Planet Bollywood
The Life of a "Gora" Extra in Hindi Films
- Steven Baker           Let us know what you think about this feature article

If you are a fair skinned westerner passing through Bombay, beguiled by the "hey, you wanna be in the movies?" line, and the promise of 500 rupees for a day's work, you could find your 15 seconds of fame in the Hindi film industry.

In a society that equates fairness with beauty, the westerner, especially the blue eyed blonde haired variety, fulfils a crucial role in providing instant background glamour to many a film. The budding film stars are recruited each morning from the traveller hang outs and hotels of the tourist friendly Colaba. Many of them are newly arrived from the International airport, or confused and dazed from a sleepless night on the bus from Udaipur. As the pavement agent bundles the tourists into a taxi, the aspiring actors chatter excitedly about their big break. Alas, their dreams of the movie style lifestyle are quickly shattered when they arrive at Churchgate station, and are promptly herded onto an 8 rupee rush hour suburban train bound for one of the film studios in the western suburbs.

On the journey I marvel at the foreigner's abject lack of understanding of an industry that produces over 800 films a year. As a committed Bollywood fan, and seasoned western extra, I shudder at the perceptions and misconceptions that I hear bandied around the carriage, hearing the same two repeated ideas; "Singing and dancing in the Swiss mountains" and "No kissing". "No, no, no. it is not all singing and dancing in the mountains of Switzerland," I inform. "Switzerland is so pass as overseas location of choice. Think New York (Kal Ho Naa Ho). Think London (Aashiq Banaya Aapne). Think Melbourne (Salaam Namaste). The movie-goer of today is as likely to be an N.R.I. as a Bihari", I continue, attempting to explain the significant impact of the Indian diaspora on the industry. "And yes, shock horror, "sometimes they do kiss”, producing a gasp of shock from the audience.

Once the prospective stars have managed to fight their way off the train (not always a successful pursuit), they are shepherded to the studio, where the first stop is wardrobe. It is here that the fame seekers learn an important lesson in the thespian caste system. At the top, the Khans, the Bachchans et al arrive on set immaculately attired and looking every inch the super star. Coiffed hair and flawless make up comes with a whole entourage of people to keep it staying that way. The newcomers however, are led to a less salubrious, shared dressing room. No vanity van here. Banish those ideas of lights around the mirror and star upon the door. Instead, we are handed frayed-at-the-collar suits and tentatively-held-together-with-a-safety-pin evening dresses. It is this chic attire, that helps create the jet set image of the overseas bar/casino/nightclub on the Bombay sound stage. The standard traveller look of dreadlocks, piercings, and sandals does little to complete the desired effect. Neither Hair and make up nor footwear extends this far down the caste system, as travellers attempt to tie back and tame knotted dreadlocks, and match their bought on a beach near Bangkok flip-flops with ill fitting evening wear. Finished in wardrobe, the actors are now ready to be thrust into stardom.

On the set of Salaam e Ishq, a suited and sandaled fellow Englishman innocently enquires what we are supposed to do. "Act, just act", is the curt reply from a casually attired 30 something in faded jeans. The taken aback suit and sandal moans, "Who is that guy and why is he always shouting? He can't be an actor?" an observation made no doubt on an appearance that is about as unkempt as our own. "That guy. That guy" I say, "is Nikhil Advani, and no he is not an actor, he is a director. The director in fact of this film". Scoring with Kal Ho Naa Ho as his debut, I want to add that he is a demi-god, albeit (sorry Nikhil-ji) a rather strict demi-god... who shouts a lot. Later that day, on the same shoot, the world of the foreign extra produces further comic tragedy, as an Australian gap year student playing a waiter, unceremoniously drops a tray of drinks. It could not have been timed better, forcing as it does a shout of "Cut!" from Nikhil, and interrupting Salman Khan and Priyanka Chopra in their attempt to lip-synch their way through the Shankar-Eshaan-Loy title track. Demi-gods and dropped trays aside, this song is going to be the big hit of next year. You heard it here first, the infectious Ishq, Ishq, Ishq, Salaam e Ishq lyrics will be heard from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, upon the film's Divali 2006 release.

Another set, another suit and sandal. This time an American tourist on a 3 month tour of India. We are shooting for Abbas-Mustan's 36 China Town, and from a large group of background artists, we privileged two have been selected for an enviable position behind a dancing Kareena Kapoor. Between takes the tourist points at the figure in Manish Malhotra black mini skirt with red sequins, and asks in what some may consider a rather loud voice, "Say, who is that? Is she famous at all? "Yes you could say she is famous," I grimace, casually shuffling to one side in an attempt to distance myself from the American, all the while praying that Ms. Kapoor somehow didn't hear.

Another Kapur. This time Shahid. The name Shahid Kapur may not be an internationally recognised star as yet, but in the united nations of extras, it is agreed that behind his ever present sunglasses, he has the movie star good looks to become one. It is these boyish good looks that will appear on countless tourists’ holiday snaps.

Johny Lever is a movie star who may not have the conventional good looks of Shahid, but that doesn't matter when you are one of India's top comic actors. Alas, Johny Lever's standing was unknown to a thirsty Swedish girl in an undersized, and in the studio lights, almost transparent dress. It was only through swift intervention of a crew member, that she was prevented from ordering garam chai from this veteran of over a hundred films under the assumption that he was a spot boy.

Dear viewer, the next time you sit down to watch a Bollywood movie, look beyond the big name stars, disregard the current hero and heroine, and pay attention to the fair and lovely foreigner in the background. Applaud their acting. Idolise their outfits. Be dazzled by their dreadlocks. Salaam their sandals. Their 15 seconds starts now.


Steven Baker is a U.K. University Lecturer and Travel Writer. Writing about his experiences as a foreigner working in India, he contributed the Rent A Tourist section to the Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel


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