Hindi Productions in Vancouver: Bollywood West

November 1, 2010

I didn’t know whether to watch the stadium deflating in front of me or the guy taking a bottle to the face behind me, so I just stared at the plastic samosa on my plate, which began life as a real samosa but had aged to a synthetic sheen over the three days I spent pretending to eat it.

Let me back up. One day last spring, BC Place Stadium was permanently deflated after 27 years of loyal service to the city skyline. I had a perfect view of the event from the waterfront behind Telus World of Science, which had been converted into a movie set for the Bollywood film Thank You, a romantic comedy mostly shot in Vancouver and Toronto. I spent the week as an extra in a café scene. As actors improvised campy fight stunts with chairs, glasses, skewers, appliances, bystanders, and ripened chickpea pockets, I debated whether I should point out that a key background component was disappearing before the camera’s eyes. A polite mention to the set coordinator settled the matter: “Nobody,” he said, “is going to be looking at the buildings.”

He had a point. Thank You was not your typical low-budget, quick-release Bollywood production. The actors, who used shish kebabs as rapiers take after take, represented some of the biggest names in Hindi cinema. More than once I heard the production called the “Ocean’s Eleven of Mumbai.” If the SUVs that chauffeured each lead actor the 100 metres from the World of Science parking lot to the World of Science patio didn’t convince me that these were bona fide movie stars, the growing throng of Indian girls hyperventilating on the hillside did.

There was the male lead Akshay Kumar, who months earlier had carried the Olympic Torch through Toronto and seemed to bear the brunt of post-pubescent swoons; Bobby Deol, whose action-hero father Dharmendra has sired an entire Baldwinesque litter; Suniel Shetty, who has starred in dozens of films and hosted an Indian version of The Biggest Loser; Irrfan Khan, who played the police inspector in Slumdog Millionaire alongside Anil Kapoor, whose daughter Sonam Kapoor plays the female lead in Thank You. The elder Kapoor is often called the George Clooney of Mumbai. I heard variations of this epithet applied to several actors on set, as in, “That guy is the Brad Pitt of Mumbai,” or “He’s the Matt Damon of Mumbai.” Mumbai is the centre of the Bollyverse, and these comparisons were thrown around so frequently one must assume there is a whole Hollywood/Bollywood matrix—a George Clooney for each city, another for each state, and a reigning national George Clooney for the entire subcontinent.

This A-list cast and their five weeks here represented the entirety of Bollywood filming in B.C. for the year. Neither the BC Film Commission nor the city permit office are aware of another local Bollywood production in 2010. Despite the presence of more than 200,000 South Asian residents in the Lower Mainland, it isn’t feasible for notoriously hurried and inexpensive Hindi productions to fly across the world just to capture a fresh—albeit deflating—skyline.

Thank You was an exception to the rule, but not exactly a game changer. Ever since Slumdog Millionaire racked up eight Oscars, including Best Picture, in 2009, there’s been chatter of a Slumdog Effect, essentially an accelerated Indian influence on Western culture. The term has been applied to everything from dancing and advertising to interior design and music. It’s also credited with the “Indian invasion” in Western film and television—a misleading attribution, because examples of this effect were in place before the movie’s release.

The Slumdog Effect, such as it is, seems to be a largely American phenomenon. The success of the Canadian show Little Mosque on the Prairie predated Slumdog Millionaire, and in a city with such a rich and visible Indian culture as Vancouver, the exoticism of the film is substantially muted. The clearest local winner of any such effect seems to be Shafik Rajani, owner of Raja Cinema on Kingsway, who reports that his Caucasian patrons have doubled since Slumdog was released—from one percent of his audience pre-Slumdog to two percent.

Which means my own Bollywood experience was likely a one-off. Until they start charging teenage girls to watch from the hillside, Mumbai producers will have little incentive to pay me ten bucks an hour, eight hours a day, to guess whether my curried lunch came from the food truck or the prop truck.

 The day after the roof at BC Place took its bow, I watched a grey whale skim the inlet beyond the World of Science; another day I spent 10 minutes filming strolling geese on my iPhone. Such activities were appropriate to the relaxed mood on set. The shoot was basically a well-funded travelling party that made Vancouver an exotic locale for the hoards of Hindi media covering it back home. Mumbai journalists reported every detail of the shoot, from the actors’ nightly cricket games to the “seven pair of most cherished and expensive sunglasses” director Anees Bazmee reported missing on the first day of filming.

Why the Steven Soderbergh of Mumbai would think a month in Vancouver warranted even one pair of sunglasses is still a mystery. VM

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