First Person

March 14, 2014 6:34 pm

First Person: James Crabtree

‘I was an extra in a Bollywood movie’, says the head of the FT’s Mumbai bureau
James Crabtree©Asmita Parelkar

James Crabtree on set as British Diplomat #2 (having learnt both his lines)

The casting call came one Wednesday morning in early February, from a writer friend in Mumbai: “Would you like a part in a Bollywood movie?” “Of course,” I said, “but you know I’ve never acted?” “Not a problem: they just need a tall English guy, for an office scene. Are you free on Friday?”

My protestations were not entirely accurate: there had been that primary school play, for instance. But this stage was rather bigger: a speaking role in a movie starring Salman Khan – India’s biggest action star. Khan is a hulking beefcake of a man, albeit one who remains surprisingly nimble; a talent shown off in the song-and-dance spectaculars that reliably round out each of his films.

I arrived two days later at the studio in Bandra, a seaside neighbourhood in northern Mumbai where Khan himself lives. A cheerful female assistant ushered me into a spartan green room, and handed over a single-page script. The movie’s title: Kick. The scene: India’s embassy in London; the ambassador’s office. I was to play British Diplomat #2, and had precisely two lines. There was to be neither singing nor dancing, and Khan himself was not involved; an immediate double disappointment.

Bollywood is rarely noted for its strict commitment to cinematic realism. Even so, I was mildly surprised to be introduced to British Diplomat #1: an elderly Swiss man called Bernard, whose thickly accented German twang made for an improbable Whitehall mandarin.

Bernard and I were far from the first foreigners to be roped into Bollywood’s elaborate productions. Indeed, both of us could now claim common ground with the late philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell, who made his own debut aged 95, in Aman, a 1960s anti-war Hindi epic.

Our set was more contemporary, as we discovered when walking through various chaotic rooms designed to look vaguely like an ambassador’s residence. I was struck by its flimsiness: thin wooden walls were held up by spindly ropes, while bored-looking technical assistants stared down from the rafters.

We were introduced to the ambassador, a short, substantial man with a shaven head. His main role was actually as father to Khan’s love interest, although his costume – an elegant black Nehru jacket and rakish silk scarf – was more Bond villain than doting dad.

As we waited, I noticed a well-known business magazine lying on the ambassador’s desk, intended to indicate his character’s seriousness. A copy of the Financial Times lay next to it, tantalisingly out of shot. Always mindful of the need to promote my employer, I covertly swapped them over.

The director arrived and outlined our scene, in which the ambassador’s discussions with his two supposedly British visitors are cut short by an embarrassing maternal interruption. My disappointment at not being paired with Khan himself dissipated as I realised that I was to make my cinematic debut in that great Indian comic staple: the mother-and-son bollocking scene.

From here things moved slowly. We rehearsed the minute-long interaction for an hour, and then filmed for the rest of the day. The initial rush of excitement as the producer yelled “Roll sound! Roll camera! Action!” wore off by the 20th take.

I managed not to fluff my own two lines too often, but the scene’s star was unquestionably the elderly, sari-clad mother. She hobbled slowly on to set, using a stick for support, before transforming as the cameras rolled, berating her son with great vigour for failing to arrange his daughter’s wedding.

Our own work done, Bernard and I smiled out of shot, watching the bollocking unfold for the umpteenth time and feeling increasingly sorry for the ambassador. Bertrand Russell, I reflected, didn’t have to put up with anything quite like this.

James Crabtree is the FT’s Mumbai correspondent.

‘Kick’ is released worldwide in July.

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