Bright Lights, Big River!

Ganges After Dark

So, it’s fitting, given that the Ganges is the scene of so much transformation, that my own film career started (and ended) on the Ganges. On January 1st, 2007 (are you feeling the liminality yet?) I awoke in the lovely Hotel Ganges View in Benares. A converted nobleman’s palace, the hotel is located above Assi Ghat, where all the action is. All the action usually consists of a bunch of water buffaloes, some street vendors, and, at dusk, priests performing aarti, the nightly fire worship of the goddess river. But on New Year’s Day 2007, the ghat had been taken over by a film crew. My friend and I suspected as much when we saw a  particularly handsome holy man the day before; this saddhu was wearing makeup. But they must have just been scouting locations when we spotted him on the 31st, as he was surrounded by just a small entourage. On the 1st, the entire ghat was covered with hundreds of extras filming a crowd scene, milling around on the steps leading down to the water.

A lady pilgrim venerates a god. She's the real thing, not an actress.

So, my friend and I started making our way down to the river to take a boat ride, when the director stopped us and asked us if we’d like to be in the scene. Not to sound like a megalomaniac, but I attribute this invitation to my blonde hair and thoroughly exotic (um, in India) appearance. We agreed to be filmed and they shot two takes of us walking across the ghat. My friend and I were naturals, if I do say so myself. But we had to do two takes as the director had a translator ask the crowd, in Hindi, to please NOT look at the camera when it rolled past them. (My Indian friend translated the instructions to me.) See, while the director and the lead actors were South Indians who spoke Tamil, the other extras (besides myself) spoke Hindi. It appeared our film debut would be in a Kollywood movie. Kollywood, I learned, is the Tamil-language film industry based in Chennai, in an area called Kodambakkam (Kodambakkan+Hollywood=Kollywood). I was pleased to add a little extra honky spice to this cinematic melting pot. And the movies are often given Hindi subtitles and released in the rest of India, so I’m just waiting for Bollywood to call next.

A local lady strolling up from the river, without cameras following her (OK, just my own camera).

I still haven’t seen the movie we made, which is called Naan Kadavul. But the trailer, starring our handsome saddhu friend, looks quite stirring. You can check out the trailer at this YouTube link:

Or just admire this still photo:

Apparently the film, whose title means “I am God” is based on a novel that’s set in a world of beggars ruled by an evil overlord who tries to sell a beautiful blind beggar girl into marriage with a deformed man she doesn’t love. She upsets the prospective groom, who goes off in a huff, and the evil overlord wounds her. Our hero kills her, but, this being set on the Ganges, it’s kind of a happy ending because she achieves moksa, release from the cycle of lives of earthly turmoil. As I said, it’s only kind of a happy ending.

But the film, which took three years to make, had a real happy ending. When it was finally released it won two National Film Awards in India (including Best Director) and three Tamil Nadu State Film Awards. Sadly, my friend and I were not invited to any award ceremonies. But we had a happy New Year’s Day too, because when our shoot was over, we wandered down to the river’s edge where a clay figurine of Laksmi, the goddess of abundance, washed up at our feet.

Washerwomen on the river as non-film-star honkies walk past.

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