Some time ago at my friend Rajal Pitroda’s book launch I met this lovely girl Reetu Jain who told me (all bright eyed and bubbly) of her plans to enter Bollywood. Cut to a few months on and she’s scored her first “item song” in Chaalis Chauraasi (4084) and even agreed to blog about it! Read on… xoxo
“How funny!” I think to myself, as I sit in the movie theatre, watching scenes from the first half of The Dirty Picture, and relate it to my experience as an “item girl”. Fortunately enough, many of those experiences were more hearsay than actuality, but it all seemed very possible. I had never thought, six months before the shoot, while sitting at my corporate desk job as a Certified Public Accountant, in Austin, Texas, that I would be dancing alongside the legendary Naseeruddin Shah, in a Bollywood film called Chaalis Chauraasi (4084). And there I was, on the set, making googly eyes, and throwing my hips around to the lyrics “Badmast Main Ho Gayi Re”.
Luck by chance? I’m not so sure I could call it that, but it still makes for an interesting story. The casting director of Chaalis Chauraasi (4084) called me on a Saturday afternoon, after the director of the film had seen an interview and photograph of me in my tribal belly dance wear, in the Mumbai Mirror. The article was about my training as a professional dancer, and a particular style of tribal belly dance, for which I was about to begin workshops in Mumbai. I was a bit reluctant, as I didn’t want to be typecast as the “item girl”, but as soon as she mentioned Naseer Sahab’s name, I suddenly became intrigued.
It made me nervous and excited to think about sharing the screen with one of the best actors in Indian cinema. I agreed to meet with the team, and over a cup of coffee at Costa Coffee, I met with the director, choreographer and casting director. They all seemed unusually professional – I mean that’s not how it was supposed to go, was it? Weren’t they supposed to be arrogant and manipulative, suggesting favors & exploiting me, the “newcomer”? I was pleasantly relieved they didn’t fit the stereotype, and after a brief discussion about the logistics, I agreed to get together with the choreographer on another day, so he could gauge my talent and ability to shake it to a scratch of the song. I seemed to pass that test, and soon enough, after a couple more intense chats had ensued about the costume, we were about 10 days away from the shoot date. It was time for the rehearsals to begin.
We started the high-energy rehearsals in a hall in Andheri, and I was thankful for being a trained dancer. I developed a new-found respect for non-dancer actresses, who learned and picked up choreographies so quickly. The big day was creeping up, and with each rehearsal, I became more confident with my decision to do the project.
June 15, 2011 was the day – the first day of the shoot. We drove out to Kalyan to shoot at Chokhi Dhani. It was scheduled to be an outdoor shoot, and the monsoons had barely started showing their face this week. The staff was a little nervous about the rains, but it seemed manageable. I started getting into hair, makeup and costume at around 4:00 pm. By 8:00 pm, I was ready to go; anxious to get on the set, and in front of the camera. A vehicle drove me from my vanity van, about 500 feet, to the first shoot site. It was dark and muggy. I was getting stares from the male workers at Chokhi Dhani; many of them whisperingly asking each other which actress I was. It was a film shoot, but they hadn’t seen me before.
The first shoot site was covered, and through the windows, I noticed the leering eyes of those same workers, trying to get a glimpse of the filming – perhaps more importantly, so they would have stories to share with their relatives at home. I was nervous. It was good to see the assistant choreographer there, who I had gotten to know over our half a dozen rehearsals. Her familiar face eased me a bit. “Action!” shouted the director, and before I knew it, the camera was 10 feet from my face. The area quietened down, lights were glaring, the heat was rising, and my hands were shaking, as I did the slow turn for the first part of the song. For sure they’re going to see my lips quiver, I thought to myself. It’s a close-up!
“Cut!”, the director exclaimed, as he walked over to me and told me how he wants the shot. This must have happened at least 50 times (although I was told it only happened a few times), partially because the crew was trying to figure things out as well. It felt like an eternity. Done with this shot and onto the next. I still hadn’t seen Naseer Sahab or Manoj Pahwa, the other actor in the song.
And what do you know – the next scene was going to be with both of them. I met Manoj Ji briefly, a sweet, jolly fellow. We started rehearsing, since during prior rehearsals, I had learned to dance to the choreography with phantom actors or other assistant choreographers. As we were just getting the hang of it, I felt a sudden seriousness. Naseer Sahab was walking onto the set, and everyone was in awe of “Sir” as he walked up, politely trying to get their respects noticed by him. Okay, here we go. I was introduced to him and we were ready to work. After a few rehearsals, “action!”, shouted the director, and a few seconds later, “and cut”! Oh no. What had I done? Apparently, my lip syncing wasn’t working out. I had asked for the lyrics a week before, but hadn’t received them, and now I had to learn them perfectly on the spot. I had forgotten a pronoun. If my heart started beating any faster, I was surely going to pass out. Okay, let’s try this again…focus. And sure enough, after the next take, they said we’re done with this scene. Wait, what happened…did the take work this time? I guess it did!
The first day I was so nervous, I avoided speaking to Naseer Sahab much. But by the second day, I started chatting with him between shots. Everyone was so formal around him, and it just seemed a bit weird to me. He is a great actor and I deeply respect him, but the hierarchical behavior blew me away; we would all be in the middle of a conversation, and he would walk up to the group to find complete silence. So I started up some casual conversation with him about scuba diving, traveling, my dance classes, etc. He was great…an intelligent and normal dude. We were in the middle of an all-night, 4 am shoot, on day three, discussing potential dance/acting opportunities, when it started pouring. Everyone ran for cover, and the “spot Dadas” were running after me and him in opposite directions with umbrellas, so that our makeup didn’t wash away. My costume was already partially sewn onto me, so I was avoiding drinking much water in the heat, let alone a laxative like chai. It was fun and crazy. I saw him about a half hour later, after the rain subsided, for our next shot. I was proud to see he was reading Isaac Asimov, while the set was being put together. Smart.
On the last day, day three, the last shot finished up at 7 am. Wow…I had no idea what it took to be an actor. A lot of getting made up, hard work, waiting time, irregular eating (unless you have your own nutritionist and cook with you) and odd working hours. The end product looks like it was all fun and games…easy-deasy. But it takes much more than that. Hopefully, this was just the beginning. I was willing to put in the effort, for the experience of being around talented and creative individuals, and for the opportunity to artistically express myself through acting/dancing in varied characters. Although the film, which released on January 13, 2012, didn’t do well, the experience was worth it. It was much more exciting than a corporate desk job. I await other adventures that may come my way…as long as they don’t lead to an end like The Dirty Picture.