24 September 2015
There is a tent set up in Brooklyn, in an empty lot between the water and downtown. It is accessible only by rusty chain-link gates, guarded by men in black shirts with plastic wires coming out of their ears. We arrive in a bus with poor legroom, packed with close to a hundred Indians, Palestinians, and other dark-skinned people of Asian descent, bearing both body and bag in tight quarters with practiced grace, a traveler’s grace.
There are already some others here, filling out forms that verify citizenship, tax information and union preferences. Their belongings are scattered around the tent, under white plastic tables with laminated, labeled cards on top. I see some children running in and out of my line of sight, holding snacks. It makes me grab at my own stomach with a feeling like wistfulness, but closer to hunger. I came to the city from New Jersey with some toast in my stomach, two pieces of breakfast seated there restlessly, growling and alone, while I maneuvered around Manhattan, trying to find the place where I was told the bus would be. I had the good fortune to grab a sandwich and an orange at the corner deli before the bus left me, but it wasn’t enough to keep me sated for a day’s worth of filming.
Getting off the bus, there is a quick ripple of fear throughout the newcomers that there are not enough chairs, not enough tables to hold all of us. An incredibly muscular black man announces that everyone needs to get their forms at the tent entrance before sitting down. Some, including myself, exercise that pushing response that comes to crowds in places like Philadelphia or the Financial District, and manage to form the start of a line more thick than long. There are still people exiting the bus, lugging duffel bags, more children, making phone calls, taking their sweet cognitive time to see that the line going on, is growing larger without them. I stifle a scoff and settle for a professional-looking, filmable scowl.
The man who directed us to the tent entrance is now at the table, sunglasses over his bald head, dispensing information. “Take your forms and go sit on the tables with plastic cards. We’ll collect the information later.”
The tables are jammed together so tight, the chairs in between look like they were placed as an afterthought. The tent isn’t small by any means, but some deranged member of the crew went out of their way to pack a whole warehouse of cheap white tables in here, all for movie paperwork. I have to shove another scoff down, trying so hard not to reprimand myself for coming here.
The ‘card’ on my table, a glorified piece of laminated printer paper, bears the words “Zero Hour,” printed over an occult-looking gray circle. Several other Asians come out from the bus, the latecomers, move to a table without one of these cards, and are instantly directed to another. Here as extras for a feature-length, big-budget film, there is a very real and present concern that we will be treated as less than human. At least, I think, eyes scanning the thick forms in front of me, identifying the check boxes for ‘union’ and ‘non-union,’ some of us will.
I met the Guyanese actor on the bus to Brooklyn. I was sitting in a window seat, plenty of empty spots in front of me and after me. He came over to me directly, smiling, and made no qualms about taking the seat my backpack had been keeping warm.
His eyes, winking with charm, met mine. “Are you the star of this movie?”
Not anticipating the joke, I laugh a little louder than I meant to. “No.”
He laughs too. “Man, that’s too bad. That’s why I came and sat here, you know. You look like a big time star.”
I laugh even louder, unable to control myself. Here is a man of genuine personality, of substantive warmth and care, making jokes to a total stranger, both in a bus full of people who would kill to play the lead role in a movie. The absurdity of the moment is too much. I know I must make friends with this man.
My hand is extended. “I’m Vyas.”
He takes it, in a grip that is warm, soft and powerful. “Shiv. Good to meet you.”
The Guyanese actor is definitely older, from his manner of speech and the almost-fatherly nature of his jokes. But he carries himself as though age means nothing in his position. It isn’t the energy of a younger man in him, it’s the raw happiness of teenager, the distilled childhood joy running through his veins that gives his smiles such force, his skin such glow.
His smile maintains this warmth as we talk. “How did you get involved with this film?”
“Someone sent me an email for the gig, and I figured it would be good to have a little more spending money.” It also beat wandering Harlem looking for an apartment, or sitting in my uncle’s living room in New Jersey.
My family lost interest in home videos after all of the children grew out of overalls and diapers, but they transferred that amateur’s love of making movies on to me. And to an Asian, there is something worthy of awe when you’re involved in the film industry, especially the Indian film industry. Bollywood, Bombay, Bachchan, these are powerful words in the Indian community, that scream of status, of respect. We are, as a culture, as crazy over cinema as Americans are over Starbucks. It is a simultaneous validation of tradition and transition, reaffirming the practices of the passing generation and giving the next an opportunity to make their own. Bold as this is, I usually am content to have a camera at a party, or put a video of myself running into something on the Internet, just to dabble into world behind the ‘record’ button.
The Guyanese actor tells me it’s a good idea. “It’s important to try new things,” he says, rotating his round, slanting shoulders, the edges of his bone structure sticking through his shirt at the apex of the circle.
“How about you? How did you hear about this?” I ask the question quickly, and I have to repeat it for him, his smile proving itself as generous as it is self-accepting. Having been in New York City for less than a week, I have been having a hard time finding people to talk to. No one seems interested in chatting with the people around them, at least not for anything more complicated than placing a lunch order or asking the time. So when Shiv made a deliberate attempt at friendly conversation, it was like being offered the beginnings of an immense feast after a long period of starvation.
He laughs. “Actually, I’m an actor, I heard about this from my agent.”
In any normal situation, I would have felt out of my depth and tried to change the subject. Being literally a third of this man’s age and new to the movie business, American or otherwise, I couldn’t hold my own in any sustained discussion about the industry. But the Guyanese actor’s simple claim of his reputation didn’t make me feel that way. The warmth of his smile, the sincerity in his eyes, the wisdom in the lines of his face, all together made him seem less like a stranger and more like a relative. It took the fear out of talking to him, and the more we talked, the more he revealed himself to be a man without much fear.
Some of the extras look better than actors. Some of them actually are actors, big names in places like Guyana, Java, little places where English is spoken and Hindi forgotten by the Indians who migrated there or whom the British brought with them. After everyone has filled out the forms and eaten their snacks, little groups start to settle. Some prefer the hot dust and gravel outside the tent. Others, mostly those with families, stay by the tables, chatting amiably and boisterously. Behind me, a group composed entirely of men who look like hobo gym buddies engages in all manner of discourse.
“It’s these politicians, man, keeping our jobs low.”
“This one broad told me I looked Moroccan, not Muslim.”
“52! I just turned 52!”
“It wasn’t like this in Korea.”
Some of the groups are clearly film unions, with set agendas and representatives, turning the sudden expanse of waiting time into meetings.
“We’ve got to tell him.”
“Union members need to be first in line, every time.”
“I’ll ask, but be realistic here, guys, it’s not going to happen.”
Trucks keep moving around the tent. They are loud, boisterous machines, full of the unknown in bulk. The chatter of their exhaust pipes just peaks over the squawking, spittle-ridden dialect of two matriarchs in the back of the tent. One is short and dressed richly, checking a smartphone with long blue nails. The other is thin and draped in shoddy black fabric, thick glasses obscuring her face. They couldn’t be more different, visually speaking. But they find common thread in language, and their conversation flows incessantly. Very quickly it becomes more than that, an invasive diatribe, perforating words and sentences across the tent, all over the set.
While the extras are talking and waiting, the crew is eating. One man, in a gray shirt with “STAFF” silk-screened in yellow, gets up to tell people to move their cars. Another set worker engages that man.
“Who are you?” It is not a question, it’s a challenge of authority. Even here, in the tent shared by movie-makers and background characters, union and non-union, such questions matter, they carry weight. The announcer replies with his name.
His questioner, bald with an awkward forelock-ish patch on his brow, continues the harangue.
“Are you with the locations department?”
The man’s demeanor becomes much more aggressive. The name of a superior is mentioned.
“I want to see him. Now.”
Nodding with terrified accord, the poor fellow runs off to move cars and find his boss. The other, satisfaction obvious, lapses in the lazy remarks of what-is-it-all-coming-to, who-does-he-think-he-is. His plate is empty, the evidence of food smeared in brown on his lips and fork. The spots under his armpits are not so much sweat-stains as they are sweat-rivulets. There is more repulsion to him than humanity, but the crew around him seems oblivious to it. He smooths back his forelock and continues to regale his companions with some lewd tale.
None of the other extras seem to have noticed the other people as much as they have the food, and are anxious to get their fill before the filming starts. Another line is starting to form, identical to the one that exited the bus in mood, if not shape. The same sense of anticipation, of nervous desire, is prevalent, except this time, there is something to pin it on: food. Where all dark-skinned people unite is on this issue of consumables, even when none of it comes from our homelands. Sighing, I rise to join them and be complicit in hunger, in desire.
The Guyanese actor is not an everyman. In his hometown, he cannot go out to buy fruit without someone calling his name. The whole state knows who he is. He exerts a near-political level of power there. He’s a one-man mob, but its organized love and happiness he wants to share, with his art, his movies.
A Jasmine for a Gardener is his latest project that he’s trying to get off the ground. As the bus pushes through the tunnel to Brooklyn, we watch the trailer on his phone. It repeats the endless cycle of play-then-buffer-then-play-again, and he talks about his work in the pauses.
“People were very concerned about the movie, because the main actress,” he points her out, all chest and hair and ass. “She’s much younger than I am, and well…you know.”
I nod sagely, the less sage parts of my mind following the bouncing, buxom heroine across the four inches of Shiv’s phone, catching snippets of the high-drama plot.
He continues. “But everyone was surprised when they saw the trailer. They told me, ‘Shiv, man, you look younger than her!’ Isn’t that crazy? I was expecting people to be upset with an older man chasing a younger girl, but now people are laughing at a cougar!”
It is funny, and we laugh heartily about it, drawing the eyes of the woman seated in front of us. Without a doubt, we are the two loudest people on the bus, and she cracks a wan smile at us, revealing adult braces. Shiv’s phone stops loading the video as we pass the tunnel’s midpoint, the signal stopped by a barrier of earth and water. His smile falls a bit.
“Don’t worry,” I say, lying to console him. “I’ll look it up at home later.”
The Guyanese actor carefully stows away the device, shifting his hip to clear his pocket of the armrest. “I know this is your first time acting, but have you ever made movies before?”
Immediately, I am taken back to Julian’s backyard at night, pushing open the fence door with Stefan and Whit. We sneak up to his window, where Julian sits, shirtless, a bowl of popcorn in his lap, horrible noises coming from the TV screen. I gently straddle a cactus, set myself in the windowsill, and bang against it with the full of my fist. Immediately, Stefan and Whit howl like laughing wolves, and Julian goes flying for the door, popcorn erupting like Hiroshima. Looking down with a grin and seeing needles jabbing into my inner thighs, I am somewhat less amused. I remember pulling them out in Julian’s bathroom, while the others laughed and told each other how great the prank was, how freaked out Julian looked, and someone says, “You know, we should make a scary movie.”
I grimace, look out the bus window at the walls of the tunnel, and tell Shiv, “No.”
Makeup and wardrobe is located in a second tent across the empty lot. Another line has formed in front of this tent, but it’s by invitation only. Men in black shirts come routinely to round up ten, twenty extras, who have their flimsy papers examined before they are assigned a place in line. Those who return are not the well-dressed urbanites from before. Ragged cotton swathes the women, with greasy-looking hair sticking out from under their hoods. The men wear ripped shirts that hang down past their thighs. Everyone has black under their eyes, on their palms, on the sides of their necks, even in the space between leg and foot. I think about the two women talking in their native tongue – their difference in dress is clearly someone else’s design, not their personal preference. Most of the extras have brought clothes with them, fancy silks and shiny buttons to look their Sunday best for the camera. But even this hope is not realized, for the needs of Zero Hour‘s film crew require a hundred-odd browned-and-blacked mostly-Indian beggars, salts of a different earth.
I am at a table with the Guyanese actor, and one of his friends from the motherland. This man, introduced to me as Jay, is bull-necked, hair-plugged, and curly-chested. He wears an expensive-looking dress shirt, khakis, and patent leather loafers, like he just came back from work. His lips are the heaviest part of his face, visibly dropping and flopping with every sentence. Shiv is such a strong contrast in appearance to this man, with skin smooth like teak, not shiny like butter – it is a wonder to me how they could be friends. But they both cherish the world of cinema with a love fiercer than Jay’s overwhelming flesh.
Jay is part of a film union of Indian actors in New York, but also one of the Guyanese actor’s biggest fans. He always lets Shiv finish a thought or interrupt his own, striving to make eye contact and pay attention to the very syllables of the older man’s speech. When I interject a comment or ask a question, Jay is always second to respond, letting his idol answer for him. The Guyanese actor must know, always knows the truth of things. That’s just the way it is.
“Do you remember Amitabh, when he was younger?” Shiv asks, water bottle to his lips.
Jay smiles and shakes his head, like a dog clearing its ears. “God yes, man. He was so much better those days, before he became a super-star. Just look at Sholay, he was perfect!”
I agree with Jay. Sholay has long been my favorite Indian movie, and my favorite way to introduce Westerners to the world of Indian cinema. It has everything: comedy, action, drama, and dance numbers. The casting is completely solid, the cinematography perfect for an action movie shot on 70mm film, and the wardrobe suitably, immensely seventies.
But Shiv doesn’t have the same experience. “Man, in those days, he was just doing what everyone else was, and he was worse at it! Just the other day, I saw some random don movie, and I didn’t even know Amitabh Bachchan was in it, and it was great.”
Jay and I try to hide our shock. Don movies are India’s Godfather trilogy, except magnified and multiplied a thousandfold, each with their own unique moral message and questionable content. For about six years in India’s most recent film generation, everything was don – gunfights and girls, drinking and drug deals. And wherever there was don, there was the geriatric star, the big boss, Amitabh Bachchan. He is forever associated with the image, the title; an aging man with immense wealth and power, the seat of corruption, a true kingpin of crime. The movies are some of the worst our country has ever produced, and to hear an accomplished fellow like Shiv talk about them in such loving tones is a little stressful.
We don’t have a chance to ask for clarification, as a petite woman with a radio set comes to call the Guyanese actor over to the far tent. “Wish me luck,” he winks, and leaves us to watch his bags.
Jay and I smile, then awkwardly don’t look at each other. Of course, neither of us really has anything to say to each other aside from small talk, and there’s no telling how long we’d be stuck there before Shiv returns. So we are left to wander our own thoughts, or in Jay’s case, to check our email on our phone. Under the burden of needing something to do, I take out my journal and try to sketch out what’s happened today, to get a sense of the larger picture of how movies are made. I can’t help but wish Julian were here. He would know what crew member was responsible for what, who the extras could talk to for help. He never was lost in the complexity of it all, from casting to post-production. Even when things were simpler and scarier, playing monster in the woods behind his house, mixing fake blood in a paint bucket and trying to find the nightvision settings on the camera, where I or anyone else would get lost, Julian would be absorbed.
When he returns, the Guyanese actor does not look like a beggar. His dhoti is simple, a pleated cotton wrap around his waist, but his top, a silver silk kurta, is too splendid for us to believe he is impoverished. Instead, he looks like he woke up in a cornfield after a wedding/engagement party/rough night out. The ripped sleeves only show off elbows smoothed by age. The muddy neckline illuminates silvery chest hair. The ragged, too-short front flap of the kurta reveals a well-fed man’s slight stomach. The beggarish effect is sort of ruined.
He wears no makeup. Not his choice, he says. The makeup crew is busy with the hundred or so beggars needed for blackening today’s shoot. The proportion of the rest of the crowd that wears both costume and makeup to those who do not is small, but growing. I remember staining pants, polos, monster masks and more with blood-red food coloring, and return to my note-taking.
The Guyanese actor does not eat cooked food. He stopped last year, to help lose weight for a movie. Sitting next to him on the bus, I, who am still covered in the remnants of a bagel sandwich, I who am still hungry – I nod attentively, guiltily.
“Once the movie was over, I just kept doing it,” he says, patting his chest and stomach. “Good for the heart, the whole body, you know.”
In one year, the changes are rather remarkable. Photos from the phone provide a ‘before’ specimen of the Guyanese actor, to be compared with my present, fruitarian neighbor. His belly is vastly reduced, from borderline gut to mild roundness. His shoulders are sharper, more defined by bone than fat. Even his skin looks better, a healthy, even pallor instead of the glossy sheen of waxed produce. The comparison between the Guyanese actor on the phone and in the flesh leads me to a comparison of my own. Already, at his advanced age, he looks better than me. I suppose having movie-good looks is a part of it, but his reductive diet seems to have inflated his confidence, given him a capacity to live in a way others cannot. Me, with insecurity and loneliness, retreat into food like a child eating dirt. Even when I eat organic, fair-trade, farm fresh, I cannot stop myself from consuming great quantities of it, the need for unhealthy habits strong even with healthy fare.
Even with these gustatory differences between us, not to mention my obvious lack of charm and his overwhelming abundance of it, I do not feel shunned. True, there is some level of shame, but it doesn’t shut me out from the conversation, it does not leave me feeling empty or imbecilic. Rather, I feel inspired to improve my station, my body, my talents. I certainly don’t have the means or the desire to pursue his diet and lifestyle, but the desire, the hunger to chase after some measure of success – even if it were already present within me, the Guyanese actor has stoked this wanting to a head.
With that urgent sensation still roiling inside me, the bus comes to a halt.