Monday, March 12, 2007

Bollywood Dreams

Intrepid traveller and the Online Travel Editor of the Daily Express, London - Francisca Kellett was in Bombay to live a Bollywood dream. She describes her trip here.


The dress is red, tight and very short. It has a plunging neckline and is held up by a cheap brass chain. It is hideous.

"Take, take," says the costume director, flapping it impatiently. I stare at him. He stares back. It dawns on me that he actually wants me to wear this. I'm about to achieve the ultimate dream of millions of women across Asia and dance in a Bollywood movie. And this man wants me to do it dressed as a prostitute.

We are standing in the dusty car park of a hotel in Bombay. Around us, set assistants rush to fetch and carry water and snacks to the film shoot, which is taking place indoors. I am on day two of a Bollywood-themed tour of Bombay. I had expected to see film sets and extras; I had not expected to be arguing about my own costume.

Bollywood has held me in its henna-painted grip for almost a decade. In the late 1990s I spent nine months backpacking around South Asia. Travelling in India on the cheap brings plenty of opportunities to watch Bollywood films - they are played, day and night (and at full volume) on bus journeys, in budget restaurants and in hotel receptions across the country.

I grew to love the turbulent, dramatic plots and grandiose love scenes; the way an entire cast would launch into a choreographed dance at the most inappropriate moments - in the middle of a battle scene, perhaps, or at a funeral.

The Bollywood I remember is one of demure heroines and rebuffed advances from smouldering suitors. The men were muscle-bound and heroic; the women were beautiful and coy. They would weep poetically on mountain tops. They would not wear red mini dresses held up by chains.

Bollywood, it seems, has changed.

"Bollywood has changed," agrees the director Pavan Kaul when I meet him on day one of my tour. We are on the set of his latest film, Bhram. Pavan is small and stocky, with a close-cropped beard and baseball cap - a compact, Asian version of Steven Spielberg. "The audience is more sophisticated," he tells me between takes.

He has a fierce reputation, but today is softly spoken and jovial. We are sitting in the smoky darkness of a nightclub, watching a dozen beautiful extras dressed in cocktail dresses strut around in front of a bar.

"People want a slice of life," Pavan continues. "They don't just want the 'filmy' stuff." The "filmy stuff" is what Bollywood was built on - flamboyant dance routines and extravagant storylines. And the industry has done very well from it.

Today, Bollywood is the world's most prolific film industry, churning out more than a thousand films a year, watched by an audience of 15 million every day.

Bhram is different. There are no glittering saris on set, no henna-painted hands or demure heroines. Bhram - which means illusion - is a story about a model who has turned to drugs and "bad behaviour" (which may even include pre-marital sex) following the violent death of her sister. She falls in love, changes her ways, but then discovers that her sister's ex-boyfriend - who drove her to her death - is her new love's brother.

"It is a dark story," explains Pavan. "Dramatic, but not too risky." He shouts instructions into a microphone, and then gets up to talk an actress through the take. With him gone, I can look around properly. I have been here just half an hour and am excited. No matter the lack of saris and large-scale dance routines. When I signed up for Western & Oriental's tailor-made tour, I thought I would be shown around some studios and glimpse a few actors if I was lucky. I did not expect to be sitting on a shoot, chatting to the director.

There are more than a hundred people on set. At least half of them stand around doing absolutely nothing. The rest - lighting assistants, sound people, extras, make-up artists - rush around, tripping over wires and shouting. There is a sense of barely contained chaos.

"So, welcome to Bollywood!" Vikrant lowers himself into a chair next to me. Vikrant is a producer and agent, and has been assigned by the travel company to be my guide for the next two days. He has a wide, friendly face and a wavy mass of grey hair. "We live off confusion. We love it!" He looks around. "But there is method in the madness. Now, do you want to do some acting?" Half an hour later, Vikrant has pulled a few strings and I'm standing at the bar with the female lead, the petite and impossibly beautiful Sheetal Menon. We are shooting the nightclub scene where she first meets the hero; I'm her random white friend at the bar, a silent role for which my clothes - jeans and an embroidered top - have been deemed acceptable.

Sheetal is a modern heroine, in tight satin dress and stilettos. I keep touching my hair - next to her, I have discovered a new vanity, and her status as leading lady makes her inevitably intimidating.

I had been warned about Bollywood egos - in India, actors are the ultimate superstars. They are adored and adulated in a way that puts our own celebrity culture to shame. The sway of the Bollywood celebrity is such that audiences have been known to tear the seats out of cinemas and set fire to screens if they think their favourite actor is being mistreated by a plot. When the actor Rajkumar died last year, there were riots on the streets of Bangalore.

Sheetal, however, is disarmingly sweet. She tells me how excited she is to be in Bhram, her first film. She has worked for several years as a model, and lives in the suburbs with her parents. Her stilettos, she confides, are killing her.

One man comes up with a clapper board and another screams for silence. Vikrant has also been pulled into shot - he has been told he has an "interesting look", which pleases him. "Music!" shouts the director, and pounding club music blares from the speakers. "Action!" A camera looms over the bar; we smile and pretend to be deep in conversation. "Cut!" And that's it. Acting, I decide, is easy.

Dino Morea arrives on set. Dino, the male lead, is an established star, although his last few films have flopped. The director calls me over to meet him. Expecting the sort of thunderous ego that usually accompanies his kind of good looks and fame, I'm nervous. He smiles, showing his neat white teeth, and asks how the filming is going. I'm thrilled. Impeccably polite, he offers a chair and we chat about Europe: he is half Italian.

I watch as he acts in take after take. Every entrance is shot from three different angles, but he is fast and doesn't seem to get bored. Between takes, he poses for photos with the extras - they are all fans.

The extras, about 30 of them, are slim and well-groomed, in heavy make-up and tight, sparkly - Western - outfits. During a break, I meet Nina, tiny and athletic, in a gold halterneck mini-dress. Her accent throws me. "I'm from L A," she explains. She was a stunt woman in Hollywood but came to India for a shoot and decided to stay.

"Bollywood is very different - it's less formal, so you can speak to the director if you need to," she tells me. "It's funny, because here they always tell you to 'act up, act up'. In Hollywood it was always 'tone it down, tone it down'. This way is much more fun." Another extra, 23-year-old Shereen, tells me with a flick of her long hair that they are actually called "junior artistes", or juniors. Not extras. She has been in the business for two years and enjoys it, although she says that "they don't treat us so well". The actors ignore the juniors; the choreographers expect long hours and no complaints. There is a union, though, and the pay isn't bad - 1,000 rupees a day. "That's good money in India," Vikrant assures me. It is about £12.

The director invites Vikrant and me to join him for lunch - a feast of curries, which change colour under the flashing red, green and blue disco lights. I ask about the plot, remarking that such a dark storyline doesn't leave much scope for the music and dancing we expect from Bollywood. He looks surprised. "Tomorrow, tomorrow. We shoot the dance scene tomorrow." I'm relieved. Bollywood may be changing, but edgy storylines are no reason to forgo a cheery dance routine.

Like Bollywood, Bombay has changed since I was last here. The chaotic, rundown city I remember is today peppered with wealthy, well-heeled pockets. A campaign known as Vision Mumbai aims to transform Bombay into a "world-class" city by 2013, an ambitious plan, which hopes to attract an investment of US$40 billion, to be channelled into low-income housing, transport, education and infrastructure. Events such as the Kitab literary festival, now in its second year, draw high-profile writers, actors and celebrities from around the world. Less high-brow, but still significant, is the ambassadorial work of Shilpa Shetty, the Big Brother winner - for both Bollywood and Bombay.

Bombay's new confidence - and new money - is at its most obvious in the suburb of Bandra, home to Bollywood's biggest stars, including Amitabh Bachan and Shahrukh Khan. Here, the tree-lined streets are filled with caf├ęs and stylish restaurants where young, fashionable groups chat over Caesar salads. In a country where the average annual income is £260, Bandra's MAC make-up store sells lipsticks to Bombay socialites at £12 a pop.

Next day, en route to the shoot, we pass a reminder of Bombay's other side - a swelling slum under a motorway flyover. The city has seven million slum dwellers, many of whom live without running water or sewage systems. The same city will be home to the new Indian version of Vogue magazine, due to launch later in the year.

We leave behind the decaying cardboard shelters and drive on to leafy Powai, another upmarket suburb. The new location for filming - a large, glitzy nightclub housed in a luxury hotel - is already thronged with extras and crew when we arrive. Pavan, the director, surrounded by even more people than yesterday, breaks free to greet me and lead me over to a circle of chairs filled with absurdly good-looking people. Half-Italian Dino is there, strumming a guitar. Sheetal, in another tight dress and five-inch heels, is chatting to the most beautiful man I have ever seen.

This is Milind Soman - India's first male supermodel and now also an actor - who has the role of the evil brother in Bhram. Here is a man who deserves a proper Bollywood-sized ego, but he grins at me and invites me to sit down. I grin back, idiotically pleased. I've gone native.

Milind has been in the business for seven years and takes his acting, and himself, very seriously. He talks energetically, veering between praising and criticising Bollywood. "A Bollywood film should contain every emotion you can feel - anger, laughter, tears," he says, and then, cryptically, "There are many slices that make up the orange." I giggle, which I realise is unfitting, but then I'm giggling a bit too much anyway. And flicking my hair.

"Francisca!" The director is calling me through his microphone and I trot over obediently. Vikrant whispers that Pavan has taken a shine to me. "You want to dance?" asks Pavan, eyes twinkling. "Then we must get you into a costume." Ultimately, I am spared the red mini-dress thanks to one of the assistant directors, who locates a pretty green silk cocktail number instead. Back on set, I find myself being eyed warily by the "juniors". Wandering around the wings, I nervously watch as they film the first dance scenes. The routines are simple - the actors are meant to be at a party enjoying themselves. Between takes, assistants rush up to the leads with mirrors. Sheetal re-touches her lipgloss; Milind brushes his hair.

After a few hours of pacing around the set, I begin to get bored and forget about being nervous. There is too much time to hang around as the equipment is moved for each take. The actors look bored, too. They splay across the chairs, or fiddle with their mobiles. Does Sheetal have any advice for a first-timer? "Lose all your inhibitions," she says with a yawn.

Late in the afternoon, the choreographer rushes over and shows me my moves - arms out, arms in, over the head and punch the air. Easy. A few run-throughs of the steps and I'm nervous again.

A long wait later, and the beautiful Milind is holding my hand on the edge of the dance floor. He is to be my dance partner, which makes me even more anxious. Around us, couples in shiny suits and sparkling dresses gyrate to pounding Hindi-pop. My hands are clammy. "Don't be nervous," he murmurs, and on cue he pulls me in front of the camera. We launch into the synchronised dance, wiggling our hips and punching the air as the song ends. It is utterly absurd. And utterly exhilarating. Afterwards, we watch the take on the director's monitor. I look ridiculous -awkward and undeserving of my gorgeous partner. The director looks over at me. "You're a natural," he says, and Milind smiles at me. I almost faint with pleasure.

They are humouring me, I'm sure. My scenes may well get cut - but I have still achieved the aim of millions: I have danced in a Bollywood movie. And I didn't even have to dress like a prostitute.