Underacting

Bert Danckaert

The day wore on with a new series of tedious short scenes in which Anil Kapoor and the gorgeous Sameera Reddy all too often looked anxiously into each other’s eyes and the trains, in the form of lights, drew with increasing danger towards one another.

Anil Kapoor and Sameera Reddy at promotion of film ‘Tezz’

After one of the short breaks it turned out that Mansoor had now also discovered the actor. The actor, along with Willem—a tall, noisy Dutchman who seemed more interested in gaining the attention of the two French women—was holding a folder. All the extras were given one of two tasks: either walking through the frame with a disillusioned and troubled expression, or being busy at the keyboard as if that would somehow change the terrorists’ mind. And so the actor was now also pacing through the studio, clearly irritated by the situation the photographer had dragged him into.

Sameera Reddy

While they each focused on their noble mission, the “real” actors gave it their all. During the scenes in which Boman Irani didn’t appear, and there wasn’t enough time for him to go back to his trailer, he played incessantly on his brand new iPad 2. It seemed he couldn’t get enough of the game Paper Toss, in which you had to fill a waste bin with well-aimed balls of scrunched up paper. The higher the level, the harder the set-up became, such as a ventilator blowing the paper off course. You could see he was loving it. Boman Irani played the role of the British Rail director, and wore a gray suit. It was in the decor of his office that the extras were “held hostage,” waiting endlessly until they were given a folder and an assignment.

Paper Toss

Paper Toss

Just one more scene needed to be filmed before lunch. Willem was indiscreetly chatting up the French women, and had thought to make himself interesting by making fun of everyone else. Willem ran his own business in sports gear and consequently was always tied up with work. He also did a lot of sports: climbing (on a real rock face, when possible), kayaking or rafting, as well as regularly playing squash and mountain biking. Willem did indeed look athletic. He was blond and looked as though he always had everything under control. He went traveling every year. India had been on his wish list for a long time, and he was pleased to have already struck off Thailand, Argentina (and the South Pole), and Australia, among others. “India has incredible nature, rich culture … and yeah, such saddening poverty, but the people are so proud despite their lot in life!” Willem was the only one of this motley bunch of Westerners that annoyed the photographer. He was also the only one the photographer could imagine without his English disguise. He was wearing a badge with the name “Harry” but still looked incredibly “Willem.” In the same way you can always spot a Dutchman on a crowded campsite. A lot of the Dutch are very “present” and moreover they’re often rather large. The photographer caught himself with unadulterated (though entirely harmless) “racism.”

There they stood in brown and blue business suits: fortune hunters and adventurers. All forced, through the situation, into a suppressed and leveled off identity. Westerners made up by Indians to be Westerners. Imitations shaped by preconceptions and clichés. And all this in the middle of a festering megacity, of which no one actually knew what the population was, and no one had any idea how many people perished from rotting limbs, hopelessly begging in the knowledge there was no escape from this miserable existence.

The photographer needed to do something with the extras. After all, these non-individuals summed up his entire project. He envisaged a series of portraits against which everything he had previously produced would become obsolete. He remembered the green screen, the brightly lit wall, just behind the window of this studio, which Anil Kapoor had looked at with such concern while there was nothing (yet) to be seen. Cultural identity, the lack of it, and the interchangeability of space and its meaning. This was perfect! All he needed to do was set up his camera and tripod in front of the green screen and invite the extras, one by one, to pose as themselves but in their British disguise. The lighting of the wall was ideal. An enormous soft box evenly lit the entire wall with the same quality of light the photographer was always looking for in the streets: strong and without shadows, like an invisible presence, meticulous and absolutely democratic. After all, this kind of light didn’t determine what was important and what not. It simply “lit.” All are equal before the law. No atmosphere, nothing falling into the shadows—the light of equality and evenness.

Boman Irani on the set of Tezz, Control Room

The boredom and impotence that had taken hold of him in the early afternoon, was now replaced by euphoric self-confidence. This was his moment. Here he was in the Mehboob film studios of Mumbai and all the pieces of the puzzle were coming together perfectly. Or perhaps his fantasy, flexibility, and anticipatory capacity, combined with years of experience and thought about image and society, were the cause of everything culminating here into a defining moment. This was the big reward he had always felt coming, though the uncertainty of whether it would actually come had often made him hesitant and impatient. This was his “once in a lifetime” opportunity! Diane was the first to be told about his plans. She was immediately enthusiastic. Herman, who had joined them, was also more than happy to pose for the series. Moreover, the photographer had promised to give a print to everyone who was willing to collaborate. This way, each of them would also have a great keepsake from this absurd day. While the photographer carefully informed Mansoor of his plans, he saw Diane and Herman telling the other extras. Mansoor was very helpful and said there would be some time straight after lunch before they would start filming again, so this would be the ideal moment to plan the photo shoot. Once this scene was in the can, he would take the photographer back to the room where his photography equipment was so he could prepare and set everything up to ready for the shoot.

On rejoining the other extras, the photographer was pleased to discover that literally everyone in the group was enthusiastic about the plans. Everyone, without exception, was willing to be photographed. The photographer now addressed the entire group and explained that they needed to be ready after lunch to pose, one by one, in front of the camera. He also asked his models if they could remove their English nametag. He thought they seemed a bit too literal and, moreover, the badges would draw too much attention and disturb the image. He was already imagining the mystery these photographs would possess: a series of thirty portraits of Westerners in which you feel something isn’t quite right (contaminated by the presumptions of Indians, though without it being explicit), in front of a bizarre green wall with white markers on both sides (that had some or another function in the postproduction of the green screen, when filling this latent space with digital content). The photographer asked that, when it came to their turn, everyone pose as themselves in real life, and not as their British persona. He suggested they pose faced directly towards the camera, looking straight into the lens without smiling. To do nothing really, like underacting or just “being.”

This was foolproof. All the ingredients were there, even the lights were already in place for him. Just a moment longer with this stupid folder walking through the frame and then it was his time to shine.