This is the story of how Bethraham came to dominate Indian media.
Several weeks back we received a phone call out of the blue in which a man asked if we were available for a filming. Sure, we said, not really sure of what we were agreeing to. Days later, a few scenes arrived, but there was nothing about the plot, our characters, the production itself. Most notably we weren’t given any contact information, which was unfortunate, because the enclosed note said, “here is the script. please confirm”.
A few days later a man named Aman called us again to ask if we could come the next day to film. It would commence atop the zig-zag path at Devdar Woods. It was, from beginning to end, a bewildering experience. When we arrived there was no sign of any film crew. Eventually some idle young men appeared and stood around smoking cigarettes. Through broken English, they indicated that this was indeed the set, and that the others would arrive soon. When a car full of more important looking men arrived (none of whom were named Aman), they seemed oddly surprised to see us there and asked us if we could come back later that afternoon.
So we went back to school, taught a couple classes, then made our way back up the hill. When we arrived this time, the property was buzzing: there were prop wallahs, make-up wallahs, chai wallahs, and other wallahs without clear roles. They ushered us into a costume closet that doubled as a makeup room. Bethany started with makeup and a man gave me jackets to try on. He chose some black pants that were about 8 sizes too big around the waist and 6 inches too short in the legs. Then he put on a 90’s era navy double-breasted jacket that was also several sizes too big. Together, my costume looked like the result of a hurried $1.50 spending spree at the Salvation Army. They very obviously weren’t my clothes and what’s more, that kind of suit jacket was about 30 years ahead of its setting. Bethany’s costume was better, mostly because it was her clothes which actually fit her.
After we were dressed, we watched them film a scene in Hindi in which a rich woman with a dog slaps a village girl. They only did 2-3 takes of each scene, each of which began with a familiar liturgy:
audio guy: “silence!”
Then it was time for our scene. We still didn’t really know anything about our characters or the overall plotline, other than we were American missionaries living in Mussoorie, and someone had been murdered. Our lack of background or context was not a concern to the director, who casually told me that the first scene will be in Hindi.
Here’s what you say: “hamare church kayon nehi ahti.”
“hamale church cone notty.”
“hamare church kayon nehi ahti.”
“hamati kyo nehi church neeeoty.”
And so on until finally they wrote it down on a cue card and held it behind the head of the girl to whom I was saying it. After several takes, each of which was more amusing than the last for the crew, I finally said something passable, but not before everyone had a good laugh at my expense.
It was around this time that I realized that film acting is a real job and a difficult one at that. There’s a lot of pressure packed in the moments after the director shouts “action” and one must be able to maintain consistent accents, positioning, and characterizations with a battery of lights, cameras, and microphones trained at your face. Being convincingly natural in a scenario which is so completely unnatural is a real talent.
A couple days later we filmed a second scene with one of the main characters, a real professional actor who was playing the Indian police detective. We were hastily introduced then told to stand in our spots. I stood facing him, trying to figure just how famous he was when he pointed over my shoulder with his police stick and said, “excuse me, but that’s my light.” Evidently, I was standing in it. What a diva moment! This guy must be a huge movie star. It’s an honor just to be corrected by him.
It turns out he was quite a friendly and down-to-earth guy who was very helpful to us neophytes. He came from the Joey Tribbiani school of acting, which suited him well for a role like this.
After two more days of shooting we had completed our roles as American missionaries John and Joan Simmons. As we were leaving they gave us INR5000 and we learned that what we had just filmed was a TV serial called “Ek Tha Rusty II“. It’s based on a series of short stories by local literary legend Ruskin Bond, and is a continuation of the original series, which aired in the 90’s. In our episode, we are suspects in the murder of the Rani (a local wealthy woman). You’ll have to tune in yourself on DD National to find out whether it was us or the equally suspicious butcher who did it. (Heads up: In a scene where Bethany, strumming a guitar with furrowed brow, asks me how they could suspect good people like us, I put my hand on her shoulder to reassure her and stare creepily off into the distance as the camera zooms in. Cue the scary music!)
Here’s some photos from the set, plus this photo of us which I randomly found on the internet.