"I would like you to be the main actor in a film I am making, sir".
will be a small financial re-numeration" Mr Sunderjee says almost
Colin Todhunter finds himself the
unexpected 'star' of an Indian movie.
Everyone in the room turned to see who said this. A few seconds
later they began looking in my direction and I almost choked on
my coffee. This booming voice from half way across the room had
been directed toward me! This was the day I staggered out of bed,
and stumbled straight into a movie.
It was a late November day when Mr Sundarjee, an overweight and balding
man, approached me over my morning coffee in the hotel reception and asked
me - or should I say demanded me - to be in his film. My senses were dazed
after a night spent tossing and turning in the heat, but I was soon brought
into focus. Mr Sunderjee was the owner of a small film production company
here in Madras - or Chennai as it is now called. An exceptionally likeable
and charismatic man, he explained that he was directing and producing
an English dialogue film to be screened in India, parts of Africa and
Initially, half yawning, I listened out of courtesy. But the more he talked,
the less I yawned, and the more I listened with interest. "I cannot
act" I exclaimed, "I have no experience of acting whatsoever".
I couldnt quite believe that he wanted a raw novice. With a typical
Indian nonchalance and side to side characteristic headshake Mr Sunderjee
replied "This does not matter. Acting is easy". I thought to
myself "Yes, bad acting is easy!" Mr Sunderjee tried to reassure
me by adding "I will coach you on the set".
He went on to explain the script. To my surprise he was not making a swashbuckling
song and dance Bollywood-type movie. My part would be "James",
a softly spoken and dedicated foreign scientist who comes to India to
do research on plants that he hopes will earn him a Nobel prize. James
has recently married an Indian woman, Shweta from Calcutta, whom he met
while she was holidaying in London. It was a whirlwind romance. One week
after their marriage they are in the forests of South India where James
is doing his research.
James loves Indian culture and all of its religious traditions, and adores
Shweta. Shweta, on the other hand, loves all the "bad" aspects
of the West, and is not so sure whether she adores James. James cares
passionately about everything, but Shweta cares little for anything. Mr
Sunderjee explains that this is a simmering powder keg of disaster. She
likes to drink alcohol and sleep around, while he likes to work and thinks
he has married a woman who is dedicated to the finest traditions of India.
Nothing is further from the truth. She turns out to be James nemesis
as the plot thickens into a fog of lust, betrayal and blackmail, leading
eventually to James murder by their "servant" and Shwetas
Mr Sunderjee assures me that the film will make international waves. There
is only one slight problem, however - a minor difficulty by Indian standards,
but one which would slide off the Richter scale anywhere else. The shooting
begins in five weeks and all of the actors are in place - all of the actors
that is apart from the two lead roles. "There will be a small financial
re-numeration" Mr Sunderjee says almost apologetically - "we
cannot afford much as we are only a small production company".
After sleeping on it for a few days, I agree to play the part - or should
I say "attempt" to play the part. Five weeks later we are "on
location" in the mountains for a twelve day "shoot". We
are in a Kipling jungle-book fantasy land of waterfalls, and fruit orchards.
The cool air is sharp relief from the baking, mosquito-ridden plains below.
I am playing the part of James. While he works in the forest, Shweta goes
into the nearest town each night with their "servant" for a
bucketful of drink and an evening drenched in passion.
Shouts of "action" and "cut" were intimidating, and
Mr Sundarjees frequently furrowed brow was usually drowned in beads
of sweat. He always looked to me that he was about to keel over with a
heart attack at any second. His worried appearance and chain smoking,
however, belied an inner calm. As promised he was extremely helpful throughout,
offering advice and assistance. Every night he would give me my lines
which I would learn, and sometimes fluff the next day. He was a monument
to patience. It never took more than a couple of takes to get things right,
however. Each scene lasted for no more than forty five seconds, preceded
and followed by a seeming eternity of waiting as the sound, lighting and
positions were worked out with meticulous precision. I became acutely
aware that patience is an actor's greatest virtue.
The whole film was laden with emotive phrases such as "Your kisses
are like poison", and "You shatter my heart into a million fragments".
I was saying strange things to a complete stranger, surrounded by other
complete strangers. My self-consciousness often showed through, and Mr
Sundarjee had to coax me to relax and forget about the camera and crew.
He was oblivious to the fact that it wasn't so much the surroundings that
were offputting, but his script and the delivery which he desired. He
wanted me to say my lines with an exaggerated intonation and distorted
facial statement for added effect. I thought that I was sounding false,
looking stupid, and that it was all becoming a case of bad film making
and poor acting. But he seemed happy enough. I guess he knows his audience
and I presume that they like improbable dialogue and over-the-top acting.
Apart from two or three other actors in a scene at any one time, the set
consisted of Mr Sunderjee as producer/director/editor, his junior partner,
Mr Sooryia, and five assistants who arranged the props, lighting and sound.
Mr Sooryia was the sole cameraman. He was also the make-up artist, wardrobe-man,
driver and tea maker. Each morning we would suffer a gut-wrenching endurance
test as he would drive all of the crew up the bending mountain pass in
a battered jeep to our location. On arrival, he would usher everyoneout
with a prevailing sense of urgency. Then it would seemingly take hours
to for him to make the tea and, when he felt like, lay out the wardrobe
for the days shoot. In typical Indian fashion an intitial bout of
urgency is followed by lingering lethargy, and endless impatience and
frustration on my part. If we were lucky, the equipment would work first
time. But more often than not wires had to be cut, bulbs replaced or clothing
Rabindra, who plays Shweta, is an aspiring big-time actor and hopes the
film will launch her to where she wants to be - a Bollywood star. It may
well do; she plays her role with poise. She struts around the set wearing
tight jeans and listening to hard-rock music, giving James a taster of
just where whirlwind romances can lead - in this case, disaster, with
James getting more than he bargained for.
The last two days of the shoot take place back in pollution-choked Madras
- which, for the purpose of the film doubles as Calcutta. Its an
ideal backdrop for the opening scene as the monsoon skies hang heavy with
a sense of foreboding. This is where James meets Shwetas parents
after touching down in India. In these opening scenes of the film, Shweta
plays the perfect daughter, dressed in traditional attire, and in the
role of dutiful wife, providing no insight into the tragedy about to take
place in the jungle where she transforms into some kind of bizarre version
of a 1970s "rock-chick".
Much of the shooting appeared to be a kind of organized mess. A film with
no stars, a lead actor who hadnt acted in his life, and a rag-tag
production crew that seemingly couldnt produce anything if their
lives depended on it. Yet the near-impossible was transformed into the
possible, the extraordinary became ordinary, and the high drama of it
all turned into daily routine. Somehow I felt we would never get through
it, but someway we did. Every day seemed to last forever, and often bordered
on drudgery. But the hardship of doing it is now offset by the satisfaction
of having done it.
And the name of the film? - I nearly forgot - "Poison Kiss".
I dont know what the finished product will be like, but if Mr Sunderjee
has his way, it will be at least passable. And me? - I have returned to
the UK and have drifted back into obscurity - well maybe. If you ever
pass through Kazakhstan, have a quick look to see whats showing
at the local cinema. You never know, Mr Sunderjees latest blockbuster
may be on show. I suppose that now I am "on-screen", I travel
all over without actually leaving home - a case of always somewhere, but
© colin todhunter 2002
(If you really do se this film and have any stills, do send a review in
to hackwriters for all the word to see! Ed.)
Previously by Colin Todhunter
The unique experience of going
to the gym in India
Copenhagen to Byron Bay
India first you get married and then you work these things out",
he said with amazing casualness.
More Travel Journeys in Hacktreks
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