If one judged by the Bollywood gossip pages, making a film requires little more than the right hero and heroine. They show up, the director points a camera, and magic is made. The truth is a lot more complicated and a lot more interesting. A staggering amount of work goes into creating the effortless glamor of a Bollywood film. Not only are there actors to put on camera but there are costumes to be sewn, lights to be hung, dance steps to be performed, sets to build, stunts to coordinate, equipment to rent, and somebody must make sure that everybody is getting paid. It is this hard-working behind-the-scenes world that filmmakers Ruchika Muchhala and Adam Dow explore in their documentary, The Bollywood Project.
The Bollywood Project began in 2007 when Ruchika and Adam, both working for Realnetworks in Mumbai, needed an idea for a web series. Ruchika suggested doing something on Bollywood, a perennially popular topic. The web series came and went but Ruchika and Adam found themselves fascinated by this world they had stumbled into. They kept filming. And now the documentary, which is in the final stages of editing, takes a closer look at four people in the industry - Premji, a union boss; Harry, a white Australian actor; Pooja, a dancer; and Ojas, a top make-up artist. The film follows their daily struggles, their successes, their heartbreaks, and their failures. Nobody said glamor was easy.
Ruchika Muchhala was kind enough to take the time to speak with me about making the documentary and what she learned in Bollywood.
[You may want to view the trailer for the film before you read this. It’s available
“We really didn’t know what we were doing at the beginning,” says Ruchika. “We just started walking onto sets and filming people. We were just seeing things on the sets that were kind of amusing – like a light man hanging from the rigs and all these different spot boys sewing on buttons to some girl’s sexy outfit. And the amount of people that were on these sets and, especially, all the layers of people that were on the sets, is much different from an American film set. It’s just like chaos and spot boys and people and sometimes you don’t even know who the cameraman really is because there are all these other people around the camera.”
Neither Ruchika nor Adam are from India, although Ruchika is of Indian descent, and the highly structured class system of a Bollywood film set was a completely foreign experience. Ruchika had previously worked on documentary films like Born into Brothels and had treated Bollywood as disposable pop culture, perhaps even as slightly embarrassing. “I think I never really paid much attention to Bollywood films because I grew up in Indonesia and Singapore and Bollywood wasn’t that unavailable,” Ruchika explains. “[But as the filming progressed] I definitely started to see more Bollywood films. I know what’s happening and take more of an interest in the mainstream Bollywood world. And I think I can appreciate the quality of production a bit more. Instead of just dismissing it as, ‘Oh god, this is such a cheesy movie without a plot,’ I can appreciate how much effort goes into like a dance number. I just saw Delhi Belly yesterday and there was a dance sequence that kind of imitated 70s style Bollywood films. [That would be the infamous DISCO BUTT song - FG.] I could appreciate not just the humor and how funny it was, but all the effort that must have taken because I’ve seen now that song sequences in Bollywood film take up half the film!”
Of course, Bollywood isn’t immune to its own glamor and films like Page 3 and Luck By Chance play up the idea that behind the scenes of Bollywood lives a sordid struggle for fame and fortune. How much of that truth did Ruchika capture on film? “I think [The Bollywood Project] is a little different,” she says, “because Luck By Chance was about struggling actors and this was…” She pauses. “I guess Harry is a struggling actor but because he’s a foreigner and he kind of lived in the ex pat bubble, it was a little different from the typical struggling actor story. But the idea of survival, like at the end of Luck By Chance, Konkona Sen [Sharma] is kind of sitting in a taxi and going back to work. You get the idea that, well, shit happens but she’s still going and she’s still going to do her everyday job. And it is a job, after all. That’s kind of the vibe you get in our film, as well - like with Premji being, ‘Until these limbs aren’t working there is no retirement.’”
Premji, the union boss, is a fascinating character and the resolve hinted at in the quote above is demonstrated in the film where we will see the devastating health effects he suffers as a result of the stress of his job. To the corporate media, the union boss has become a demonized figure, a cartoon villain trying to soak the poor factory owner for all he’s worth while drawing out the fight for television. The union boss himself would say he’s fighting for the rights of the workers. The truth, as always, is more complex. “When we first met Premji, I was very skeptical, like, ‘Is he a good guy or not?’” Ruchika explains. “Adam, he’s American, so he couldn’t really tell, but being an NRI and having grown up coming to India once a year, I was like, ‘This guy totally seems like a corrupted kind of fellow, who is saying he’s doing this for social work but really there’s some ulterior motive behind it.’”
“But the more and more we got to know him, I came to believe him,” says Ruchika, with passion. “Often time you go on these sets and it’s just bizarre and crazy and we just felt like nobody really cares and these people are disposable. Then you realize that Premji actually knows the workers by face oftentimes he’ll be like, ‘This is my friend, he started working in this era...’ And he’ll introduce us and put his arms around people – some of the workers - when he goes on set. All was that was kind of a discovery. Actually, I think that’s pretty telling of Indian culture; you never realize that there’s a system to all the chaos and that actually every single person on the set does have a union card and there is a way that everyone is getting paid.”
And then there is Australian actor Harry Key [whom you may remember from my Outsider in Bollywood series.] Ruchika explains the journey caught on camera. “When we met Harry it was at the beginning of when he came to India, so he was a lot more bubbly and like, ‘I’m being documented! I’m so famous!’ He would talk a lot. The more and more we were with him he started to see us like his friends with a camera and we got some really intimate moments with Harry - where he’s really upset or he’s just telling us his truths without any guard on. At the beginning he’s very confident and sure that he was going to make it and he was very almost kind of conceited about it, like, ‘Oh these Indians, I’m going to show them.’ I wouldn't’ say he was colonial or racist but he did think of himself as better in a way. I think that was also just him having to deal with what he was getting into and towards the end he kinds of become a little bit humble and they aren’t going to take him in. And he admits to him having a hard time and we have a scene with him being like, ‘I’m fucking broke and I don’t know what I’m doing here.’” Ruchika pauses. “I think that happens to a lot of us who lives in India from other places – whether or not you’re in the film industry.”
While we see Harry’s Bollywood career decline, dancer Pooja is on the rise. “When we first met her, she was a typical small town girl didn’t speak much English,” says Ruchika, with amusement. “She was very conscious around the camera, very tight on screen. The more and more we got to be with her, we got to see how she [became] more natural because she was getting more work and she was in front of the camera for work all the time. Now, she’s a lot more, ‘Hi, baaa~aabe…’ and acting like one of those typical Bollywood girls.”
“Pooja’s story has become very interesting. We’re actually not done with her and one of the main reasons we’ve come back to India is to finish shooting her story,” Ruchika continues. “Right when we left she was getting all these item girl roles. [Item girls are dancers who come in to do one - usually very sexy - song in a film. - FG] We’re trying to show her slow transformation because I think [previously] we stopped [filming] where you see that she’s changing but you don’t see what the change means for her. And the whole marriage thing that’s happening with her sister allows you to, at least as a foreign audience, see what a normal Indian woman has to go through and how Pooja has to fight it in order to be a dancer.”
“With all of the characters, the more and more we were with them, the more they were comfortable. ” Ruchika reaches for an example. “With Premji, there is footage of him at the hospital when he went to get heart surgery. It was [recorded] off our laptop because we weren’t allowed to bring a camera, but still the fact that we were there with him for that part...” The sentiment is palpable. “They feel close to us and can open up and tell us things which is the biggest win where you’re trying to document people.”
“To some degree we needed to keep following them with the intention that something would happen. Ojas and Premji love the camera. They are usually very happy when the camera is around and are quite natural. At some point they’ll even tell us, ‘Turn the camera on now, turn the camera on!’”
But the process of documenting people is only half the battle of making a documentary. After the filming, comes the process of wrangling the footage into some kind of narrative. “To some degree you’re building fiction,” says Ruchika matter of factly. “It was hard because all the raw footage is bits and pieces and you can get into real big trouble for manipulating things as a documentary filmmaker because there is a very thin line between manipulation and where you’re trying to build a story off of all this footage. ” Ruchika brings up a scene in the film where make-up artist Ojas snips at an actress’s assistant for daring to touch a hair-piece he always shapes himself. “We use it as an opening scene for Ojas – this is his identity and this is how he really thinks he’s a diva himself. And it establishes the fact that he’s a sassy transgender makeup artist, but then which direction do we want to go with that? And for the longest time with things like this you really don’t know where you’re going with their stories because you’re literally just documenting their everyday life.”
Like many other strivers in Bollywood, this independent documentary is still jostling for attention. “Right now, we’ve been working on it for so long that we’re pretty much done shooting. We’re trying to raise funds and we’re talking to companies here in India trying to raise funds, as well - trying to get co-production help as well as help with all of the footage that we’re trying to get cleared. We used a lot of Bollywood film footage here and there and we need to get all of the permissions and rights sorted.”
All the future plans plans come tumbling out in an excited burst. “We’re looking into trying to get it into festivals next year and then hopefully do the festival route and pick up a distributor and get some more publicity and package the film as a DVD and have it available in theaters in the States and some other places. So that’s kind of the angle we’re looking at… that festivals that will lead us to bigger things.”
“Because we’re targeting film festivals and more of an international audience, there is going to be a lot of explaining Indian culture and explaining how this is going to work. The Indians who have seen it are like, yeah, ‘Blah blah Bollywood.’ So, I am expecting people from outside to be more interested in it, as well as NRIs, but the stories themselves are very interesting so I think that even a lot of my friends that work in the film industry here don’t know about all this stuff. I have two friends that are DPs [Director of Photography - FG] and they don’t know about Premji and they don’t know about stories like Pooja’s because the system in India is so class oriented that there’s no way a DP would talk to a background dancer or know her story.”
Well, this jaded industry watcher is anything but ‘blah blah Bollywood’ about The Bollywood Project and I can’t wait to see a realistic depiction of what it’s like behind-the-scenes in Bollywood. I want to thank Ruchika for taking the time to talk with me about it and wish her the best of luck in getting the film finished. Ruchika has been discussing crowd-sourcing for the project and I will pass those details on as soon as I get them.
You can find out more about The Bollywood Project on their website.
And you can find out more about Ojas and Harry Key at their websites.