Bollywood Undercovered

January 21, 2010 in Bollywood by

Hello returning readers, and welcome newcomers. I’m an Australian Bollywood actor, and I’ve been away from the blogging for a while now, but have come back into the fray with an epic one, a big blog. I am committed to writing now, and you are welcome to hold me to that. For all of the abovementioned purposes, to offer suggestions, feedback or complaints, e-mail me at: blogs@harrykey.com

Me posing on my bike in Nepal

“Are you sure I need the fake tan up that high?” I asked, “I thought I was going to be wearing board shorts.”
“You haven’t seen the costume?” the make-up artist asked innocently, “They are very short shorts.” He continued to graze my privates with his knuckles. I didn’t know he was lying until he’d finished smearing me with brown goo and sent me to put on my costume. The board shorts came to my knees.

He really shouldn’t do that, me and Lee agreed (the make-up artist had reached into Lee’s boxers and offered to kiss his thingy) – but we couldn’t decide what to do about it. We decided that the three valid options were to have punched him in the face immediately, but that opportunity had passed and we agreed punching him now would seem inappropriate; We could discuss it with the producers, have him publicly shamed, possibly fired; Or we could just pretend like nothing had happened. Brushing aside what we wanted to do, we agonized on what one should do, and it set me to thinking about this concept ‘should’.

Indians don’t behave as if there is a way the world ‘should’ be. In Hindi there isn’t even a specific word for it. The word for ‘should’ and ‘want’ is the same – ‘chaiye’ which makes no distinction between what you want to do about being molested and what you should do about being molested.

To westerners, ‘should’ is an almost theocratic term, implying there is one particular way the world ought be, the way a god made it. When there are as many Hindus as there are Hindu gods, ‘should’ becomes a democracy, a collection of desires that cooperate or compete for right of way. The way things should be done is the way you want to do them. If you want it badly enough, then make it happen!

I arrived in India almost four years ago, and after a rather inebriated stay in Goa, I escaped the easy beach life and annoying hippies, bought a bike and rode all over the country. The roads taught me a lot on how to survive India, and life in general. It took thousands of kilometres, countless breakdowns and two crashes to come up with unoriginal sentiments like: “Don’t focus on those things in life that you should not do.” The book The Secret sells that philosophy like it’s actually a secret – a wonderful scam I wish I’d thought of first.

To me, the revelation seemed inescapable: Only too often I’d be riding along, notice a cow dawdling near an ominous pothole – tell myself to hit neither, only to inexplicably hit both. Soon you two might wonder whether it’s your steering or your thinking that needs an adjustment.

A few cows, cliffs and potholes later, I realized that it’s more effective to focus my eyes, wheels, mind, and language on where I want to be going, rather than staring intently whatever I’m trying to avoid.

Louda bogged on the Manali-Leh highway

No segue. Enjoy my meta-writing.

My first proper film experience (after a long and demoralizing stint as an extra) was playing a British officer in a period film (this will become a recurring theme). On the first day of shooting they sat me atop an underfed mule, handed me a sword, and told me to lead the charge into a castle’s courtyard. They called action, and I kicked the horse and burst into the scene at a gallop. Suddenly, and much to my surprise, the room around me erupted in gunfire and explosions. The horse baulked, and I almost went over its head – but luckily was held in place painfully by my testicles. I was understandably upset I hadn’t been warned about the explosions, and insinuated that if anyone were to die, the blame would rest on the stunt director’s head, but no one seemed too concerned. ‘Ah, no harm no foul,’ people seemed to be saying, ‘All’s well that ends well’.

Well, it didn’t end well. The next day, a chap flown from the UK discharged his thrice-loaded pistol from right between his horse’s ears, the horse bolted, he was thrown to the ground and quit the film. The film went into meltdown, the producer skipped town, then threw himself off his own balcony to avoid paying anyone, was in traction for 9 months, and the film was canned. They really should have used stunt men.

India is an amazing cacophony of coincidence and contradiction, and its people are simultaneously the most endearing and befuddling folk one is likely to meet. The fact that I had told the stunt master to warn people about pyrotechnics, that he ignored my advice, that exactly the same thing happened again, causing a chain of events that shut the film down, to him, is immaterial. Theoretically I think I get it, but in reality, it befuddles the fud out of me.

Me just after an attempt on my life

From a functional standpoint I can say that it is clear the man is quite possibly mildly retarded or sociopathic in his disregard for human life – but all I’m doing is working myself into a fit, and ruining a professional friendship by publishing it. That’s just the way he is, and unless I can think of a way to persuade him to adjust his behaviour, there’s no point getting upset about how he isn’t the way I think he should be. I find it a lot easier, however, to accept that he isn’t the way I want him to be – because he doesn’t want to be good at his job. For a nation obsessed with relationships, love, happiness, music and emotions, practical considerations are often just afterthoughts, and causal relationships are often ignored.

Two years on, and I had a chance to work with the same stunt master that tried to blow me up. This time he used a hydraulic catapult to slam me into a train and bust my ankle – so I decided that I was going to look out for myself from then on.

They probably should look after my safety, but they don’t. If I want to live, I must take care myself. I tried to, at a shoot for Pazhassi Raja when a hundred villagers pointed their bows, drawn with steel-tipped arrows at me, I suggested: “Perhaps we should use fake arrows,” but the director liked the authenticity of my fear. Occasionally, when faced with a situation that is beyond my control, I see the allure of resorting to prayer.

I should have been paid for that

Every time I am frustrated by something here, I realize that I’m either frustrated at something I recognize in myself, or I’m frustrated by my own lack of understanding. Both can lead to epiphanies that the hippies on the beaches of Goa, or wierdos in the ashrams of Rishikesh will never reach.

They say they come to India to ‘find themselves’ like it’s meaningful – but it’s a lie, if they were truthful they would admit: They come here to lose themselves, to hide from their dead-end job; a failed marriage, an arrest warrant, or their own crippling ineptitude, and there are only a few exceptions. They go to a quiet place, smoke fistfulls of ganga, sit in the lotus position and talk to us mere mortals about enlightenment like it’s something they will ever experience. I’m sure you know the kind – they constantly describe their dreams, actually believe in horoscopes, and start way too many sentences with “I’m the kind of person that…”

These arrogant snobs fail to realize that anyone can be at peace with themselves and reality if they’re totally separated from both. The trick is accepting others, and yourself for all your annoying flaws and contradictions; living in the world with all its confusion and chaos and being at peace with that. The reason India is the birthplace of meditation is because it’s so chaotic. Finding inner peace is the only possibility when the outer place is pandemonium.

Soon after, you’ll see that same hippie in the visa office or some similar bureaucratic nightmare, forced from their smoky sanctuary of serenity to stand in line (in a caste oriented society where queues are treated as purely optional), they wait endlessly only to have the bureaucrats contradict and confuse them, as people push in front of them, and the feeble fans fail to cool them, watch their enlightenment melt and then boil. Watch as they spout racist tirades and fume about how the world should be, and you’ll realize they haven’t accepted it as it is.

The hippies desire to have things be different is just as egotistical as mine – but at least I don’t wear dreadlocks, a sweatshop-made ‘Om’ bag and a mass-produced Che Guevara T-shirt. Please, hippies: At least make an effort to learn the language and understand the culture, rather than lying in a hammock and thinking about yourself extensively. A thorough investigation of what India is about would have told you what’s wrong with your own mentality – and freed you from that crippling anger that comes from just not getting it. Don’t dress up your confusion as rage against corporate culture or corruption, you don’t need dreadlocks to hate that stuff.

If you want the world to be different, then set about changing it – and until then shut up and stop wasting my oxygen. To desire the world to be different right now is pointless. Right now, as you read this – you have no control over anything that exists or is happening, the chain of events that set things this way already happened. All you can control immediately is how you feel about it. Then, you can decide what you want to do about it, you can cast your pebble now and cause ripples to propagate into the future, into a different now.

Powerful Swing Massager – Gullibility is a huge target market segment.

I can control how I feel about getting molested, but not that I was. I can want to be warned that people will be detonating pyrotechnics while I’m on horseback – and accept that they won’t. I can structure my language – “I want your archers to use fake arrows.” I can want anything at all – because my desires aren’t restricted in the way ‘should’ is. That doesn’t mean I’ll get what I want – but at least I’ll understand why. Then I’ll be able to set about using my want to change things. That understanding makes me at least one step ahead of the hippie in the visa office who keeps shouting “Sab kuch milega!”.

Hippies believe ‘Sab kuch milega’ means ‘Everything is possible’ but milega is not ‘possible’ – it’s more like ‘inevitable.’ It is the future tense of ‘to join’. Every thing will come together; every event will come to pass. If you reincarnate for an eternity, then no doubt that will be the case – but it doesn’t mean the peon in the passport office is going to stamp your visa right now, so go back to your cave and leave reality to those who are willing to accept it.

Know your enemy.

Alternately, you could stop breathing my oxygen, and wait around in the afterlife for a more intelligent incarnation. Gosh how I miss the real hippies – those acid tripping, sex loving, peace defenders who actually stood for something and earned their place in history. They were real.

My life in Bollywood felt like a cycle, with excitement followed by boredom followed by despair, much like Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh (the Creator, the Preserver and the Destroyer) endlessly executing their cycle. After the first exploding castle debacle came The Flag. A racy sex scene, a month in the desert, a fall from a horse and malaria came along before that film went belly-up (the trailer is pretty cool though). It has since finished shooting, been edited and dubbed, but still has not secured a release, and that was years ago. Again and again I’d experience excitement, hope and chaos, followed by boredom, followed by disappointment. Then came Pazhassi Raja.

So I was cast in a film called Pazhassi Raja, named after a king who was basically South India’s William Wallace. I was most excited about being cast, because the two flopped historical epics that had preceded it had given me a tenacious hunger to play a British horse-riding villain on the big screen. A chubby confused little man sneaked me and a few other people out of a shoot for another film, introduced himself as the film’s director, and furtively shot an audition. A follow-up audition in Chennai had introduced us to the real director, Hariharan, and a further follow up meeting he’d told me that I was cast as T.H. Baber.

Beautiful, preened and deadly: T.H.Babe

I was understandably upset when I arrived at the magnificent St Angelo fort in Kerala on my first day for shooting, only to find that my role had been given to someone else. I went a few interesting shades of purple and asked through gritted teeth why I’d traveled 8 hours to be rejected. Hariharan’s son Anand told me that they weren’t really sure if they wanted to change their mind back to me again, so he’d called both of the actors down to re-audition us in costume. As my most empathetic reader might imagine, this somewhat enraged me. The cranky pants were on. Luckily the role required a cranky looking guy, so I re-got the part.

Hariharan has directed countless successful Malayalam films, but this had always been his white whale. He’d been planning on making it for 20 years, so it’s hardly surprising that the shoot, which was originally scheduled to take three months, ended up taking three years. It became the most expensive film in the history of Malayalam cinema, costing the producers Shri Gokulam Gopalan a whopping 250 million rupees.

As a result of some predictably sluggish bureaucracy, I spent the day of the premiere sitting in the Indian Embassy in Sydney begging for my visa. I was there for Melbourne cup day too. I kept going back again and again for 4 months until I showed them my showreel, and the consul general rented out Dostana, and only then was I given a visa. Almost every day after the release, I was googling reviews of Pazhassi Raja.

The unanimous verdict of reviewers was that the film is great. The cinematography, sound, score, and story are all awesome. The only downside seemed to be me – I was described as “woefully wanting” “incompetent” and once more generously as “just passable.” My brother Thomas went to see it, and I much preferred his review, which concentrated more on my hair than my acting skills.

I finally came back to India and down to Kerala, and finally I had a chance to see its 3 hours of glory. Upon arrival at the Cherai Beach Resort, the breakfast waiters asked me if I was the actor from Pazhassi Raja, and then became most excited and asked for autographs. I had come for an NLP course, and after the first day we all sat on the beach getting to know one another. A group of boys came along and asked for a photo – to which I most unabashedly obliged. Then it became clear that they didn’t know who I was, but were just angling for a photo of the blonde girl beside me. I think that fact was lost on the Brits doing the course, and I decided not to disabuse them of the fantasy. Almost everyone in Kerala has seen the film, but the majority don’t recognize me without my fright wig and porn mo.

I talked the others on the course into seeing the film, so one afternoon we went to town to watch it. I purposefully found my way to under a poster of me on horseback, and from there deigned to give out autographs and pose for photos – almost exclusively for the other course participants. We met Peter, who plays the other main British role in the film. He’d lost a lot of weight, and as much was unrecognizable to the throng.

We shuffled into the cinema 5 minutes into the film (which didn’t bother me because I don’t enter until about 30 minutes into it) and noisily got ourselves seated. It is awesome – a truly great film. The cinematography, the score, the sets and most of the costumes are exquisite. Gone are the gaudy colours and silly sound effects, gone were the nonsensical dance sequences and awful sound effects. It is technically classy and epic. The film wasn’t subtitled, so for the most part I had no idea what was being said, but I didn’t need to. Every frame is gorgeous. Sure, there are some slightly silly moments with the wire-fighting and it appears as if the laws of physics have been temporarily suspended for your viewing pleasure, and some of the main actors fail to display the agility that their characters demand, but those moments are short and easy to forget. Then I turn up. Wow. The critics weren’t wrong.

Though I wouldn’t want to describe myself as woeful, the adjective does seem fitting. I don’t really know what happened, because at the time I felt like I was doing a pretty good job, and Hariharan seemed to think so too. He said so! Between under-acting and over-acting, I seem to have created a curious niche where I’m doing both at the same time. Other scenes are less bad, and some aren’t bad at all – or wouldn’t be, if I wasn’t wearing such a crazy wig and weird frilly collars.

I spend a lot of the film just staring intently at things, as if expecting the emotion of the situation to be assumed by the audience rather than observed. I had been working on the idea of keeping my emotions in my head, rather than showing them on my face, as screen acting is often described. What I forgot was that I’m particularly adept at hiding anger, frustration, confusion and sadness when I want to, and being a bit more readable and a little less stiff would make for more interesting viewing. That is a great thing to learn, though there are less public ways to learn it.

Signing autographs for the NLP crew. Photo courtesy of Sue Knight, NLP Guru.

Peter did a great job, using his Royal Shakespeare Company training to its fullest, he plays a horrible murderous grump, and he should be happy that after losing weight he’s not recognizable as ‘That dude we oughta lynch’.

My reception upon exiting the cinema was totally different. Our relatively empty daytime screening came out to see a massive queue for the 9pm session. Many had clearly already seen the film because they recognised me at once. People flocked around me, took photos with me, shook my sweaty hands, told me their names and demanded autographs. Gaggles of giggling girls squealed in delight when I gave them a good eyebrowing, and there was general delight and merriment all around. It was a great experience, something I’d dreamed about for some time. Now I must find a way to use this for some good.

The film’s doing great, Moser Baer has bought the DVD rights, channels are snapping up the TV rights, and it gobbled up all the important awards at the recent International Film Festival of Kerala. I am super excited about that, because that means it’s a shoe in for all number of international festivals – but I also kind of wish it were theatre, that I could do it again, a little differently – or maybe a lot, or just do more with it. Oh hell, I gave it my best and came up short, so maybe I’ll give up acting. Perhaps I’ll become a film critic. Maybe I should really shoot for the stars and become a hippie. But not yet, there are other aspects of mediocrity that I want to explore before I really hit the big time.

Anyway, as a result of being a celebrity, the Swami that’s been teaching me yoga each morning sent out the word, and Kerala’s minister for tourism has asked me to be chief guest at a tourism festival inauguration. I’ll be riding an elephant into the ceremony and giving a speech and posing for the local media. Which reminds me, I really should be working on that speech now.

Oh yeah, and my beloved bike got stolen from Mumbai while I was down here in Kerala. My lovely Louda, who carried me for so far, my trustworthy, reliable, loveable Louda is gone. I have made a rather conscious decision to not obsess over it, even though I do feel like a bit of my heart has been carved out. Being cranky won’t bring it back, nor will it help me accept that she’s gone – so I’m happy. She’s gone, and now I’m hungry for work and eager to buy a bigger, better, faster and even sexier bike. Well, that, and rescue humanity, but first things first.

P.S: Though I wouldn’t be so stupid as to point you towards it, as I wouldn’t stomp on toes by condoning bootlegging and copyright infringement, it still must be mentioned that the full film has been uploded to youtube, and a clever prayer to google will help you watch Pazhassi Raja full online. So don’t do that, wait for the DVD.

Have you seen this bike?

Louda - Gone!

Have you seen this bike?