Sunday, October 16, 2011

Joseph Mclean: Outsider in Bollywood (Mausam Special)

For previous entries in this series, please check the Outsider in Bollywood index.

Scotland is no stranger to film sets. Along with the films produced in the country itself, Scotland has hosted everything from Harry Potter’s quidditch matches to Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. But one type of film that Scotland* has not seen much of is the Bollywood film. So, when Pankaj Kapoor decided to shoot part of his romantic epic Mausam in Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh, nobody could have been prepared for what was about to come rolling down Prince’s Street.

Because Pankaj Kapoor had decided to set part of the action in Edinburgh, a handful of local actors were hired by the Mausam
team to play friends and co-workers of the main characters Harry (Shahid Kapoor) and Ayat (Sonam Kapoor) - and one of those local actors was Joseph Andrew Mclean, from Glasgow, Scotland!

Joseph studied screenwriting at the University of Strathclyde and then went on to get an M.A. in English Literature and Politics from the University of Glasgow. Despite earning such a thoroughly practical degree, his love of film was too strong for a practical career and Joseph is now in Los Angeles studying screenwriting at the University of California and working on writing and directing his first film. He very kindly took the time from his busy schedule to talk about his experiences on the Edinburgh sets of Mausam.

When Joseph got a call from his agent about an Indian film called Seasons of Love, he had no idea of the adventure that was waiting for him. “I can’t say my knowledge of Indian cinema was vast,” says Joseph, “but I knew that Bollywood and the Indian film industry were huge. And yes, my first thought when I heard about the film was singing and dancing - and, more worrying, would I have to do any! I think most people jump to the same conclusion when they think of Bollywood cinema; this was the first question everyone asked me about when I got the part.”

After breezing through an audition with the producer and the casting director in Edinburgh, Joseph was signed on as the Royal Air Force’s newest recruit! But this Officer had something more difficult than flying to worry about - ballroom dancing. “All the RAF Officers were originally down to be in the ballroom scene,” explains Joseph. And this meant dance rehearsals. First with an Edinburgh-based choreographer and later with an Indian choreographer.

But production reasons necessitated that the ballroom scene be simplified, so Joseph’s dance debut would have to wait. “I was quite glad of this really, if I’m honest, because I was struggling to get it right!” says Joseph, although Filmi Girl suspects his friends and family were probably disappointed. “So, in that ballroom scene we are all at the side of the dance floor, looking intrigued at Harry and this unknown girl he is dancing with.”

Ah, yes, the primary job of the Hero’s friends in any Bollywood film is to be interested in everything the Hero does. Mausan had a very special Hero in director Pankaj Kapoor’ son Shahid. Shahid isn’t known for temper tantrums or late arrivals like other Heroes I could name but there is a level of uncertainty working with any big star. How does Shahid live up to his image? “I watched some footage of Shahid performing at an Indian awards show on youtube and I knew he was a big star in India. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what he would be like, but the first time I met [Shahid] was at a dance rehearsal in Edinburgh and he seemed quite shy and reserved.”

“On my first day’s shooting,” Joseph continues, “we were filming a scene in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket where the RAF and IAF Officers are sitting at a cafĂ© - this is the scene where Ayat is selling Mozart tickets - and this was the first real chance I had to speak with him. He was very pleasant, charming and easy to get on with. We shared some jokes about Scottish food and weather and we all relaxed as we shot that first scene.”

It seems that jokes about haggis are, indeed, globally understood!

And as for that filmi image? “I saw a few star struck females swooning over Shahid at the Grassmarket, but I never saw anything too crazy. His fans were all very respectful, however I did hear a few 'we love you' cries aimed in his direction between takes!”

It seems those cries of love haven’t gone to Shahid’s head. “He is a decent guy and a very good actor,” says Joseph. “And it was interesting to see the respect he had for his father, the director, calling him Sir, as did all of the Indian cast and crew.”

Speaking of Pankaj-sir, how was it working with him? “Pankaj was fantastic!” says Joseph. “Pankaj was cool, calm and collected and he had a lot of respect from his cast and crew. Even I called him Sir any time I spoke with him; he just had that aura about him. He put us all at ease on that first day’s filming and shook us all by the hand after we had finished it, congratulating us for shooting our first scene in his movie. This made me feel really part of his team and it was special, as we had waited a few days for the weather to clear in order to shoot that scene.”

“I only saw [Pankaj] lose his rag once and that was in the ballroom scene. He went ballistic over the length of the Indian Air Force (IAF) Officers sideburns. It was a tense moment, but it had been a very long day shooting that scene. And for the few weeks I was on set that was the only time I witnessed him losing his cool. Considering he wrote the script and he had the pressure of being a first time director, I would say that is very good going and says a lot about him as a person.”

And Joseph would know. He continues. “I recently directed my own short film, which I wrote, so I know that it takes up a huge amount of your time and energy trying to convey the story to people and to get it from script to screen. So, I salute him for doing this in a feature length film, with all the added stress and pressure that goes with it. At the end of the day, it was his baby and I’m sure there must have been times it drove him nuts but he thought everything through, was very clear in his directions. He was also open to suggestions from the actors but ultimately he was the boss. He was one of those guys who doesn’t need to raise his voice for you to know he is the main man!”

It certainly sounds like Pankaj created a welcoming atmosphere for his Scottish team members and gave them a little taste of both Indian hospitality and the organized chaos of a Bollywood film set. “I loved being on set! It was different from most I had been on, as it there seemed to be a lot of crew, in some cases a British and Indian crew member for each job.”**

And one other difference? The food! No musty sandwiches at craft services for the actors of Mausam! “I loved the food!” enthuses Joseph. “I opted for the vegetarian option, as this was by far the tastiest and most authentic food on set. I ate daal every day for lunch and dinner for nearly a month! In fact for a the best part of a year I went vegetarian, but since moving to the States I’ve lapsed back into being a carnivore. However, I still eat my weekly ration of daal, it’s by far my favorite Indian food.”

As a well-known and outspoken vegetarian, I’m sure Shahid Kapoor would be happy to hear that Joseph developed a love of vegetarian food while working with him!

In these interviews, I’ve noticed that quite a few of the foreign actors working in Bollywood film never see the films once they are finished, whether because they lose interest or have no access. Thankfully, Joseph is not one of them and he got a chance to see Mausam in Los Angeles when it was released. “I really liked it,” he says.*** “It was a lot longer than I expected, though. I hadn’t been to see a movie that had an intermission in a long time, in fact I think Braveheart was the last one.”

“I thought the film was wonderfully shot, the cinematography was outstanding and I really enjoyed the Indian scenes.” And, yes, he has some kind words about his erstwhile co-star! “Shahid is great in it and there were moments in the film where he was very Tom Cruise-like. He’s a good leading man and I think Pankaj can be proud of his film. I’m sure he will go on to make many more. There was more action and stunts in the completed film than I ever imagined. I thought it would be a love story with the element of war, but I was surprised to see so much action and stunts. I never got to see any of that, as it was all shot in India, but they looked good and added some drama and tension to scenes. For instance, the IAF scenes were more action packed**** than I would ever have thought but I guess that shows my lack of knowledge in Indian cinema.”

“Also, there was more singing and dancing in it than I thought there would be but I enjoyed it.” Joseph doesn’t appear to regret that he was not the one doing any of the dancing. And what about Joseph’s own scenes? “When I watched the movie, I saw a lot of the ballroom scene was cut out. When we filmed it, we had shots of us [the Officers] staring at the pair of them as they waltzed. All of this was shot in a Masonic Hall on Edinburgh's George Street, a very grand and opulent building.”

“There’s quite a funny story about filming here, actually. At the back of the building there was a lane that had - how can I put it - a business that seemed to be dedicated to a certain ‘adult activity.’ The girls there were not happy! They claimed that the film trucks and crew were disrupting their business for the day.”

Filmi Girl is all ears at this point. “Then it turned really comical when a small fire broke out in the place and [the girls] were all evacuated in various state of undress. Filming had to be stopped, as the sound of fire engines and alarms were only a few yards away!”

Leaving aside the comical images of the ladies of ill-repute mingling with the Mausam crew as they tried to film a classy ballroom scene, how did Scotland fare in her big Bollywood debut? “I think Scotland was shown in a good light, not that Edinburgh needs anymore of a tourism boost.” Heh. “Ok, there were a few moments like Shahid dressed in the kilt, but hey I’m sure the Indian movie goers would be expecting to see tartan in Scotland, just as much as we would expect to see singing and dancing in the Indian settings!”

And what did Joseph take away from the experience? “For me, Bollywood is an industry I have more respect for. I was told that Pankaj was the Indian Robert De Niro and Shahid was like Tom Cruise and after watching the film I now fully understand why people would make that association.” He continues. “I liked the look of some of the trailers for some upcoming releases. The action movie Ra.1 starring Shahrukh Khan looked amazing - not usually my type of film, but I might go see this.”

Well, rest assured that Joseph will have plenty of company in the theater for that one!

I want to thank Joseph for taking the time to answer my questions about what it was like to be a non-Indian on the set of Bollywood film and for sharing his pictures with us. If you would like to keep up to date with everything he is up to, you can follow him on Twitter as @joseph_a_Mclean and check out his IMDB page.

* Sure, Karan Johar shot that Kuch Kuch Hota Hai song in Eilean Donan Castle but only as a edgier alternative to the pastoral hills of Yash Chopra’s Switzerland.

** Please see my interview with Ruchika Muchhala of The Bollywood Project for some insight on just how many crew members there can be on a Bollywood film set. - FG

*** Filmi Girl did, too. Check out my review here. The film is a real old-fashioned romantic epic - something Bette Davis or Meena Kumari could have starred in.

**** Filmi Girl would suggest checking out Vidyut Jamwal in Force for some amazing - and wire-free - action sequences.


avdi said...

This is a great interview. Thanks FG

dc2011 said...

Cracking :))

Ekta said...

Fab interview

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