Wanted: White Western Tourists For Role In Bollywood Movie

Up close, on set and in search of extras inside India's over-the-top movie scene.

"The paler, the better. The blonder, the better."
"The paler, the better. The blonder, the better."
Alex Rühle

MUMBAI – I’m in Bandra, a suburb northwest of Mumbai, on the promenade by the beach. The sun is about to set, and Altaf Mehta* has just bought himself freshly squeezed melon juice.

He’s tired after his eight-hour day at a job requiring him to do the opposite of what most of the touts do along this stretch – instead of trying to sell tourists something, he’s proposing paid employment. Day after day, he recruits white Western tourists as extras in Bollywood movies.

"Americans, Europeans, Kiwis, it’s all the same to me, you all look alike," he says. He takes everybody, really? "Well, I don’t approach the ones that look like they’ve been here a long time. After six months they start to look emaciated, and too tan. The paler, the better. The blonder, the better. The main thing is that I get the number the studio’s asking for."

How about today – did he meet the quota today? "A studio needed 25 young people for a dance scene. They’re headed for the set now; I just packed them into a bus. Come on, let’s go, I’ll take you out there too."

Fantastic! A Bollywood set, interviews with extras, and who knows maybe I could be in the movie too. I particularly wanted to meet Indian extras, the thousands upon thousands of people that pour to Mumbai every year hoping – for what – a role? Some of them are pragmatists, figuring that a job in the movie industry would help feed families back home in Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Bengal – after all, 2.5 million people make a living out of the Bollywood industry. Some of them are hoping to become famous, to get roles in some of the 200 productions filmed here annually.

But hey, just a minute here, Altaf: Why would an Indian director require Europeans for Indian dance scenes? No tourist can dance anywhere near as well as the people here. If you want to make it in Bollywood, you have to be able to move perfectly – the choreography is often a lot more demanding than the acting. "The scene they’re filming today is supposed to look like a party on Ibiza. So they need people who can hop around, each one in their own little world, like you guys dance,” Altaf says. To illustrate his point, he bends his knees, lets his shoulders drop, and starts gyrating flinging his arms gracelessly into the air a couple of times.

Just then his cell phone rings. And the news is not good. The bus with the 25 tourists has been stopped by authorities. Altaf explains that all the studios have to pay bribes to the political parties, and sometimes the parties – particularly one specific party – get hot under the collar about certain groups taking jobs away from Indians. So this time it’s Europeans. And – well, they’d been asking for more money and the studio didn’t pay it, so anyway, there goes his busload.

Now the studio is asking him for replacements – and since Europeans are not on, they want “Chinks" instead. “No problem organizing those,” says Altaf, “one phone call and I can get 150 of them.” However, this development also means he won’t be able to drive me out to the set, and I will have to take a cab.

"Gimme more! More body! More hips!"

The drive takes two and a half hours; we get there at 11:30 p.m. And just exactly where “there” is, is a mystery. There are no street lights, the place smells like fish, we seem to be in a mangrove forest – from which a watchman carrying an antiquated gun suddenly emerges. "You want movie?" he asks.

He takes me down to a beach where there are boats, and a couple of fishermen’s huts converted to beach bars. On this set, dancers are kept working until the wee hours, work as strenuous as it looks boring, and all for 800 rupees (around $17.50).

The first row of dancers is Russian – six slim girls surrounding Saif Ali Kahn, the star of the movie. Behind them, a row of Indian women dancers. In the background, as a kind of filler, come the “Chinks.” They have replaced the Europeans, and managed to get there before me. They looked like they might be Chinese, maybe Burmese: “Chink” is a derogatory word for Asians. But it turns out the “Chinks” were as Indian as Altaf. They hailed from northeast India – states behind what is now Bangladesh, some of the poorest areas in the country.

The production manager keeps breaking the dance scene up after about a minute and repeating to the Russian girls: "Gimme more! More body! More hips!" How this hot number fits into what I’ve been told is a zombie movie I can’t figure out. Because the Europeans failed to make it, the setting has been changed from Ibiza to Rio and the Russians and the Asian-looking Indians are now supposed to be South Americans. The nearby city of Malad, with its tall buildings visible in the background, stands in for Rio.

When there’s finally a break, the extras seat themselves in the food tent the same way they are lined up to dance: Russians on one side, Indians on the other – with the “Chinks,” Indians from Mizram, Assam, Manipur, outside the tent.

Anything and everything

The women dancers from Mumbai talk about how frustrating it can be to spend so much time filming and then be edited out of the movie. Anjali from Bangalore says her biggest success so far was when she was in a production starring actress Sonal Seghal. "Did they leave you in?" the others ask. "Briefly." How do you get a role? "Rule of thumb for women: the shorter the skirt, the bigger the chance."

Shailesh, 23, a male extra, shrugs. "That’s the way it is. I’d do anything to be famous, anything.” To laughter his friend Maddy says: “I’ve already done everything!”

Outside the tent sit Kuri, Alvas and Hring. Twenty-one-year-old Alvas comes from Manipur, where he worked as a dancer and model and achieved modest local renown with a song on the Internet. He’s been in Mumbai for three years. At first he hoped for a breakthrough, but here on the beach tonight he seems homesick and dejected about his movie future. "Life doesn’t do what you want it to," he says.

He and his friends are making 100 rupees ($1.8) less than the others because they are all otherwise employed and just do this as a sideline. "None of us can afford to hope for fame,” says Kuri, 30. "If a production wants an Asian for a role it wouldn’t even occur to them to ask one of us. They’d fly somebody in from Bangkok."

The break over, everybody gets back to pretending they’re in Rio – and this time a German guy manages to squeeze into the scene, there, way at the back, hopping around gracelessly, flinging his arms in the air.

*name changed

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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