Where are you exactly?”
“I’ll never be able to say that.”
I was bellowing this down the phone when I realized this place really suits an exclamation point. Said loudly and with enough vavoom, it carries like a victory cry. Later, I learned that Mahabalibpuram—an appealing and intriguing little beach town just one hour drive south of Chennai in the East Indian state of Tamilnadu—is believed to be named for a 6th century Pallava king known as the ‘Mahabali’ or ‘great wrestler’ after his people’s favourite sport. Following his conquest, the Pallava dynasty ruled unchallenged in Southern India for four hundred years. “Mahabalipuram!” you can imagine his soldiers shout in triumph.
As early as the 4st century CE, Mahabalipuram was said to have been a vibrant port city. An 8th century text describes ships “bent to the point of breaking, laden as they were with wealth, big trunked elephants and gems of nine varieties in heaps”. A hub of the international spice trade, the town enjoyed regular visits from Roman, Persian and Chinese merchants, checking out the latest deals on big-trunked elephants no doubt.
These days no sailing ships stud the horizon, but Mahabalipuram! has a lot to offer the 21st century visitor, including some of the most exquisite stone reliefs India, rumors of ancient submarine temples, and one of the most hilarious opportunities to rack up your 15 minutes of fame.
“Do you want to be in a movie?”
I was with my friend Carey, sauntering down a street lined with Kashmiris offering lazily hopeful invitations into their stores of paisley silk shawls and the ubiquitous ‘baggy pants’ that Indians have decided is the height of haut couture for Westerners. The morning sun was dealing out another glorious cloudless day. The question came from a portly friendly-faced Indian man. Used to saying “No thanks” to almost every question put before us, “You want shawl? You want see inside my shop? You want guidebook/postcards/grass? we were temporarily lost for words.
“What kind of movie?” I asked, imagining the worst.
“Action romance. We need foreign voices,” he said, like a man on a deadline.
I can’t remember if we were on our way to cappuccinos and chocolate croissants or back from cappuccinos and chocolate croissants. It had been a stressful few months in the cold smog and hustle of Dehli and in the gentler, cleaner and politer South we had fallen into an epicurean routine of walks on the beach, glasses of bootleg Bordeaux in rooftop restaurants (smuggled up in night trucks from Pondicherry where alcohol is tax free) and the (very) occasional visit to a cyber café.
“We’ll pay you 700 rupees each.”
$14 for a day’s work. We looked at each other and shrugged. Why not?
We were told to wait at a guesthouse while our guide assembled the rest of his foreigner quota. We were not the likeliest bunch and it was hard to imagine what other circumstances other than a shipwreck or plane crash would have brought us together. A tall whippet-thin Dutch entrepreneur of dubious wealth; a dread-locked German beauty with the fashion style of a prehistoric slave girl; a quiet first-time-in-India French guy in baggy pants; a Brit who had by his own admission had “chucked in everything–job, girlfriend, the works” to go and see the world (he’d just returned from the Andaman Islands) and us—an American writer and a Canadian computer engineer.
We were all ushered into a jeep and driven to Chennai, the French guy nervously chain-smoking joints the whole way. The studio building was rather shabby, but the recording rooms were state of the art. We were told to wait with no other instruction than not to smoke in the building. The trailer being cut in the adjacent studio sounded promising, with a melodramatic James Bond meets The Omen soundtrack.
A polite tired looking producer entered the hallway from the sound studio and told us that the name of the movie was a Cassanova. Well, actually it was Cassanovva, with two v’s, I guess to distinguish it on Google search from the one spelled properly. One thing I knew about South Indian cinema is that whereas the female stars are Vogue cover lovely, the male stars all pretty much look the same; chubby-cheeked and middle-aged with a generous moustache and a more than generous girth. (In fact, in South India, for men over “a certain age” the moustache is compulsory). This movie’s star, Mohahlal, was no exception. The poster shows him beckoning from the wheel of his sports car – moustache in especially inviting form – with the tag line “Come….fall in love!”
The trailer says it all.
The film was in Malayalam, that claims the largest number of letters of all Indian languages and seems to use them all at once with so many ‘l’s that it sounds almost liquid. Our job was to provide inane (and to us, unlikely) background chatter. For example, if the scene was set in a restaurant, we were told to talk about the menu. “I’m not sure if I want the salad or french fried. Do you think I’m getting fat?” If it was set in a hotel lobby we were instructed to talk about our rooms, “How’s your shower pressure? Mine’s awesome.” You get the idea.
Two men in the control room offered occasional pointers from behind a glass window to a big, energetic producer called Matthew who was consistently referred to as “fat boy” by the other two – without a hint of insult given or taken from either side. Carey gave a very believable performance as a BBC anchorman, and my star-turn was cooing over the male lead while he handed out ice cream to a group of adoring beauties. “You always know my favourite flavour, Casanovva.” Initially reserved, we soon warmed up and did our best work during a police tear gas scene where we stumbled around the room coughing and spluttering out things like, “Jenny, grab my hand!” and “I can’t see. I can’t seeeee!!”
We’d been told they’d have us back in Mahabalipuram by 7:30 that evening. Actually, it was midnight. The Dutch guy proudly negotiated an extra 200 rupees for each of us.
Don’t tell the guy with the moustache, but I would have done it for free.