When a stout stranger in a brown T-shirt, white shorts and sneakers stepped out of the crowd of hangers-on in front of Regal Cinema and spoke to Rebecca Ingrum, she tried the classic Lonely Planet ploy: avoid.
Then the stranger came up with a strange request, which even the seasoned 27-year-old traveller and social worker from London found hard to shrug off. Would she want to act in a Bollywood movie?
With cautious curiosity, she arrived at the agreed place — the Intercontinental Grand in Andheri — at 2 pm on Thursday.
It turned out to be true. Director Vishal Bharadwaj was shooting and she was asked to be in the pool for a particular scene. The agent said there were at least 200 foreigners, all tourists, shooting in different locations in Mumbai.
Shooting abroad is expensive, and directors and producers desperate for a global feel in their films are sending out agents to cafeterias and touristy places to approach foreigners. For students, hitchhikers, and other budget travellers, a chance to be part of India’s biggest glamour draw, that too for free meals and a fee that buys many rounds of beer and a night in a hotel, can be unputdownable.
As HT found out, an efficient and extensive headhunting machinery is at work behind the exotic poolside scene that you are made to believe is in New York or Sydney.
According an agent who took this reporter to a shoot, the foreign extras are paid Rs 500, costumes, meals and a drop if it is late. Since working on a tourist visa is not allowed, it is always a cash payment.
“We are hard-pressed for people and cannot wait long for a confirmation as the managers need to block the shooting schedule,” said the agent, requesting anonymity.
For Russian traveller and writer Sergey Chikachev (34), working on Bollywood sets is one of main sources of income.
“It’s been almost eight months that I have been in India. I might actually stay here forever,” he said, smiling.
But apart from working despite a tourist visa, this arrangement also infringes industry norms which specify certain procedures and wages for junior artistes.
According to Feroz Khan, vice-president of Federation of Western India Cine Employees, hiring tourists to play extras is illegal. “These model coordinators are hand in glove with the staff of the hotels where foreign tourists stay. Besides, they also bribe the police to ensure they are not pulled up for using foreigners in films.”
The agents are paid about Rs 1,500 a day to ensure that members of Junior Artistes Association are hired for the movies.
The filmmakers also have ulterior motives, he said. “Filmmakers use foreigners as a marketing ploy to sell the film to distributors for a higher price. The producers put up sets in our studios to shoot songs and use foreigners to show that these sequences are filmed abroad. Thus, a Rs 10-lakh song is presented as a Rs 50-lakh one,” he added.