It's a piquant combination: the Indian fascination for white skin and the Western fallout of the global downturn. Their intersection on the colourfully crowded sets of Bollywood films has opened up a world of opportunities for the bit players in the dream factory — the extras.
As Bollywood films get slicker and more global, production values are getting glossier. And that includes those faces in the crowd, dancers in the background, diners in a restaurant scene or white soldiers in a battle scene.
The number of foreigners finding work in Bollywood has been on the increase for a decade now. But the recession in the West has sent the figure shooting up as actors from across the world seek work in the melting pot of Bollywood.
“Everyone wants to show white skin. If a choreographer can get people with white skin, it makes him look good,” declares Pritam Shah*, who works for a company that imports Russian and British dancers for six months at a time. They come on work permits, and his company pays for their accommodation, transport and food.
The Russians are paid Rs 50,000 to Rs 70,000 a month; the British get Rs 60,000 to Rs 1 lakh. Freelancers earn Rs 8,000 per day, while production houses pay the coordinators Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 per dancer per day. Shah (27) admits, “The Indian dancers don't like it. There have even been fights on the sets. But what can they do?”
Not all are on work permits though; much of the business is illegal and most dancers and coordinators are reluctant to give their names, much less to be photographed.
Dance, baby, dance
Says Shah, “There are 12 Russian dancers and 25 British dancers in Bollywood currently. The Russians are cheaper; we can make more money with them.”
Zubair*, another coordinator who recruits western extras from the streets of Colaba, remarks, “More and more films are being shot here and made to look like they've been shot abroad. That's why they need so many western extras. I sometimes have to find 200 for a single shoot.”
With dancers streaming in to Mumbai, he has no problem finding them. “In Russia girls start learning dance when they are six or seven. There are no other jobs there, so they come to India,” says Shah.
Take Katia* (29), who went to a dance institute in Vladivostok, where she learnt dance styles from Latino to western to Bollywood along with thousands of other students. Katia was brought to India on a six-month contract by a Mumbai company run by a former Russian dancer.
British dancers are popular too. Vicky* (22), from the UK, says, “Many of the dancers from London are here because of the recession and there’s no work there.” Though she remarks, “Bollywood sounds glamorous until you get here and discover there is a lot of politics between the coordinators.”
That's because it's big business now. Zubair says that earlier, coordinators recruited from backpacker hostels in and around Colaba. But now they're out on the streets, and bumping into each other all the time. “There are five of us in Colaba now,” he says.
Each has his own patch: one stands outside Leopold Café, another outside Mc-Donalds, with the others at various vantage points down Colaba causeway.
Sometimes they have turf wars; often they have “arrangements with the police,” he says. “I can't have an office because what I do is technically illegal,” Zubair admits.
Each coordinator works for one of the big junior artiste suppliers in the industry, who in turn work for certain production houses. The production house pays Rs 2,000 per western extra, but the extra gets only about Rs 500 of that, with middlemen taking their cuts.
Extra is not enough
Not every aspirant is happy being an extra, however. Australian Lee Macsween (28) is one of the foreign actors trying to make it in Bollywood — in a character role. Macsween went to a Hare Krishna school in Delhi, then trained as an actor in the US.
He says he's getting more auditions here than he would in Australia, which makes just 10 films a year. “If I went to London or the US I would have work permit issues,” he adds. “That's why there are so many more foreigners looking for permanent roles in Bollywood.”
Harry Key (26), another Australia-trained actor who now speaks Hindi, echoes Macsween: “It's really hard to get onto a set in Australia. They don't make many films and they don't make much money. That's why Hollywood is full of Australians. And why we are coming to India.” Key says there are about 20 foreign men trying for character roles here; some on work permits, some, not.
His first role came two years ago in Flag, a yet-to-be-released film, in which he plays a villain. He has also appeared in the south film Pazhassi Raja, played a TV reality show host in a film called Showman and was the auctioneer in Dostana. “I get anything from Rs 10,000 to Rs 30,000 for a day's work,” he says.
But the competition is hotting up, he observes. “There are so many newspaper articles across the world saying foreigners are needed in Bollywood and people keep coming in.”
The global village has spread to Bollywood too.