Bollywood, Here I Come
MUMBAI, India — I get ready in my air-conditioned apartment in Mumbai. Eyeliner and shadow, two coats of mascara, foundation, blush, powder and just a little more eyeliner. I put on my grandmother’s pearl earrings and my fitted Banana Republic dress that falls far above my knees but fully covers my back and chest – sexy but conservative. This is India, after all.
One more look in the mirror. Not bad.
I have not acted since my middle school production of Alice in Wonderland, and I’ve never modeled. But life in Mumbai – especially for “fair-skin” foreigners – works differently.
Soon after I arrived in India a talent scout spotted me at a coffee shop, took my photographs and said she’d call if her company thought they could use me. I did not hear from her for three months and tried to put it out of my mind. I’m more than just a pretty face anyway, I said to myself, who cares if they don’t want me.
Then, out of nowhere, I get the call. She wants me to come for an audition for a commercial. Make sure to wear your red glasses, she tells me, they’re funky.
You mean it wasn’t my high cheekbones and deep brown eyes? Oh, well. I do agree – the glasses are cute.
I debate, for at least 30 seconds, going to the audition. I’m a journalist, a writer, a thinker, a “foreign correspondent.” Wouldn’t becoming a model cause people to take me less seriously?
I ask my friends for their opinion. One, an established Indian journalist, tells me that in India modeling and acting is probably viewed as a step up from journalism. Another, an equally established photojournalist, tells me he too has modeled.
Enough said. Sign me up for the audition. Who knows, maybe it’ll lead to more. I am living in the heart of Bollywood. I could come to India a reporter and leave a star.
I also need the cash. Journalism, at least in the States, is not exactly a thriving business these days. Many of my friends from journalism school have already given up on the field and moved on to law or education. The ones who are sticking with it often supplement their reporting with other gigs. Some bar tend; I could sit and look pretty.
I put on my heels, perfect my hair and set off for the audition.
But as soon as I step outside, the hot and muggy air hits me in the face. Mumbai’s summer recently arrived, just in time to foil my plans for becoming Bollywood’s next big star.
I try to fan myself with my Times of India (I wonder how many models carry around the day’s newspaper), but it’s no use. By the time I travel the 30 minutes by rickshaw, I am dripping in sweat, my hair is completely disheveled and my lovely Banana Republic sexy-but-conservative dress looks like I had crinkled it into a ball before putting it on. Real stars, I realize, have cars and drivers.
I sneak into the building’s parking garage and try to salvage my appearance. I reapply my lipstick, put on three additional layers of powder and check myself in a motorbike’s side mirror. Well, not horrible. I could totally pass for a beauty queen – if it weren’t for the sweat stains on my dress.
I head up to the audition room, giving myself a silent pep talk as I look for a glamorous studio filled with a sea of foreign women.
I enter and find a small, dingy waiting room. No foreigners. No women. Just a handful of guys waiting around.
I take a closer look at my new “colleagues.” These men are drop-dead gorgeous. Sharp jaw lines. Piercing eyes. Lush hair. These men do not need funky red glasses; they are fine just the way they are.
The talent scout who had called me hands me a script to study. I pretend to focus on my new line of work as I check out the crowd. A couple young women – my competition – enter wearing tight jeans, even tighter tops and three-inch stiletto sandals. My competition looks ready to go dancing at a club. I’m ready for brunch with my grandmother. One tosses her thick long hair over her shoulder. I push up my glasses.
The talent scout calls me in. She holds the video camera as I sit on a plastic chair opposite a man who reads the lines. My role is the angry wife. As he reads the lines, I am supposed to react by making facial expressions.
There’s just one problem – most of the script is in Hindi.
All I need to do, they say, is look angry, give one line at the end and then laugh.
The camera starts rolling and my mind races back and forth. Sit up straight, don’t look in the camera, be angry, open mouth in disgust once but not twice, furrow eyebrows, listen for Hindi cue, give my line, pause, laugh out loud.
I try – three times – but it’s too much. I was so good in that middle school play, I think to myself, what happened?
The talent scout and her cohorts glance at each other. I can tell they are not impressed. I gather my belongings and make for the door. It appears Bollywood is not in my stars after all.
A week later, I get another call. This time a producer needs to film a commercial for an American insurance company. The producer, who had left the United States because of the recession and moved back to India, needs Americans who can say a few lines. If he films it well, no one needs to know it was shot in India.
The producer is in a rush, no time for making sure I can act. Perfect!
He comes over the following day, with his assistant and two preteen daughters, sets up his lights, microphones and laptop, and turns my living room into a mini-studio.
This time, the script is in English. I recite my lines with a big smile on my face and get paid on the spot.
Take note: If anyone else needs to outsource acting jobs to Americans living in India, I’m available. Tom Friedman would be proud.
Follow me on Twitter: @Hanna_India