Cinema verities

They cast me as the white guy with the Indian lover. But my Indian lover found me untouchable.

Published July 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I ain't gonna do it. No sir, not again, mawf kijie -- voh mey nehin hun. I absolutely refuse to be a star of Hindi cinema.

I was barely scraping by in Bombay. During the day I was conducting anthropological fieldwork on an exceedingly modest grant, at night I was wondering why. On one such evening I found myself sitting in a bar drinking a bottle of Kingfisher beer I couldn't afford, when she got up from her table and sat down at mine.

"Excuse me," she said, "have you ever thought of acting in movies?"

She was Gujarati with a strong Cockney accent, acquired during a childhood of emigri life in London. And just to dispel any confusion about whether this piece is a misdirected letter to Penthouse, I'll state at the outset that she did NOT invite me back to her apartment to watch her and her girlfriend model slinky lingerie.

"I'm the casting scout for a film set during the Raj," she said, "and there's a segment for which we still need a male lead. Are you interested?"

I was interested, or at least bored enough with my other options to accompany her back to her hotel to meet the director. There they described the film and plied me with Scotch. Real Scottish Scotch, mind you -- not the Indian-made rotgut masquerading as whiskey that's sold under such labels as "Two Dogs," "Mughal Monarch" and, curiously, "Doctor's Choice." This was the good stuff, and each glass, according to the minibar price list, cost as much as my rent for three days.

"What we are needing," the director said, "is somebody to play a dashing British officer, in love with a beautiful Indian woman." He gave me a once-over. "We're looking for someone sort of, as one might say, in the manner of Indiana Jones."

Well, I hadn't shaved in several days. But what he really meant what that they were looking for somebody, as one might say, in the manner of white.

So, of course, I agreed. The pay -- $50 for one day's shooting -- was several times my daily expenses. And it would keep me, at least for a while, from having to think about anthropology.

There was another reason for my acquiescence, of course. Conducting fieldwork in a community of sober, straight-laced Shiite Muslims, I rarely found myself frolicking with Bollywood beauties. The mullahs would have frowned at my new day job, but I doubted they would ever make it to a theater to find out.

I showed up the next morning at a location an hour from town. We were technically in Andheri, a middle-class suburb of Bombay, but the strip of oceanfront was an authentic fishing village of migrants from south India. It looked like a Keralan seashore at low tide, and smelled that way too. The script was simple: some romantic shots on the beach and a happy couple reveling in young love, with voice-overs and screechy music to be dubbed in afterwards. But when my costar emerged from her chauffeured car and came to meet me, I knew my $50 wasn't coming easy.

Orson Welles famously said that every screen romance continues off the screen. Well, I am living proof that the big man was wrong. My costar (I'll call her "Sonali") gave every appearance of wishing that she were anywhere but here with me. I tried to strike up a conversation before the shooting and was rebuked with icy monosyllables. I tried to gaze passionately into her eyes and found her focusing on a point somewhere beyond my left shoulder. We had a long day ahead of us.

The director had us run along the beach hand-in-hand, tumble together in the surf and lie side-by-side amid the crashing waves. I didn't know a lot about acting, but I knew enough to pretend I was enjoying myself. My costar, however, simply could not find her character's motivation.

"Come on," I whispered in her ear during one pseudo-romantic interlude, "just imagine I'm your boyfriend, or a big movie star or the guy you've secretly been longing for all your life. Just imagine -- that's why we're getting paid."

No dice.

The script called for a long, lingering kiss. After much negotiation by the director, the casting scout, and Sonali's omnipresent great-aunt chaperone, this was bargained down to a chaste peck on the lips. She retired to her car immediately afterwards, looking very sick indeed.

The director was furious. The casting scout was furious. The cinematographer was furious. I felt like someone sort of, as one might say, in the manner of a warthog.

We tried many variations on the same embarrassing theme, until there was no longer enough sun for a daylight shoot.

As the stagehands were packing the gear into the vans, the casting scout pulled me aside.

"Don't feel bad," she said. "Sonali is, well ... this is her first film." She told me my costar's surname, and I recognized it as that of a revered-and-feared Bollywood producer. Learning that she'd gotten the part through nepotism rather than the casting couch explained a lot -- but it didn't make me feel any better. I may not be George Clooney, but the prospect of kissing me had never before (to the best of my knowledge) caused a woman to become physically ill.

The evening shoot was considerably more difficult. The location was the window of a stately Parsi mansion in central Bombay, which meant several hundred curious observers set themselves up on the street outside to gawk. What's more, the action was controlled not only by the director and the cinematographer, but also by the light men. Sonali and I were supposed to be a writhing union of carnality in silhouette, but it's kind of difficult to get a groove on with four guys looming over you whispering, "More to the left, bhai -- light, please, is no good."

And, still, I was costarring with a zombie.

In Bollywood, as in Hollywood, much of the shooting time is hurry-up-and-wait. I paced back and forth as the sound men, light men, gaffers, grips, best boys and Vishnu-knows-who-else got everything set up, only to return each time to a love scene that might easily have been a documentary on necrophilia.

During one of the awkward interludes between awkward takes, my costar's chaperone took me aside for a confidential chat.

"Mister Jonah," she said, "please do not be offended by Miss Sonali's manner. I have not told the others yet, but -- last week Miss Sonali unwisely drank sugarcane juice at Chowpatti beach. She is now, I regret to say, in the grips of jaundice."

My first sentiment was elation: I wasn't such a loathsome slug after all! My second sentiment was less joyful: I'd just spent the past 12 hours canoodling with a woman whose eyeballs and skin had become abnormally yellowish due to increased bile pigments in the blood. And the shoot was far from over.

By the time we finished our work it was 2 a.m. The mob of spectators had dwindled to a hardcore dozen, and the Parsi family who had rented us their home had long since gone to bed. I collected my $50 and returned to the dosshouse room I shared with mosquitoes and mice and one restless fruit bat. I didn't come down with jaundice, but I didn't feel very good for the next week.

I lived in Bombay on and off for another year and a half. Eventually, I was befriended by the models and VJs of the Asian equivalent of MTV. They were amused by the incongruity of a firanghi who could speak Hindi, so they danced with me at discos, had me escort them to fashion shows and sometimes put me on the air to utter such inanities as "Bharat ki awret seb se xubsuret hai" -- "The Indian woman is the most beautiful of all." But I never again appeared in any movie -- Hindi, English, whatever.

Never have, never will. Sorry, bhai, it's not for me.

At least, not for a damn sight more than $50. And, of course, the part would have to be right. If you want to talk, have your people contact my people. I'll be in my trailer, sipping mineral water and waiting for a role that lets me express myself. And, of course, the right costar.

By Jonah Blank

Jonah Blank, an anthropologist and senior editor at US News & World Report, is author of the book "Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Retracing the Ramayana Through India." His writing has appeared in publications ranging from the New Yorker to the Journal of Vaisnava Studies.

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