away, bundled up on the tarmac, with rats patrolling. I know it’s the classic, guilt-ridden reflex of the Westerner (and probably there was some jealousy in there too, stemming from not being young and gorgeous), but I couldn’t help myself. I ended up dragging an Indian friend out the doors and through the shantytown, as if I had the right to make a moral point with him, given the disparity of riches in my own country. He got mad at me, and rightly so.

3. While you were in Bombay, did you get a sense of the lifestyles of Bollywood’s popular actors? I’ve heard a good deal about the many obligations they have to do commercials and other public-relations work. Did you see any of this firsthand?

The closest I got to Bollywood’s top stars was actually at a publicity event for De Beers, the diamond cartel. De Beers had hired Amitabh Bachchan—the most famous male actor in India, something like George Clooney and Paul Newman rolled into one—to promote its wares. I can only guess at what Bachchan earned, on top of the specially engraved “forevermark” diamond that De Beers gave him with great ceremony. It was incredible: more than one hundred photographers and reporters and cameramen all focused on him and anything he touched. So I guess it was worth it for De Beers, whatever they paid. The company had also hired Tom Alter, the top white actor in India, whom I interview in my article, to be the master of ceremonies. The event was at the Taj Land’s End in Bandra, in the northern suburbs, also on the waterfront—right across the road from the Sea Rock, which was bombed by Muslim extremists a few years ago. There was a buffet seventy-five feet long, with Chinese, Indian and Western food, Moët, vodka bottles encased in ice, and an Austrian laser-light show. As pitchmen, both Alter and Bachchan did their jobs like real professionals. Alter intoned the pitiful PR lines as if they were Hamlet. He told me later that he could spend months working on a fantastic film and make less money than he did in one evening playing this kind of gig.

Share
Single Page
undefined

More from Benjamin Austen:

From the February 2005 issue

The pen or the gun

Zakes Mda and the post-apartheid novel

Weekly Review December 7, 2004, 12:00 am

Weekly Review

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2019

Gimme Shelter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Body Language

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trash, Rock, Destroy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Make Way for Tomorrow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Red Dot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Gimme Shelter·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I.

That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

Article
Body Language·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

But somebody has slipped. The school is putting on the musical South Pacific, and there are not enough roles for the girls, and she is as tall as or taller than the boys, and so they have done what is unthinkable in this striving 1980s town, in this place where the men do the driving and the women make their mouths into perfect Os to apply lipstick in the rearview. For the musical, they have made her a boy.

No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

Article
Trash, Rock, Destroy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.

In an email before our meeting, Despentes asked that we not do a photo shoot. “There are so many images available already,” she explained. Much had been written about her, too. A Google search yielded page after page: profiles, interviews, reviews, bits and bobs—she read from Pasolini at a concert with Béatrice Dalle; someone accused her of plagiarizing a translation; a teacher in Switzerland was fired for teaching her work. The week I met her, she appeared in the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in conversation with the rapper-turned-actor JoeyStarr. The woman is simply always in the news.

Article
Burning Down the House·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay:

Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright, by Paul Hendrickson. Knopf. 624 pages. $35.

Frank Lloyd Wright isn’t just the greatest of all American architects. He has so eclipsed the competition that he can sometimes seem the only one. Who are his potential rivals? Henry Hobson Richardson, that Gilded Age starchitect in monumental stone? Louis Sullivan, lyric poet of the office building and Wright’s own Chicago mentor, best known for his dictum that form follows function? “Yes,” Wright corrected him with typical one-upmanship, “but more important now, form and function are one.” For architects with the misfortune to follow him, Wright is seen as having created the standards by which they are judged. If we know the name Frank Gehry, it’s probably because he designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997. And Gehry’s deconstructed ship of titanium and glass would be unimaginable if Wright hadn’t built his own astonishing Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue some forty years earlier.

Article
The Red Dot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

Sebastian Gorka, the former deputy assistant to the president who now hosts a radio show called America First, was banned from YouTube for repeatedly uploading audio from the rock band Imagine Dragons without copyright permission.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today