The Man in the Brown Shirt You Don’t Remember

They are the faces in the crowd,the heroine’s giggly friends or the cops who arrive once the goons have got away. The almost-famous lives of “extras”,Bollywood’s background actors.

Written by Dipti Nagpaul D'souza | New Delhi | Published:January 30, 2011 12:42 pm

They are the faces in the crowd,the heroine’s giggly friends or the cops who arrive once the goons have got away. The almost-famous lives of “extras”,Bollywood’s background actors.

While he waits for his shirt to be ironed,Manjeet Lamba slips out of his green canvas shoes and steps into a black pair that goes better with the formal look he is supposed to sport. The 44-year-old is an industry veteran and has done bit roles in Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai,Paa,Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year and Band Baaja Baaraat. “But my most prominent role was in Khatta Meetha; my scene is the turning point. I play the guy who rapes Akshay Kumar’s sister,” he says with evident pride. It is also one of the few films where Lamba’s lines have been retained,an unusual occurrence for a film extra.

They are the faces in the crowd,the heroine’s giggly friends in a scene you don’t remember,or the cops who arrive once the goons have got away. They are the thousands of actors who participate in the sometimes-boom,often-bust economy of Bollywood through bit roles. But “extras”,the term used to refer to background actors,assumes a superfluity that is considered offensive in the film and television industries. “Background artistes can be divided into junior artistes,background models and foreigners – and they do not appreciate being confused with one another,” says Pappu Lekraj,an old hand at coordinating “crowds” for shoots. “Junior artistes are organised,they are registered with the Junior Artistes’ Association (JAA). Background models,in contrast,are freelancers with the advantage of looks — mostly tall,fair and fit,” says Lekraj. The pay,naturally,differs too. If a Class A junior artiste takes home Rs 600 for a 12-hour shift,a Class B actor gets Rs 700. Background models,on the other hand,get Rs 1,500,second only to foreigners,who have a “flexible” pay. And if they have a dialogue to deliver,however short,the pay is doubled.

Today,Lamba,a background model,has to be a face in a crowd of office-goers in a television commercial for bottled water. It’s 7am on a Sunday morning and the neighbourhood of Ballard Estate in Mumbai resembles a film studio. Food stalls line both sides of the road,where Lamba and other actors grab a quick breakfast.

Lamba’s wife Vinny — petite,fair and fit — is also a background model. She waits with other girls for her outfits to be altered and then ironed at the makeshift tailor’s stall. Her 17-year-old son Mannwin has also come along. It’s his day off — and being an extra makes for extra pocket money. To the Lambas,being background actors is like any other regular job. Together,they make upwards of Rs 60,000 a month.

Being a background actor can mean decent money,though it demands a healthy indifference and an adaptability to the organised chaos of Bollywood. A

typical day starts as early as 5 am. Stars might dawdle,extras must reach the sets on time. Queuing up for the make-up and costume change takes up to two hours. Then begins the endless wait: for that one scene which might be shot by the end of a 12-hour shift. Old-timers never tire of saying that the biggest quality that you need to be a background actor is patience.

Young students sign up for some easy money. Then there are the much-mythologised wannabes of Bollywood who flock to the sets,hoping for an entry into the film industry. The chances of success are rare,and the frustration levels very high. “During the shoot of Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai,one of the men refused to budge even after we were done with the scene because he didn’t think he had received enough screen time,” says Praveen Fernandes,an assistant director on the sets of the film.

The 2,000-plus members of JAA enjoy privileges such as assured work,preference over background models and no fixed retirement date. When they retire,they can transfer their membership to family members. Sitaram Devji Kadam has been part of the film industry since 1974. And though most of his income comes from assisting Lekraj in managing actors,the 57-year-old has not given up his JAA card yet “because you never know when it comes in handy”. Also,every now and then,if a good “role” comes by,he gladly takes it up. “Back in 2004,I was managing my team at a Kodak commercial shoot by Prasoon Pandey. He gave me a role and also cast me for two award-winning Fevicol ads,” he says,as he braces to deal with the 400-strong crowd of junior actors for the shoot at the DY Patil Stadium that Lamba has been called for. Kadam’s job isn’t simple – he is responsible for each of the 400 actors; if any of them vanish,he will have to justify the day’s payment. “It is not uncommon for them to behave irresponsibly. They make excuses and vanish for hours. Sometimes they doze off and switch off their phones,” he says.

The crowd at the stadium is mixed: Kadam’s team is supplemented by 100-odd background models led by Shahadin Shirazi,one of the more prominent background model coordinators for films. The 31-year-old entrepreneur operates through agencyopportunities.com,which invites prospective portfolios,shortlists them on the basis of “height,figure and complexion” and then makes them available to production houses. He has cast actors for Rock On!!,Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na,Luck By Chance,Kaminey and I Hate Luv Storys.

Shirazi started his career in the industry as a background model in 1997. “With Kuch Kuch Hota Hai,the demand increased. Filmmakers suddenly wanted a hip-looking young crowd in the backdrop. So many youngsters turned up because they wanted to see Shah Rukh Khan after the huge success of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge,” he says. He didn’t have the best experience. He would make Rs 350 for a 20-hour shift and often had to walk long distances inside the sprawling Film City if a shoot was cancelled or if he was told that the quota of actors was filled for the day. Until he saw the opportunity in the unorganised sector. “I have been a coordinator since 1999. But work in films took a hit when producers started to prefer foreign locales.” That’s when,he says,the firangs became sought after.

Amy Mitchell (name changed) calls Hindi her second language after Russian and prefers to converse in the language. “I’ve been in Mumbai for five years and I watch every new Hindi film,” says the 26-year-old who has “acted” in over 50 movies. Mitchell’s romance with the city began when she visited India with her friends in 2004. “Most foreigners get approached to play a background actor while they stroll down the Colaba Causeway,so I was prepared for it.” She found herself on the sets of Dhoom,spending hours waiting for her one moment of fame. Though you won’t be able to spot her in any of the film’s scenes,she enjoyed the free meals,made friends and contacts and went back Rs 1,000 richer.

It was only later that she realised that the coordinators,the hotel managers and the police had got a “cut” from her role. If she had an Indian work permit,she could have made thrice that much for the same work: a bolne wali gori (a foreigner with a speaking part) fetches up to Rs 8,000 for a 12-hour shift. She returned to her country and came back to India with a work permit. She has acted in Wanted and Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani and rents an apartment in Goregaon.

The firangs make the big bucks but it’s the Indian women who are most in demand. “There is always a dearth of young girls. People confuse this with ramp modelling or doing small roles in films. Given the film industry’s reputation for a casting couch,we are often misunderstood,” says Shirazi,who scours college fests for actors. “The situation is so bad that we distribute 5,000 pamphlets and only two girls call us back.”

Getting women to work in the industry has always been a challenge,says Lekraj,who inherited the business from his father 28 years ago. “Today,it’s all organised: if a junior artiste is available,he gives my assistant a missed call and if we have work for him,we return the missed call. But when there were no mobile phones,I would have to go door to door on my scooter,requesting the women to turn up the next day. It would be dawn by the time I returned,only to find out that the shoot had been cancelled. Then it would begin again.”

Delphy Nunes attributes her 25-year-strong career,which includes films like Meri Jung and Kaho Naa…Pyaar Hai – where she had dialogues — to the fact that she always had the support of her progressive Christian family. “There were always roadside Romeos outside the studios who would bother us,but I enjoyed my tryst as a junior artiste. I am passionate about films and it allowed me to lead a balanced personal and professional life. I could take off whenever I wanted and I have never been treated with disrespect,” she says. “Those days,we also got to know directors such as Hrishikesh Mukherjee personally,” she says.

Like Nunes,many old hands are nostalgic about a more personal relationship with actors and directors. Lekraj recounts that his sister’s wedding was attended by Raj Kapoor and producer Sashadhar Mukherjee. Until mobile phones and executive producers entered the work flow,he says,producers and directors interacted directly with him when they needed junior actors.

Forty-four-year-old Siddiqui Khadwani,better known as Bhai Jaan,joined the industry as a stuntman at the age of 13. He signed up as a junior artiste after he fell off a cliff during an action sequence and broke his legs. His fondest memories include being bashed up by Amitabh Bachchan in Kasmein Vade and playing Bappi Lahiri in Chak De! India,but his “relationship” with Salman Khan holds a special place in his heart. “At that time,safari-clads (bodyguards) didn’t comprise a star’s entourage,junior artistes were assigned the duty of taking care of the star’s needs. I spent a whole year by Salman’s side,” he says. Ramesh Damodar Chaudhary,who has often been a body double for Bachchan,is too reticent to develop personal equations but does remember that Shah Rukh Khan came to his aid when his mother needed a knees operation in 1998.

That was then. Now,to share a personal relationship with stars is the privilege of a handful. Rahul Khanna is a strapping 28-year-old,with grey-green eyes and a fair complexion. Since the last five years,he has been a stand-in for Hrithik Roshan in long shots and scenes. He is paid Rs 5,000-10,000 a day when Roshan is shooting in Mumbai. “Hrithik sometimes even recommends me to the production team,” he whispers as he shows us a recent photograph with the star at the shoot of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.

Too shy to be photographed,Khanna,who is posing as a cricket fan at the stadium,instead calls out to his friends Aamir Pathan and Prashant Salian,who often stand in for Salman Khan and Abhishek Bachchan respectively. But before we can get a photo shoot done,the production crew calls them back. As I begin to walk away,one of the ADs shouts out to me,“Get into your T-Shirt.” She has mistaken me for a background model. I am almost tempted,to be almost famous.

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