It’s Spring in Rajasthan, India and it’s just past midnight. I’m playing cards outside my hostel with 5 other backpackers I met 2 days prior. Amongst the warm, hash-smoke filled air we aptly split half a pack of Hide and Seek cookies in celebration. It’s my 22nd birthday. In a few hours we will be on a train together to Jodhpur. Unbeknownst to us all, we would soon star as Bollywood stuntmen in a new film with some of the biggest actors in India.
The Blue City
We ride in general class on the train. Half of my time is spent crammed next to the toilet door and the rest spent sitting with my legs dangled over the side of the train. We arrive in the late afternoon at our hostel and head straight to the rooftop to watch the sunset. We smoke beedies while we play cards, watching the pastel light over the city fade into a grey night.
Breakfast is served from a food cart on the side of the road; bananas and samosas. Our plan is to loop around the city, check out some sights, try to find a decent coffee and finish with the Mehrangarh Fort. It’s around mid-afternoon by the time we reach the fort.
Entry is 600 rupees. Even though it is about the same price as a goon sack, everyone seems hesitant. Perhaps we are just so used to paying $2 for everything that it seemed outrageous. That’s like 6 Thalis. We make a unanimous decision not to go in. We pile into a rickshaw and chug down the hill, through the blue city and back to our hostel.
Adding to my Resume
We’re sitting on the rooftop, quenching our thirst with tallies of Kingfisher. Two Indian guys open the door behind us; the hostel owner and another guy I’ve never seen before.
“Hello…We are looking for extras to help with our film. Tomorrow night. Are you interested? I am a film scout,” the other guy says.
I’m hesitant. I don’t want to jump to conclusions. I’m imagining a backyard-Bollywood-private-film-college-assignment-video and frankly, I’d rather not.
The hostel owner adds: “You will get 1000 rupees, free food, sleep when you want. It’s so easy. It’s a big Bollywood film being filmed at the fort.”
“Thugs of Hindustan, it’s a big Bollywood movie. Even Aamir Khan is an actor in it,” the scout says. He looks incredibly excited but also puzzled by the blank looks on our faces because we have no idea who Aamir Khan is.
I’m keen. This will be a laugh. I get my phone out and google ‘Thugs of Hindustan’. We, including the hostel owner and the scout, huddle around my phone and watch the pre-trailer together.
(Here is the actual trailer – with over 95 million views – which was released a few months later. )
I’m sold. We all look at each other. We are all sold. This is my calling, I can’t wait to put this on my resume.
“You will need to be there from 6 pm to 6 am the next morning. But you will get to sleep in between shooting, free chai. It’s very easy,” the scout says.
Lucky we didn’t pay for the Fort entrance.
The sun was certainly doing its job this morning. The 30 degree days are taking its toll on us. Swimming sounded like a good idea. The hostel owner points on a map to a nearby hotel with a rooftop pool less than 10 minutes walk away. The walk there is intermittent; we needed supplies. I knew that the pharmacies are very relaxed in India. We stop at a few pharmacies on the way there; we need some pseudophed or something to keep us awake for the film shoot. No luck. Apparently, pseudoephedrine is illegal without a prescription. But Xanax and ketamine – no worries.
We arrive at the hotel. The foyer is empty and It smells like wet paint.
“Swimming pool?” we ask the stuited man at the front desk
“Level 6”, he replies.
We lounge buy the pool pretending we are hollywood actors. Although we all have our doubts about tonight, I was optimistic as usual. My friend back home works in the film industry and he has told me about the extravagant platters of food and drinks they have for extras. But I don’t want to get my hopes up too much; I am in India of course. I hope for the best (extravagant indian platters and opium tea) but expect the worst (cold samosas).
All 6 of us pile into a rickshaw and chugg up the mountain to the fortress. A security guard weidling a rifle stands in front of a checkpoint and waves us down.
“Fortress closed,” he yells.
“We are actors in the film,” We reply in sarcastic synchrony.
He lifts the boom gate and waves us through. Busses and film crew with lanyards line the road on both sides. It is far more full-blown than we all expected. We are greeted by the guy who came to our hostel and he hands us all lanyards. There are around 30 other backpackers here with us, mostly Americans, Israelis and Britts. All of them had the same story about why they are here and all of us have grins from ear to ear.
We are ushered into a marquee to receive our costumes. We are playing British imperial army officers. We boot-up and move onto the make-up tent where we shave before receiving our fake moustaches. I overhear someone say that there is food ready for us. I expect the worse and pray for the lavish smorgasbord I had imagined earlier.
I can’t believe what I see; fucking cold samosas. We all laugh but deep down I am ratted.
The film set was far from what I expected. Granted, it is in India and we are just backpackers playing extras. But it was a shamble. Myself and the other extras line up in the middle of the fortress and are told to stand still for the shot. We stand. I am pretty confident they used an Indian version of Bostik clag paste to glue my mustache on; it’s already fallen off. It has been about 2 hours and we are still standing in the same position, talking amongst ourselves and slowly caring less and less about the coordinators’ orders.
“Everyone in position,” the directors assistant yells.
Once the shot is taken, everyone lays down on the cobblestone, resting their feet on their rifles, their heads on their top-hats and start chain smoking cigarettes to try to mend the boredom. We repeat this process until 1:00 am. Our spirits are low.
Why don’t we go on strike? I mutter deliriously to myself as the sleep deprivation sets in. If we all demand 20000 rupees or else we will leave, they will have to pay us. If they don’t, then their whole night of filming would be ruined. A deity interrupts my daydream offering hot chai. Giving me some reason to continue and not go on strike. The smell of hash smoke lingeries as a group of Israeli backpackers return from the back of the set.
The coordinator of the set asks for all of the stuntmen to follow her. I lock eyes with my friends and start moving with the professional stuntmen. The set team looks suspicious as we start walking with the group but some of the actual stuntmen from South Africa back us up, telling them that we are indeed professional stuntmen.
A group of Indian rebels with swords, covered in dark makeup, start walking towards us. We are directed to pick a partner and choreograph a fight scene. Everyone who knows what they are doing except us backpackers. The actual stuntmen, start yelling out numbers and moves; “4, 8, 4, 2, low, 6, jump…”. I partner up with one of the Indian rebels and attempt my fight choreography. I can see the frustration in the eyes of the rebel when he realises I have no idea what I am doing. He raises his sword slowly into position with one hand and uses his other hand to explain what I should do with my sword. One overhead block and then I get stabbed. That’s it. While the other stuntmen are spinning, doing parkour and blocking swords like their in a scene from Kill Bill. I lay on the ground and get repeatedly stabbed until the scene is over.
The final scene.
It’s 5 am and we have all had enough. The relaxed set and glamorous food that the backpacker-scout-recruiter promised was far from what actually happened. Weary-eyed, we undress from our costumes and line up in single file. The number of extras has dwindled since the start, there is about 13 remaining. I guess not everyone is cut out for the Bollywood stuntman life. We are handed our 1000 rupees and begin walking down the hill from the fortress. We smoke a spliff and walk down the hill as the blue city slowly gradates from a dark night to warm pastel colours of dawn. Rickshaws drive past packed full of kids with backpacks heading to school. We arrive back at our hostel. I set my alarm for 9:00 am and pass out on the floor in the common area.
I wake up with a foggy brain and a chronic appetite. I grab my bags and jump on a 6hr bus to Jaisalmer, a desert city close to the Pakistan border. A doctor sits next to me on the bus and we talk about Amir Kahn. He asks me what I am doing in India. I tell him I’m a stuntman.