I had exactly one hour to kill before having to hail a taxi to the airport in order to pick up my close friend who was flying in from Thailand. And while one hour normally seems like a short period of time, on this occasion it was torturous, given that my arms, legs and chest required constant scratching due to the several dozen bedbugs I had shared my bed with during the night.
Why I had chosen the most ultra-budget, grimiest of hotels in Mumbai was beyond me, but there was nothing I could do at this point but to accept the consequences.
And eventually the hour did pass and I stood up to finally leave. But just before I reached the door, I noticed a paper calendar taped to the wall. It was a most ordinary calender, yet something struck me as odd. The date read “February 29th” yet my friend was arriving on March 1st. I suddenly realized that I had forgotten it was a leap year.
Therefore, I had one more day on my own in Mumbai.
I sat back down again in the cafe with my face in my hands, trying to decide how to spend that day, when the man from the reception ‘desk’ (which was actually just a three-legged wooden chair) approached me. He asked if something was wrong and I proceeded to explain my story.
He listened intently and when I finished, I just expected him to shrug his shoulders, let out a chuckle and wag his head back and forth.
What I absolutely didn’t expect him to do was to offer me an acting role in a BOLLYWOOD TELEVISION SERIES! (For those who are not as addicted to India as I am, Bollywood is the Indian equivalent of Hollywood.)
At first I thought it was a joke, but without even waiting for my answer, the man returned to the reception chair, made a quick phone call and then informed me that someone would be picking me up from the hotel in thirty minutes.
When I tried to press him for further details, all he said was, “You go and be actor somewhere, I think they will pay you.”
JUST ANOTHER DAY ON THE SET
The journey out to Juhu Beach (an upscale, coastal neighborhood of Mumbai) required two taxis, a commuter train and a rickshaw, but the young man who had collected me from the hotel seemed to know exactly where we were headed.
We eventually arrived at the set of the Indian soap opera Sansaar, which was actually a beachfront mansion in which half of the inside had been temporarily transformed into a London apartment building. As soon as we entered the door we encountered dozens of people – actors, producers, directors, set techs, errand-boys, etc. – as well as an endless sea of cameras, computers, props and sets. And while this is exactly what one might expect to find in such a place, it all seemed more overwhelming than the wildly chaotic streets outside.
I was quickly introduced to the casting director, a young friendly guy who led me into a small living room for a quick chat. After explaining to him that I had absolutely no acting skills whatsoever and was completely uncomfortable in front of a video camera, he promptly offered me a speaking role as a British police officer, a role that required me to act in five different scenes and memorize a page of lines.
Another man then entered the room, had one look at me and whispered something to the casting director. Within minutes, I was back outside the mansion, being driven to a barber shop where I was given a shave and hair cut courtesy of the director, who had felt that my normal scruffy look didn’t exactly fit the role.
After a lavish buffet lunch on one of the mansion’s terraces overlooking the ocean, where I spent an hour chatting with several of the actors and actresses and trying to memorize my lines, I was handed a British police officer’s uniform and directed to my ‘changing room’, which was actually a closet that didn’t even have a door.
Then, fighting off my nerves, I walked onto the set and silently prayed to the statue of Ganesh in the corner. As if he magically answered my prayers, I found myself, over the following hour and a half, rising from an absolute nobody to an award-worthy actor. Sure, each scene took at least ten takes due to my mumbling and bumbling, but I think it was quite clear to everyone that it was the passion I showed for my role, not a lack of ability, that was the real culprit.
And while the look on my fellow actors’ faces, who were playing a family whose daughter was just in a car accident, often appeared to be that of frustration as I repeatedly blurted out, take after take, “I found and sweater, wallet this and car daughter book”, there were only looks of pure joy (and perhaps relief) when I finally nailed it and informed them that, “I found this sweater, this wallet and this book in your daughter’s car.”
I’m not exactly sure if joy was what they were supposed to display at that exact moment…but who am I to say what’s right? I’m only an actor, not a director.
When the actual director did finally yell out ‘CUT!’ for the last time, my day of acting did abruptly come to an end. Of course, I went around the room and accepted the handshakes of the other actors and crew, all of whom I assume felt so proud to have worked with me.
The young man who had picked me up from my hotel earlier that morning appeared again in order to take me back. But before we left, just as the man at the reception desk had predicted, the casting director handed me 1000 Rupees ($22 USD) and thanked me for my services.
Barely able to control my excitement, I left that mansion seriously pondering a new career.
ARE YOU READY TO START YOUR ACTING CAREER?
If you’re ever in Mumbai, all you need to do is wander around the leafy streets of the Colaba district. Unofficial ‘scouts’ scan the area for foreigners all the time, as they earn commissions for filling roles in films, television series, television commercials and even music videos. If for some reason nobody approaches you, ask anyone working at the hotel you’re staying at.
I’ve met a handful of foreigners who’ve spent months in Mumbai, earning a living from this kind of acting. As casting directors began to recognize and personally request them, they started being given better roles and a lot more money. And the greatest part is that in Bollywood, the least important requisite of being a foreign actor is having past acting experience.
Where else is it this easy to get your face on the big screen?
Has anyone else acted in Bollywood or have a different acting experience to share?