I had to find one word to describe that seamless afternoon-
dusk-night-dawn, when the full moon was a big round bright bulb in the
sky, turned up to full voltage, staring down at the filming of the Mystic
Masseur, throwing its light over trees, land, props and people like a
sequinned maco, it would be “feast”.
was no prospect of fame, riches or celebrity attached to being one of 64
extras in the village wedding night scene between Ganesh and Leela.
scene was festive enough, with burfis, jilaibis, and other Indian sweets
piled high on long tables, (as props, not to be eaten) a wedding chamber
festooned and woven together like plaits with crimson and green flowers
the stars on set (Om Puri, Ayesha Dharkar, Aasif Mandvi, the astonishing
88-year-old Indian actress Zora Sehgal, who between takes made everyone
jump with her karate skills) directors Ismail Merchant, and his 70-strong
team of assistant directors, producers, cameramen, technical staff, set
and costume designers, and other support staff, it was just another long
shoot in a tight, finely-tuned schedule where everything was so minutely
co-ordinated, 70 people had to work in tandem to pull off one scene. And
working 12 hours straight was par for the course. You shoot the same scene
a hundred times if you have to. You shoot till you get it right, if it
takes all night. You tick that off your schedule and begin again, that
same tight pulling-together of elements to produce a film, the next day.
Merchant said the US$2.5 million budget would suffice only to pay for
meals in an average or big-budget Hollywood film, it didn’t mean he was
going to compromise on quality.
to the 64 extras, myself included, whose job it was to provide a backdrop,
like wallpaper, it was an entry to a world that was dripping with the
adrenalin of creation. Twelve, 13 hours of standing and sitting, clapping
and walking, rewinding bodies back and forwarding them for yet another
take. Stomachs rumbled, feet ached, sneezes and yawns were suppressed and
children fell asleep, but spirits were so high we barely noticed.
material is the spirit made up of? Who knows, except like pools of light
spilling here and there, into the darkness and potholes, it takes on many
guises; humour mostly, combined with the difficult and serious act of
is the commonality of humanity like the rush of blood under the human
skin, where race, colour and class don’t matter.
banter went back and forth, and laughter spilled everywhere around this
tower of Babel: with the American assistant director shouting out
something, and the Indian legend Om Puri throwing in a dry and hilarious
response in Hindi, at which the Indian actors cracked up; the Trini
technical staff interacting with the Hungarian director of photography,
and the English set designer giving direction to the Indian carpenters,
and a Trini language consultant advising the Indian director, Ismail
Merchant, and the American James Ivory. The extras, too, waxed lyrical in
the background, making me reflect that Naipaul was missing out on all this
fresh material and how clever he was in the first place to harness the ole
but rich and sophisticated talk of his country and make books with it.
the end of it, as the extras staggered home at 3 am, in the light of the
still grinning moon, many wondered at the hard work it takes to make a
movie. A few said never again, but almost everybody who’d been asked
back said yes.
my aching feet, I mused, looking at that gaudy moon, over a comment made
by James Ivory a day earlier, that all Merchant Ivory films were off the
beaten track of formula films, so much so, they could be from Mars,
because they encouraged people to read between the lines, because a lot of
life happens there; encouraged people to listen, and think, even puzzle,
over what was being said in the film, encouraged people to know themselves
and the world around them. There can be no profession more important than
that of creative people, because their work gives a purpose to our lives,
separates us from beasts, assures us that we are more than just flesh,
blows spirit and soul into our existence.
remained unsaid, perhaps because it was understood, about this independent
company’s films is that whether literary, documentary, political, or
simple everyday human stories, their themes are about what it means to be
like the moon, Merchant Ivory films shed new light over dark patches of
life with universal themes on the nature of love and ambition, yearning
and striving, comedy, beauty and tragedy, on how all this twines together
like flowers and foliage and how life will always be infinitely
interesting because it is infinitely mysterious.
what any work of great creation does, film, book, painting or sculpture:
shed a little bit of moonlight on us. That’s why that seamless
afternoon-evening-night-dawn was a shimmering feast of the spirit,
shattering, for the moment, the darkness around us.