How Globalization Hurts Bollywood Extras

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 4/05/2008 01:34:00 AM

Readers new to the IPE Zone may wonder what this story has to do with international political economy as the story's subject matter is not as clearly "IPE" as the two previous stories on trade and aid, respectively. However, this story of changes in the Indian film industry is very much an IPE one: as India has opened up to the world, it has become more receptive to "Western" lifestyles, especially as more folks flock to urban centres. Responding to increased urbanization, Bollywood producers have set more of their films in India's major cities as opposed to the countryside as with previous Bollywood epics. The problem with extras is that many of them are folks of modest means who do not look like the Indian equivalents of (gulp!) yuppies. In previous times, extras would play farmhands and assorted, well, bourgeoisie. However, the urbane settings of many newer Bollywood productions requires the casting of metrosexuals and other social climbers.

The heart of the matter is that the union of Bollywood extras (call it a remnant of India's Marxist past that still isn't fully erased) cannot really furnish folks who look the part of yuppies. Hence, labour strife has arisen because the movie extra unionists don't look "upscale" enough to hang with the likes of Shahrukh "Dard-E-Disco" Khan. As Bollywood seeks to market its films in foreign markets likes the US and UK, production values have to be raised, so inauthentic looking extras won't be seeing as many job opportunities. So make no mistake: this story--while entertaining if saddening as well--is 100% IPE. Unions having trouble coping with globalization is as pure IPE fodder as you can get. From the Wall Street Journal:

As India rapidly modernizes, the country's filmmakers are struggling to find movie extras who look the part. The problem is that the unions that supply background actors to movie-makers haven't kept up with the times. They have fiercely restricted admission: Becoming a "junior artist," as extras are known, is often hereditary. As a result, the labor pool has remained homogenous and small at around 2,000 unionized extras in total.

Most of these actors are relatively poor. Directors have generally used them to play roles like rickshaw drivers, shopkeepers with bushy moustaches and passersby in a village bazaar. But now, movies are increasingly shot in Western-style shopping malls and modern office towers, and directors need extras who fit the scene. "If I'm shooting in a nightclub, I wouldn't want someone who could pass for a vegetable vendor," says Bharat Rawail, an assistant director at Yash Raj Films, one of India's biggest production houses.

Entrepreneurs like Hemanshu Dadbhawala have rushed to fill the gap. The stocky 29-year-old works with directors to provide specialized actors the unions don't have in their ranks. He carries CDs loaded with photos of people he says look "modern." They range from college-educated twentysomethings in Western-style clothes, to people who could pass as fashion models. As "Bollywood" movies become more sophisticated, directors are also increasingly striving to get the details just right with their character actors. Mr. Dadbhawala says he can help with that, too: He offers numerous fire-eaters, bodybuilders, cross-dressers and midgets. "If a director needs a really, really fat person, they can't get it from the union," Mr. Dadbhawala says, pulling out a photo of three extremely large men, all his clients. "Now, these people are really huge."

Indian directors say they need to be picky about extras as they try to go global and appeal to the United Kingdom and the U.S. markets, where higher production values are expected. "You can't keep using the same faces every time," says Sudhir Mishra, director of the recently released "Khoya Khoya Chand" (Lost Moon), a love story set in the 1950s. Mr. Mishra bypassed the union to hire actors he felt could more authentically portray prostitutes, bouncers and pimps in a brothel scene.

Directors also try to boost the international appeal of their films by using foreign extras, often European or American vacationers rounded up at Mumbai tourist spots -- a tactic that is particularly galling to unionized extras. Film producers "give excuses, like 'We're shooting in a pub, so we want to have some foreigners there,'" says Firoz Khan, a 25-year-old member of the Junior Artistes Association, the union for male extras. "It's just excuses." Mr. Khan earns about $250 a month, a decent wage in a country where three-quarters of the population live on less than $2 a day. In one recent role, he portrayed a soldier in "Jodhaa Akbar," a 16th-century period drama now showing in the U.S.

The unions, true to this country's strong socialist roots, are fighting back. They're working to persuade local police and government officials that foreign extras -- many of whom are simply vacationers looking to immerse themselves in Bollywood glitz for an afternoon -- could pose grave security risks on film sets because they don't have government work permits. "If these people do anything wrong, how will we track them? Who will be responsible?" said Dharmesh Tiwari, president of the Federation of Western India Cine Employees, the umbrella organization that oversees the Junior Artistes Association as well as the women's union, Mahila Kalakar Sangh, or Women Artists Association.

In general, the unions require movie-makers to seek permission before using nonunion extras. The unions sometimes conduct surprise on-set inspections to ensure compliance. "They get really upset," says Mr. Mishra, the "Khoya Khoya Chand" director. Tensions like these were on display recently on the set of "Mumbai Chaka Chak," which translates loosely as "Mumbai Spic and Span" and is a romantic comedy about street sweepers. The producers had hired a few dozen nonunion actors, including some real-life street sweepers for authenticity.

The Junior Artistes Association wasn't happy about that. So one afternoon recently, a few union members initiated a strike on the set. First the lights went dim, a person who witnessed the situation says. Then a heavy-set union inspector arrived. Studio executives sprang into action, rolling out tea and snacks for the inspector in an effort to persuade him that the nonunion workers weren't displacing union hires. It took an hour and a half for shooting to resume, the witness recalls. Mr. Tiwari, the union boss, says he wasn't aware of that incident. However, he says, "noncooperation" by unionized actors is appropriate when nonunion actors are used without permission.

At the headquarters of the Junior Artistes Association, a concrete building in a slum area of the city, the changes are being felt by some actors more than others. On a recent afternoon, a dozen extras waited inside for their next assignment, sprawled on a row of blue metal benches. One man napped next to a goat. The union actors are divided into classifications based on their general appearance. Ones with a more modern look, such as Mr. Khan, the 25-year-old -- who was dressed in an orange top and white jeans -- are referred to as "Decent Class" for men and "Super Class" for women. They earn about 700 to 800 rupees ($18 to $20) per shift, which is slightly less than a full day's work. The lower rung, "B-Class," earn about 200 rupees less per shift and are made up mostly of people who union officials feel are better suited to play traditional roles like street vendors or villagers. Both classes get extra cash for anything beyond simply standing in the background, such as uttering a line, getting wet in the rain, or riding a bike.

It's the B-Class actors who are particularly vulnerable to shifting movie tastes. Vinod Vengurlekar, a 48-year-old B-Class actor killing time at the union hall recently, said he would love to get more work, but is resigned to the fact that not everyone is right for every role. "Some of us aren't cut out to wear business suits," Mr. Vengurlekar said.