Infiltration

Bert Danckaert

The photographer and the actor exited the airplane into the warmth. As they walked through the terminal towards the taxi stand, a stocky Fleming recognized the actor: “Don’t I know you from TV?” “Could be,” replied the actor. “From which program?” the man wanted to know. “The Rodenburgs is the most recent, on vtm.” The man hadn’t heard of it. He’d been living in Mumbai for a couple of years now and had just been in Belgium for the Christmas holidays. He had recognized the actor during the flight. He wanted to know how long they were staying in India and where they’d be traveling to. “We’re staying in Mumbai, fourteen days.” “Only in Mumbai?” “Yeah,” they confirmed. The man looked at them as if they were crazy, said goodbye, and disappeared into the dark, and for the brothers still unknown, city.

The taxi crawled passed the tooting line of rickshaws and other jittering vehicles. Although it was almost midnight, this city was nowhere near asleep. Animals and people lived alongside one another in the streets. Families lay on the pavement under shabby blankets. Novotel Juhu Beach; the photographer had printed out the address together with their reservation with http://www.expedia.com. He had booked the flight and the room months ago. With an “early breaks” discount. Although he had checked the box for a single room, the receipt (for the same price) stated a double room, breakfast included. At a family party a few weeks before his departure, the photographer reported that Mumbai was his next port of call for research—the city with the second to largest population (not including the suburbs) and with the highest population density in the world. “There’s a spare bed?” asked his older brother. “Fancy coming along?” the photographer proposed. “Take a look tomorrow to see if there are anymore cheap tickets, I’m flying with Austrian from Vienna.” The actor was intrigued to see how his younger brother would work on his doctorate in the arts about urban space, and it was the perfect opportunity to go to India. The actor had never left Europe, or is Cyprus in Asia? For a moment the brothers weren’t sure. The photographer thought it sounded like an interesting idea: two midlifers in among 15 million Indians, an actor and a photographer in a city where fiction and reality clash in extremes. The Bollywood industry, alongside the city’s urbanism, was the reason to go to Mumbai (known earlier as Bombay). The Bollywood film industry was the largest in the world and therefore big business in India. The entire population was occupied with it. Bollywood filled the daily papers and the scores of cinemas throughout the city confirmed the desire for cinematic entertainment. 

The photographer imagined open-air sets that he could photograph in the same way he usually approached the “real” city: as decor. The puzzle seemed to fit together perfectly. Moreover, one of the sub-questions of his doctorate was about the relationship between theater and photography.


In preparation for the trip the photographer had written several e-mails, among others to the Belgian embassy in Mumbai and to an Indian gallery he had been put in contact with (through a friend and colleague who’d had an exhibition in Mumbai a couple of months ago). The e-mails remained unanswered, as was so often the case. He bought the Lonely Planet guide to Mumbai and Goa on Amazon. It described how on a daily basis the film industry recruited Western tourists to stand in as extras in Bollywood films. This sounded like the perfect opportunity to infiltrate the otherwise closed to public film studios. A hilarious idea: the well-versed actor standing in as an extra: a lesson in humility in faraway India, and simultaneously direct access to the source for the photographer: the actual decor of the illusion, just as in a photograph.
Novotel Mumbai was close to the beach and in the pictures on their website the photographer had seen a swimming pool with palm trees. An impersonal business hotel, just what he was looking for: a neutral place to retreat to in the evenings. A no-man’s land with the identity of globalized luxury. In these Novotels or Ramada Plazas all the rooms were the same. The ideal non-space to take a distance from “outside,” just like Ikea or Starbucks were like islands during his travels. Zen for plutocrats. Minibar meditation with free Wi-Fi.
They drank an expensive beer in the hotel bar and went for a short  walk. For the brothers it was still only around eight in the evening. Their internal clocks were still in another culture. The next day, after a near sleepless night, they walked for half an hour through the bustling streets of their area and then took the train to the city center. Three trains passed before they understood how to board: unashamedly force yourself into an already bursting carriage. The trains didn’t have any doors, passengers hung halfway out the openings in the carriages and at each station a new battle commenced between the different passengers simultaneously wanting to get on or off the train. Final stop, Church Gate Station. They wandered passed a park where people were playing cricket and a cinema called “Eros”—whose name was written in bygone Art Deco-style—with film advertisements that promised an overkill of Indian kitsch. They passed the heavily guarded Taj Mahal Hotel, near the Gateway of India, a triumphal arch dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century in honor of the Britons who had to leave here after the World War ii. Terrorists had overrun the Taj Mahal Hotel in 2008 and for days there was gunfire between the captors and the army. Ever since, the entire city had been afflicted with paranoid security controls. There was barely a supermarket without airport-style scanners. Every time they entered the hotel the brothers were thoroughly screened and their rucksacks examined. Cars entering the hotel drive were inspected with mirrors for bombs under the body of the car. Pleasant resort, super safe … Once inside, the place was an oasis of tranquility and space, in stark contrast with the overcrowded and mega-chaotic city.
They were constantly hustled by beggars, sometimes fingerless or with other disfigured limbs, sometimes children barely three years old.
Here, in the old city, were the tourists. Mostly lost backpackers making a forced layover in this inhospitable city. As well as businessmen with a day off who  wanted to see something—other than hotel meeting rooms—of this “country of the economic future.” They sped passed ice cream vendors and men selling extraordinarily big balloons. Given the massive police presence, the number of beggars and the particularly warm weather for January, it could have easily passed for Paris or New York. On their way for a little bite and a local beer, a man stopped them to ask if they wanted to appear as “extras” in a “real” Bollywood film. He promises transport to and from the studio, a long day with lots of waiting, food and drink, and he also throws about 500 rupees into the bargain (not even 7 us dollars). The photographer wanted to know whether they were allowed to take photographs and if they would see anything of the studios. “Of course!” he confirmed. They agreed immediately.
They were hardly a day in Mumbai and already had a foot in the door. Easy as that, mission accomplished, desired destination reached.


The photographer and the actor were going to be extras in Tezz, a romantic terrorist film about bomb attacks on the British railway system, starring Anil Kapoor—the quizmaster from Slumdog Millionaire and an antagonist of Kiefer Sutherland in the series 24, playing the part of the president of one or the other rogue state. No small fish. The film was set in a London station the man explained. Around thirty tourists (all plucked from the same spot in the street) would figure as members of the public in the background. The photographer began to imagine how they would be donned in Western costumes, to fit their cliché image of a Westerner. He could already see the decor cardboard facades of a British station featuring life-size models of trains. He imagined how, during the numerous breaks, he could take one photograph after another. The reality of the decor would be a perfect extension to his photography project about cultural identity, globalization, and the construction of images. Excitedly, they entered a café and ordered tandoori chicken. That was quick, tomorrow would be an important day.