Saturday, February 17, 2007

Saturday? What's that?

Morning all~

Well, it's morning for me here in Mumbai. It is almost 11 am on Saturday, Feb 17. Shootout at Lokhandwalla is still happening, and by now has been shooting for 2 hours. I am incredibly exhuasted. I never get enough sleep here. There is so much life outside of my window... it invades my space and gets into my dreams and calls me back into wakefulness with an insistence that is both frustrating and mind blowing. (Side note: "Mind blowing" is a phrase most often heard in Bollywood, on sets, in general conversation, in reference to anything but mostly film related things, and used by everyone from the director to the grips. "Superb" is another well used phrase, applicable in the same context.)
There are bands of wild dogs that fight into the night, and often the late night foot and rickshaw traffic accompanying a "wild" night out. The mobile phone I was given by my program used to belong to a former employee and random people call my phone all the time, often disrupting my precious sleep. Then, once I'm awake, I can't get back to sleep.

I love Mumbai and the chance to be here is not an opportunity lost on me, but there are a few things that I require to be able to function. (Adequate) Sleep is one, (clean, safe) water is another, (healthy, safe) food is the last. When I have those things, everythign else I can take in stride. When those things aren't there, I have alot of trouble. I went out on Thursday night for the first time, to a lounge then a very small club/bar. Both were lame, but I had fun observing the lameness, jumping around to house music and being silly. It was all pretty accidental, I didn't even realize that I had committed to dinner plans with the Harvard kid, and once we ate a whole spread of food prepared by his guest houses domestic staff, we randomly left and walked around. The lounge we went to first was called something Japanese, like Seigo or something. It could have been a lounge anywhere. It is a branded bar, with an entire menu of Bacardi inspired mojitos, low lighting, with tasteful cohesive decor, definately designed by some up and comer, but very typical at the same time. They were playing american music, top 40 and older hiphop influenced r&b. That suited me just fine.

I had spent Thursday on location at a club called Fire & Ice at Phoenix Mills, a large outdoor mall very far from my apartment. All day long, 2 songs were repeated over and over for all the different angles of this club scene. There were a ton of junior actors (extras) who were in the scene who were lazy and mostly obnoxious. The club was small but average as far as decor went, it was sort of indian themed, sort of arabian themed. Normally a nicer end club I think. The two songs being played were house mixes of "its your birthday" by 50 cent, and some song I had never heard before taking lines from "no satisfaction" by the rolling stones. It sounds wierder than it was, both songs had great base beats and were easy to dance to. Not that most of the extras could dance, in my opinion.

And their clothes! OMG! I wanted to laugh so hard. For example, there was a guy there with a red fleece vest on with a pair of jeans. he had the vest zipped 3/4 of the way up. That was his outfit. Two girls were wearing almost identical outfits: casual light denim jean dresses, very simliar to the ones J. Lo's line made popular a few years ago. They had the low slung belt loops, and one girl, bless her, actually wore one. Both girls had keds-like sneaker flats on with sneaker socks that I could ACTUALLY SEE. it was, as you might have gathered by now, appalling. Some of the girls had really regular outfits on, things that girls in the US would just wear out and about. CArgo pants and a striped coordinating 3/4 sleeve top. skinny jeans, boxing boots and a short sweater. Some girls wore dressier things, dresses, skirts, halters, typical Forever 21-esque sequined tops. Thankfully those girls had the sense to wear appropriate footwear in the form of dressy heels. Anyway, the shoot that day was for Woodstock Villa and it was very cool getting to see all the different angles that had to be shot, and how to get the extras to make that club scene look really jumping and believable. My right ear hurt so bad from the speakers, since that side of my head was closest to them. I kept just closing that ear, but the vibrations were so strong that the pain started to extend into my jaw and the right side of my face. At some points of the day I was really into the music and wanted to go dance. But by the end of the day, as with the end of all shoots, I was exhuasted. I wanted to go home and sleep.

Two hours of a traffic filled car ride later, I had made it. It was around this time that the Harvard kid calls me, asking what time he should let his roommates and kitchen staff know to schedule dinner. What? Exactly. I actually had no real clue that this was what the plan was, but being to tired to argue, I went home, ate some of Seema's dinner (since she had already prepared it), changed clothes and got back into the traffic for an almost hour long rickshaw ride towards Bandra, a nice, somewhat trendy shopping & residential area for those with $$ and plenty of clubs, restuarants and lounges to cater to these rich hipsters. After dinner and awkward dismissive hellos from the other expatriots inthe apartment, we headed out to the lounge. We eventually left, after listening to the MC do a freestyle rhyme about the 5 other people there. The final straw was when the MC for the evening introduced "No Wax" night, which is basically ushering in Thursday night IPod parties. Since no one came prepared, they borrowed his ipod and the music was not my cup of tea.

We hopped into a rickshaw and went to some place called the shack, or i think that's what it is called, thats what was stamped on my hand anyway. The first floor was 70s, 80s and 90s mix of oldies music. Bleh. Next! We walked in to "That thing you do" and went straight upstairs. It was supposed to be a hip hop/hindi fusion floor, but as I mentioned before, it was only house music. So i jumped around and acted like I was at a rave. It was fun, but it took me ages to stop blatantly laughing at everyone around me. I know, I'm a snob. Can't help it. NYC spoils a person, u know?

There were 2 old Sikh guys there, just eating and drinking. They seemed totally out of place among the younger professionals who were drinking and "dancing."

I was exhuasted at 1:15 am when we got kicked out. The lights came up, and as seems custom in all clubs i've ever been to, they close the more happening room well before the rest of the venue. This has only led to me to belive that club administrators and staff are merely killjoys, out to take clubgoers money and nothing else. I took the 30 minute rickshaw ride back and practically collapsed into bed. I woke up way too early the next morning (Friday) and really really didn't want to go to the Shootout shoot. I knew that it was going to be an exciting day on the outdoor set they had been waiting months for. These were going to the external building shots where the 256 cops would shoot at the building, here was going to be an explosion of some sort-definitely fun in theory. I spent the morning resting and really not wanting to leave the apartment.

At 2:30 pm I eventually made my way into a rickshaw and headed to the shoot for 2 1/2 hours. Yesterday I gave money to the first beggar since I have been in India. Since rickshaws are open on both sides, I hold onto all my stuff tightly as many folks walk up to the rickshaw and try to sell things or beg. Whenever I say no, I feel bad. When I ignore people, I feel even worse. It seems in Bombay that even looking at someone and acknowledging them makes it alot harder to get them to leave you alone. That often means blatantly staring past or even thru someone. I would rather close my eyes than do this, but when with other people, I dunno. I try to follow their cue. This particular beggar was a youngish man with a small child, probably about 2 yrs old in his arms. He thrust the child's mangled, bloody bandaged hand at me and asked for money, for "medicine." I reached into my pocket, grabbed 2 rupees and prayed for that child's health and safety. The child had kohl lined eyes and looked down trodden, as if the spark of life had been stamped out of him long ago, and his two years of life had already been too much. I shuddered as we drove away, on my way to a place that was re-creating violence and desperation on a carefully constructed set.

I arrived at the perfecct time. After day long preperations and many takes of not-as-cool stuff like dialouge, the three cars outside of the main building where the gangsters are holed up were prepped and ready. Ready to be hit by a "bazooka" out of their window, to hit an old car parked across the street. This was dramatic liscense, b/c the gangsters did not have heavy artillery with them. Only bags of guns and ammunition. But the car was rigged to explode, the roof fly off, along with the doors while the windows blew out. The two cars behind it were rigged for the windows to blow out as well. There were four cameras set up to capture all angles of the shot, and we were told to stand far back behind the playback monitors. There was only one take of this shot, and it was awesome. The car blew up, and everything happened on que. It caught on fire and people rushed to put it out with waiting hoses as soon as "Cut!" was called. It was such a rush to be there and see it happen in person. I realized on this shoot that I love actions movies. I always have, but this movie made me remeber that they can be so exciting! It's really cool to see how all this stuff is done and how its shot to give the maximum effect of action and boom! to each frame. Afterwards were the cops shooting rounds of blanks at the building over and over. Really wasnt helping my already hurt eardrums, but cool none the less. The actors playing the cops or the cops themselves, whatever they were, weren't listening and no one was really responding well to the director as he tried to set up the following shots. He got so pissed that at one point, in the middle of trying to set up a shot, he screamed "That's a wrap!" and wrapped the shoot early. Everyone stood around, dumbfounded and when it was clear that he was serious, I hopped in a rickshaw and headed out. Enough of the film world for me today. I spent the evening with Seema, trying to find affordable clothes in Bombay and really not succeeding. Everything I've found here is practically at American prices. Bleh!!! Oh well. Hopefully whenever the shooting of this film is over I'll take a day or two to go check out Bombay's famous bazaars and find decently priced stuff.

Blog again as soon as I can. Hope to hear some COMMENTS!!!! >

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Not Part 2

I've officially been in Mumbai a week, and in India for two. It is crazy how time bends while traveling. I in some ways feel as though there was no moment before this. Hyderabad, even a week ago, is a distant, fuzzy memory. My family and friends are pieces of love that are accessible through phone and email, and their physical presence seems doubtful. Today I had a bad day. Almost 2 weeks to the day of me arriving here, I am experiencing what LEAP refers to as a predictable bout of culture shock. Here are some symptoms and/or reasons:
"After two weeks, this has usually passed, and students hit the wall in a
couple of ways:

Culture shock
Feeling that you can't really make a difference
Feeling useless in your internship
Feeling that things are too different from what you imagined when
you chose your internship
Feeling that three months is too long to feel like this
Feeling like everyone else is having a better experience than you
Not speaking the language well enough to really connect with people
Being the only _____ person among many _______ persons
Hating everything and just wanting to pack it in and go home
Feeling unsafe, or that something bad will happen if you stay
Crying a lot for no clear reason
Feeling that you aren't getting what you came here for"

It is predictable, I am told, and like clockwork, here I am. This is compounded by the death of my aunt earlier this week; she lost a long, hard battle with cancer. There are other things pulling from home of course, but I feel quite detached from most of it, all the way on the other side of the world, in my Bombay bubble.

It's a city built by the British on land "reclaimed" from the sea. Reclaimed? when you fill in the ocean, is that reclaiming? or destroying? I'm not sure. I think to the part of Mumbai I have definitely NOT seen, and have little desire to. The part beyond the bridge that leads to Asia's largest slums. Those folks are like the land, I think. Reclaimed and added to this city in a way that has destroyed their lives and their futures. Slums are visible enough, especially on the way to the staple of the Bollywood super rich, the film shoot. Being here is great, and I am grateful for it. But yesterday I went shopping with one of the super rich, and that led me into a very strange and unsettling evening. I ended up meeting up with friends of a friend who lived in Mumbai last year. They are Ivy Leaguers, one form UPenn and one Harvard. The Harvard one is white, from my area back home and strangely enough, knows a kid I served with in City Year. The world is too small sometimes. The UPenn kid is a Californian of South Indian descent, very sheltered. They are both success stories of being on "the track" to a tip top education at the most elite American institutions. By the time I met up with them, I was exhausted, ungrounded, flustered and frustrated. It was nice to speak American English with other Americans, really laugh, share sarcasm and irony, and just hang out. But in my tiredness, I didn't have the normal deft guards up for conversation, and I noticed but didn't counter the fact that the conversation ended up being all about me. As in, classifying, labelling, understanding and ultimately placing me in my appropriate social hierarchical place. Basically amidst the laughter, the conversation went like this:

Where are you from?
How do you know Tyler? (our mutual friend)
Why are you in India?
So wait what school do you go to?
What's your major? Why did you work for so long after high school?
I've never heard of someone taking so much time off!!
So you tried Americorps and then decided on this?
You realize, and are mentally prepared for the fact that you will be the oldest person in all your classes for the next 3 years, right?
Did your gap year turn into many?

I deftly answered and kept the conversation moving, but it never turned to them. I was too tired to pry or wryly comment on their obviously successful path of conformity and the pride of their parents and family. I'm not sure if other people do this, but after social interactions, especially new and different ones, I examine them from as many angles as I can see. As I did this, I felt incredibly judged by these two well meaning, friendly, well educated boys. I started to feel bad about myself, about the choices I've made (and haven't had the opportunity to make) and regret the way my life is. I started to feel like I had to prove how my brilliance and legitimacy. They were such text book Ivys, and they are, as it goes, still on the track. They are in India working for an Indian company that sells cars internationally. I got pissed this morning when I was thinking about it. I don't know why I felt so needy of their approval. I shouldn't feel that way. I shouldn't have to, anyway.
I am intelligent, subversive, witty, attractive. I am loved
Why do I need validation from this world that I reject?
Do I want to be a part of it that badly?
Makes me really upset that I wasn't able to fulfill my potential in the socially accepted, rewarded way of going to an Ivy in the correct amount of time and then going on to do whatever I want.

The strange duality and almost hypocrisy of visiting the Bollywood world while really being against what it stands for and what it propagates in the Indian culture (as far as consumerism, white is right mentality) and it is beginning to grate on me a bit. I am really enjoying getting to see the flim industry this close and learning so much, but those slums along the way and the people who tap on my window and beseach my generosity in the name of God stay with me past the pretty faces of the actors and actresses and the self important musings of the directors, producers and the like.

Today I woke up at 7am, earliest for a shoot day, after going to bed latest than I have, more exhuasted than I have been. I was explicity instructed I had to be ready by 9 AM to be fetched by my program's asst to be chaperoned to today's shoot. It was shooting on the other side of Mumbai, a good 2-2.5 hour commute from here. It was my academic director's shoot, and it had been shooting from 6AM on location in the streets of a quaint neighborhood. It was supposed to be a very conformtable experience for me, my teacher's movie and all. We ended up, both due to the incredibly lax and infuriating lack of Indian communication skills, decision making and premium put on time to travel and wait around for over 3 hrs before i arrived at the shoot that had been going on since 6AM. I was ready at 9, despite my sheer exhuastiuon. I didn't get fetched until almost 10, and didn't arrive on set until almost lunch after 1PM. I wanted to kill someone. Shooting on location was horrible. It wasn't a comfortable experience for me, hardly anyone acklowedged me or accomodated me. I stood for hours of shots, in the heat and sun, getting attacked by crazy bugs. I was so far gone by 3pm, when the shoot was supposed to wrap that I spent the two extra hours we shot staring at the action with glazed eyes, trying to stay awake. :( Everything sucked today.

I dunno. I'm exhuasted and apoligize for not being able to save this blog post from the negative and slightly depresing look at my experience.

Comments (and concerned emails!) are greatly appreciated.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

India giveth, India taketh away (part 1)

Long time no post, this I know. I am terribly sorry, especially since my fingers have been itching to type and leave a million entries about my experience so far. This is the first time that i've been online since last wednesday, almost a week. That's almost an era in India time. Hyderabad was amazing, overwhleming and heartwarming. I have been welcomed into the arms of family i didn't even know about. I have seen life from the upper crust, the middle class and the working poor. (All encompassed within my family, in 3 distinct areas within Hyderabad.)
I had the most awkward afternoon of my life with my grandfather's sister's family, which i promise i'll blog about another time. I left Hyderabad on Spice Jet, a low cost Indian Airline, from Hyderabad's provincial airport. The flights were delayed about an hour, and i found myself striking up conversation with a brazilian model who looks rather indian. We talked about her new boyfriend, an Indian model who is from Mumbai, and all the hilarious cross cultural misunderstandings they have had in the last 2 months they have known each other. Before we walked up the stairs to get on the plane, she said something strange about Indian people having bad skin and body shapes b/c of the spiciness of the food. I was totally confused by the randomness (and the ignorance) of this comment, and although I wasn't offended, I think she thought I was, and didn't speak to me again.

By the time I arrived in Mumbai and collected my baggage, I didn't even think about it, I was just excited to go meet my contact and finally begin the solo part of my trip, unsupported by the comforts of family and filial love. I stepped out into Mumbai and spotted the two folks who were waiting for me. A dark skinned man named Makesh and a lighter skinned woman (who turned out to be my lady-in-waiting, who stays at my apartment to take care of me and cook my meals) named Seema. We drove through Mumbai's midnight traffic while i tried to stay awake and get my first look at Mumbai. We arrived at my "guest house" which turned out to be a private apartment complex. My apartment is clean, internet capable and very American. I have a shower, cable tv and a roommate for the next few days. She's a woman of my same name from Kolkutta, who runs a NGO dedicated to the education of girls.
(I'm borrowing her laptop at the moment)

I spent Sunday sleeping in, and eventually met with my academic director, who is a well connected Bollywood director who has made 7 somewhat alternative Hindi films. . He told me my biggest responsibility was to have a blast, and that this program would become what I made of it. I am the only student this month in the program, and I would be spending the first two weeks on sets at currents film shoots. I would start the week at the set for Shootout at Lokhandwala, a film by a hot young director, starring a bevy of Bollywood stars, with legends, stars and newcomers. (Some names to note are Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjay Dutt and Vivek Oberoi, check them and the movie info out at!!)
After our conversation about film and the film I'd be visitng, I went to the nearest beauty parlor to get a pedicure and prepare for going to a major Bollywood set the next day. I picked out my outfit, reviewed my film technique readings, and tried to not have any expectations.

I woke up early, did my morning pages (yay me!) and began to get ready. My breakfast arrived with my lady-in-waiting, and the wait for my ride (in the form of mukesh) began. He arrived an hour late with no explanation and we hopped into an autorickshaw for a bumpy, windy ride that took almost 45 minutes to get to Film City, the place where the movie was being shot.

It was quite a shock. I've been on the tour at the Universal Studios lot in Cali like all good tourists who visit there, and I felt that seeing the sets took away a great deal of the magic of the films I recognized them from. But being a Hollywood studio lot, it was clean, well maintained and chock full of security to keep rabid fans and wannabes off the sets that were being used. Mumbai's Film City was nothing like this. There were security guards in police look alike uniforms at the front gate who hardly even looked in our auto rickshaw as we zoomed through. I had been told by more than one person that Film City was built on the outskirts of the city b/c it was hilly, removed and scenic. Huh. As we drove up, I was struck by how typically Indian the place looked. Dirt roads, slums off the road, people washing their laundry in the river, hanging it to dry on the tree limbs nearby, goats and stray dogs running amuck.... Didnt look remotely different to me. there had been no welcome signs, or company signs and I honestly thought we were in the wrong place for a time. The main road was rather long and brought us to some set in construction, a small chai shop and a little restuarant beside ot. Many men were standing around, leaning on cars and talking, with no official ID of any sort to indicate whether they belonged there or not. I saw a few trailers as we drove around, lost in this unlabelled labrynth of broken down buildings and dirt roads. The only sign of real work that I witnessed other than the set builders were two women, wearing drab brown coats over their colorful thin saris, walking wearily along the road with a bucket and hand held broom each. They were picking up small pieces of trash and dusting away debri over the sides of the road onto the slope near the river. Makesh got out of the auto while we stopped by the chai shop to call our contact to confirm location of the shoot. I used this time to try and get the wind and dust whipped tangles out of my just clean hair. I began to doubt we would beable to arrive where we were supposed and dread my empty day with no shoot. No need, it was the place we had passed with the trailers.

Our auto unceremoniously pulled over onto a dirt hump and I tumbled out. I followed Makesh aimlessly, taking in the many skinny, dust covered men standing around, the broke down, half built look of the concrete building I was about to walk into, the mangy dogs running about, fighting or sleeping in the sun and the many pairs of eyes that stared at me, in my white cotton tunic and pink pin striped pants.

We wandered around like this for some time, until film crew people noticed us and tried to see why we were there. Makesh pointed upward to the second floor of the exposed, incomplete building to a woman in blue. He said something I didn't catch and waved me inthe direction of this woman. I walked up a rickety, very hastily handmade looking wooden ramp made of what looked like pieces of other sets. I met Pranchi, an assitant director a few years older than me who went to Temple for her undergrad. We shook hands and she said I should meet the director, even though they were in the middle of a take! I stood back to let her get his attn while I looked around the dusty, dirty hallway I had walked into. I couldn't see the filming b/c so many people wer standing btwn me and the camera guy (there was harldy 3 feet btwn us) and realising she couldn't get Apurva's (Apu)attn, she asked me to take a seat in front of the playback screens and wait for him there. As I sit down, I hear "Cut! Superb! One more!" and in rushes a tall youngish, hip looking Indian man, covered in tattoos of Hindu significance, rimless glasses, and an Abercrombie/Hollister/American Eagle look of jeans, a polo t-shirt and Sauconys/Aasics. He comes in and Pranchi introduces us quickly, saying his name fast and unintelligably, and introducing me as "A friend of Hansal Mehta's (my academic director/film director I mentioned earlier). She's a film student from CT (Connect-i-cut." His eyes lit up at Hansal's name and it was apparent he knew I was coming. He welcomed me warmly, offered me chai and went back to the take he just shot. People were coming in and out of the room, hurridly speaking in Hindi about the shot and the next one. In a moment the film's anti-hero, played by Bollywoodmega star Vivek Oberoi, strides in. He's tall, with fantastic hair, big eyes and a nice smile. Apu introduces me and says "This is Vivek, he's a big star." I answered with a smile and "I know, I've seen some of his films." Apu goes on to gush that Vivek does great work, we exchange more pleasantries and then watch playback of the last take together.

There's the entire rest of my day and then my 24 hour bout with food poisoning to tell about, but if I don't post this now, I have no idea when I will be able to. I'm still borrowing my flat mate's laptop, and I have hardly any time on it. More to come! I promise!