The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Bollywood bucks beckon backpackers
- Foreign tourists roped in as extras to give films slick international touch
Foreigners match steps with Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham

Mumbai, March 27: Tripping in India, backpackers have a new role to play.

Short-term nirvana on a Goa beach is not the only priority of foreigners on a shoe-string budget to India. Many of them are adding to it a stint in Bollywood, if a very brief one.

With Hindi films going in for the “international” look more aggressively, just foreign locales are not enough. Now films require foreigner extras in other scenes to “improve” the look of the film.

White skin will be preferred. The backdrop needs a subtle facelift. To get the slick look and the “global” audience, Bollywood needs to be free of its “dark spots” — its crude, unclassy and very native Indian junior artistes who are not even needed now for the crowd scenes.

The hunt is on at Café Mondegar, a Colaba pub where not only the beer but also a dish called Pollo Cordon Bleu is cheap, and about 25 to 50 per cent of the happy, buzzing, guzzling crowd are firang backpackers who stay at the cheap hotels by the Gateway of India. There are Mario Miranda cartoons painted on the walls and talent scouts on the prowl.

A group of three from Germany — two men and one woman — says it was approached by a man from an extra suppliers agent.

“He said we would have to go to the sets in Mumbai itself and just sit around during a party scene. We will be given free stay with food at a 4-star hotel in Juhu and around Rs 1,000 per head for a day,” says Helmut (name changed), one of the tourists. “We agreed, as we would get some money and could stay for one more day in India and get a look at Bollywood,” he says, adding that he is waiting for the agent to call.

But pub-hopping as a strategy is not approved of by other agencies. CuteLook Productions, a company that also shoots commercials and music videos, specialises in supplying foreign extras and says it does that professionally. They have supplied thousands of foreigners, they said, but business now is more brisk than ever.

“We started the business in ’96, when a film that we were working on would overshoot the budget by a huge margin if it went for outdoor shooting abroad. So we suggested that we would supply as many foreigners that the film needed and make India like abroad,” says Fazal Shaikh of CuteLook. “We did that and the scenes were completed at a much lower cost. Since then the demand for foreigners has only gone up.”

He says their company alone has supplied foreigners to many recent projects: Ajnabee, starring Akshay Kumar and Kareena Kapoor (“All the outdoor was shot in Dubai, all the indoor, including the song Mehbooba, was shot in India”), Talaash, Humraaz, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Boom, Chalte Chalte, Awaara Pagal Deewana, Kal Ho Na Ho...

“We have not kept count. The disco song in Kal Ho Na Ho and many other scenes as well were shot in India with foreigner extras,” says Mohammad Ali, also of CuteLook. “It looks like the entire film is shot abroad, whereas several parts are shot in India very cheaply,” he says.

Abbas Mastan’s Aitraaz is one of their on-set projects. Ketan Mehta’s The Rising, a film on the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny starring Aamir Khan, is another ongoing project that every “foreign extra supplier” is looking forward to. According to one, it needs 3,000 such extras. The Aftab Shivdasani-starrer Shukriya has foreigner extras, too.

“Sometimes we get all of them together at Mumbai and then send them to the location. But we send them by train or bus, though AC class,” says Shaikh. “They get to see more of India,” he adds.

“But we don’t go and catch people from pubs. We go by word-of-mouth and people get in touch with us through e-mail. People who have worked with us talk about us back home. We distribute leaflets also,” says Shaikh.

In his office at Lokhandwala he brings out a thick file that has “applications” from abroad. There is a young group from Australia which would like to do some shoots and get some pocket money. There is someone from Canada, from the UK, from the US.

But some of them are not from tourists. There is Sharon (name changed) from Israel, a 32-year-old “model-actor” who will be visiting India shortly and would like to “see Bollywood”. Like him, there are several aspirants from the East European countries who come as tourists but try to stay on to make a career by dint of their white skins. They have sent their CVs, with selections from their portfolios attached.

“Not tourists alone, but many foreign social workers are our extras. We got 200 people from the forum at Goregaon,” says Shaikh. He was referring to the World Social Forum.

He claims that CuteLook is the leader. But there is huge competition. There are the brothers, Lekh Raj and Dev Raj, there is Deewan and there is Leo from Mahim.

Not all of them are forthcoming like Shaikh, not the least because there is the tricky question of foreigners on tourist visas being paid to work.

Filmmaker Shashilal Nair, who said he used foreigners in his films One Two ka 4 and Grahan, added that he paid the extras between Rs 1,000 and 2,000 per day per head. “There’s big money in the look of the film now, with money coming from rights sold internationally, and a lot of that from television. For that, you have to have the look. White-skinned people give that look to our films,” said Nair.

CuteLook Productions denied that it paid its extras, saying it just gave them good food and accommodation. Bobby Bedi, the producer of The Rising, is silent on the issue. Bedi’s spokesperson confirmed that the film had on its rolls “many” foreigner extras, but refused to comment on anything else.

Shaikh said a large number of foreigners is entering other areas of the entertainment industry, too. “There are a lot of models for commercials, music videos and live shows. Most of them are from East Europe,” he says. “Roxanne, who has just shot one of the hit music videos, was our client.”

Roxanne Smith features in the hit remix of Kishore Kumar’s Keh doon tumhe, ya chup rahoon by DJ Aqeel.

In a cyber-café near Mondegar, an attractive young woman who looks East European is busy fending off an offer on her cell. “How can I work for Rs 200 per day'” she says haltingly. “That will not even cover my hotel costs.”

She identifies herself as Eva as she hot foots it to the pub, but doesn’t say anything more. However, the cyber-café owner, Syas, said she was being approached for a modelling assignment.

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