I told my mother that I was going to be living alone in a two story house by myself in Bombay and she had a melt down. I told her the truth because deep down even I didn’t feel that comfortable. In the day, I would be visiting film studios and sets and be busy in the program agenda. But in the night, what was I going to do all alone? I felt quite afraid.
No matter how I dressed or what I did, when I walked on the streets, it was obvious I was not born and raised in India. It was obvious I came from abroad and people can stare a lot when they figure that out about you.
Moving In with My Uncle and Aunt…
My mother called up my uncle and aunt who live in Bombay and had me shift to their place. I was meeting them for the first time, we hadn’t really had much of a relationship previously. As soon as my uncle came to pick me up and my luggage and drove me to his place, I felt this great relief as soon as I entered the door. I didn’t know my aunt and uncle yet, but it felt incredibly comforting to stay with family. My niece also greeted me excitedly who was seven to eight years old at the time. She was bubbly and vivacious and immediately started chattering away with me.
Over the weeks, I became known as the “American aunt” and I developed a close relationship with her. She would watch me put on my makeup and dress up and I would let her try my makeup. It was cute and endearing!
But Bombay is a huge city like New York City and the traffic is just crazy here, causing people to be in their cars or taxis for hours and hours even for a short distance. So though it was nice to be staying with my uncle and aunt, their home was not conveniently located in relation to the film studios and sets. To top it all, I wanted to ensure everything was smooth and easy for my uncle who was a Manager at Citibank and obviously had to tend to his work. He was already being generous letting me stay at his place and my aunt cooking me home made meals and tending to my every need.
So I told him to drop me off in the mornings at the guest house I was to stay originally. The same man who had picked me up from the airport with whom I had not spoken a word to earlier in the taxi was to be my guide/chaperone during the whole trip. His name was Mukesh and he was the one who was going to travel with me to all the film sets, studios, shootings, meetings, whatever was on the agenda. He was a big, tall man and I don’t think we shared a single common thing.
Except that what started as awkward silences started to be filled with our jokes and chatter. We got to know each other eventually and he was quite funny and interesting. He asked me questions about America and he had a huge interest and curiosity in learning English and he would practice his English with me.
I also asked him questions about Bombay and what it was like living here. We shared our lives to each other and he accompanied me everywhere. Since we Indians don’t do anything on time ;), shoots, schedules, and meetings occurred at a later time than scheduled, I would take the opportunity to use the time to stroll in the malls and sight see in Bombay. I would merrily shop and eat ice cream all day long. Every day, I tried a different flavor and since it was burning hot, I didn’t gain any pounds! I would also make it a point to eat from a fast food restaurant – Subway, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) often because I realized how American I truly am 🙂
Conversations with “Filmi” Folks
Now I’ll get to the juicy stuff. In the first week, I went to a lot of meetings with film producers, directors, editors, and cameramen. Sometimes, I met them at their office at the production house or I went to their home. I have to admit I was usually a jumble of nerves. It just felt so strange and disconnected from my day to day life in the States. Sometimes, we are scared of the very thing we desire for in this Universe. I had always wanted to know what it was like to be in their world and now that I was getting the opportunity, I was becoming nervous.
I can’t remember all the names on top of my head anymore, but most of them seemed to talk fast and hurriedly. When they were speaking with me, I could tell their minds and brains were ticking away creatively and mechanically at a script or story idea. They almost seemed like they were living in another world while talking to me. Every single person I met though exhibited a strong passion for film making. It was like their lives centered only around it.
This list is not comprehensive and I had so many experiences that I can’t remember or fit everything in this post, here are some people I met:
Suparn Verma (director), Sachin Khot (director), Hansal Mehta (director), Ajay Devgan (actor), Kajol (actress), Soha Ali Khan (actress), Emraan Hashmi (actor), Fardeen Khan (actor), Amrita Rao (actress), Abbas-Mustan (director & producer brother duo and yes, they really do wear white all the time!), Remo D’Souza (director and choreographer), Black Friday film producer (can’t remember his name), Saurabh Shukla (actor), Rinku Dhamecha (producer), and many, many more. (This list does not include cameramen, spot boys, action directors, casting directors, makeup artists, etc.)
I visited YRF (Yash Raj Films) Studios, Film City, along with a whole bunch of post-production and editing studios. As you can tell, I had a gamut of experiences, so I’ll dive into detail for one of my favorite experiences.
Tum Mile Movie Set Starring Actors Emraan Hashmi & Soha Ali Khan
Often, the schedules and shootings I attended happened randomly. It all depended on availability and since the schedules ran on erratic times, I usually found out at the last minute which set I was visiting. One of the most exciting experiences I had was when I visited the set for the film Tum Mile. The sets were situated in South Bombay and Mukesh and me rode a taxi for a good one hour to get there from the guesthouse.
Furthermore, I was in the taxi around midnight to visit the film shooting. I was sleepy and was almost thinking of not going because I wanted my sleep. I had already attended sets for television shootings and visited editing studios that I thought it was going to be the same thing again.
I’m so glad I went because till this day, South Bombay is my favorite part of Bombay. As I sat in the taxi and rode, I was wide awake immediately. South Bombay was incredibly different from the rest of Bombay. There is a lot of history in this part of town and in fact, if I have this correctly, this was the original Bombay until the town’s population grew so much that they had to expand the city to other areas.
The buildings and architecture had an old, timeless appeal. I honestly felt like I was living in the 1950s as I rode through the streets. I felt I was in the golden age of Indian cinema and I imagined the history, politics, and film making happening here.
And the streets were incredibly clean. Only back and yellow taxis, private taxis, and cars could run in this part of town, no rickshaws or autos. I myself was sitting in a black and yellow taxi with Mukesh to get the set. You could immediately sense the wealth and sophistication that was different from the rest of Bombay. There were no beggars on the streets. The Reserve Bank of India and the Bombay Stock Exchange are located here along with several Indian and multi-national companies are headquartered as well. I also saw Nariman Point and rode past upmarket residential neighborhoods. It was just very, very interesting and exciting! It was like I was transported in another world.
When I entered the set, I spotted crowds of dancers, technicians, and film crew. That wasn’t any different than what I had already encountered at the other sets. Until I saw two people that looked familiar and I realized they were film stars actor Emraan Hashmi and actress Soha Ali Khan. My heart beat so fast, I couldn’t believe it! I read about them in the newspapers and magazines and now they were right there in front of me. Emraan Hashmi is smaller in person than on screen, however he had that boyish grin and twinkling, mischievous eyes quite similar to the onscreen casanova screen image he portrayed on screen.
Soha Ali Khan was pretty with flawless very fair skin and she looked slim on screen, but here she was a lot thinner and fragile. I felt she would break into pieces, that’s how fragile she looked. I could see the resemblance of her mother, the legendary Indian actress Sharmila Tagore of the 1960s and 1970s, but I have to say as pretty as Soha was, she wasn’t even half as pretty as her mother. And of course, her brother is the major movie star and actor, Saif Ali Khan and her father was the former cricket captain of the Indian cricket team and Nawab of Pataudi (Nawab means some honorific title given to Mughal emperors of princely states in India)
My Fear of Being Seen
You may know of Remo D’Souza today as he is a successful director today (ABCD – Anybody Can Dance, ABCD 2, Flying Jatt), but at that time he was just a choreographer. There were many foreign dancers of European and Russian origin at the sets. Remo is a close friend of Hansal’s so that is how I was granted access to this set and so when Mukesh introduced me to Remo, he greeted me. By this time, I had met so many people, but they are busy in their work that they don’t have time to tend to a 22 year old nervous girl obviously. And those who did tend to me didn’t do so with noble intentions. But I have to say Remo’s behavior towards me completely surprised me. I remember standing in the set watching him lead the dancers over and over again.
He was busy, but he brought a chair and set the chair LITERALLY RIGHT NEXT to Emraan Hashmi and Soha Ali Khan. They were sitting in their own white plastic chairs chatting with each other as the dancers completed their shot.
My heart beat and I couldn’t believe it, but I was also awkward and nervous. I had no idea how to talk or behave with two actors. I didn’t even know how to start the conversation. So I just sat there right next to them for a good two hours pretending to be on my phone or look at the dancers. The funny thing was that they were both intrigued at me. I could tell they were wondering who the fuck I was!
Back to Remo real quick, he came to me often and asked me how I was doing and if I felt comfortable. I would nod and pretend I was okay, but he did it with so much humility and warmth and with no intention except to make sure I was comfortable. That truly touched my heart. It was sweet and in my eyes till today, he is a true gentleman. I am so thankful for that gesture because it made me feel like I wasn’t a total stranger on these sets.
Now back to Soha and Emraan. Usually, people on a set just sit next to actors unless they are somebody important like the producer or director. After some time, I very awkwardly after about 30 minutes asked for their autographs and then sat back down on my chair. Throughout their conversation, their eyes kept darting to me, wondering who I was. They never asked me who I was, probably thinking I was some rich influential guy’s daughter or the producer or director’s daughter or relative.
Emraan Hashmi was very sleepy and on the quiet side and had twinkling eyes. I could feel his stare on my skin even though I wasn’t looking at him directly. He was an attractive guy even in real life. Soha Ali Khan was very chatty and the entire time she was rambling on about so many topics to him as he listened quietly. At one point, she received a phone call from her mother and my ears perked up. She was telling her mother that she had ate her food and she was fine. I couldn’t help but laugh and I tell this story often to my mother and my mother will tell me: “See, Soha is an actress and princess, and yet she patiently listened to her mother, so you shouldn’t get annoyed when I call you! All mothers are mothers, whether film star or not!”
Juicy Conversations, Oscar Season, & the Slumdog Millionaire Frenzy
The most juicy part of the conversation was when it switched to the Oscars and Slumdog Millionaire. To give you some quick history, during the course of my meetings with various film folks, the one thing I noticed consistently was they all weren’t that thrilled about Slumdog Millionaire being a frenzy in the West. I was a little shocked by this because I was personally happy about it. Their viewpoint was that the movie highlighted India’s poverty and rather harsh reality of slum kids and showed India in a negative light. The one thing everyone was happy about was AR Rahman winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song for Jai Ho.
The conversation I heard between these two lead actors was even more interesting. They echoed similar sentiments about the movie, but they also spoke at length about Dev Patel and especially Freida Pinto receiving so much international and Hollywood attention. They were shocked and taken aback that they were gracing many talk shows like The Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.
I think part of this stems from the fact that much of the Indian film industry or fondly referred as “Bollywood” contains people joining the industry who have family or some kind of connection or relation. It is a difficult industry to break into without a solid connection or family background. I’m sure this is the case for other industries in the world, however this seems to especially be the case here in India.
I read other interviews of Freida Pinto where she mentioned auditioning for many movies and television shows, but not receiving them. She clearly has no family background or connection in the Indian film industry, is not wealthy, looks quite different from the archetype Indian actress/heroine AND yet despite all this made it huge becoming famous worldwide out of no where.
I heard other tidbits of their conversation about other actors and actresses, but probably better not to mention them all here 😉 It did strike me how that was exactly how I felt in Bombay and sometimes in America, too. I was an outsider in Bombay and in this entertainment industry. In America, I didn’t feel I belonged in Silicon Valley working in offices nor did I want to pursue the conventional path of being an engineer or doctor (with all due respect to these noble professions). I was also not completely American here in America.
But being an outsider gives you advantages, too. You start to see the world and yourself in a different light. You have the opportunity to figure out your strengths and likes and revel in your uniqueness. I learned how to feel a sense of self-worth and felt beautiful for the first time in my life. I learned to not be afraid to be seen. I’ll talk about that more in detail in my next post.
Have you had a fear of being seen or being an outsider? How did you transform and feel in the process? I’d love to hear about your experience. Please share with me in the comments.
Image source: mid-day