Overacting

Bert Danckaert

In a monotone and apparently bored, Priyadarshan instructed the technicians and told the actors where they needed to be when a particular part of the script was said, or how fast the camera, which was mounted on one of those rails, should be pushed forward. He didn’t grant the extras any eye contact. Every day brought a new load of tourists with expectations about a unique experience. The extras were of the lowest caste in this construction. Priyadarshan gave his instructions to the extras via one of the responsible staff members (like Mansoor) and even that was quite unnecessary; they were so well-rehearsed in their routine and preparation that their improvisations with the extras produced the exact effect the film required.

A microphone hung on a red cord around Priyadarshan’s neck, with a wireless connection to a sound system. A pair of glasses rested on his nose so he had a sharp view of the footage on the monitor. He smoked thin, kingsize cigarettes, incessantly. His asymmetrical face and lazy left eyelid seemed to point to a stroke. Given his impressive track record, Nair Priyadarshan must be immensely rich. While outside people perished and drowned in their own waste in slums, here, entertainment was casually in the making. The film studio was a black box in a reeking reality: a vacuum and an introspective illusion. There wasn’t a trace of “invisible contamination” here; this was a world of appearances, controlled from a to z—an unreality. It seemed the objects in this studio, as much as they were “fake,” could in fact be nothing more than what they simply were: a microwave was a microwave, a computer a computer, despite that nothing would be heated in the oven, and the computer would never run a program. Everything was dead here and referred only to the most uninteresting and perverse version of itself. Resolutely, Priyadarshan gave directions to his smartly dressed actors. Between shots, assistants were in and out with mirrors so that Anil Kapoor and his colleagues could see if their hair was still intact and there were no creases in their costumes. Everything revolved around control, perfection, and the image’s preservation. Mansoor entered the dark conference room again and picked out a number of extras. The plump Brit wearing stilettos, the slightly older German, and the photographer (or was it Stewart?) were invited to come on set. The actor had hidden himself at the back of the room and was trying not to think about how sick he felt. He had the least interest in this job, which he could perform back home as part of the highest caste.

The three selected extras were each handed a folder and positioned on set. Stewart was to walk through the frame while Anil Kapoor acted as though he was concerned about the terrorists armed with bombs. After four takes the shot was in the can. An assistant tapped on the photographer’s shoulder each time it was his cue to walk through the frame. He did his best to move through the studio in the most British manner possible. Although no one had explained this to him, he assumed he was a security officer with important information (the folder!) on his way to a colleague at the back of the busy control room. As soon as Priyadarshan deemed the shot to be good enough, the subsequent scene was prepared. Cameras were removed from tripods, actors shook their muscles loose (sometimes pulling ridiculous expressions with their cheeks and mouths), and assistants ran back and forth with props and makeup to be added or removed.

The photographer was grabbed by the arm and brought to a computer. His personal assistant demonstrated how his colleague would interrupt his diligent typing—the plump Brit sat next to him at another computer—pointing at important information on his screen. With a ball pen, he pointed at the computer that wasn’t even switched on. All sorts of information would be digitally rendered onto the screens at a later stage. The extras had to work with the illusion. While the scene was being recorded (apparently a tricky one as they had to retake at least ten times) the photographer became increasingly aware of his overacting. The more often they had to retake the scene, the funnier he found it. Eye contact with his British colleague became progressively dangerous, so as not to end up in a wildly inappropriate fit of giggles. But they were professionals, and took on their roles as though their lives seriously depended on it. This formed a bond; during the short break after this challenging take, the photographer fell into conversation with the plump Brit, who turned out to be called Diane. Not long ago she had been studying sociology in London and was now in India to work for an ngo. Volunteer work with kids from slums. She explained a bit about the water supplies and longterm plans. In the meanwhile, the slightly older German joined the twosome. Diane was blond and the Indian hairdresser had pulled her hair right back into a tight bun. She was staying in India for six months. Following her first two months of volunteer work she now had two weeks off. From Mumbai, where she would stay for just a day or two, she was planning to travel on to Goa. And then—again via Mumbai—she would fly back up to Delhi. She asked the photographer what he did. “I’m a photographer,” he replied. He briefly explained that he was working on a project about urban space, globalization, cultural identity and so on. That he traveled a lot. And that he—together with his brother, the actor—had infiltrated the studio to take photographs of the decor. He also explained that the studio set wasn’t exactly what he had imagined and that photographing the decor had seemed like a perfect idea beforehand, but in all practicalities wasn’t going to work.

The slightly older German, Herman, worked in it and had recently divorced. After winning a battle against cancer he had decided to do what he had always wanted: tour through India and Nepal for a couple of months to “find himself.” Mumbai was a temporary stop—a necessary evil—in transit. Herman (“John” according to his badge) had a lean figure. The photographer tried to imagine him without his British disguise, but wasn’t able to. Herman joked a lot—he was witty, not stupid. “Fantastic that you’re able to travel so much with your photography! You’ve done well for yourself there.” The Brit agreed. The photographer of course confirmed this and in turn made a joke, it was certainly easier said than done. After all, there he was in this stuffy studio without a camera or plan. He felt as though he no longer knew or could do anything, as though all of a sudden all his accumulated experience was no longer legitimate and had been a careless waste of time.

He had to get himself out of this negative spiral. The actor lay on the floor pale-faced and irritated by this charade, while the photographer was suffering from an acute existential photographer’s block.

Priyadarshan had finished reviewing the raw material and gave the signal to continue with the shoot. Everyone came back into action; the photographer picked up his folder and resumed his position, together with Herman and the Brit behind the computer. Ready for another dose of overacting.