Going to Bollywood is one of the essential experiences that make for a cliché-laden chat among tourists in India – just like being ripped off by a rickshaw driver or getting the "Delhi belly" after an outrageously spicy meal.
Every other day, Mumbai's filmmakers send off touts to the touristy district of Colaba to hire foreigners as extras in some of the 1000-plus movies produced in India every year. They know where to chase backpackers, globetrotters and hippies: at bars, budget dormitories and souvenir shops.
Unlike many young Indians who would give everything for a ticket to the glittering sets of Bollywood, it was a fairly easy deal for me. My only credential to enter India's dream factory for one night was my inborn white nose.
A dodgy bloke had approached me at the famous Leopold Cafe, waving his visiting card under my nose: "You wanna be in Bollywood? It's a night shooting. Departure tomorrow at 7 pm."
The next day, after more than two hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic, the bus drops our group of 15 foreigners behind a shopping mall north of Mumbai. A youngster named Sunil comes up to the semi-circle of red plastic chairs placed there for us, letting us know that he was in charge of our well-being.
As if to make his point, Sunil eagerly holds up a notepad and asks for our orders from the nearest McDonald's. A buffet of Indian food has been laid out for the rest of the crew, but they somehow seem to think we – the foreigners – would be better served with fast food.
One veggie burger and a few French fries later, I find out that I am soon to become American. The film we will act in is a Bollywood blockbuster partly set in the US.
Shortly after midnight we are led into a real-life supermarket and told not to touch anything. A bunch of crew members frantically starts replacing the Indian Rupees price tags with US Dollars signs. First realization: Being an extra means a lot of waiting. A lot.
Suddenly, the blonde Polish girl in our group emits a high-pitched scream. With a shaky hand she points at a fat rat that just whisked over her feet and is now heading towards a dark hole under the vegetable rack.
The crew doesn’t seem to care. Out of about 30 staff, twenty seem to be only staring into space without any particular purpose. A plump fellow carries a clipboard with some files and keeps shouting orders at everybody in his proximity. The recordist struggles with the oversized microphone in his hand. Two bullish men in grey shirts keep yelling "Silence!" at a deafening volume. It’s stuff for a parody.
But then, out of nothing, the diva walks among us. Like a sudden appearance descended from the heavens, she has entered the set. As soon as she sits down on the folding chair placed for her, Kareena Kapoor transforms the air. She is constantly tended by a personal stylist who buzzes around her like a multi-armed Hindu deity – waving a comb, hairslides and a mirror at the same time.
The crew members seem completely spellbound, treating her like a living goddess, heads kept down in reverence. The divine Kareena, for her part, is fully absorbed in her role, silently repeating sentences from a scrap of paper.
Here comes the first scene. I am told to stand by the deep-freezer and start walking on the command Background Action!. Slowly pushing a trolley filled with a giant bag of washing powder, I turn into the background for Kareena who is beefing about into her mobile with an agitated voice: "He cheaaated on me!"
It takes several hours of walks with the trolley until the director is satisfied with the take. The black patent-leather shoes I had been told to wear – supposedly to make me look more American – have started hurting on my feet.
At 3 AM, all of us are at a low point. Two Aussies have fallen asleep on bean bags in the furniture section. The Polish girl starts swearing in Polish. It sounds scary. Finally, a pair of British girls bursts out in anger: "You were supposed to take us back into town by sunrise! We have a plane to catch at noon!"
While the two Brits are taken back on a taxi, the rest of us has to stay. At 6 AM things get stressful. "Come on, I want this quickly!" the director bellows, followed by his cranky assistant pushing us into the next scene: "Let's go, let's go, hurry uppp!"
After a while, even Kareena seems to have had enough. Without a word, she simply leaves the set. We're not that lucky and have to stay for another hour. When the crew finally declares the shoot over it’s already 7 AM.
As we walk back towards the bus, I see two supermarket employees carry fresh bread and pastry for a new working day. Sunil hands me my fee of 500 Rupees (7 USD). Before falling asleep on the bus, I keep saying like a mantra to myself "You didn't do this for the money, it's all about the experience." And about the story you’ll get to tell, right from the place where India’s dreams are made.
And now... brace yourself. Who can find me?! Tipp: watch out for a grey sweater. "My scene" starts at 13:20 :)
Six years after my "stellar appearance," here's a visit to one of Mumbai's film temples:
Mumbai has been nicknamed “Maximum City”, a metropolis of twenty million that never sleeps. For decades, it has drawn people from all over India into its buzzing vortex. With their dreams of money, fame and big city life, those immigrants have made Mumbai into the most sought-after city in India. Mumbai is also the powerhouse of India’s economy. It is home to one of the largest sea ports in Asia, generates six per cent of the country’s GDP and has one of the highest number of billionaires in the world.
But the city’s most shiny appeal is Bollywood. Bollywood produces more than one thousand motion pictures a year – almost double of what Hollywood puts out. One fine December morning I make my way to Maratha Mandir, a cult cinema three kilometres north of Victoria Terminus.
“Mandir” means temple in Hindi, but the functional concrete structure from the fifties looks nothing like any of the ornamented Hindu shrines. A group of men wearing worn-out pants and battered shirts crouch in front of the theatre. Staring into the air, they wait for the doors to open.
A sign at the ticket counter reads “Matinée show - balcony 25 Rupees”. At a ticket price of 0,40 USD, a visit to Maratha Mandir’s midday show is an affordable pleasure for pretty much anyone in India.
The movie’s name is Dilwale Dhulania Le Jayenge (famously known as "DDLJ"), in English “The Big-Hearted One Will Take Away The Bride”. This 1995 classic has been running at the cinema uninterrupted for more than 22 years - every day of every single week. This Wednesday the movie runs in its 1157th week.
Martha Mandir has an air of bygone glamour. Plaster is crumbling from the pink ceiling. Fans are rotating, producing a constant humming sound in the air. The brown leather seats have holes and squeak plaintively when pushed down, as if demanding their long-overdue retirement.
DDLJ, starring non else but superstar Shahrukh Khan, is Bollywood at its best – a 190-minute love story transporting the audience from London to Switzerland and finally climaxing in a colourful Indian wedding.
During the musical scenes which has the actors jumping around an Alpine landscape, the entire audience starts to clap and sing along in ecstasy. Although they must have been newborns when the film was released, a group of youngsters in the row behind me seems to know all the dialogues by heart. Many in the audience have watched DDLJ more than a dozen times.
“People identify themselves with their heroes”, says Manoj Pandey who manages the cinema. The magical chemistry in DDLJ’s love story, he says, is unsurpassed. “Even my children love the film, although they come from a completely different generation.”
Bollywood and its characteristic cocktail of romance, drama and dance has also become a cultural ambassador changing the face of India abroad.
“People from all over the world come to buy old Bollywood film posters from me”, says Shahid Mansoori. The old man is the owner of “Mini Market”, an antiquarian shop in Mumbai’s two hundred year old Chor Bazaar. “In the fourth generation”, he adds proudly. He also sells retro advertisement placards and black and white photos of old Bollywood legends.
Chor Bazaar means “thieve’s market” in Hindi. Mansoori doesn’t know where the name comes from. “This is one of the safest places in Mumbai. You can drop money on the street and no one will touch it.” Alongside Bollywood paraphernalia, Muslim sellers with long henna-coloured beards sell elegant furniture, Mughal-style miniature paintings and statues from the pantheon of India’s gods and goddesses. Between the shops, well-fed goats eat bundles of grass, mosques call for prayer and shoebox-sized restaurants fry spicy street food in big woks filled to the rim with oil.
However, no visit to Mumbai would be complete without a seaside stroll. I had been told there was a chance of running into movie stars in the upbeat Bandra district, the area where most of Bollywood actors live.
As the sun is about to set across Bandstand promenade, families and couples have climbed onto the rocks descending into the water. A young father dips his daughter’s feet into the gentle waves of the Arabian Sea. No celebrity seems to be around, but the expanse of the sea feels soothing after the dense crowds of downtown Mumbai. Chewing on a roasted corn cob, I gaze towards the red sun.
As I am about to head back, I suddenly notice a crowd of people thronging in front of a large metal gate, just across the seashore. I sense excitement in the air. Behind the gate, I soon find out, lives none other than Shahrukh Khan. Some teenagers take selfies with his villa in the background. But the gates remain closed and Shahrukh’s house dark. I make a promise to myself: If I ever enter a Bollywood set again – which I probably won't – it will be with Sharukh.