Steve McDonald: Bollywood Extra(ordinaire)
Considering the Europeans’ rich history in Asia—as the evil purveyors of cholera, missionaries, and opium—it should be no surprise that Western actors are often hired to play the feringee villain, or ‘white villain,’ in Indian movies. For years, posing in this coveted role has been a half-facetious dream of mine. I envisage standing amid an armada of dancing harem-wenches, draped in exotic silks. In the background, elephants are present. And as sitars twang over tumultuous cries of “Jai ho,” I cackle in the spotlight, flapping my dastardly cape and twisting my glorious handlebar mustache, before tying a sari-clad damsel to the train tracks.
I had only been in Mumbai for a day when I ran into Amjad, the scrawny casting director who employed me a year earlier (as a background dancer for the Bollywood musical, Thank You). “I’ve got a big movie right now,” he gushed, and my ears perked. “I need native English speakers to read lines at the recording studio. You would be perfect. “
And before you could say the words ‘attention-monger,’ I scrawled my name on his notepad, confirming my second riveting performance as a Bollywood movie extra.
“Don’t call it ‘Bollywood!’” snapped Shrutee Jadhav, as the two of us sat over lunch, stuffing our faces with buttery naan bread and creamy cashew curry, which I dutifully washed down with endless Kingfisher beers. “It’s the Hindi Language Film Industry. People get upset when you call it Bollywood nowadays…” She snapped off a piece of masala pappadam and doused it in onion chutney. “It makes it sound like some spin-off of Hollywood or something.”
It turns out, the term ‘Bollywood’ isn’t used to describe the industry, or even a physical place, but instead the musical genre that has become synonymous with Indian cinema. A true Bollywood movie contains a blend of goofy comedy, breathless action, love triangles, epic musical numbers, convenient coincidences, wooden dialogue, unconvincing sound effects, jarring zooms into people’s faces, and at least five sexist and/or homophobic jokes—ironic, considering how enthused all the men seem to be with belting out show tunes, as they sashay around with ribbons and gold vests.
What you don’t get in a Bollywood movie, is any attempt to mask the fact that none of it is real, and that it’s all just a confectionery spectacle for your amusement. This unpretentiousness is where Hollywood differs from Bollywood—a fantasy place where buying your morning coffee can end in an eight-part falsetto chorus, and the inexplicable arrival of a dozen fire-dancing supermodels.
When the day finally came for me to grace the silver screen, I, and a dozen other foreigners, were whisked off to the concrete sprawl of ‘Film City.’ We were herded into a sound studio by a squat, bossy Indian woman in a kurta, where we huddled over expensive looking microphones. The movie played out on a big screen, and occasionally the loud speakers would crackle to life, and the producers would prompt us with lines that no sane or healthy person would ever say in any natural context…
In one scene, as the two leads conversed by a pool area, we were asked to provide voices for the white people mouthing in the background.
“I want you to talk about how much fun you’re having at the pool,” suggested a booming Indian accent over the loud speakers.
“Really?” I asked, before the film resumed, and suddenly every person in the entire pool area was articulating how much fun they were having.
“This pool is fun,” mused every character in the background. “We’re having so much fun…“ The British girl across from me shook her head. “I sure love summer… Oooh… a water slide!”
After lunch, we dubbed grunts, shouts, and voices for a fight scene. And as the hour grew late, we moved on to the extravagant, show-stopping Bollywood musical numbers. I laughed and screamed into the microphone as grinning Indian men in technicolored suits danced and shuffled in perfect synchronicity. Then a troupe of silky-haired desi beauties appeared, and their five minute number contributed lingerie and cleavage to the plot, before they vanished into the narrative ether as abruptly as they came. For this, we dubbed sighs and moans, as the girls danced in what appeared to be a very windy nightclub.
At no point in the day was I asked to cackle in the spotlight, or flap my dastardly cape, or twirl my glorious mustache. And when the producers handed me my cash and told me I was finished, all my Bollywood dreams were reduced to smoldering wreckage… But I’m learning to move on, and to look forward. I guess I need to save some experiences for my next trip to India…
About a week and a half later, I found myself at a bar, slugging back Kingfishers with a couple of British guys. We were about to order another round, when I noticed, over the cacophony of the bar, a familiar tune—a tune which I had repeatedly endured at the recording studio. I whipped my head around to the television fixed in the corner, where a promotional music video flickered on the screen. A familiar mob of grinning Indian men in technicolored suits danced and shuffled in perfect synchronicity. Elegant women swayed their heads and gyrated their hips, weaving in between the men as their dresses swished in a rainbow of colors. I held my breath as the music swelled, then dropped, opening up to a loud shrieking cackle…
I’ve since learned that the movie, Housefull 2, is slated to be one of Bollywood’s biggest blockbusters of the year—no small feat in the world’s largest film industry, which clocks in an annual total of 3.6 billion tickets sold worldwide (as opposed to Hollywood’s 2.6 billion).
This means that on April 9th, when Housefull 2 opens, millions of viewers across Asia and the Middle East will be astounded and delighted by my graceful shrieking. Millions of Bollywood fans in Africa and the former Soviet Union will also find joy and pleasure in the solace of my cries.
So before you go shooting me e-mails or Facebook messages, allow me to stop you.
I already know what you’re wondering, and the answer is yes… I am a celebrity now, and the most famous person you will likely ever know.
And yes, I will be happy to sign autographs…
COMING SOON TO BACKPACKOLOGY! Signed Steve McDonald Posters, large and lightweight, perfect for hanging up on the ceiling over your bed. Also, Collectible Audio Cassettes of Steve McDonald’s Velvety Voice Shrieking into a Microphone, great for soothing infants to sleep, or just listening to in the car. Both make fantastic gift items as well! Pricing will be determined by demand.
‘Housefull 2’ Trailer: