The Rickshaw Wallah

To get a head start on filming our interviews, my partner and I left Sai Palace (our hotel) three hours early to catch a rickshaw. Being that it was much earlier than normal, countless drivers refused to pic us up. After maybe 13 attempts, a older modeled vehicle creeped to our rescue. The driver was middle aged and his two front teeth had withered away but he was pleasant. The first thing we noticed was a sign that read ‘hello’ in what must have been 50 different languages.

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 12.15.24 AMAs we waited to reach our destination, my partner and I discussed our objectives for the shoot. Out of nowhere, in broken, yet confident, english, we heard the phrase “Good Morning”. This was a pleasant surprise, most of the rickshaw drivers we encountered in the past did not speak a word of our language.  Personally, his greating gave me insight into how mumbai’s citizens must feel when I attempt to speak hindi. We replied hello. He continued, where are you from. My partner replied “we’re from the United States”. The driver then pointed in my direction, where are you from? I reiterated that I was from America.  With a smirk he pointed to my blonde haired classmate and said “Nahi, she america. and you?” At this point I realized – he was either totally oblivious to the fact that there was such thing as an african american or, genuinely, being an asshole. With a flick of his wrist, I got my answer. Pointing to my hand, “black” he shook his head back and forth. “White, America” nodding up and down with an even bigger smirk.

My partner was flabbergasted – but the drivers behaviour didn’t shock me at all. Throughout  my entire stay in India, I was constantly reminded just how much the Anglo Saxon physical features are valued and worshiped. From the constant request of locals to take photos with my white travel mates to the heavy presents and availability of hair dyes and skin bleaching creams. I could have acted in a plethora of ways during that situation, but, I simply reassured him that we were both american. I then raised my own finger and pointed in his direction saying, “you can be american too”.

At that moment, I was totally prepared to lecture the driver with a more in-depth lesson but that wasn’t my job. And furthermore it would be a waste of my time, brain cells and breath. I came to india to make documentaries and learn filmmaking techniques. Trying to unteach centuries of white supremacist sentiments in the 3 minutes I had left in the rickshaw would more than likely prove ineffective. Had it been another day at at a different hour, I may have taken the time to exorcise our rickshaw wallah’s ignorance. But Instead, I paid my fee, crossed the courtyard and continued to film a documentary about the inquisitive, cultured and malleable children that will build Mumbai’s stronger tomorrow.

Business as Usual (Scars)

Sunday, we made a surprise visit to the region known as Colaba. As our taxi’s approached, I couldn’t help but notice the unorthodox architecture presented. Until this point, buildings in Mumbai appeared to be either of a modern western or of traditional Indian style. In Colaba, however, the architecture was very gothic, with both Spanish and British influences. It was quite a steep contrast. As with most tourist destinations, people were everywhere both taking pictures and trying to sell us merchandise. Early on, I couldn’t help but notice the unusual amount of security checkpoints.

Further down the road, a majestic building with a red top cross my eye. It looked like a palace. Mark informed me that it was The Taj Mahal Hotel. At first I was confused; understanding that the actual Taj Mahal would be our last destination on the trip. Before entering, there was another series of metal detectors but these searches were more thorough. As I waited in line, I kept hearing phrases like “that’s where it happened” and “bombing”. Up until this point, I was not aware of the tragedies that occurred in 2008. The Taj was beautiful; constructed with golden ceilings and marble floors.

For dinner, we decided to eat at the world famous Leopold Cafe. Once again, I was not aware of its relation to the 26/11 attacks. It was there that my stomach started to ache again. After I received my burger, Mark made us aware of the bullet impacts in the walls, positioned very near to where our heads were resting. I then slowly noticed a similar looking caliber of hole in many of the restaurants doors and windows. I began to fill a strange mix of emotions.

Part of me was appalled. It’s one thing to have the strength to go back into business after a major catastrophe, but why keep such gruesome blemishes as relics? Usually, after an attack, a plaque or sign is erected; commemorating the lives of those lost;  not the manner to which they met their demise. Beside from a few stylized paintings; the only commemoration of the events came from the exit impacts that pierced the walls and windows. Secondly, I felt this display was exploiting the events. For some reason, I could imagine some patrons coming to view this location like a Hollywood movie set, it just seemed very grim. As I had time to process, I remembered that the wreckage from the World Trade Center is on display in many regions of New York. People also visit the sites of Pearl Harbor on a regular basis. What we call national landmarks, in United States, could equally be considered morbid. At the end of the day, even though the display of damage may be perceived as tasteless to me, personally, the management’s intention was carefully thought out. The destruction caused by a few, cannot destroy the semblance of what the restaurant represents to many. The rubble and debris are the equivalent of an aesthetic scar; the business carries on as usual.

 

A Dance to be Captured

We arrived at 3 o’clock and practiced our steps one last time. Outside the rehearsal room window we could see the various props and accessories being carried into the set. Many of the students wanted to help the crew, however, they informed us that in India, equipment setup and breakdown had to be handled by the technicians from the companies that own the cameras. Not understanding the full scale of the film many of us were disappointed.  

As we traveled to the basement for costume and makeup the scale became more apparent. Five technicians and three tailors waited to intercept us. There are many differences and similarities between indian and american hair and makeup departments. The first thing I noticed was that the majority of the talent dressing staff was male. Of all the staff only one hair stylist was female. The second thing I noticed was how much of an assembly line the process was. At first, everyone was to be given the same look, however after much coaxing, they began to consider our wants and needs for our appearance. For example, they originally planned to use lighter makeup tones on Whitney and Kady’s faces. After a bit of coaxing, they agreed to us less makeup than originally intended. In my case, they wanted to straighten my hair. Having this done at home occasionally, I didn’t mind, however, as expected they haphazardly began pulling away with a tiny flat iron. Eventually, they got it together. 

When we got to the set, it was a filmmakers dream. All the things you would commonly associate with a hollywood movie set were there. Huge lights, bulky cameras, dozens of crew members and a fearless director were all creating that cinematic atmosphere. The environment made us want to work hard. At that point even if you had 0 dancing abilities, you felt like Shahrukh Khan and you wanted to move like him too. 

In my initial blog post, I talked about the impact of bring a DSLR would have on my photos. This was a prime example. With the expensive lighting makeup and vastness of the set, capturing the sure detail and beauty of the environment would have been lost using a point and shoot.

Lesson # 16: Don’t Eat The Meat

One of the biggest concerns for coming to India had nothing to do with the heat or language barrier. It had to do with the food. I’m a pretty adventurous person and I’m always down to try new and exciting cuisine. However knowing that the vast majority of india is vegetarian, not having meet for an extended period of time would be pretty challenging. Mark warned me time and time again that the various chicken and lamb dishes served here would not be prepared as cleanly as in the states. But my cravings rendered his caution irrelevant.

Yesterday as we did our daily yoga routine, I felt very sluggish. The various stretches and chants felt rough. After sitting through a lecture I began to sweat. I stopped participating and simply closed my eyes hoping what ever was the matter would pass. It did not. The next experience was one of the worst of my entire life. As we began to study our bollywood dance routine for the shoot. My body pretty much shut down. I began to feel weak and got an extreme headache. One of my peers suggested I take a nap. While sleeping I began to hallucinate. The strange part was everyone in my dream was speaking Hindi. I woke up on and off sporadically. One of the instructors from the Whistling Woods staff brought me a cup of black tea which did help but still did not cure me. When I woke up the final time, I felt a little bit better but to my dismay, I had missed the entire rehearsal. I apologised to the instructor and he informed me that I could still participate and they would film around me.

Today is the big day, as I arrive on campus I see trucks full of equipment. This production will be large scale. I do not want to mess my dance steps up.

Stay Tuned

Storytelling

Before coming to india, I wouldn’t begin to claim I knew the first thing about its film history, themes or structure. After today, however, I can now say I have an extremely spall understanding. We were given the honor and privilege of receiving lectures from 3 different speakers: Somnath Sen gave a very impactful speech – comparing and contrasting the differences between western and south asian storytelling down to the history. While western writers base the majority of their storytelling principles on the model scribed by Aristotle, Indians tend to base their stories on the Natyashastra. In my previous attempts at watching South eastern cinema, I found this disconnect very troubling. But given this new context, many of the films I’ve watched are more digestible in hindsight.   Screen writer Anjum Rajabali went into greater detail about story and how they relate to the gods. He started his lecture by asking us exactly what we wanted to know. He then proceeded to tell us how different elements of indian cinema, such as dance and, are planted into the screenplays to convey the 9 emotions expected.   Finally, Production Designer Salim Arif compared and contrast Raj Kapoors Ranbir Raj from Mr. 400 and John Travoltas Tony Manero from Saturday Night Fever. In their introductory scenes, both characters have theme songs expressing their emotional beliefs and their particular outlook on life which will eventually be challenged over the course of the film.

Tony views himself as a woman’s man with ‘no time to talk’. Despite his dead end job and limited skills and resources, he’s working hard to get the material things he wants out of life with hopes of eventually finding happiness. 

VS

Ranbir is a bagarbon who comes to the big city hoping to make a honest living. Initially, despite the meager conditions of his country and their dependence on other nations for commerce, he still has faith in his allegiance to India.

To make my own inference this type of introductory song is also very prevalent in Disney princes animated films. The main difference, however, is the princes always feels she is missing something out of life. This void is usually filled in an unorthodox way soon after the song is sung.

To Shoot, or Not to Shoot

India will be a great test of my abilities in more than one regard.

Last Night wasn’t as hectic as I would have imagined. Having bought the necessary essentials (bug spray, sandals, baby wipes…) a day prior, aside from packing, my only major concern was what equipment to bring.

As a freelance videographer and media consultant, I’m pretty use to traveling domestically with professional gear, both independently and by request of employer. However, this is my first time leaving the country. I’m generally a pretty optimistic person and having purchased the majority of my equipment with my own finances, I consider myself to be “smart” about choosing the environments to which I feel comfortable using my cameras. My parents, on the other hand, were somewhat nervous – wanting me to only take the most disposable assortments of image capturing tools. After spending a few hours on youtube and reading articles by videographers such as Philip Bloom, I had a pretty good idea of what I should bring. The icing on the cake came from a good friend and established Photographer. Upon telling him my worries of safety and logistics, he frankly told me ‘don’t be a punk – take what you need’.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that the best camera being the one you have on you. But if you have access to superior equipment, why not bring it along? The threat of theft and abuse is present wherever you go. But as a photographer/ videographer, I refuse to let this be the crutch and an excuse for not capturing poignant moments. I just have to be smart and mindful of the environment and keep the camera with me at all times… I’m up for the challenge.

The other test comes in the form of assimilation. This Past school year, I made the decision to start pursuing a minor in Hindi. Thus far I have taken the first two courses in the sequence and in the process of pursuing a Hindi Minor. The language is relatively challenging but it has given me perspective to understand and draw bridges not just through language but also through custom. With a passion for media storytelling – The Bollywood program seemed like a no brainer. I am extremely grateful for this experience and plan to harvest & nurture every opportunity presented & obtained. Image