Batting for Bollywood: Appearing in a Bollywood film

Indian movies certainly look like fun. But what's it like to actually appear in one? Andrew Buncombe finds out
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The Independent Culture

The Indian bowler paused momentarily, gave the ball a final polish and then began his run towards the crease. His teammates yelled encouragement, urging him to make the crucial breakthrough. He ran in, swung his arm and let fly. The ball pitched on the rock-hard ground and I played forward, pushing at the hissing ball.

Bollywood plots are not known for their strict adherence to reality. This was certainly the case when I found myself opening the batting for the England cricket team in the 2011 World Cup. Can you bat, the frazzled-looking assistant director had asked. "Well...," I began to explain. "That'll do," he replied. "Get padded up".

The Indian movie industry churns out hundreds of films every year and almost all have one thing in common: the need for plenty of extras. People make careers playing bit parts in various films, perhaps without ever uttering any dialogue. When the makers of World Cupp 2011 – the use of double letters in movie titles is a trend – arrived in Delhi to shoot the cricketing scenes of a sport and match-fixing spectacular, there was a need to find some stand-in players. Pale-skinned extras, to be more precise. "You don't have to know how to play," said my friend Ed, who called me. "But you have to look as though you know."

Seven-thirty the next morning found us at an empty cricket stadium on the outskirts of Delhi. The crew had been there for hours. The director, Farah Sultan Ahmed, and her deputy, Zia Ur Rahman, outlined the plot. Basically, he explained, the Indian team beats all the opposition and wins. The following day, the crew was scheduled to film the Indians beating the devilish Australians and the day after that they would put the dastardly Pakistanis to the sword in the final. But today was the day they beat England. Our job was to lose.

It rapidly emerged why the filmmakers were desperate to find pale-skinned extras as there were only five of us – two Britons, an Australian, an Afghan and a shaven-headed Russian – in the team. In what might be taken as a sign of the progress made by Monty Panesar, Nasser Hussain and others, the producers reckoned no one would think it strange if the remainder of the English side was made up of Indians. The Russian, it was whispered, had been cast as the England captain even though he could not speak a word of English.

The truth was even more interesting. The sweet-natured man who was leading us into battle was from Moscow but was actually Armenian. Armen Grygoryn left Russia six months ago to fulfill a lifelong ambition to be a Bollywood actor. "I have more than 3,000 Hindi movies at home," he said. "When I came to Mumbai I could not speak English or Hindi but this is my dream."

Armen said he had already appeared in three films and was hoping World Cupp – looking to cash-in on the success of last year's hockey drama Chak De! India – would be his breakthrough. Unfortunately, for all his dedication, the moment we began shooting, it emerged that Armen didn't have the first clue how to play, or even to make it look as though he knew how to. Even movies can only stretch reality so far.

Armen's scenes were hurried through, seemingly destined for the cutting-room floor. The routine was the same; a bowler bowled, the Indian batsmen played went into action and the umpire signalled a six. On the couple of occasions when the handsome Indian captain, played by Ravi Kapoor, accidentally got out, we had to reshoot. "India win this game with 154 for no loss," boomed Rahman.

The morning wore on. It was mercilessly hot. Just as Indian society is stratified by a caste system, so was life on the movie set. Ravi for instance, as the star, had someone follow him with a parasol and spray his face with water. The rest of us had to make do with a few gulps of water. Heavy make-up, insisted upon by the director, melted.

But no one was complaining. For the majority of the young wannabe-stars, appearing in World Cupp represented a step on the path to what they hope will be successful careers. "I don't always play sports films, but if someone offers me one I'll take it, said Abhinav Shrivastava, a 22-year-old actor originally from Bhopal, who was playing England's wicket-keeper.

Then it was England's turn to bat. It was still important to make it look real. Thrust into the unlikely role of opener, I hoped to play a couple of balls before having to give up my wicket. Concentrate, concentrate. Camera rolling, cried the director. "Action!"

The bowler ran in. The ball zipped off the pitch. I played forward and felt the ball clip the edge of the bat. Behind me shouts of glee erupted from the Indian players. I stood in disbelief. Caught out, on the very first ball? I hoped the crew would want to shoot the scene again, perhaps to get a better angle. But then I heard the words that told me there would no second chance, that my day as an extra was over. After all, even in Bollywood you can't beat the real thing. "OK," she cried. "Cut."

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