Backpack to stardom in Bollywood

The sights and smells of India give even hardened backpackers sensory overload. But for something a little different why not try to tread the path to stardom by landing yourself a part in an all-singing, all-dancing Bollywood film.

The sights and smells of India give even hardened backpackers sensory overload. But for something a little different why not try to tread the path to stardom by landing yourself a part in an all-singing, all-dancing Bollywood film.

Bollywood movies conjure up images of exotically dressed Hindi dancers who mime to songs that lament their desire for love and fortune and such images are never too far from the truth. Bollywood, which is a hybrid name coming from Bombay, the former name of the coastal Indian city of Mumbai, is big business. Over 1,200 movies are shot here annually and it has many of the trappings of its Los Angeles cousin, including actresses that wait your table and directors who chat up their waitresses. Last year Bollywood box offices sold over 3.2 billion cinema tickets which marks it on the map as the largest film industry in the world. In comparison Hollywood managed 2.5 billion viewers of its weekend releases.

Back in the founding days of Bollywood most motion pictures were strictly low budget affairs which contained heavy doses of action and gangsters interspersed with some song and dance. The song and dance has remained and nowadays lavish musicals with a romantic storyline are the order of the day. Some films mix this with an action hero who may also cite a few cringing comedy lines on his way to saving the day and bagging the heroine, a bit like an Indian Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Increasingly over the last decade Bollywood has gone global. With an Asian diaspora all over the world and a huge following in neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh the demand for Bollywood films has exploded. Actresses such as Aishwarya Rai and Preity Zinta are now household names for well over a billion people, whilst another, Shilpa Shetty, is probably best known on these shores for being the target of racial abuse from Jade Goody during Celebrity Big Brother.

Since the global rise of Bollywood there has been more pressure on directors to produce increasingly professional films and this, coupled with unprecedented budgets has led to the film industry going on location to places such as the UK, Canada and Australia. The outdoor scenes are typically filmed in instantly recognizable locations such as the Sydney Opera House or Westminster Abbey but the indoor scenes are all shot in studios in Mumbai. As a lot of the scripts have some scenes set overseas, the industry has a burgeoning demand for foreign extras, the majority of whom come from India’s backpacker circuit in search of a day of glitz and glamour.

One such traveler, Julie from Shropshire, explains “Within an hour of arriving at the Mumbai train station I was approached on the street by a casting agent who told me there was a shoot the next day and he was on the lookout for twenty girls with blonde hair to dance in a nightclub scene. I jumped at the chance, mainly because it was something different to the bog-standard trip around the local museums”. During the low tourist season casting agents have even been known to travel over ten hours away to the beach resort of Goa in an effort to recruit some westerners to fill in the gaps in large productions.

However it is not necessarily all glitz and glamour, working days are typically eight to ten hours and there can be a lot of sitting around whilst the director decides on the sequence of scenes and how many people are needed in them, as well as the filming of other scenes. “On the set I played twenty questions with some Dutch guys and a Norwegian girl. After four hours we finally got called for our dance scene. The funny thing was there was no music; it was due to be dubbed in later. We were all up on stage busting a few moves with not a tune to be heard, it was very surreal and reminded me of a silent disco I was once at in uni. At the end of the scene the director shouted cut and after a bite to eat we were being ferried back to Mumbai city centre in minivans with a promise of an email to let us know when the film would be released”.

To help extras through a long day there are runners on set who bring copious amounts of tea and coffee and a full working day will involve at least one, but generally two meals during which all present can enjoy curries, dhal, naan bread and rice from the buffet. Actors are paid at the end of each days work. The wages won’t make you rich but they are quite good by Indian standards, typically ranging from 400 to 1000 rupees per day, approximately €6 to €15, depending on the production. Movies themselves are made at a startling rate, typically they will be in the cinemas two months after filming which means some lucky travelers can go along to enjoy their fifteen seconds of fame on the big screen. For those who appear in smaller budget films, it’s straight to the video shop.

Acting in a Bollywood film won’t be your big break, but for those with time on their hands it can give a unique insight into how a motion picture is made and will also serve as a great way of meeting other travelers. Hanging around a film set for hours on end can often get tedious so make sure to bring a good sense of humour and your travel scrabble. In any case, posing as an extra in an exotic scene, surrounded by a backdrop of false ocean and beach is a story for the grandkids.