Basically Albino in India

My ancestry traces back to the pastiest of white ethnicities on the planet. I’m American-Irish/Polish and in India I might as well be albino. Growing up in Syracuse, NY (among my fellow pasty compadres) I’ve never experienced being a spectacle purely because of my skin color but as soon as we landed in the Mumbai airport I realized I’d get my first taste. At first it was just a few stares here and there and extra attention from beggars but then it upgraded to full on paparazzi level stalking.

 

When we visited Juhu beach for example, before our feet even hit the sand we had a circle of locals surrounding us, awkwardly asking if girls in our group would be in pictures with them. Luckily I somehow avoided being in pictures on the beach but fast-forward a few days to when we visited the Gate of India and I wasn’t so fortunate. I just hope someday I come across them on the internet.

 

If this has taught me anything it’s how not to deal with someone who is different when they’re visiting your country. The attention is extremely uncomfortable. It’s also shown me how much it must suck to be famous, with everyone staring at you and taking pictures when you’re just trying to enjoy the moment. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining about this trip though, because this journey has been the most exciting of my experiences with SU abroad so far. Every new experience here has taught me something and I’m so glad I decided to come here.

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Stray in Bombay

As we move into the second leg of our journey we move from popular Indian cinema to the art of documentary filmmaking. Our group has been split into three film crews to work on two separate nonprofit organizations that help improve Mumbai. My groups organization is The Welfare of Stray Dogs, they work on reducing the stray dog population while also attempting to change the publics perception on the city mutts. Before 1994 Bombays main method of lowering the population of strays was euthanasia but this didn’t solve the problem because as soon as dogs were removed from an area more dogs would move in. W.S.D. took over in 1994 with a new technique, sterilization. With this new strategy the amount of strays in the greater Bombay area has gone from 500,000 to just 17,000.

 

After our first meeting with WSD we were shown a documentary that was filmed in 2010. It had decent production values but was a little cheesy (it was narrated by a voice claiming to be a dog). The head honcho told us what he liked/disliked about the short and gave us creative freedom on our project. After a short discussion we decided on going for a more serious expository documentary that could inform the public about how much good W.S.D. is doing while giving them a more professional look.

The schedule for shooting is going to go something like this:

 

First two days will be spent collecting B-roll of strays and Indian life.

 

On the third day (tomorrow) we will follow around a traveling veterinarian employed by W.S.D. as they treat strays by Churchgate Station in the old British side of Bombay.

 

Sunday we rest, Monday we have class and then Tuesday will be spent shooting at their vaccination centre, which was converted from Bombays old euthanasia center.

 

Wednesday we’ll get any shots we missed and edit.

 

Thursday we edit.

 

Friday we edit until our screening in the evening.

 

It’s all planned out and now we’re one third of the way done. Can’t wait to show the finished product.

 

A week in the East left me weak in the knees

First Week in Mumbai.

As I write this post at 11:00pm on Sunday May 25th it has been roughly 193 hours since flight UA48 landed in Mumbai. In that timespan I’ve sampled Indian delicacies, danced in a Bollywood item number, laughed at local stand-up comics, plunged my feet in the Indian Ocean, grooved with newlyweds on the streets of Mumbai, and learned about Indian cinema from industry professionals. The phrase ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ has never been so accurate. All I can hope for now is that the next two and a half weeks don’t go by as quickly since I need all the time I can to find my Indian wife (my horoscope this month said I’m going to meet my life partner, what’s a better place to get married than India?[sorry Mom]).

 

I should probably elaborate on some of the vague experiences I mentioned in the first paragraph…

 

Indian Food:

After a 15-hour flight with nothing but airline food to satisfy our hunger all we could think of was getting some Indian food. When we arrived at the Sai Palace at around 11:30pm they were just about to close their restaurant doors but thanks to the unbelievable kindness of the staff we were allowed to order some food. We scrambled to a long table in the back and searched for familiar foods from menus that shook in our clenched fists. Nothing really rang a bell to me so I left it in the very capable hands of Mark Bennington. We got roasted chicken, sav puri, naan and a desert I can’t for the life of me name. (I’m going to murder the spelling for a lot of these dishes, since I’m writing this post with the absence of wifi, hopefully no one takes offense.) After that night I’ve become more adventurous with my choices and sometimes choose a dish solely because of its exotic name. I’ve had Samosas, Paan, Biryani, Paneer, fresh Mango and Coconut, ‘Bombay Burgers’ and an entire traditional Thali, just to name a few.

 

Bollywood Dance Number:

My God what an experience. Every once in a while at social gatherings I’ve “loosened up” enough to move my body in a rhythmic fashion, but that’s as far as my familiarity with dance goes. Luckily for me (and most of my class) our choreographer planned a dance routine that a handicapped monkey could learn and after two days of practice we arrived at Whistling Woods around 4pm to do a quick run through. After that we were sent straight to hair and make-up. (At this point it should be noted that I was not at all confident in my ability to perform said dance rountine.) By 6:30pm we made our way to the set where a film crew of about 22 people who mostly didn’t speak English greeted us. (at this point I was shaking in my Lungi) Fortunately the next 10 hours went pretty smoothly. We went through the routine about 100 times and even got to do a fair amount of improvisation at the end. I really can’t wait to see how it turns out.

 

Comedy Store @ the Blue Frog:

To celebrate our first week in Mumbai on Saturday night we went to the Blue Frog to enjoy some Indian comedy. Mark had met and photographed the headliner for his book so we all knew we were in for a treat. We arrived at around 7:30pm ordered some food and waited in the hip venue for the show to begin. At 8:30 the show started. There were three acts and one hysterical host and surprisingly by the end of the night there were only a couple of American jokes. One even reminded me of my sister. The headliner brought up the fact that many American women fall in love with India because of it’s culture and try to make plans to visit India in hopes of “finding themselves” in which his response was “I’ll drop you off at Andheri and I promise you’ll never find yourself again!” (sorry Ellie)

 

Indian Ocean:

At noon this morning we left our hotel to see the Indian Ocean. When we arrived we were first greeted by almost the entire beach. We were definitely the only foreigners there and it was probably the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing the life of a celebrity. We walked down to the water and a fairly large convoy of locals followed us. Some took pictures with us and others just tried to sell us things like henna stamps or kites. We grabbed some ice cream and made our escape quick, but still I had a chance to feel the Indian Ocean (only five more to go)

 

Newlyweds:

This just happened today. While we were walking through the streets of India stopping at another one of Marks amazing restaurant choices we heard a very loud BANG. Of course some students suspected gunfire but it was recognizably fireworks, not long after the first bang, drums and electric piano started playing. We turned around a corner and came face to face with a large wedding procession walking down a narrow street. Everyone was smiling and dancing and our group couldn’t help but be taken over by their positive energy. In response we did what any reasonable foreigners would do in this situation, we dropped our plans and joined them! It was one of the best experiences of the trip so far. Most of the places we have visited in Mumbai have low tourist traffic and a lot of the times people will stop and stare but at this particular instant we were welcomed with open arms into a beautiful moment of the community. After about 15 minutes our group and the wedding parted ways. We exchanged smiles and Namaste’s before getting back on schedule. It was amazing. It was beautiful. It was just another day in Bombay.

 

Whistling Woods:

As for the lectures from Whistling Woods I’m almost afraid to admit how much I’ve learned in such a short period of time. To hear from filmmakers who aren’t restricted by a set of rules laid down by Hollywood executives is refreshing to say the least. When we heard from a Bollywood screenwriter, for example, he explained how the cookie cutter algorithm that most Hollywood scripts follow just constrains creativity. There’s no right or wrong way to tell a story. The common three act narrative structure is just the most common way and in most cases everything that is outside of that structure is considered wrong. I hate how true this is but I also know if I want to be apart of western cinema I have to be able to play the game (at least at the beginning of my career). And my favorite quote so far had to be “You can make a bad movie out of a good script, but you can’t make a good movie out of a bad script.”

 

I’ve learned so much in the past 193… well now 194 hours here in Mumbai and I don’t want it to end. I can’t wait to see what exciting opportunities the next two and a half weeks bring.

 

Until my next post, stay classy America.

Pre-Shooooooot

After two days of practicing a popular Bollywood dance number it’s finally the day of our shoot. Well be filming at night to avoid dancing in the extreme Mumbai heat and I sure am thankful for that. The location of our shoot will be the central patio of the Whistling Woods campus, which offers beautiful natural landscapes and eye-catching architecture. With only 8 hours of Bollywood dance experience under our belts I think it’s safe to say we’re incompetent at best. If we were professional dancers there’s no doubt in my mind we would all be fired by now but luckily for us amateurs this dance is for college credit and not a paycheck. I’m more excited for the experience of being behind the scenes of an item number in the making then I am for what I can only imagine will be a hilarious B-rated outcome. Luckily I think the professionalism of the Whistling Woods film crew will make our bad dancing somewhat watchable. All we can do at this point is enjoy the experience and try our best to stay in synch during filming.

First 48 hours

After 15 hours, 5 movies and 3 episodes of VEEP I arrived in Mumbai, India at around 10pm on Saturday the 17th. Having lived in Syracuse my entire life I was a little afraid of the Indian heat but luckily my first introduction to the city was in the frigid 84° night. The ride to the beautiful Sai Palace was quick and after a bite to eat in the hotel restaurant I was ready for some much needed rest.

The next morning I enjoyed the hotels complimentary breakfast buffet before setting off to the Whistling Woods Institute for their Celebrating Cinema event. The Institute is located inside the Sonjay Ghandi National Park and the view of the surrounding Jungle is unbelievable! After a quick introduction we were sent to an auditorium to watch a documentary celebrating the past 100 years of Indian cinema. I was surprised that I recognized a lot of the scenes showcased in the film. When it ended we were brought on a tour of the campus. It’s really impressive and reminded me a lot of the first time I had a tour of Newhouse. When our tour ended we were brought to a Bollywood dance workshop. A senior choreographer faculty member led the workshop and gave us a step-by-step break down of a popular Bollywood dance. If I don’t learn anything else this trip (which is highly doubtful) at least I can say I learned how to move my hips!

 

After the workshop we left Whistling Woods and headed back to the hotel to take some quick naps/showers. To relax we decided to go out on the town and do some more dancing which led to my first experience in the back seat of a rickshaw. It was equal parts terrifying and awesome. We went in 3 different rickshaws and the drivers were competing to see who got to our destination first. In short, our first day was unforgettable.

 

On Sunday, the day before our first day of classes, we went shopping/sightseeing. It was our first chance to wander the streets of Mumbai on our own. We needed a place to meet up so we chose a nearby McDonalds. It was funny to see the Beef-less Indian style menu with Paneer patties and popular spices like Tikka Masala. The shopping district that Mark, our group leader picked for us to visit was called Lokhandwala Market and it was the farthest thing from a tourist trap. Many locals stared at us as we shopped and a few young kids pinched us when we wouldn’t give them money. It was an interesting experience and easy to tell they weren’t used to tourists wandering around. After an hour or two of shopping Mark met up with Prya Kumar his friend and old Hindi teacher who brought us to a hidden local favorite, a vegetarian restaurant called High Point. Prya ordered us a smorgasbord of Indian delicacies including Samosas, Yellow and Black Daal, Sav Puri and of course lots and lots of Naan.

After lunch we met up with some of Marks friends in the film industry including Director Anurang Kashyap and Producer Harish Amin. Mr. Amin gave us great advice on how to be successful, he said if we want to make our dreams reality we need to be constantly thinking about them, and if filmmaking is our dream then all we need to do is pick up a camera and start shaping our art. After Mr. Amins inspiring words went to another hidden gem, a gift shop filled with unique handmade items called Tribal Routes. We spent almost an hour wandering through the store and picking our gifts for relatives. Afterwards we were all very tired and headed back to the hotel. Mark has given us a chance to experience a unique side of Mumbai and I am very grateful for that. The first 48 hours in India have been mind-blowing and I can hardly wait to see what the next 48 bring.

Almost on the plane…

After 2 hours of NYC traffic I finally made it to the Newark airport. Until right this second I wasn’t too sure if I was going to make the trip, since my visa arrived just one day ago! Luckily now sitting in Newark I can almost smell the curry!
This is the beginning of a journey unlike any other I have taken in my life and I am ready for it. I’m no stranger when it comes to long flights but 15 hours! This will definitely be interesting(currently crossing my fingers that I don’t get stuck sitting near a screaming baby).
Even though I’ve watched close to a bakers dozen of Bollywood films I still don’t know what to expect.
My family had mixed reactions, when I told them of my travel plans. Among my favorites were “is it safe there?”, “Did you say Indiana or India?” And “why?” But I am still excited beyond belief that I am going to the other side of Earth. I haven’t even been to the other side of the U.S. let alone the entire globe.
Hopefully by the time you read this I’ll already be on the plane flying across the Atlantic heading toward the capital of Indian cinema.
For all my friends and family stay golden and I’ll catch you on the flip side.