How a Trip to Mumbai Ended With my Bollywood Debut
We were three British girls in India—Lucy, Lucy, and I—suffering a collective delusion of total invincibility. School was behind us, university was safely ahead, and everything was hilarious, as it tends to be when you're eighteen.
I remember, for example, the way we used to ride on the roofs of speeding buses, ducking to avoid decapitation by the power lines strung across the road, shrieking as we clung on around sharp corners. We were young enough not to know anyone who'd died. We were young enough not to know anything at all. And yet we'd spent three months as teachers in rural Himachal Pradesh, our mere English-speaking privilege serving as a badge of pedagogical legitimacy. Our charges were small, sweet kids who came to school in white and navy uniforms that were never not immaculate, even though school itself was a concrete shell and the bathroom a fly-swarm of a fecal swamp behind it. Even as callow teenagers, children ourselves, we had some guilty inkling, as we said goodbye to these kids, that we were about to see more of their country than they ever would.
We embarked on an extravagant three month itinerary—Pondicherry, Hampi, Cochin—more places than I can name, but our final stop was Mumbai where we heard something wildly implausible that we nevertheless chose to believe: that all you needed to do to get cast in a Bollywood film was be white and wander around. In retrospect, the idea seems like a bleak joke about privilege: "Be white! Show up!" Which we did. And it worked.
Doughy after months of rice, dhal, a lurid orange sugary drink called Mirinda and daily fistfuls of chocolate bars called Five Star, we showered infrequently and were in the habit of swapping our unwashed clothes between the three of us. In the Bollywood movie that had played on the flight from London Heathrow to Delhi, the characters used "butterball" as a term of endearment and we took to calling each other this happily, affectionately. So, just butterballing around the city one day, the stupid miracle went ahead and happened: an over-animated woman in a pink tracksuit jumped right in front of us with her clipboard and said, chirpy as a cartoon, "Hey girls, you wanna be in a movie?" Our answer was an unhesitating and hysterically incredulous "yes."
In this moment, though, the hilarity changed. When I think of it now I realize it was mostly vanity, sublimated. We'd been scouted, that verb whose objects included Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. We must have known, of course, that our remarkability on the streets of Mumbai, in other words our basic youth and whiteness, did not mean that we were remarkable ourselves.
Our "talent" spotter then said, "No bikini no problem!" which sounded more like a slogan than a promise. Either way, it's an ambiguous sentence. I took it to mean, "We won't make you wear a bikini." Instead, as we later realized, it meant, "We will
provide you with a bikini." A large difference. With some tiny swimwear.
They were bright red and so small that she handed them to us in a palmful puddle of nylon and string. This swimwear was then mandatorily accessorized with flared white furry leg warmers—they looked like the fetlocks of some shaggy pantomime horse—and squeaky white plastic sandals, like doll shoes, supersized.
We'd been bussed to an enormous warehouse and pointed to a trailer with a piece of paper taped to the door that read, "International Models." We wasted no time, of course, in taking pictures of each other—mugging, gurning, cross-eyed - beneath this new job title and as we did I overheard our clipboard bearer respond to the director as he regarded these "models" with dismay. "If you'd given me another day," she snapped, "I could have got Swedish chicks!" Ha!—I felt a loutish, underdoggy sort of triumph over those chimerical Swedish chicks.
Lucy, Lucy, and I were sharing our trailer and our stardom with some miserable Belgian girls and, finally costumed in bikinis and fetlocks, the troupe of us shuffled out and lined up. Our lady, still brandishing her clipboard like a shield, appraised us grimly. As she did I looked around the set. There were elephants, placid and enormous, seeming to move in slow motion as they lifted a foot or waved a trunk. There was a vast stage facing a twenty foot tall wind machine. There were phalanxes of shirtless, drumming men. And then there was us, the International Models. And it was perhaps the unshakeable risibility of this title that deflated any awe or intimidation I might have felt in the midst of this huge operation.
"He's a really big deal, yah?" she said, referring to the Bhangra star we'd be dancing beside. "So...this," and she flung an accusatory finger at the stomach region of one of the Belgian girls. "Hold this in, ok?" We all looked at her with horror and sympathy, but she held it in—stomach and tears both.
Our fat-shaming clipboard bearer was also, it seemed, our choreographer. Lined up on stage, we arranged ourselves around the unuttering and turbaned megastar, who beamed beatifically throughout. Our choreographer directed us to put our right arm out, and then our left, and then… it dawned on us that it was the Macarena. The wind machine roared, the drummers drummed, the elephants swayed, the Bhangra blasted and we, in our plastic shoes, furry calves and red bikinis, danced the Macarena like no one was watching. Or like everyone was watching. Aren't they're the same thing when you're eighteen?
After a few more takes she had one last direction for us: "Ok now just freak out!" she said. We were confused. "Just freak out!" she said, impatiently. "Like you would at home!"
I thrashed and wobbled gormlessly, distracted by the perfect spectacle that was my friend recreating every move that Christina Aguilera makes in the video to "Dirrrty". Weeks later, back home in suburban London, Lucy, Lucy and I went online and found our moment of stardom. Frenetic jump cuts and zooms of elephants and drumming men, and yes, for a few brief flashes, some doughy white girls in red bikinis, freaking out like they never did at home. We shrieked.
In the twelve years since, I've occasionally burrowed through YouTube trying to find us again: Lucy and Lucy have too. (The three of us are still friends.) I'm not sure what I'm looking for. Perhaps just the opportunity to introduce myself to another, completely past version of myself, that familiar stranger who'd do unthinkable things, like dance about in a red bikini in a video.
I can find our guy, the forever smiling superstar Daler Mehndi, shoulder-shaking through track after track, but I don't think I'll ever find us at this point—I can't even remember the name of the song. Everything is hilarious when you're eighteen but some things, like dancing the Macarena with your two best friends beside a Punjabi pop star, might stay hilarious for a lifetime.