Out of the blue, I received a cryptic text: “Hey Monita, your name is in the list. If you can please come for the movie tomorrow. Please keep it confidential…”
This was confusing, to say the least, but being placed on a list of any sort always worries me, because catalogs and groupings are always more exclusive than inclusive. Nevertheless the thought of being in a movie about the temple seemed intriguing, so to quench my curiosity I went to the “Promised Land.” The venue in question was the HCCNA temple, known as the Sarvjanin Mandir which was started a few years ago by the efforts of a family that had immigrated from Orissa. Eventually, the temple received support from many members of the Indian community belonging to the greater Huntsville area in Alabama. Here, we have a relatively small but tight-knit Indian community compared to larger groups who live in the Northeast or in California. Normally the temple is busy on the weekends but last Thursday the precincts of this now soon-to-be-made-world famous-temple in Harvest, Alabama was converted into a film site for the filming of a Bollywood movie: Zero, a block buster with a popular star-cast of the Indian silver screen.
The temple parking lot was packed with trucks, buses, vans and tents. Security guards were checking people in. People of Indian ethnicity, some who had never attended the temple were flooding to Harvest, Alabama early in the morning. This time they were coming not to receive the blessings of Lord Jagannath but to try and get darshan of Anushka Sharma or R. Madhavan! I entered the community hall of the temple on the first floor; two women were distributing forms. Some of my acquaintances were there, dressed to the hilt; men in dhoti kurtas, the women in silk saris and salwar suits. As soon as they saw me, they hovered around me; asking questions, wanting desperately to be cast as an extras in the movie. I greeted them patiently and tried to decode the growing pandemonium. I approached a crew member, who was walking around with a notebook and asked: Why was the film crew at the temple and what were they planning to shoot? She told me that they were going to film a wedding sequence at the temple. They needed a few people to participate in the ceremony as wedding guests and relatives of the “bridegroom-to-be.” Rahul Shanklya, The assistant director was a very pleasant young man and he patiently told a few people to fill out forms and waivers and to wait for the shooting to commence. The entire crew of more than one hundred technicians, camera men, tailors, make up artists, costume experts and hair dressers who were attending to the needs of the starlets and wannabe stars were very professional and soft spoken. The main artists; Anushka Sharma and R. Madhavan were getting their hair and makeup taken care of in their respective private vans. I spoke to Satish, the tailor who was diligently cutting and stitching without heeding the chaos around him. “How can you concentrate in this chaos?” I asked him. “I am used to this,” he said unassumingly, cutting the edge of a silk sari deftly with sharp scissors. I thought of what a feat this was considering the hard time that I have cutting the blouse piece off a sari without the helping hands of my mother or sister.
The top five Hollywood movies filmed in Huntsville are Ravagers, Space Camp, Beyond the Stars, Constellation, and Muscle Shoals, our Rocket City had not witnessed a Bollywood filming in town. So the excitement Zero generated especially among Indian-Americans was at a fever pitch! in the crowd were doctors, engineers, professors, students, aunties, uncles, grandfathers and babes-in-arms who were united by one love: their love for Bollywood! Star-struck and determined to act in a movie, the buzz created by a Bollywood shoot prevailed over their better judgment. After all, to be part of the same film as the Indian mega star Shah Rukh Khan was possibly every Indian’s dream! They walked around preening and prancing, changing outfits and hair styles, imagining themselves as heroes and heroines, with their names appearing in the movie’s credits. Parents of the selected child artists literally tossed their kids up in the air and floated seven-feet above the ground. My friend with a pleasing demeanor and lovely dark olive skin was getting her face powdered down and a surgeon was shedding his suit for a white linen dhoti, this lucky duo was to play parents to the famous Bollywood actor R. Madhavan. Some were fretting that they could not bring their grandchildren who were miles away to be in the movie. A few resourceful ones were talking to their relatives and giving them detailed instructions to come dressed in wedding attire with lots of gold jewelry. They clustered, spread, laughed, took selfies, touched the heroine’s clothes, curried favor with crew members, complained of stiff knees, swollen ankles, ate breakfast, and passed me scraps of paper, asking me the same question over and over again. When will it start? Where should I stand?
Soon about a dozen folks who had filled out the paper-work were ushered up the stairs to stand in the balcony to be part of the wedding party but as I looked over my shoulder a throng of people who had gotten word of this event pushed their way up, with no heed to any paper-work. Women in shades of magenta, cobalt blue, neon yellow and red, with big blowouts, coiffured buns, braids and bling of every sparkle and shine were pushing, squeezing and shoving to be included as wedding guests.
The director explained the shot, we waited for our cues. I wore a simple white long kurta and skirt. Rahul Shanklya handed me a tray with flowers, jewelry and sweets. A stubbornly self-assertive lady was given a tray with red and white garlands. The other men and women were given instructions to follow our lead as we ran out to welcome the bride and excitedly scatter around the balcony.
We were instructed not to wave or click pictures, but everyone’s phone was attached to their hands and some women even asked me to carry their personal belongings (which I politely refused). We did a few takes, because every time we tried, the people who stood at the back wanted to push up in front. It was a mercy that in all the pushing and heaving I did not topple the tray. That would have been a rather inauspicious opening sequence! Another film enthusiast who stood beside me invented a special role for herself by adding an extra hand to the tray, I was carrying because she thought that would make her look more prominent. Mob behavior had overtaken these University-educated, civilized people from my mother-land!
The scene did not go as per the director’s instruction,s but he had to cut it short and move on to the next shoot inside the inner sanctum of the temple. Now the star-stuck extras were striving to get inside to take their seats, near the main stars. In their Bollywood stupor they wandered into the temple with their shoes, forgetting the ancient Hindu culture to remove all leather accessories outside. I sat in a corner and as people were motioning to each other, I noticed that some folks had white bands on their wrists. It was then that I decoded the cryptic text message, I had received. My hunch had been correct. I had been excluded from the inner circle with the white-wrist-bands. It was only those with the white zeroes on their hands who would make it into the few frames in the movie Zero. A carefully thought out code! Silently saluting the native ingenuity of my fellow country men, I arranged my white chiffon dupatta across my head, offered my prayers to Lord Jagannath and bid adieu to the pleasant crew and the motley wedding guests still quarreling for their spots and making dramatic Kathakali-eye gestures at one another.
What I had received from this film shooting was an interesting perspective into the self-perpetuating child-like infatuation of our people for Bollywood and that to me was perhaps more insightful than the movie ZERO itself. Regardless, I was grateful for this starry experience!