At 5 we gathered outside the old lady’s house and met a few other westerners who’d been picked out. I was the only Englishman, and we’d been told we’d be playing British soldiers – being killed. My great grandad on my dad’s side was stationed in Danapur in eastern India for seven years, which is an odd thought.
A tall, suave looking Indian guy in a billowing white shirt came down the hill and herded our wide-eyed mob up to the fort as sunset approached. We were given lanyards and swept past the tourist crowds, through a metal detector, through broad ancient courtyards, and out to a dusty encampment just outside the walls of the fort. There were rows of white tents, all with metal boxes stacked outside with things like ‘cavalry helmets’ and ‘infantry boots’ scrawled on them. I kept jabbing Jonas in the shoulder in my excitement. I could barely stand still, giggling out loud to myself and hopping from foot to foot.
We were lined up outside the tent, and one by one selected. James and Jonas were chosen first, and for a horrible moment I though the casting agent had passed on me. He paused in front of me and looked at me thoughtfully, then carried on down the line. He must have heard my heart audibly break, because he came back to me and nodded at me to go into the tent to change.
I sprang inside and found James and Jonas already semi-nude betwixt the endless ranks of coat hangers and trunks. I stripped down and was handed white trousers with suspenders, boots, a white shirt, a red military jacket with golden buttons, and a white shoulder belt with a scabbard. It was topped off with a black wide-brimmed hat with a red and white plume. The costume was ill fitting and a little creased, but I felt incredible. I found myself standing with an improved posture; slouching in an old army uniform didn’t seem right.
When we had all been transformed we were once more swept out of the tent and up into the inner courtyards of the fort, where we passed crowds of Indian tourists, understandably bewildered to see colonial-era soldiers swaggering along the battlements. We reached another courtyard that was heaving with what I first thought to be extras, as they were all clad in similar uniforms. However, upon closer inspection I realised that the other soldiers had actual fitted jackets and trousers, rather than the oversized, shapeless garments we were entrusted with. They were all annoyingly handsome too, and in great shape, and relaxed and smiling and play fighting and laughing loudly – they were a troupe of 50 stuntmen, a travelling stuntmen-for-hire group from South Africa, and they were achingly carefree and cool and I was flushed with envy. What an incredible life.
The senior stuntmen were strapped with earpieces and tactical vests filled with walkie-talkies and other cool items like, I dunno, probably they had knives in there; they looked the type to carry knives. They were all jacked and tattooed and seemed to pass the time by arm wrestling and boxing each other and talking about all the bones they’d broken, and leaning against walls chatting to swooning girls.
I was called into a large tent where a little man looked me up and down and yelled out ‘beard, clean shave, keep moustache’, and then I was bundled into a chair before a large mirror with lightbulbs around it and swiftly de-bearded. I was quietly giddy to see the emergence of my first ever moustache and I have to say, I dug it. It made me look like my grandad in photos of him as a young man. They left my sideburns long, and dusted my new tasche and lamb chops with brown dye to darken them so they showed up clearer. Finally, my hair was gelled and combed back, Alfalfa style. I looked like either a dapper First World War general or a character from Monty Python skit. I couldn’t stop looking in the mirror and grinning.
Jonas and James and Sammy emerged from hair and make-up similarly shorn. Jame’s entire beard had been pilfered, and he looked about twelve. Jonas and I were equally disgruntled about our hair being slicked back, revealing the vast, untamed wildernesses of our foreheads. There was a free buffet, and I gorged on samosas and chai while across the courtyard the chisel-jawed stuntmen all hi fived and practised disembowelling each other and whatnot.
We were called through into another courtyard; a dozen English soldiers wandering through the magnificence of the fort with heads and eyes all a-swivel. We passed through an enormous square which was a hive of activity; giant blue and purple ribbons hung from the ceiling, impossibly expensive cameras lurked on the sidelines, stuntmen lounged with their swords and rifles, basins of fire and smoke burned, and enormous screens and lights gave the entire courtyard a strange hyper-real aura. Frantically busy personnel were criss-crossing the square barking orders, every request was followed by cries of ‘Quick! Quick! Quick!’
Our troupe passed into an adjacent square, which was less intense and hectic; filled with lounging Indians smoking and drinking chai. We were told to take a seat and await further instructions. A few of the guys had brought their girlfriends, and god bless their patience. 12 hours of sitting around and waiting; I’d have lost my mind.
After half an hour, during which I repeatedly almost passed out from the heat – you try standing around in 33 degree heat in a shirt and jacket and helmet – James and I were called through to the set. I inched my way into the courtyard, timid, blinded by the bright lights. A muscular guy with tattoos and an earpiece approached me in a friendly manner.
“Alright mate,” he said, in a South African accent, “we need you to lie down over here, where that guy is, in the same position he’s lying in now. You’ll be a continuity body, so you’ll just have to lie down there when you’re in shot. Cheers buddy.”
I nodded and was guided to the spot where a stuntman had just been slain. He stood up and shook my hand, and handed me the arrow that had been protruding from his chest. He showed me how to position my corpse, handed me a rifle and sword, and helped me fix the arrow to be convincingly embedded in my heart. I flopped down, and made sure that my trainer socks and boxer shorts were not on display. James was sprawled beside me. At least my corpse had had a chance to draw its sword before being arrowed to death; James’s corpse still had its saber sheathed, the poor useless bastard.
This was to be our duty for the next 11 hours: corpsing. Every time a stuntman was slain, we had to dash over to the position ourselves where they fell, freeing them up for further stunts while maintaining continuity. When the camera wasn’t on us, we were able to sit up and stare around and watch the organised mania of the film shoot unfold. I watched, propped up against a wall with my arrow still sticking out of me, a young Bollywood starlet named Fatima Sana Shaikh, who I am informed has starred in a couple of films and is gaining fame. Her stunt double was doing most of the work, flipping around and murdering English soldiers with gay abandon.
Now, I don’t know much about Bollywood. In fact I don’t know anything about it. But every Indian person I’ve told this next part to has been gobsmacked: the star of the scene where I was repeatedly murdered was Amitabh Bachchan, who I am informed is one of the most famous and highest-paid actors in the world. A lot of the Indian runners on set gasped when he entered. I was simply lying down being dead and relaxing, and of course had no idea of the fame of the person who stepped over me. I’ve since been informed that he is India’s answer to Morgan Freeman or Sean Connery. Apparently Bachchan’s voice is equally iconic.
Not that I heard him speak. He is 75 years old and had obviously been in the filmmaking business a long time. He arrived last on set wearing his full make up and costume. Between scenes, a team of costume people (I don’t know the lingo) would undress and redress him, to keep him from overheating. He simply stood there and let them lift his various layers off, then sat on a chair off to one side until his next scene. During a food break, which was around midnight, the rest of the set cleared out to a buffet area with chefs brought in from Mumbai. Bachchan stayed in his seat in the centre of the set, and had a little snooze.
I was lucky enough to be slain right in the centre of the courtyard, which meant I was two feet from the stars and had an excellent view of the unfolding fight scenes. I’m told the film, which is to be called Thugs of Hindustan, is a Pirates of the Caribbean-esque swashbuckling adventure film, during which I suppose us Brits get our arses slapped and handed back to us. Fair dos, really.
I marvelled at the cool of the stuntmen as they were required to sprint onset from various doorways and staircases, only to be taken off their feet by gunshots and arrows. As I lay dying, the action was unfolding literally next to my head. “Just watch your arm there, bro,” one particularly lush stuntman said to me as he primed himself for a sword swipe at the lead actress. I swooned just a little.
As the night became the morning, I won’t lie, things grew tedious. 12 hours lying dead or sitting around drinking chai is rather monotonous. It’d have been the ideal situation for a hipflask or a joint, but alas. As the hours crept by, and we extras were repeatedly called back and forth to die, more than one of us actually fell asleep on the floor; we were required to lay still for up to half an hour at a time. So keep an eye out in Thugs of Hindustan for the corpses in the background – if you listen close you’ll hear them snoring.
I bummed a cigarette off a girl who was taking a break from running around on set and we chatted a while, standing atop the ancient fort battlements. We swapped names but I never remember anything over one syllable. She told me she was part of the art department, and had helped design the set. I complemented the giant ribbon that hung over everything, and asked about the lifestyle. She told me that it was a fun job but it seemed cooler than it actually was – a lot of early mornings, late nights, and constant pressure. I never knew that runners literally run everywhere. I looked around at the frantic staff, at the director who was absolutely definitely coked off his tits, at the clock face that sobbed 5am, and I decided that I probably wasn’t cut out for a career in filmmaking – despite having a degree in it.
At 5.30am, Bachchan left with his entourage, presumably for bed. He even had a designated torch holder to light the way for him, despite there being, you know, actual lights. At 6.30am, by which point I’d had about 30 chais and was delirious and sickly and dark-humoured with over-tiredness, Jonas was slain one more time, and we were done. By this hour, our once-dapper uniforms were creased, dusty and slack, and our once-immaculately groomed hair was dishevelled. My moustache still looked the absolute business, mind you.
The casting agent in charge of our troupe led us out of the fort, himself now rather grumpy, and we changed back into our regular clothes. I felt regretful changing into shorts and t shirt after 12 hours in a military uniform. I wanted to steal the red jacket, to be honest, but A) I couldn’t think of how to smuggle it out of the costume tent and B) I think it might look a tad inappropriate wandering around India wearing a British Imperial jacket.
All neatly changed back, we tramped out of the fort, where the casting guy sat on a wall and pulled out a wad of notes. ‘Sorry guys,’ he said, ‘but I’ve only got notes of 2000 rupees, not 1000. Do you mind sharing?’ Nobody in India has change, ever ever ever. Sigh. Fine. Sammy and I took the note to split later on, in what must surely be the least official transaction in the history of film production.
The sun was rising as we staggered exhausted down the cobbled ramp into the winding streets of the Blue City, and up above us a thousand newborn clouds were crowned with red halos. We were catatonic, bewildered, and at the end of it all, grumpy. But as we stepped around sleeping dogs and waved good morning to shopkeepers setting up for the day, we agreed that in a week, a year, a decade, we wouldn’t remember the exhaustion. All that will linger, from now until the day I die, is another breathtaking adventure.