We had just arrived in Jodhpur after a long day of travel, and we were enjoying a meal at our homestay over looking the city’s magnificent fort, when the manager requested us to come downstairs. Expecting some sort of issue with our booking, my husband went down to see what the problem was. “What was that about?” I asked when he came back up a few minutes later. “We've been asked to be extras in a Bollywood film”.
At first I didn't believe it, then we weren't convinced that we really wanted to get up at 5:30am. By the time we had made up our minds, we were told that we were on a “reserves” list , and that we would get a message at 5:30am letting us know if we were in our not. There was no message, so we drifted back to sleep, only to receive a WhatsApp voice message at 5:45 ordering us “come now, quick, quick, quick”. The stereotype of cinema production had begun – everything last minute, everyone always in a hurry with Something Very Important to do.
Nothing ever runs to schedule in India, so we took a leisurely 15 minutes to get ready and went down to meet our frantic rickshaw driver. He took us to the “meeting point”, then scolded us that we'd missed our ride because we were late. Fortunately, another vehicle was on its way - to take us to Jodhpur’s polo club.
It was still dark and cold when we arrived, and it was immediately evident that there had been no need to rush. We were first directed to the costumes area – a few racks and piles of crumpled clothes that harried women were handing out. A young man behind them brandished a hand-held steamer to try to get the wrinkles out of the suits. Another 30-odd bleary-eyed foreigners were there too – like us, not wanting to miss the opportunity to appear in a Bollywood film. We tried on our costumes in a nearby caravan and, once approval was gained from the costume women, we were ushered over to graze at the buffet breakfast on offer, down a cup or two of chai, and be transformed at the hair and makeup tent.
The gender division was immediately evident. All the makeup artists were men, while all the hair stylists were women. I sat down in the chair, and my makeup man immediately proceeded to apply a foundation several shades lighter than my skin colour. This is India – white is beautiful. After having more makeup applied to my face than I've ever had in my life, and a quick straightener run through my hair – they were running out of time – I was sent back to costumes, given a scarf and sunglasses that practically concealed all the work of the makeup and hair artists, and had shoes imposed upon me that were two sizes too small. Ready to roll!
By now the sun was up, and we were taken over to a fancy tent on the edge of the polo field, set up with round tables with golden tablecloths and fresh flowers in the centre. Horses galloped in front of us, warming up. Soon, undrinkable beverages mimicking champagne, red wine and whisky in cut crystal glasses appeared, as well as inedible hors d’oeuvres. We were to act as the high society of the 1970s, watching a polo match with the princess of Rajasthan. Last minute accessories were distributed – jewellery for the women, hats, ties and false facial hair for the men. And then the game of musical chairs began. We were moved around like pawns, as the artistic director vied to get the perfect balance of costume colour, age, gender and beauty on the each table. A few hours passed, the novelty was wearing thin. Where was the colourful dancing and music? Where were the stars?
Finally, we saw the Very Important People arriving, as indicated by the entourage surrounding them – holding umbrellas over their heads, extending water bottles to quench their thirst, fixing their hair and costumes so that they sat just so. This was exciting. The petite “princess of Rajasthan”, decked out in a bright pink and white sari, sat down at the table in front of me. She was beautiful – and annoyed that the day’s filming was running two hours behind schedule. Apparently the male star, a bit of a diva, had wanted a lie-in that morning and had arrived late at the set. More stereotypes confirmed.
The scene we were shooting would only be a maximum of one minute in the film, but it was complicated. In it, the princess sees a man – a bodyguard, we think – standing on the other side of the field, and beckons him to her. He then proceeds to walk straight through a live polo match to reach her. The scene was blocked out a few times with people, then with the horses but still a double walking the paces of the actor. Finally, the male lead appeared, dressed in a black shirt and pants, long hair, beard, sunglasses, bling jewellery – all the elements that seem to epitomise “cool” in India. He has apparently been in Bollywood for over 20 years – he is a big star, a household name, he can choose to rock up a couple of hours late.
Finally, the camera was rolling with, to our pleasant surprise, a young woman behind it. We were also surprised to discover that, while the film itself is in Hindi, all the people working on the film communicated with other in English. The actor started walking towards the tent, and eight horses would gallop directly towards us too, then bump each other, then part to allow the actor to walk forward, bump each other in front of him again, exit off to the side to let him proceed further, and so on, until he reached the princess and she stood to greet him. We dutifully clapped and cheered, playing the role of an excited crowd, but also a little nervous. It looked somewhat dangerous, a man surrounded by the hooves of galloping horses and polo sticks. At one point, a horse went beserk, the rider nimbly jumped off, and the horse careered around the outside of the field. Meanwhile, totally unrelated to the film, fighter jets roared overhead.
After numerous shots had been taken from different angles, the scene was declared finished, and we were relieved of our duties. We slowly returned to ourselves, shedding our 70s clothes, stripping the makeup off our faces, and enjoying the buffet lunch provided. Envelopes were unceremoniously distributed with 1500 rupees each for our efforts, plus a 10 rupee coin, as it is apparently bad luck to give money in round numbers. We were dropped off at our homestay at 3pm, thoroughly exhausted and realising that acting is not as glamorous as it looks on the screen! Nonetheless, we will be sure to watch the film, Baadshaho, when it comes out in September to see if, after all our efforts, the backs of our heads feature for a split second.