From backpacker to Bollywood extra

Howard Johnson in white suit on set
Image caption,
Johnson on set with prop cocktail

Scouts often cruise the streets of Mumbai looking for westerners to work as extras in Bollywood films. I ended up dancing on the set of a movie within a day of landing in India as a backpacker, says Howard Johnson.

Some people spend their lives seeking their 15 minutes of fame. But as I experienced in India, sometimes it comes looking for you.

I'd just arrived in Mumbai after a flight from Bangladesh. A little travel weary I set about looking for a hotel on the streets of Colaba, the backpacker district.

Walking past the Salvation Army hostel a shadowy figure stood in a doorway called out to me: "Hey, want to be in a Bollywood movie?"

I'd read in my guide book that scouts trawl the area looking for westerners to work as extras, but I hadn't expected to be asked minutes after my arrival.

The man was Amjad Khan, a casting agent for the film industry. He said all I'd have to do was dance a little behind the film's main actors.

If I was interested we'd start the next day at 8am. I'd be driven to the studios, fed, dressed and returned to Colaba in the evening. And I would be paid for my efforts.

Next morning I dragged myself to the meeting point. Stood in front of McDonald's on Colaba Causeway were a ragtag bunch of backpackers complete with dreadlocks, nose piercings, fisherman pants and tattoos. I had expected to see chiselled-jawed foreign models.

My nine co-actors seemed the most unlikely types to swing and sway their hips behind the Bollywood stars. Amjad didn't seem to care though and set off for the film studios.

Private detective

Just under an hour later we arrived at the Filmistan Studios in Goregaon, central Mumbai. Despite being located on a dreary non-descript road, they have an illustrious 60-year-old history. After a quick breakfast of curried vegetables we headed off to get our costumes.

In a small, damp-smelling shed I was given a white nylon suit, black shirt, white tie and black shoes - none of which were clean.

Image caption,
Lead actor Akshay Kumar is a Bollywood star

Ignoring the sartorial set-back I headed outside to join the others. A remarkable transformation had taken place. They had been scrubbed up and now resembled a group of suave party-goers.

As we headed to the film set there was speculation over what the film was all about. Rumours were circulating that we would be dancing in a 1970s night club.

When we finally arrived on set, in front of us was a vast mock up of an ice-white night club. Far from the retro, it looked like something from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

On the wall was a huge clock. Bell boys and waiters wandered around among a huge team of Indian dancers. The camera crew were busy setting up our first shot. A member of the production crew handed us a glass of neon-blue liquid. "Don't drink it," he said.

Organised chaos

Minutes later an assistant director barked orders at us. We were moved millimetre by millimetre to be correctly placed in the camera frame.

Image caption,
Fellow backpacker extras scrubbed up well

Finally, when everything was set, superstar Akshay Kumar strode onto the set. The local extras excitedly whispered among themselves.

Having lived in India for a few months I knew a bit about Bollywood's big names. Unfortunately, the wow factor was lost on the western extras, as none of the others knew who he was.

Moments later director Anees Bazmee ambled onto the set and shouted through his megaphone: "Standby!" Generic pop music began to play. The cameras started to roll.

We nervously jigged around on the spot behind Kumar. Ten seconds later the music was cut. A minute later we were all moved back into place and the process began again. The pattern of the day was set.

Wad of notes

Word was we were on the set of a film called Thank You, a comedy set in Canada and about three philandering husbands. Kumar played a private detective trying to expose the wicked ways of one of the men.

As afternoon wore on the combination of bright lights, nylon suit and non-stop dancing left me thirsty. I stared at my blue drink wondering why I couldn't take a sip. Apparently, it was local tap water mixed with food dye.

Image caption,
We were warned not to drink the blue cocktails

"We need water," shouted one of the extras. A runner was dispatched to get refreshments. We got a single bottle of mineral water to share among us.

At 9pm the film crew called it a day. After returning our costumes, we boarded the minibus taking us back to our hotels.

One of Amjad's colleagues pulled out a wad of notes and handed us 500 rupees each. For a 13-hour day we'd been paid just under £7, but the money really wasn't important. We felt we truly knew what it was like to be a bollystar, if only for one day.