A few months ago, I got an offer for one of the lead roles in a small independent film. I thought I had left my acting career behind me. I had even declared it, along with all my grievances about Bollywood. I was finishing a Master’s program in creative writing and had stopped auditioning a while ago when I met the director at an event on the Lower East Side and got along with her immediately. Thanks to a finished manuscript (mine), a strong script (the film’s), a talented director, and general restlessness, last month I found myself on a flight back to India to act in one more movie. Last week I finished the first shoot schedule— around Punjab and the Indo-Pak border near Hussainiwala, and this time around, it’s an entirely different situation.
This film is being made on a microscopic budget so the crew is small and the resources are limited. The director has managed to cast some rather well known older actors and on the first day of filming, I was amazed by the commitment and excitement everyone was bringing to a small, black and white, independent film. I was also pleased to see that there was no hierarchy or explicit definition of roles on a film like this. The makeup artist helped hold lights, one of the drivers played a part in the film, and even the director pushed the old Fiat we were using when it broke down in the middle of a crowded market. Perhaps because of this sense of collaboration, or the fact that my role in this film is quite large, or because the director is working efficiently and effectively, this shoot, unlike most others, hasn’t felt like an endless waiting game for me as an actor.
Nobody had much personal space or time and we all very quickly got to know each other. Actors and crew, particularly in Bollywood, are generally housed separately and treated very differently on sets. That was not the case here. All of us travelled and stayed together, ate at the same dhabas, and worked on the same schedule. We translated for each other as needed and between us, over these last few weeks, we used English, Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, Pahari, and Bengali. I thought I had found a readymade group of like-minded creative individuals, which was exciting given that I spend a large part of my time these days alone with a computer.
From Mumbai, I flew to Chandigarh where I was picked up by a car and driver, an assistant, and a makeup artist and we headed to Patiala. The assistant, a young man with patchy English who grew up in Himachal Pradesh, was full of stories. He told me about a two-month hike he took through the hills in order to document the lives of people who hibernated for the most brutal parts of winter. He recited Urdu poetry. He knew story lines for some of Luis Bunuel’s films in detail. He had picked up English through books and movies and even had a smattering of French at his fingertips. I was impressed by this boy who had grown up in a small village in Himachal Pradesh and found his way to varied interests and eventually a job on an unconventional, independent film set.
He told me that his astrologer had told him that he had to get married by April of 2014 and his current girlfriend’s parents didn’t approve of a caste difference so he was willing to meet any woman his parents could find for him. When I asked him if he was going to fight for the woman he said he was in love with, he shrugged.
“How did you meet your girlfriend?” the director asked.
“Facebook,” he said, “We were both commenting on a mutual friend’s status and then we started talking and decided to be exclusive.”
“Before you met?”
He nodded. It’s hardly surprising that India is one of the few countries outside the United States where Facebook has an office and is rumoured to be recruiting actively.
One day, I wasn’t due on set until 6PM. When my makeup artist came to my room at 5PM, I asked him how he had spent his day.
“Facebook,” he answered.
I was in Patiala for about eight days but while shooting a film, it’s difficult to actually engage with a city. There were two things that really stood out for me. The first, all over Punjab, was the lack of women in public. The second was the music. Music is everywhere. From Bhangra to Punjabi rap to Bollywood songs to hip-hop, Punjab definitely moves to a beat. And a fairly unusual idea of courtship. I saw a Punjabi music video on television in which a man squirts milk directly from a cow’s udder on to a woman’s face.
On the edge of the Indo-Pak border, we stayed at the home of a politician who seemed to take quite a liking to me. From the minute I arrived at noon, he tried to convince me to join him for a glass of beer. I declined. He was charming, like politicians tend to be and, on the first day when I emerged with my makeup done, he promptly said, “Oh my, I thought you already had your makeup done.” Later that night, over dinner, he tried earnestly to convince us that the real problem with politics in India was the corruption of the people that the politicians were trying hard to counter. “It’s difficult,” he said, looking down forlornly, “But I’m trying hard. Some days are better than others.” I later overheard him telling someone that all cell phone service on his property was jammed to avoid anyone recording anything unsavoury.
Sleazy politician aside, the area around Hussainiwala was beautiful. We filmed on the Sutlej River— a name I recalled from my childhood textbooks. I never expected to be floating along it in a small wooden boat knowing that Pakistan was mere yards away. The area is so serene, it is impossible to imagine that this is a part of the world where tension almost always runs high.
We returned to Patiala and were staying in the Neemrana Hotel in the peaceful Baradari, or 12- door, area. The hotel was a former home of someone from the royal family and it is clearly a location of great pride for the locals. One morning I was sitting in the lobby using the wi-fi when a salwar-kameez and white sneaker wearing woman came in flustered from her morning walk around the grounds.
“Why aren’t there any flower pots in front of the hotel?” she asked the man at reception.
He looked up at her vaguely and wobbled his head ambiguously from side to side.
“I’m asking,” the woman continued, “Why aren’t there flower pots in front of the hotel? Don’t you care about the hotel?”
The man nodded and said, “Yes, madam.”
“Well? Then why aren’t there flowers?”
“No. I’m actually asking. Why don’t you have flower pots in the front of the hotel?”
At this point, I tried looking deeply involved in my email in order to avoid feeling embarrassed for them both.
“Who is the manager?” the woman continued.
The manager lived in Delhi, it turned out. And the woman, whoever she was, wouldn’t leave until she got his name and cell phone number. Something tells me that if I ever return to the hotel, there will be flowers everywhere.
On our last night in Patiala, a few Old Monk and Cokes later, the Bunuel-loving young assistant started ranting against the way other countries view India. “Slumdogs. That’s how they all see us,” he slurred.
“Don’t be silly,” someone else in the room said, trying to lighten the moment, “Anyway, first of all, that was a good movie and second of all, Indians can also be pretty racist.”
A dark cloud came over the assistant’s face. You could sense a deep anger welling inside him. One of the other assistant’s quietly took his drink away. We had all made it through a lot of time spent together without any big flare-ups. It would be a shame to end the shoot with a drunken brawl.
The same night, I heard one of the other men in the room, a theatre actor from Mumbai, declare, “I can count the number of talented female actors in Bombay on one hand. There’s so much more talent amongst the men.”
It was my turn to ignore a comment and avoid a flare-up. The actor and one of the other (also male) assistants continued a conversation about working with women and why they both preferred not to. The content of the conversation was just as shocking as the fact that they didn’t seem to care that they were having it in front of me as well as the female director who had hired them.
It’s hard to spend an extended period of time with the same group of people— especially when you’re working together and staying in cities that none of you can call home. There are no escapes and no breaks and the personalities present are rarely compatible.
The other thing I learned as one of only two women on an independent film set? Men eat fast. As soon as the food arrives, serve yourself as much chicken as your plate can hold.