Kaleem Aftab: Gurinder and me
When the Bride and Prejudice director agreed to give The Independent's Kaleem Aftab a role in her new movie, it was an offer he couldn't refuse
Friday 26 March 2010
I first met Gurinder Chadha when I was writing a story about her film Bride and Prejudice. We met in an Indian restaurant on Wardour Street, London, and immediately hit it off. Several years later I found myself at a party to celebrate the inauguration of President Obama, at her house. The Bend it Like Beckham director told me that she was making a crazy Asian homage to James Stewart called It's A Wonderful Afterlife and I, full of the party spirit, cheekily asked if I could be in it. I wasn't expecting her to say yes.
The only acting that I'd done since my school nativity play was a line in a film that I produced called This is What it Is, directed by Cristian Solimeno. Even then, the first character that I played, a shopkeeper, was cut from the final movie and I was relegated to screaming "greedy, greedy," as a Sunday-league football player.
Chadha mentioned a few parts that she thought I could play, including a wedding DJ who gets curry thrown in his face, and a speed dater. Only later would she tell me, "I needed a bunch of dodgy blokes for a speed-dating scene, so when you asked me if you could have a part in my movie, I immediately said yes without telling you exactly what you'd be doing."
Then came the call from Robert Sterne of Nina Gold casting agents. "Hi Kaleem, Chadha would like to offer you a part in her new movie. Did you know about this?" Did I know about this? It had been all I could think about for weeks. I played it cool. "Yeah, she said something about it. I suppose I'll do it." I almost dropped my new phone when he added that they'd be getting the contract to me, and that I'd be paid £500. I'd make a very poor Hollywood agent. "Wow thanks", I gasped. "I'd be happy to do it for free."
Sterne asked where he should send the script and I, still playing it cool, said, "Just send me the sides." The sides are the lines from the scenes that would be filmed on the day I was there. A few days later the script landed with a thud on my doorstep. And I had a major problem – I'd forgotten to ask the casting agent what part I was playing and, knowing that the director was heavily in pre-production didn't want to bother her with my petty question.
Soon after, I got called up for a fitting. How exciting! On an industrial estate in Kilburn, North London the warehouse was full of all sorts of fancy costumes. I was taken up to a room by the delightful designer Jill Taylor. "So you're playing an accountant type who goes speed dating," she said. I sheepishly admitted that until now I hadn't known which part I'd be playing. She kindly showed me my lines. "Oh, and you have to be cross-eyed", she added. Cross-eyed! Whatever gave Chadha the impression that I could do cross-eyed? We found a grey suit and a fat tie that looked like it might once have been cool, way back in 1955, and I was merrily on the way. The costume was packaged up and would be waiting for me when I got on set.
As the big day came nearer I finally sat down to read the script, a comedy about a mother who wants to arrange a marriage for her fat daughter, Roopie. Whenever her daughter's hand is refused, Mummy dearest kills off the parents with her Indian cooking. They return as ghosts but, instead of haunting the mother, everyone soon realises that it's in their mutual interest to get the daughter married off as quickly as possible and, by a stroke of luck, the policeman charged with investigating the murders is an old family friend. It's silly, funny and sees the director back on Bend it Like Beckham form.
My scene was to be filmed at Ealing Town Hall. On the day, a car came to pick me up and take me to set at 6am, which seemed awfully early considering that my call time was 10am. As is
the habit on film sets, though, the principal cast, who work day in and out, are given make-up and costume-fitting slots as near as possible to call-time to keep them fresh. Make-up took less than five minutes, I ate breakfast in the film caravan and put on the suit. Then I sat in my room with nothing to do for two hours. So much for the glamorous life of the actor.
I arrived on set at 9am and finally saw Chadha. I was surprised that she was her usual gregarious, laid-back self on set, despite the looming prospect of directing a big scene with lots of extras. We ran through some entrance scenes involving all of the speed-daters taking their seats and then, after what seemed like a couple of hours, the principal cast arrived. Newcomer Goldy Notay plays the daughter, and her romantic interest is played by Heroes star Sendhil Ramamurthy (now that's what a leading man should look like). Sally Hawkins plays Roopie's psychic best friend who has just returned from a spiritual trip to India and is determined to marry her own Indian man.
Also arriving on set were some more of the familiar names playing the ghosts, including Sanjeev Bhaskar and Zoë Wanamaker.
Things became rather hectic as cinematographer Dick Pope tried to arrange the lights. I had a quick conversation with Chadha about my part, and she asked if I could do cross-eyed. I tried. Astutely she realised it was never going to work and asked me to swap roles with Sanjeep Kholi, an infinitely better actor. I had to take over his line, though I wasn't keen on it. As a mummy's-boy speed dater, I had to say, "I'd like a girl that could live at home with my parents, but can still rock my world". It was the "but" I didn't like, thinking anyone who could admit to wanting to live at home wouldn't qualify the statement. Chadha agreed. The onus was on me to come up with a replacement.
"You were an awkward bugger from the moment you arrived", recalls Chadha when we speak this week. "You were supposed to be speed-dater No 1 who is cross-eyed. There was also the problem that you're a writer and you came on wanting to rewrite the script – not a good thing on a film set."
For some reason, I decided that I wanted my character to be called Simon Patel and that I would play him as upper class. When Chadha called me to perform for the camera, though, I was petrified. Here was Dick Pope, a man who had shot Mike Leigh films and worked with Edward Norton and Kevin Bacon, pointing a camera at me. The lens was the size of a widescreen TV screen and I could see my reflection in it. The rest is a blur, I remember Chadha saying to look directly into the camera, but not much else.
After we shot, we broke for lunch and Chadha said she was going to use my line about ironing ("My mum irons all my shirts; do you like ironing?"). I couldn't for the life of me remember what I had said but was pleased anyway. When it was finally time to go home, I was utterly exhausted and reaffirmed in my belief that an actor's life isn't for me.
It meant that I wasn't so disheartened when, a few months later, I bumped into Chadha at a London Film Festival party. The director said that she had been arguing with her editor but it looked as though my scene might have to be cut. She explained, "I think you were very nervous and the combination of that with your suit and tie and hair took the irony out of the line. Instead of coming over as funny, it came over as real. The sad thing is that you were very funny but I wanted everyone in. We had too many speed-daters and the joke wears thin so in the end I went for the quick visual gags rather than dialogue."
In January, the film received its world premiere at the Sundance film festival. I was quite excited even though I knew that only a glimpse of me would be on camera. I sat next to Chadha and there was a lovely blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment where she said: "Look! There you are."
After the screening she told me that she'd cut all my scenes together as an extra for the DVD. I was mightily chuffed. All of a sudden the title of the movie was perfectly apt: my performance will now have its own wonderful afterlife – albeit on the small screen.
'It's a Wonderful Afterlife' is out on 21 April
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