Lights, Camera, ACTION! My Bollywood experience

Trip Start Oct 26, 2007
Trip End Oct 26, 2009

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

My two weeks in Thiruvananthapuram happily coincides with their 12th annual international film festival, which lasts a week from 7-14 December.  I arrived in town on the 8th, and was delighted to discover the festival was going on.. featuring hundreds of current films!  And if I got a pass I could go to as many as five a day!  So naturally I hotfooted it over to the pass office.. but calling it an office is misleading, it was more a little cave of a room, littered with  piles and scraps of paper.. I squeezed in and asked about a pass, was looked at and left to stand in the tiny closet that it was, with about four other (much smaller!) Indians who were also hoping to procure a pass.  Some 15 minutes passed before I was asked to leave the "office" as it was lunchtime for the workers.  It was very hard to tell who was working and who was not!  Everyone seemed fed up and did I mention it was HOT!  (I think for all of these entries, just presume it was hot everywhere in India.. it has been, with varying degrees of heat..)  Anyhow, I sat on the steps of the building, where across the lot was an elaborately laid out delegates tent, full of tables and literature for the festival.. Many people were milling around, showing off their official festival shoulder bags, and bright, shiny photo-passes.  A slightly sinister looking man approached me (picture the old "psst, do you wanna buy a watch?" character) and asked if I wanted a pass.  I said yes, that's what I was there for!  He at first did not say anything, just looked rather severe, then said "Wait there."  He then disappeared for about an hour.  In that time I sat on the steps and chatted with a number of people who were in some way involved with the festival. 

I love India.. I love how haphazard and unclear and silly it can be.. I also love how things seem to work out.  I had faith that my time in Trivandrum happening to coincide with their film festival was not for nothing! I was meant to see those films.. Some of my UK based friends will remember my attempt, years ago, to start a "friends' film club" - I had moved out of London, and missed getting together with my London based friends, also missed movies.. I was averaging something like one film a year for a while there!  We met once a month.. after myself, my friend Mary attended all of them!  I loved watching, and talking about the films afterward.  The opportunity to talk about the films is limited here in India, as I am often the only non-Indian in the audiences, and those audiences are predominantly male.  They look at solo women oddly.. not unpleasantly or threateningly, just oddly!  They pity women who are not married by their late 20's, and with children.

Back to the waiting game.. an hour or so later Mr Sinister returned.  (And really, looks can be deceiving, he turned out to be the Vice Chairman of the Culture Committee, and was a great advocate.)  He told me that they had oversold passes, should have only sold 6000, had already sold 7000.  I asked how about making it 7001?!  He didn't appear to have a sense of humour.. or perhaps just didn't get mine.. I know many people in the US and the UK who don't.. he gave the impression it was an impossible task.  Then he asked me did I have a photo?  NO!  My hopes of going to a 3pm movie were rapidly vanishing, as it was now 2:30pm.  I had arrived at the site at 1:00! 

There was a photo place right across the street, I scooted over and was told 10minutes.. 35minutes later I emerged with my 16 wallet sized photos, plus 16 free teeny weeny photos, and one small calendar with my photo on it, all for 100 rupees! (or 20rupees more than 4 wallet sized.)  You may find a tiny photo of me winging its way to you soon.. or I may use them as business cards on my travels.  Here's a photo of me, and here's my email address.. So I returned to base, handed over my photo, Mr Sinister reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a battered and folded application form.. when asked my affiliation with the industry, I said I wasn't.. I was just a film lover.. so my card came back in 5minutes with photo and lamination.. NAME:  Maria Burke;  PROFESSION:  Film Lover;  COUNTRY:  India (!!!)  You have to laugh.

I was in!  Before attending any film event, I was asked to the home of my generous benefactor, whose name was Mr Prassana, to meet his wife, and hear about his two children who currently live in the UK, in Hertforshire!   We arrived at his very nice, and very cool, house, met his charming wife, and immediately set to the photo albums featuring their children and many house guests over the years.  I am happy to say there were no corpses among the photos.. (you will have to read my Kerala entry to find out about that one!)  

All of my Indian visits and adventures have been embarked upon with both a sense of amusement, as well as a modicum of sensibility!  I have learned that you tend to get what you expect here.. and if you expect things'll be difficult, they probably will be!  The heat, and getting from A to B are enough to frustrate anyone.. I'm dealing with the heat by avoiding it mostly.  I spend time in the morning at an internet cafe that's kept fairly cool with ceiling fans, then go to my morning movie, then to a restaurant with A/C for lunch (same lunch every day, rice, vegetable curry, chapati, fresh pineapple juice.. yum!  all for a whopping 55 rupees.. less than a pound, which is less than $2.) 

I am well under control in terms of my expenses, so far.  I suppose New Zealand and Australia will test my budgetary limits!   And the traveling.. I've found it helps to take care of things as much as I can, ahead of time.  Auto rickshaws are everywhere.. when they see a foreigner coming some drivers might double or triple their rates.  I'm relaxed, when I know I'm being conned I say thanks and move on to the next.. but if it's a matter of 20 rupees, I don't worry.  The difference in living standards, cost of living and just the whole day to day picture, is hard to comprehend, or appreciate.  I try to be modest and respectful, and it's served me well.  I've read and heard stories of women traveling alone in India experiencing trouble, receiving unwanted attention, presumptions being made about Western women.  I'm happy to report I have never experienced any problem.  Might be because I'm well and truly over-the-hill and I've always had an independence and capable air about me.. (I like to think..)

We get back to the film festival - in time for the opening Open Forum, featuring Miguel Litten, a Chilean film director, who had to flee Chile during Pinochet's reign.  He lives in Cuba.  He and his Indian interpretor took the stage, along with some Indian festival dignitaries.. and we were off!  The session was from 5-6:00.  I was bemused to see more than half the Indian audience had left by 5:30.. whether they got tired of the translation, or just lost interest I did not know.  But I could not imagine leaving when a great film director is conducting the opening session of an international film festival!  That's India too.  Nothing personal, I'm just bored now..  I was anything but.. I hadn't heard of Litten, but was determined to see his most recent film - which I did yesterday.  It's called Last Moon and it's filmed in Palestine.  His grandparents were Palestinian.  It was a stunning and gorgeous film..  about Jews and Arabs coexisting peacefully.. highly recommend it!! 

During the Open Forum, Mr Passand was on my left.  He was one of the many exiting Indians I mentioned earlier!  Past his empty seat to the left sat a young Indian who spoke to me after the session was over, wondering if I was American.  I said yes.. we then walked out and talked some more.  He asked about my opinion of the Iraq war, and after declaring my pacifist and anti-war sentiments, he asked if I'd be interested in playing the part of an American Journalist in an Indian film that was being filmed/finished the following day.  Are you kidding!  Sign me up!  It was so funny, because as I was waiting, waiting, waiting for my festival pass, I did fantasise a bit about "being discovered" or being involved somehow with some film production.. and right off the bat I was asked to be in a film!  It would never happen anywhere else in the world.. well, in the world that I have known so far!  Perhaps when I get to Latin America...

Anyway, the following day, I was told to meet at 6:30pm at a hotel downtown.  I got there, to a text saying they were running late, and it would be more like 7:30.. I read this to mean more like 8:00.. and I was right!  Chayan, the young man who asked me if I wanted to be in the film, arrived after a full day's shooting, and said that evening's shooting was to be the final of the film.  I was a bit concerned about dialogue, learning lines, etc.  He was unconcerned!  As it turned out there was plenty of time to study lines.. as we got to the shoot at 8:15, and we did not start shooting until 10pm!  By that time I had my lines (the longest continuous dialogue in the whole film!) memorised.. I impressed myself!  It was SO exciting being part of the buzzy set.. the filming took place at someone's very spacious and impressive home.  We were in the downstairs lounge and the film set lights and booms and whatever else was set up outside the lounge.. and the filming took place in the room around the coffee table.  There were loads of crew members behind the scenes.. but most were just looking very tired, and either eating from tables set up out front of the house, or just lounging in the room. 

I was taken to "makeup" and was worried they wouldn't have makeup light enough... I was the only white person on the premises!  The film's star, an Indian woman, was light skinned (curious that most of the Bollywood film stars are light skinned.. and one current one even has bluegreen eyes, which to me is silly.  Indians are so attractive, most have darker skin, and dark brown eyes.  It might be that Indian women suffer pressure like Western women, but instead of pressure to be thin, there's pressure to be light. It's been nice to see there are voluptuous film stars in Bollywood films in general, and definitely in the Indian films I've seen at the festival.

Back to the shoot!  It turns out that Chayan's nonchalance about the script was one of the many things irritating the film's star.  That and a lack of organisation, and timeliness, and order prompted her to lose her cool more than once.  She felt she had a confidante in me I think, and vented some of her frustrations.  She was very kind, and practiced our "scene" together. I gave her my opinion about script changes.. rather than call me "M'am" that she use my name, given the context of the scene.. she did that!  She was scathing about the dialogue in general, and sounded like she did not have much confidence in the film project.  The director was a young, local Keralan man named Dr Bijou. 

What amused me was the fact that everyone had their shoes off.. not unusual at all in India, where people takes their shoes off upon entering a house, temple, etc., but being on a film-set, and looking at the cameras, and lights, and seeing all these bare brown feet made me smile.  There's such a casualness about India.. and it's there on the film set too!  The actress lived for seven years in New York City.. she was very much the modern woman, and reminded me of a number of people I've met along the way in the corporate world.  Her real job is a communications consultatant to corporations.. I laughed and said to her, "No wonder you're frustrated, you know how to communicate effectively, and you're working with creative types!"  She was really wound up..

I think my attitude of no expectations and thoroughly enjoying myself endeared me to the film crew.  Many of them came up to me and told me about family members either living in the USA or UK.  They were lovely, friendly, appreciative of my part.  They also were quite complimentary!  Our rehearsal session went fine, then we got on set and I thought I could zip through it all in one go.. but the director suggesting cutting the filming in three parts. I found it confusing that they had us go out of order in the scenes.  Separates the professional actor from the rest of us I guess!  They can churn up emotions and turn things on and off.. someone like me, who just learned my lines, would have preferred to go from beginning to end.. and there was a point that I flubbed my lines.. but they were cool, and forgiving!  We laughed a lot, and I delivered my lines like a pro pretty much!  Some wondered if I'd acted before! hahaha.. I suppose working in an investment bank constitutes acting.. especially the last couple of years.. haha

The film's name is Raman (Travelogue of Invasions).   It is the story of an Indian woman who is separated from her American Secretary of Defense (haha) husband.  She undertakes a project to expose the human rights atrocities around the world, and risks her life to raise issues and awareness.  I was told by Chayan that my role was an American Journalist, turns out it was not a journalist, but a Human Rights Activist .. which of course is a little different! Either way I was happy to play it, and in real life if I had guts I suppose I would be a human rights activist.. instead I'm a pacifist, and a humanist!  Back to the film.  If it's anything like the other locally made films that I've seen at the festival, the tendency is for the acting to be exaggerated and for the music to swell and dramatically overtake the action.  It will be out this year in India.. somehow I don't think it'll travel to either the UK or USA!  We'll see! 

As we wrapped up at 11:45pm, I declined attending the post-production party, or whatever it's called!  Chayan, my casting agent! lives in Brisbane.  I'll stop by to see him when I am in Australia.  Might negotiate myself a fee for my appearance!

So, the upshot of the film festival was that my favourite film, a Chinese film called Getting Home, was voted best film by the audience, myself included.  I was surprised, and impressed, that it won, as I was somewhat expecting the local Indian audience to vote for their local filmmakers' efforts.  But Getting Home was brilliant, and the reaction of the audience showed how popular it was. If it comes out near you, go see it! It's the story of two 50ish male friends who work together.  One of them dies after a hard night's drinking, and the other vows to bring his friend's body home, thousands of miles away!  The scenery and the story of people who help this guy, or don't, is just super.

Okay - interesting fact time:  The capital of Kerala is Thiruvananthapuram, which has recently reclaimed its original name.  It used to be named Trivandrum to appease the British who were unable to pronounce Thiruvananthapuram! Many of India's cities are going back to their original names - Mumbai, Kolkata, etc., see more info on this website

That's my mini-adventure from this southern state of India.  I have a few more days before I travel to Sri Lanka.  Until then, toodleooh.
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