Life on a (Bollywood) Film Set

I arrived in Mumbai like legions of aspiring actors before me, and doubtless many more to come: with heady dreams of Bollywood stardom.

I have to admit that before moving to India, I had seen exactly one Bollywood film, and that was “Dhoom 1:” not exactly the height of cinematic achievement, I realize in retrospect, but I was hooked. I also (as mentioned in a previous post) had the dubious honor of singing “Tere Liye” from “Prince” at a Diwali Ball in graduate school. I didn’t have the faintest idea what the lyrics meant, and (having been trained in opera in my youth) I sang it like Brünnhilde. It was all very weird. When I learned that during my tenure in Mumbai, I’d be living mere blocks away from the legendary Shahrukh Khan, I believe my words were “Sharoo Who?” (Oh the heresy! The naiveté!)

Dhoom 1 Promotional Poster (courtesy of cinemalakalaka.blogspot)

I’ve been an avid thespian since I was 7 or so, chiefly acting in Shakespeare plays and musicals, so Bollywood – with its flair for melodrama, fondness for spectacle, and characters’ propensities for spontaneously bursting into elaborate song and dance routines – was a logical extension of my tastes. And once I got it into my head that I would portray the ingénue in Amir Khan’s next blockbuster (Dangal 2?), I set about doing my homework. I bought bootleg films in the local market and visited nearby movie stores to purchase boxed sets of Greatest Hits. I polled my coworkers for their all-time favorite Bollywood films and made a point of watching every movie they suggested [1]. A fellow Clinton fellow and Bollywood fanatic, the lovely Yasin Khan, and I teamed up to watch an Alia Bhatt flick “together” over Skype: her in Darjeeling, me in Chennai. Poor internet connections on both ends meant we had to re-sync our copies dozens of times, but we persevered.

One of my seminal experiences as a temporary Mumbaikar was patronizing a matinee screening of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) [2] at the Maratha Mandir theater. This particular venue has been showing DDLJ, perhaps the most iconic movie in Bollywood history, every. single. day. since its debut in 1995 [3]. When Katrina and I attended a showing one weekend morning in early February, I expected to find the theater virtually empty – for who could possibly want to watch a film that’s been running for 22 years at 11:30 am on a Sunday? To my enormous surprise, the balcony was absolutely packed to the gills with raucous moviegoers. Thus began one of the most absurd and electrifying crowd spectacles I’ve ever experienced; indeed, it felt more reminiscent of a football game than a film screening. When Kajol and SRK made their first appearances onscreen, the spectators erupted in cheers and wolf-whistles; they sang along with every song and recited large chunks of dialogue word-perfectly; at intermission they streamed out into the lobby for samosas and steaming cups of chai, chattering delightedly; and moments after the final epic train scene, when Kajol’s dad utters the now iconic lines “Ja Simran, ja, jee le apni zindagi!” (“Go Simran, go, live your life!”), the whooping and hollering crowd almost instantaneously dispersed, leaving an eerily quiet balcony littered with samosa wrappers and paper chai cups in their wake. It was an experience as bizarre as it was delightful, and it ranks among my warmest Mumbai memories.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge celebrates 900 weeks of continuous showings at the Maratha Mandir: “The One with Heart Will Win the Bride” (courtesy of

My first decisive step towards Inevitable Stardom was to enroll in Anupam Kher’s evening acting course, thinking it might be a good way to hone my technique and make contacts in the industry. Alas, I quit after the third session: the course was conducted entirely in Hindi, and my language skills weren’t nearly strong enough for me to grasp the finer aspects of the Stanislavski Method. I also didn’t particularly relish the thought of spending three hours every evening for the next month pretending to be a snowflake  [4].

I set about creating half a dozen online audition profiles and cold-emailing scores of casting directors. In time, all manner of bizarre audition notices began trickling in. At one point it seemed likely that I would be the face of India’s leading deodorant brand (huzzah!), but sadly that particular career-making windfall never came to pass. There were several offers that offended my dignity: I turned down a chance to advertise razors since doing so required posing nearly nude. I was cast in a web-series as a stock western character with “loose morals” but I did not feel comfortable with the behaviors I would be required to portray, nor did I wish to perpetuate stereotypes about my race. My most persistent pursuer – who regaled me with dozens of emails and phone calls despite my repeated refusals – seemed quite desperate to find Western actresses willing to wear a revealing Mrs. Claus costume at a gentleman’s club in Delhi.

A few of my attempts to break into the Indian acting world came tantalizingly close to fruition. I was cast as a British publisher in an independent film and met personally with the director to review the script and discuss scheduling, but the filming dates kept getting postponed until finally it was time for me to leave India. I was asked to make an emergency appearance at a Bandra studio to play a bit part in a Marathi serial, but the director never followed up with a specific location. I gave a screen test at Yash Raj Studios, to no avail. I was also invited to audition for the lead in a Niraj Pandey film (my big break at last??); but once again, the agent never provided audition details. Quite near the end of the fellowship, I joined the cast of a Hindi-language production of Macbeth (a ludicrously improbable confluence of so many things I adore), but ultimately work and family obligations took precedence.

At around the halfway point of the fellowship, I resolved to take matters into my own hands. Mumbai guidebooks will tell you that a Westerner hoping to serve as an extra on a Bollywood film set can often get “scouted” in certain touristy areas of town. I sipped countless cold coffees at the Leopold Café on Colaba Causeway, with my hair coiffed and a neat stack of resumes resting coyly on the table beside me. I repeatedly visited a hostel where tourists can sign up for same-day gigs and was told (much to my bafflement!) that all the studios in the city were “shut for the season.” I religiously attended theatrical performances all over Mumbai – at the Prithvi Theater, St. Andrew’s Auditorium, the National Centre for the Performing Arts – in hopes of forging directorial contacts. I even tried to put up my own production of one of my favorite musicals, “The Last Five Years,” but was unable to cast a crucial role.

A poster for a 2015 production of “The Last Five Years” at the Ocean State Theater Company in Rhode Island

In the end – spoiler alert, dear friends! – I never “made it” in the way I had envisioned. I guess Bollywood stardom is just one of those bucket list items I’ll have to consign to the failure pile, along with becoming a guzheng (Chinese zither) virtuoso and successfully knitting socks. Perhaps I am doomed to spend the rest of my film-watching days bitterly coveting all of Kalki Koechlin’s roles. In the end, however, I have no regrets about my misadventurous foray into the Mumbai film world: after all, almost becoming a famous antiperspirant evangelist is something I can be proud of. And along the way, I gained firsthand insights into the sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating, and always capricious world of Indian cinema.

But to end this post on a slightly more positive note: I haven’t entirely given hope. Somewhere in the bowels of the Yash Raj media archives is a 30-second clip of me speaking terrible Hindi; so perhaps one day, Amir Khan will come to his senses and FINALLY cast me as the lead in a remake of Rang de Basanti.

I’ll be keeping my Indian mobile phone charged just in case.


[1] Incidentally, the results of this informal survey constituted a fascinating study of my colleagues’ personalities and tastes: one coworker suggested the delightfully goofy classics “Mr. India” and “Amar, Akhbar, Anthony;” another raved about “Mughal-e-Azam,” which is a cinematographic masterpiece but LONG and SLOW; while a few of my younger colleagues favored modern movies with political slants and social commentary, such as “PK” and “Pink.”

[2] I was also interested to note that many of the canonical Bollywood tropes – scenes shot in exotic locations, “bad boys” wooing “good girls,” unwelcome engagements and wedding mishaps, a final dramatic climax unfolding on a train – can trace their origins to the wildly popular DDLJ.

[3] At one point in the early 2000s (so the legend goes), the Maratha Mandir Theater decided it was time to end the daily showings of DDLJ; so the lead actor, Shahrukh Khan, simply purchased the establishment to keep his signature film running. This story is apocryphal, but fun to think about. 🙂

[4] As much as I adore and deeply respect the craft of acting, training in this field can sometimes be accurately characterized by my favorite Fry and Laurie sketch.)

Olivia is eager to learn about India through the lens of her experiences in China. She is also excited to watch gazillions of Bollywood films in the name of cultural immersion - like the one about the guy that turns into a housefly! The People's Archive of Rural India documents "the everyday lives of everyday people" and touches upon so many causes she cares deeply about, including public health/education in underserved communities, sustainable agriculture, endangered languages, and indigenous cultures. Her career as an engineer at Microsoft and NPR and her background in research science have honed her analytical and technical skills; furthermore, she hopes that her experience helping to document an endangered Tibetan langauge in Southwest China will inform her fieldwork in rural districts. Olivia adores polka dots, cardamom, and the color yellow, and she is an avid actress and musician. She has a Travel Troll that accompanies her on all her international adventures, and she somehow never learned to tie her shoes!

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