I was standing at a juice bar on Pali Hill, which I’d been told was the favorite haunt of Bollywood stars, producers and other assorted filmi people. Muscular young men with slicked hair and aviator shades sat atop their Enfields gossiping about upcoming films and their next audition. A passerby stared toward the shop hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite star. I figured if I hung around here long enough, luck was bound to shine upon me. As I sipped on my fresh pomegranate juice and waited for something to happen, I knew I had arrived in Bollywood.
I had arrived in India a month back, first to New Delhi, then to Bangalore where I showed up with a video camera and a few phone numbers of people I could call. Lured by Bollywood and the promise of a city where dreams are made, I had decided to come to Bombay to try and get a job in showbiz. I could have done this much more easily in Los Angeles or New York, but I wanted to be exposed to a film city that was completely different from what I’d known before.
I was enthralled by Bollywood’s totally artificial, heightened sense of cinema. Where the plot-lines were large and impossible, where the flowers were made of silk and the waterfall that divided two lovers singing of their despair was controlled by a small pump behind the curtain. This man-made world of movie making was in my dreams, and drew me to Bombay.
But where were the gates of Bollywood? How could I get in? And when I did, what possible role could a non Hindi speaking American play in making these movies?
Through a series of random encounters, I was introduced to the filmmaker Shashank Ghosh, (of Quickgun Muragan fame) and we met at the Café Coffee Day in Juhu. We drank 6 or 7 espressos and just when I thought my heart’s pounding was becoming audible over the traffic on Juhu Tara Road he said, “Ok. I will help you.”
He wrote down three names and phone numbers of producers who were about to start filming their next movie. “Call them, and tell them to put you on their film.”
The next day I called. The first was Zoya Akhtar, who didn’t answer, the second was Anurag Kashyap, who also didn’t answer. The third, Giulia Achilli, was described to me as an Italian producer who was “doing something weird” answered and told me to meet her at the production office in Bandra West, very close to where I was staying.
I shut off my phone and stepped back into the big sound stage at Mehboob Studios. I had managed to wrangle myself a gig sitting on scripts for Studio 18, where I read thrillers and gave my opinion on their viability as Bollywood movies. Today I’d been invited to the daylong promotional shoot for their new film Fruit and Nut.
I watched the photo shoot where they hoisted the star Cyrus Broacha up above a toilet. He flew through the air with a deranged smile on his face while Diya Mirza looked flirtatiously, confusedly, off into the distance. After I wandered off to have lunch in the canteen, I went to watch Boman Irani give an interview about the making of the film. It was hot, and the fans were turned off because of the sound. He fielded questions in front the green screen, bored and apathetic when suddenly he shouted, “Just tell me, what do you want me to say!”
After the shoot I walked through the lanes towards my meeting at Bandra West Productions, sweaty, exhausted, and somewhat disheartened. I was realizing that Bollywood had a cynicism that was not that different in Hollywood, or at least my idea of Hollywood, in a few important ways. Yes, there were films that were fantastical and wonderful, that told transportative tales of love and loss. But I was realizing that there were many more that meant nothing, calculated by the studios to cater exactly to what audiences had been paying to see. I started to miss the independent film community I knew in New York, where films were idealistic and not only about the business. As an outsider, nothing was more fascinating to me than Bollywood and those engulfed in it, but as a filmmaker, I knew that my heart lay in the pursuit of smaller projects.
I knew from the first second I set foot in the Bandra West production office that I had found my milieu. A massive mural of a mountain presiding over a large blue lake stretched over the entire back wall. Before it, a dozen young men and women sat talking on the phone, drinking chai, and excitedly running through shooting schedules.
A tall girl with long hair strode across the room with a huge smile across her face: Giulia. She took me back to meet Raja Menon, the writer and director, and Raj Yerasi, the producer and investor on the film. After an hour-long conversation, we decided that I would follow them around and shoot a making of. Their film, called Barah Aana, was born from Raja’s experience of watching the watchman where he lived. It dramatized the well-known, but seldom discussed treatment of Bombay’s working class — “the drivers, the waiters and the watchman who come to Bombay at the lower levels of the workflow chain.”
The script pinpointed a feeling of guilt inside the hearts of many of Bombay’s wealthy, and sought to bring justice to the hordes of migrants who came to Bombay looking for a better life. After pitching the script to many studios around town, they found that they’d have to make many undesirable changes to make this a big studio production. So, they’d decided to make their film independently, certainly the road less traveled at the time. The film would have no songs, no dances, and would be very different from the standard Bollywood fare. The size of their ambitions was so large, and Bombay and even the entire Bollywood industry stood forcefully in their way. I knew, that no matter what happened, that their struggle for cinematic glory would make a great film. Thus began the shoot of my documentary, Bombay Movie.
It was an exciting time to be in Bombay. In 2008, there was a feeling of possibility, of promise. Bombay was on the front page of every international newspaper, and all eyes seemed to be on this amazing city and what it would do next. In Bollywood, rumors swirled of a historic production partnership between Dreamworks and Reliance, the film version of Shantaram was slated to shoot starring Johnny Depp. A little film called Slumdog Millionaire had just completed production.
The first day of shoot we drove out to a town called Wai, about 8 hours outside of Bombay. The farming landscape has been frequently used in Bollywood films as a double for North India, and was the perfect setting for a scene involving the U.P. (backstory of the Yadav, the driver, played by Naseeruddin Shah).
The next morning we rose at 3:30 am and drove to the set in the dark, dust rising in the headlamps as our car inched down the road. A dozen people were unloading a big box truck, using flashlights to sift through the equipment they would need for the day. I followed Raj and Giulia through the forest, picking our way over tree trunks and fallen branches as we made our way towards the river. Already a group of spot boys were crushing ginger to make chai, and a group of 20 grips were unfurling a large gold and silver reflector, telling dirty jokes in Marathi.
As light began to fill the sky, people from the village began emerging from the treeline. A grandfather carried his granddaughter on his back, crossing the stream as her school bag grazing the surface of the water. A group of children and young women gathered at the base of a big banyan tree, swinging from its vines and staring in wonder at the scene before them.
Raja called the actors close and readied the crew for the first shot. Excitement, pride welled up in the faces and hearts of the crew. As he called “Action!” Naseer stood on his mark on the banks of the stream, looking around him and then stepped down into the river, and waded towards camera. “Cut!” rang out 15 seconds later, the first shot was done, and a very officious spot boy smashed the lucky coconut on a nearby rock. Everyone cheered, the broken coconut was passed around as prasad, and the film was underway.
Over the next three weeks we shot on location all over the streets of Bombay. We spent days in Bandra and at Worli Sea Face, shooting scenes where Naseer, Vijay Raaz and Arjun Mathur each experienced abuse at the hands of their wealthy employers. Often there would be real drivers, waiters and watchmen at the locations, watching a scripted version of their lives being played out before them.
We camped out in Dharavi for a week, squeezing through narrow alleyways to emerge into small squares where woman queued for water and hand-made pappadums. Our fictionalized characters sat among this everyday life and lamented the reality of Bombay, where they struggled to provide themselves with the basic necessities and send money back home. One night we were told that as foreign women we shouldn’t come to set, because a big south Indian wedding was taking place nearby, and they were concerned about a riot. I went anyway, and the only commotion was the occasional domestic dispute and the mournful howling of feral dogs in the night.
Once in Dharavi as we were leaving, a group of boys surrounded the car and started tapping on the windows to speak to Arjun Mathur. They stared at him admiringly and started speaking quickly and all at once. “What’s that?” he said. “You were great,” one boy ventured forth, smiling, and then prophetically, “You will go far.”
Another time in Dharavi, Vijay Raaz arrived to set in his big SUV and couldn’t find a place to park. A group of 6-10 people recognized him immediately, and then lifted up a broken down rickshaw and carried it away from the sidewalk shouting “Biryani! Biryani!” as homage to his role in the 2004 film Run, where he is tricked into eating Kauwa Biryani and begins behaving like a crow. Strangely, the only thing I ever saw him eat on set were eggs.
The last day of shooting took place at Victoria Station, at night. This was one of the more elaborate shots, in which Vijay Raaz gets pick-pocketed while he meets his friend on a departing train. There was only one chance to get the shot of the train pulling out of the station, and horrifically, one of the prominent extras kept starting straight into the camera, completely ruining the shot. They were able to save the shot in post, but it was an unsettling end to an otherwise inspiring shoot.
One year later, Barah Aana was released across India on 170 screens. Though it had received critical and festival acclaim, and even a shout out from Aamir Khan encouraging people to go and see it, the film performed poorly at the box office and was pulled (with a few exceptions) from theaters after the next weekend.
It was an extraordinarily depressing moment for Raja, Raj and Giulia, who had spent years of their lives trying to make this film. They were left wondering if there ever would be an audience for movies that are trying to say something, or if people just want to see movies that make them forget the reality that they face every day. At that point in time, it was seemingly impossible for an independent film to crack through Bollywood, but hopefully it will be less so in the years to come. There are so many stories to be told in India, and we need more films like BARAH AANA that struggle against the incredible odds to bring their story to the big screen.
Bombay Movie follows their entire story, from the production office through to the day the box office results roll in. It shows first hand the arduous journey of an artist making their way against a powerful city, the pain of a dreamer being crushed by reality. It is the same story of many who come to Bombay looking for something better, only to find that the city and all its people are there to thwart them at every step of the way. It’s the pain that knowing you have more to achieve and knowing you’ve got something great to offer but nobody’s listening. Raja, Giulia, and Raj did experience a crushing defeat in their quest to bring Barah Aana to the masses. And yet, the line that rings true for me at the end of the film, are Raja’s final words. “Let’s move on to the next one. Move, move, move, move.”
All images of this post are copyrighted to the author. The responsibility and the sole ownership of the content is also of the author who has contributed to this blog as a friendly gesture. Please don’t copy-paste matter from this blog.To contact the writer, please visit her author page HERE. You may also write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. BOMBAY MOVIE, Alexandra Eaton’s documentary about the independent film world in Bombay is currently available on iTunes, Amazon, and Vimeo.