Monday, April 25, 2011

Harry Key: Outsider in Bollywood Part 3

This is the third in a series of interviews with non-Indian actors who have appeared in Bollywood films. Next week will be actor Alexx O'Nell (Madrasapattinam, Urumi, Joker, and many more.) For part one of this series with actor Jonnie Louis Brown who went from Baltimore (The Wire) to Bollywood, please click here and for part two with actress Sarah Thompson Kane, who romanced Ranbir Kapoor in Raajneeti, please click here.

If you have watched any Bollywood film from the recent past, you’ve probably seen – or at least heard – Australian actor Harry Key. Harry was tooling aimlessly around India on his motorcycle when fate took him into Mumbai. He ended up staying for five years, carving out a niche for himself in Bollywood as the go-to guy for producers looking for a white actor. Although Harry has left the industry for brighter pastures, he was kind enough to speak with me about his experiences as an actor hustling to make it in Bollywood.

 But before you read this interview, I suggest you watch this video celebrating Harry’s Bollywood career:

The only time that Harry and I could get together on the phone for this interview was extremely early on a weekday morning but the fog of sleep slowly fades as Harry spins his entertaining tales of India. “I’m not acting anymore so I can say whatever I want,” says Harry with what I can only imagine is a wicked grin.

According to IMDB, Harry had a small role in the recently released
Dum Maaro Dum, so first things first, I ask him about it, hoping for some inside tidbits. “I was playing an Israeli DJ and drug dealer but unfortunately I left before I could finish filming the whole role. As always happens with Bollywood, they say the whole film is going to be shot and done in two months and then it dragged out to five months and I got an offer to do something else on a long hiatus, so I just left.”

Well, let’s rewind to the beginning of the story. How did Harry Key end up in Bollywood? “My first real experience with Bollywood was getting there – [the films] are all over the place. I don’t know if you’ve been to India but they’re just
obsessed with it. Every single bus shelter ad, product endorsement, all of them are 95% Bollywood actors and then 5% cricketers.”

Like many foreign tourists in Mumbai, Harry was spotted on the street by an extra-wrangler and offered a chance to be an extra in a Bollywood film – in this case
Jaan-e-Mann. “[It was] just sort of standing in this enormous group of people clapping. It was great fun and I got paid 500 rupees, which was the standard rate back then for a day that starts at 6 in the morning to get on the bus to go all the way out to Film City, work there until about 10:30 at night, and then get the bus all the way back. So it was a 19-hour day for the equivalent of 20 US dollars.”

All those days of 500 rupee days began to add up and Harry discovered a cadre of like-minded professional extras. “It’s this funny, competitive industry; competing to be the lowest of the low and competing with complete strangers who had just got off the train from Goa. As I went to quite a few of these things as an extra, I suddenly realized that it would be quite viable to do it properly.”

Interestingly enough, more than Harry’s talent, something else got the attention of casting agents in Mumbai. “I got a proper VISA so what I was doing was legal,” he explains. “And that suddenly made it a lot easier to get proper roles because they’re always concerned that the police are going to come and bust in on their set. They’re also concerned if they cast an extra in an on-going role, are they still going to be here, because quite often people will just pick up and leave town - like what I guess I just admit doing in
Dum Maaro Dum.” He laughs. “But I also started learning to speak Hindi and I can ride horses quite well, both of which enabled me to corner the market on costume dramas.”

Harry saw that sense of unpredictability in the film industry - wondering if the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena or the police are going to come and bust up the set today - reflected in the final product. Describing the films he worked on, Harry puts it this way. “
Dostana was quite a high quality film and I had a small role in it and then it sort of slides down from there to some of the worst things you’ve ever seen, wondering why they’re still bothering to waste money on celluloid to shoot it but that’s particularly what I like about the industry. Because it’s so hit and miss and because there’s so little research and so little preparation and planning goes into it, that breeds a whole lot of opportunity because you can do anything you want. You know, 90% of the time when I was speaking lines in English, I pretty much wrote them myself which is a wonderful experience as an actor, just to have a little more say in what’s happening then just sitting down, saying lines, and moving on. I really like the industry, I think it’s quite fun, I think it’s just a celebration of entertainment more than it tries to be realistic and believable.”

The tidbit about writing his own lines had me intrigued, since Jonnie had also mentioned collaborating with the writers on
Apne, I wondered if that was a common occurance. “The main reason for that is quite often the lines I would get given would be sort of woefully worded. Quite often you could just tell somebody has just done shift-F7 a number of times. So, they’ve written down a sentence as they think it should be which would already be with questionable syntax and used the computer thesarus to change three of those words, so it just didn’t make any sense at all. And in order to be able to sound authentic while saying it you would just sort of say, ‘Well, I’m going to say this the way I want to.’ And people would quite often be okay with that. With the foreigners much more so than with the Indians. Indians would typically have to say their lines exactly as they were written but the foreign characters by and large were sort of used as filler so their roles weren’t considered important, regardless of how much time you spent on-screen because you were a vessel to add importance to the scene or to add a foreign flavor to it but they didn’t actually view your lines as something integral to the script, so you would have that freedom.”

And here we get to one of the things I’m most curious about with these Outsider in Bollywood interviews - is it hard playing those kinds of
foreign flavor roles? Especially since so many have a very negative undertone. “No, as a boy in the industry it didn’t bother so much.” Harry Key is nothing if not honest. “I had the opportunity to play some random guy from out of town, a businessman on a trip, an evil white colonialist – quite often it was a negative character but that didn’t bother me so much because I wasn’t doing method acting at all. Girls won’t admit to this, especially the ones who are still involved with it as a career, but the girls are stigmatized quite badly because they were by and large painted as sluts, which is an assumption that is continued on in the general public. A lot of my friends would wander around and find that guys would hit on them in the strangest ways because that was the assumption of Western girls. Quite often their role in a film would be to play a mediocre love interest of the main character but, obviously, never actually getting him.”

And that would be the Linda Arsenio role (to invoke the name of an actress I am dying to interview, especially about
Kabul Express) - the whorey gori who is the bane of so many of white Western women who watch and love Indian films.

Another question I wanted Harry’s perspective on was the Bollywood industry itself. It seems to Filmi Girl that the popular film industry has completely lost touch with the lives of everyday people in favor of some very inward looking endeavors. I wanted to get Harry’s perspective on this because he is uniquely positioned as an actor both inside and outside the industry. “I got a feeling that they had lost touch with what’s happening outside, simply because Bollywood has become such a big industry,” says Harry. “It’s now getting to second and third generation, quite often many many of the stars are sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews of these film family dynasties and it’s become very easy for them to come into [the industry.] A lot of films would be about making movies and if they weren’t about making movies there would be movie-making happening in it, which I think is a clear indication of how insular the whole thing has become in some ways. People are lost to what’s happening in the real world and they’re running out of stories to tell so they’re talking about what they know.”

Luck By Chance, I Hate Luv Storys, the list goes on. “[Bollywood] has also become in some ways quite lazy in that you took out films that were remakes of old Hindi films, films about films, and films that are remakes of Western films there are actually not many left in a year.” Harry ties it back to what he’s learned from his studies of Indian culture. “Indian culture is very big on copying - mimicking good results. I think it’s imbued as a cultural thing because it’s possible to go down in the caste system and it’s not possible to improve your life standing by doing anything then it imbues this sense of ‘continue doing whatever you’re doing’ and ‘do what other people are doing - don’t deviate from the norm.’ And then that’s made much harder by the fact that the education system is very, very corrupt and it’s got high-stakes testing all over the place so many, many schools cheat by getting their students to cheat. And that’s a major problem because then when those people step into the real world that’s what they do and you can see that everywhere – this habit of copying films, this habit of copying Western style products, Western commercials, even though they might not be suited to an Indian audience because it’s so much easier to copy than to have some lateral thought behind it.”

While some filmmakers may have success mimicking good results, Harry’s experience with copying didn’t turn out as well - notably on the sets of the 2009 film
Pazhassi Raja. “I kept getting told, ‘Oh, that’s brilliant! Well done! That’s so good!’ And I finish each scene going, [Unsure] ‘What? Really?’ And the director would keep giving me props and telling everybody that I was a wonderful actor and I was going to be winning an Oscar and he was going to put me in an M. Night Shamalan film. And I saw the film when it came out and I wasn’t good at all – I was terrible. [The director] was even giving shit in that film to Mammooty who is the biggest Malayalam star. He was giving him shit saying, ‘Oh, Harry’s a way better actor than you. He’s going to be the hero of this film – everybody is going to love him and hate you.’ I think in hindsight what it was – the director saw himself in my role. And the number one rule that I’ve learned as a director that you don’t do is to get up and act the scene and then to get somebody else to copy you, which he did with my role. I think what I was trying to be was a cheap fake cardboard cutout of him.”

Eventually, even steady work playing Israeli DJs and wicked colonialists can wear thin. Did Harry ever consider just packing it all in and trying his luck in some place like Los Angeles? “No, I never really tried that hard to break out of there [Bollywood]. I never contacted any agents in America and haven’t contacted any agents since being in London. I think I’m just realistic about how I was at it. I wasn’t a particularly talented actor. I’m happy to say that I’m a really good performer but not really an actor. I had to be realistic that although I was quite successful in Bollywood, a lot of that related to the fact that there was so few other white people to chose from. It was very slim pickings and the fact that I was tall, spoke Hindi, and rode horses put me at the forefront for many of the roles regardless of my level of ability as an actor. So to be realistic about that, I didn’t really have much interest in pursuing it in very, very competitive markets. I mean to go to L.A. is the most competitive market in the world. When I left
Dum Maro Dum, I left that because I was given a job as a road manager for A.R. Rahman and going over to L.A. and working with the dancers for his show was quite interesting because they just had to hustle so hard and it just seemed really difficult. I’m interested in working hard but not struggling.”

So is the Bollywood chapter of Harry’s life completely closed? “It’s not closed. Living there for 5 years and it being a very formative part of my life, it’s still very close to me and I still speak Hindi and I’ll chat with people in Hindi around London. I was a voice artist, doing lots of voice work in India, and now I’m a speech confidence coach. I also do a bit of cultural competence training, teaching Western companies how to break into an Indian market or deal with Indian arms of their company, so I still hold it very closely. I have it as a very fond part of my life and I don’t feel that I’ve moved on [from India] completely but as an actor and from the film industry a little bit, yeah.”

Before I let Harry go, I wanted to clear up a few more IMDB credits.
Dam999? “Yeah they send me e-mails all the time, these newsletters. Apparently it’s coming out and they say they’re sending it to twenty-something film festivals but the wording of [the newsletter] didn’t make me convinced that it had been accepted into any of the film festivals. So, I’m not sure what the status of that is.”

What about
The Other End of the Line? “I was meant to have a small role in but again I turned that down for a different film. They still left me in, so I’m still listed on IMDB and listed all over the Internet as acting in it when I never did.”

For more information on Harry’s speech confidence workshops, please check out his website:

For some more anecdotes from India, I highly recommend checking out Harry’s amusing
blog entries.


maxqnz said...

"Confusing your eyes with alternate wording" - LOVE IT!

Not so sure about lumping LBC in as an example of metafilms being indicative of a paucity of creativity, though. That particular film was well-written and strongly acted, I thought.

Filmi Girl said...

@maxqnz I like the Passion For Cinema quote at the beginning - how appropriate I post this as they announce the site is closing!

I agree that LBC is well-written and (mostly) strong acted but it is very indicative of the "inside baseball" (as we Americans say) kind of film that has become so prevalent.

Amol said...

"whorey gori" ! You should copyright/TM it. It takes the edge of the underlying ugliness a bit, I think.

Harry said...

Gold - wonderfully written Filmigirl.

I would like to say that I feel I was too harsh or at least not balanced when discussing Hariharan's directing in Pazhassi Raja. The film is, by Malayalam standards, a mega success. I was also a bit sneaky and pathetic by blaming the director.

He drew wonderful performances out of almost every other actor, and the film has won a bucketload of awards, smashed box office records and continues to be screened worldwide. It is a pleasure to watch and a truly epic film...

It's just me that's rubbish in it. The reviewers were unabashed in calling me 'immature' and 'woeful' - and were right. But the frilly collars and girl-wig didn't help.

Bollywood was great fun - and I love India and Indian culture. Great blog too! I'm going to link to it.

Bluemay said...

This is my favorite interview in the the series. Harry seems like a cool guy with a diverse skill set to fall back on. I appreciated his insight on his time in BW. Great job Filmi!

BTW, sorry for the late comment. I was traveling for work when you posted this.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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