At last it happened. My first shoot. No I have not turned actor / director over night. It was my first shoot as an account supervisor. And I was the only one from the servicing team. This was the best way to learn the ropes, according to the boss man.
The shoot was in Mumbai. The minute I stepped into the balmy airs of Mumbai, I felt a rush of happiness. People say that friends make all the difference. If you have great friends, even a dull as ditch water place can become heaven. But I don’t really know anyone there and yet, I have always loved Mumbai. 2nd to Kolkata ofcourse. I am sure people might disagree with me and say, right, what do you know about Mumbai. I don’t. My trips are hurried affairs and I stay at nice places and usually do a spot of shopping, a bit of partying before leaving. Predictably I don’t have go through the usual problems of a congested metropolis and all the associated problems.
There were a few ‘problems’ though:-Problem # 1. There was no car to pick us up at the airport although we had asked for one. Our prosaic client, travelling with us, shooed us into a cab and off we went. Problem # 2 On arriving at the hotel, we found that their computer system had broken down and they had no records of our reservation on mail. So we had to wait endlessly. Problem # 3 – The car that we had booked for the day had in the meantime, come to the hotel and missed us (we were stuck in a traffic jam) and gone. So I blew my top and wonderfully. And immediately subsided and felt very sheepish, almost apologetic when seeing the hapless staff of a hotel famous for its inefficiency. It’s easier to rant at someone who is not so polite. Here, in contrast, all of them were shuffling and cringing, which made me feel really bad. So subsequently, I apologised (yes), to the first person I had screamed at – a trainee. God why do I do these things?
After we had checked in, our client, an elderly, but really smart lady told us to go and eat at “Mahesh Lunch House” famous for its sea food. Infact she even gave us directions. So we did. And how. We had rawas fish tandoori, manglorean prawn curry and crabs on a bed of garlic. And even bravely used the pincers (I think that’s what they are) to crack the shell. A messy affair but worth the trouble. We could barely walk when we were done.
We then went all the way across the city and beyond to the check out the studio. The shoot was scheduled for the next day. I sat in the front while our client and my colleague, at the back of the hired car. After a while, the whole car reeked of garlic. I looked everywhere to find the source. And then the client too smelt it. Egad. It must be my bag. Some garlic had fallen onto the bag. I quietly put it down on the floor. And the smell went away. But then my cell rang. And I had to pick up the bag to take the call and viola! There it was again – the strong odour of garlic. And so it went till we reached the studio. But not before I gave a lengthy explanation to the client about our lunch and the garlic and my bag. Thankgod, the client was rather sweet about it. Much later, back in our hotel, my colleague told me, it was her burping which was responsible. And somehow, each time I picked up my bag, she let a burp slip out. And she had a hard time controlling her laughter at my lengthy explanation.
The studio was marvellous. From outside it looked like an ugly warehouse with a gate which anyone can miss as we did. As soon as we entered, we had to go through a huge arched gate with CENTRAL JAIL written on it, complete with a huge iron door with a wicket gate. A must prop for countless Hindi film where either the villain or the hero and sometimes both come out of, and ask the havaldar for a ‘bidi’. The central jail led to a school, an ornate period house, a village chowk, a petrol pump, a temple, and a row of shops and more, all within!! This studio was at the end of a long straight road which came to an abrupt end at a river. Later on, the director told me that it belonged to Haji Mastaan and he had conducted his notorious smuggling operations right from here. I immediately had visions of men in ugly polyester suits with flapping collars (height of chic in the early 70’s) flashing torches at each other at the dead of night and saying “Sona aa gaya, Boss.” (The gold has arrived, Boss). Quite the ‘visionary’, me.
There was some shoot going on. Some elderly men were lounging around – they were playing the roles of village elders. One of them even had a bit role in our ad as the head master!
Next morning, the studio was a hub of activity. Very chaotic, at first glance. But as the day progressed, the team marvellously created classrooms, village scenes and an entire live market scene with complete shops and vegetable vendors including goats and chicken. The goats were, later on not used and some one took them away. The chickens however were covered by a wicker basket and kept up a lively squawking. Loads of children in school dress and village characters lounged around. Very colourful. Things magically appeared. When I said that we needed crystal salt for the shoot and not the refined one, hey presto! 2 bags appeared within minutes. Our client pointed out mistakes in the Tamil sign board of the school. Painter, some one yelled. A chap appeared with a pot of paint and brush and made the changes immediately. I pointed out that we needed a pregnant lady. “Pregnant lady needed”, yelled the director and ohe of ladies was rushed to the make up room and re-appeared looking pregnant. “She needs to look more pregnant”, I said. “No problem. One more cushion,” yelled the director.
There was one person from the production unit, dedicated to serving us. Apparently it the norm. But I was very uncomfortable. I had to just stand up and he’d come and shift my chair to wherever I went. He followed us with stand fans and gave us umpteem cups of tea and coffee and nimbu pani and any thing else we wanted including cajoling us to partake in the lavish breakfast and lunch spread. At one point, the chickens under the wicker baskets got really agitated, when some one discovered that one of them had laid an egg. Our faithful attendant immediately took it out and later served it boiled to our creative director.
The main actor, a character actor from Bollywood had his own attendants too. But he was a very nice, genial chap who was doing this ad for us for a nominal fee, this being a small budget, social service TV ad. Best of all, he had no airs and graces. After every shot, he would sit in own special chair that his attendant would set up, wherever he was. He had his lunch with us but on his own special crockery and he had his own air conditioned room, which he very graciously invited us into, in between shots. Infact, after he had done his scenes and had changed and was leaving, we remembered that we needed some close-ups. He immediately obliged.
But for the rest of the cast, the children, the shopkeepers, the villagers, things were different. They were ready and made up when we arrived in the morning even though their shots were scheduled later in the day. They had to find their own place to sit. And ate their lunch together after we had finished ours.
My job was to make sure that all the desired elements were in place. The right type mix of communities, young married couple (our target group), smart but non-urban children, pregnant lady etc. I also had an impromptu role as a singer. The spot was being shot simultaneously in Hindi and Tamil. There was a Tamil language expert on the set and he was trying to fit the Tamil lyrics in the meter and I had to sing the Hindi lines to him over and over again. Then he read out the Tamil lyrics and I wrote them in Hindi and sang it back to him to fine tune it!! I was quite thrilled with my linguistic skills. But that joy was short-lived when I saw the lead actor in action. He hadn’t seen the tamil lyrics till the very last minute. The Tamil expert read out couple of lines to him, he memorised it on the spot and acted it out and it was canned. And then he moved onto the next line. He took less time than me and had little problem with it!! I was impressed.
The director watching the proceedings from a monitor and gave his directions seated far away. I however, preferred to be at the scene watching everyone. Unfortunately, I was targeted by crows and had to rush off, not once, but twice to wash my hand and my head (ugh) in between shots. Our faithful attendant told me that it was good luck (to have a crow crap on you). Naturally, this kept me preoccupied. So when the boss SMS-ed to ask how the shoot was progressing, I wrote back “OK”. He later called to ask what did “OK” mean? Either I didn’t like what I saw or I didn’t understand what was happening. Oops.
And finally, when the shoot was nearly over and the crew were packing up, one of the lead characters, a pretty lady came up to me, looking very different sans make up, in jeans and a shirt (she played a young small town mother in the ad). She said she had recently come to Mumbai and was looking to make a career in movies. And moonlighting in commercials. Then she pulled her chair up closer to mine and said she wanted to play a police woman or a doctor – character roles in movies and definitely not a heroine, because that would involve making a lot of compromises (not being well connected in the film industry) and could I put in a word for her among directors I knew. I knew none. But she said it with so much hope that I found myself saying, I certainly would and if I were to shoot another ad film, I would certainly get in touch with her. She stood up and in a very touching gesture, bowed with hands folded in a namaste and thanked me and left.
I was very tired and could barely talk on my way back to the hotel. But I was happy. Everything had gone off well. The classroom shot, the community shots – in the market place and at the village chowk, the children playing, and whole lot of others and in two versions – Hindi and Tamil, all in one day including the sets (I had seen a bare studio just 24 hours earlier). The fairly large amount of footage would now be edited to fit into a 40 second spot to be aired on aired on TV. It will, I am sure be a great spot, but obviously, I will always cherish, the unedited version, the one I saw being shot!