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Indian Summer Pt. 2 November 19, 2010

Posted by markswill in About me, Cars and Bikes, Navel Gazing.

Last week I recalled my flight to India and the film set which essentially was my reason for being there, if not my reason for just being… because after just a week, I’m terminally in love with the place. As a representative of the white, British middle-class that for four centuries ruled a country which still reflects its cultural influences, I also flagged long-held qualms about going there. (But then guilt has always been my key moral paradigm). However although after we left in 1947 and India’s people suffered the residual burdens of crumbling infrastructure, a muddled political system (to put it mildly), and poverty on an epic scale, I soon realised that far from harbouring resentment towards their past colonial masters, the average Indian seems to regard us as benign tourists who now applaud the tangible efforts they’ve made to develop their culture and economy on their, rather than our terms.

But I’m running ahead of myself here. My first impression after landing at Delhi, and even more so having arrived at our final destination, Udaipur, was of the sheer writhing mass of humanity. Now I’ve visited hugely crowded third world(ish) cities before, most notably Buenos Aires, Beirut and Taipei, but in Udaipur the density and speed of the traffic, and the jostling crowds on the pavements – such as there are any pavements – were characterised by something I’d never felt before in such circumstance: an acceptance of the status quo and occasionally stressful and uncomfortable though it was, they just wholeheartedly embraced it.

Just another roadside attraction...

And although the ascent of India as a manufacturing powerhouse means that the trappings of consumerism may soon undermine its good-natured character and possibly even the slightly less satisfactory caste system on which it’s based (c/f honour kllings), for now it’s a pleasure to subsume oneself in.

Mind you, I went there with the half-serious intention of hiring a motorcycle to ride around on, preferably one of the Royal-Enfields continuously manufactured there long after their British parent company’s demise in 1970, but I quickly realised that my reputation as a wild-boy biker paled into insignificance alongside the maniacs who rode Rajasthan’s mean streets – and they were mean, as in poorly- or flat-out un-surfaced. Not only do 99% of them ride sans crash helmets and rearview mirrors, but they ride as rapidly as their single cylinder 90 – 175cc locally-made Hondas, Lambrettas and Yamahas can go, if anything reflecting the facetious claim I made years ago in my Bike magazine column, namely that because road travel is inherently dangerous, we should spend as little time on them as possible, ergo we should reach our destinations as fast as we can.

The family that rides together, stays together?

But that of course didn’t require me to miraculously negotiate the (literally) sacred cows who wander aimlessly wherever they damn well want and shoulder-to-shoulder bikers behaving with similar abandon.

Apparently possessed of a sixth sense, abetted by constant use of their horns, the Indian biker weaves in and out of the traffic with breathtaking skill and bravery, often with two or more passengers aboard. But then so do the drivers of the tuk-tuks (motorised 3-wheeled rickshaws) and indeed just about every other road-user. So rather than risking suicide, I traveled mainly by tuk-tuk, a process involving much amiable haggling over fares, usually less than £1.50, and usually with a running commentary or life-story from drivers who treat you like a family friend. And naturally the tuk-tuk drivers’  perpetually extended family could supply anything you casually mentioned you were interested in seeing or buying during the ride into town. They also virtually insisted on waiting whilst we dined in lovely roof-top restaurants overlooking the city’s man-made lakes – which towards the end of my stay were burnished with firework displays celebrating the forthcoming Diwali festival. Magical.

Not your average Methodist chapel

But like the beggars that do indeed run after you as you walk around, that is the ones who aren’t legless and sitting on trolleys, the tuk-tuk drivers will back off if you politely just say ‘no’ and let you get on with your wide-eyed enjoyment of the sights, sounds and colours. For me these included the creaky old Mercedes- and Leyland-based Tata and Ashok trucks with their elaborate decorations and wiry drivers who loved being photographed alongside them, the thousands of tiny stalls selling everything from spices to hardware, to beautiful dress fabrics, the Hindu temples both in and outside Udaipur, and the ramshackle architecture that an unplanned, dirt-poor but entirely functional city betrays as its growing pains.

White van man he ain't

En route to the film set, the villages may’ve lacked the relative sophistication of Udaipur, but they were equally vibrant and colourful – how different from our European landscape where their counterparts are mere dormitories serviced by a geographically remote Tesco or Morrisons and bereft of any indigenous life of their own. Yes, Rajasthan is hot, dusty, litter-strewn and many of its streets reek of sewage and yes, even though a fine meal of Thali (a sort of Indian tapas) costs less than a quid, the fantastically tasty local food can prove a something of a bowel-challenging lottery, and yes virtually every bureaucratic and commercial function is spun-out, albeit most respectfully, by at least twice the number of people it requires, but despite all this culture shockery, I wore an almost perpetual smile.

So perhaps it was as well that we were already in Udaipur’s small, but refreshingly modern airport  when I realised that my digestive system had finally capitulated to germ warfare – a condition that made the 20 hour trip home as, um, interesting as my brief Indian summer had been… but not in a good way.

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Indian Summer (Pt. 1) November 12, 2010

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Uncategorized.

Never really wanted to go there before on sketchy moral grounds, i.e. the poverty, the beggars, the stomach-bugs and the squalor but when Rupert Murdoch calls who am I to turn down a free lunch? Of course (of course?) I’m talking about India, which is where I found myself a fortnight ago, courtesy of my dear friend D, who was being flown out to Rajasthan by 20th Century Fox where one of her novels is being filmed and who “for a lark” generously invited me along to ride shotgun. Well shallow and impressionable as I am, one woman’s lark easily eclipses any of my long held ethical dilemmas and thus it was that we waited in the subdued luxury of a Heathrow executive lounge for Kingfisher flight IT2 to Delhi. And waited. And waited.

We should’ve known better than fly on an airline owned by a brewery, but their engineers somehow couldn’t get the electronics in Business Class to function so the entire overnight flight was bereft of movies, music, reading lights and, most crucially, the ability of the fancy leather seats to recline and/or turn into beds. So sleepless and irritable, we arrived in India with barely 20 minutes to catch our connection to Udaipur, our base for the next week. However what I quickly learnt about India was that very little happens on time and although we were met by two very nice chaps who dutifully sped us the 5kms to the domestic terminal – and you thought Heathrow was a logistical nightmare ­– our Udaipur flight was delayed by an hour. Well 90 minutes actually.

Having eventually arrived, another film co. driver in another air-conned SUV drove us through suicidal traffic to the fancy hotel where the crew were also staying, one of whom turned out to be a long-lost friend, Linda G., the prod. co’s p.r. manager and one of the world’s sharpest wits. Her ministrations (and bar tab) helped us overcome our industrial strength weariness and struggle towards a ‘normal’ bedtime in advance of  being collected for the drive to the set the next morning.

Put rather more crudely than D might thank me for, her hugely funny, deftly observed and, if this government gets hold of the idea, ultimately prescient 2004 book is about out-sourcing retirement care for the elderly to the Indian sub-continent where low cost and the last vestiges of colonialism appeal to cash-strapped gentility. Although originally set in Bangalore, the search to find a suitably run-down, post-Raj hotel in which to set the film led director John Madden to a guest house 70 minutes drive from Udaipur, outside which a crack crew of production designers and set-dressers had created an incredibly bona fide city street – or so I later discovered when we ventured into Udaipur itself. To accommodate all the characters in the story they had also added a couple of extra rooms by the not-so-simple expedient of constructing them out of wood and plasterboard on the roof and applying a seamless patina of age and decrepitude.

Yrs. trly. above the hotel courtyard set

Okay, even the least dedicated cinephile knows that this sort of visual slight-of-hand is commonplace in the make-believe world of movie-making but when you actually witness it firsthand, it has a considerable impact.

So I guess this first of (possibly) two episodic blogs is really all about this arcane but impressive process, and the fact of it being in such a far off land. Several hundred people were encamped temporarily in the dusty Rajasthan scrubland and thanks to the proximity of Bollywood they included a lot of Indian crew as well as British cameramen, assistant directors, wardrobe persons, gaffers, grips (yes, I now know what they are) and a small army of cooks, drivers, runners, fixers and extras. Oh yeah, and of course the principal actors, a stellar cast which includes Dames J. Dench and M. Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie (who rather alarmingly took what is known as “a shine” to me), the great Tom Wilkinson (who happily didn’t) and Slumdog Millionaire star, Dev Patel.

Controlling all of this like some benign dictator was Mr Madden, my admiration for whom grew by the minute as I watched him not only attend to every detail of every shot, but graciously if sometimes firmly relate to everyone on the set, no matter how humble their role, and by name. D, no stranger to film sets herself, noted that even in her experience Madden was something of a prince amongst directors, and when a minor motorcycle accident meant he couldn’t complete a complicated scene (course I could’ve warned him, but I didn’t have a union card), he calmly shooed the principles into rehearsing another scene whilst camera and sound men re-grouped.

Local extras wait for their call in front of a giant diffuser

I also hadn’t realised from how many different angles it’s necessary to shoot a few seconds of film in order to give director and editor the choice to make the most of it in the cutting room. One simple scene where three of the characters walk up to the hotel was shot four different ways with two cameras, the actors endlessly repeating their lines and hitting their painstakingly set ‘marks’ with a patience you certainly wouldn’t find in, say, this year’s Presteigne Panto rehearsals.

We were given free rein to wander throughout the sets and as author of the book (and the original script) which had made all this possible, D was subjected to endless waves of lovey-ness, a little of which I’m embarrassed to say washed all-too-easily over on me. Indeed, although D responded to all this, including being video-interviewed for next year’s pre-release publicity (which I dutifully photographed for, gulp, the Mail On Sunday), with well-honed dignity and enthusiasm, nothing in my adult experience had prepared me for it. Or indeed for the real world of Rajasthan outside our glitzy celluloid bubble.

And that, if you can bear it, will comprise my next little dispatch.

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