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Poison Kiss
"There will be a small financial re-numeration" Mr Sunderjee says almost apologetically

Colin Todhunter finds himself the unexpected 'star' of an Indian movie.
"I would like you to be the main actor in a film I am making, sir".
Everyone in the room turned to see who said this. A few seconds later they began looking in my direction and I almost choked on my coffee. This booming voice from half way across the room had been directed toward me! This was the day I staggered out of bed, and stumbled straight into a movie.

It was a late November day when Mr Sundarjee, an overweight and balding man, approached me over my morning coffee in the hotel reception and asked me - or should I say demanded me - to be in his film. My senses were dazed after a night spent tossing and turning in the heat, but I was soon brought into focus. Mr Sunderjee was the owner of a small film production company here in Madras - or Chennai as it is now called. An exceptionally likeable and charismatic man, he explained that he was directing and producing an English dialogue film to be screened in India, parts of Africa and Russia.

Initially, half yawning, I listened out of courtesy. But the more he talked, the less I yawned, and the more I listened with interest. "I cannot act" I exclaimed, "I have no experience of acting whatsoever". I couldn’t quite believe that he wanted a raw novice. With a typical Indian nonchalance and side to side characteristic headshake Mr Sunderjee replied "This does not matter. Acting is easy". I thought to myself "Yes, bad acting is easy!" Mr Sunderjee tried to reassure me by adding "I will coach you on the set".

He went on to explain the script. To my surprise he was not making a swashbuckling song and dance Bollywood-type movie. My part would be "James", a softly spoken and dedicated foreign scientist who comes to India to do research on plants that he hopes will earn him a Nobel prize. James has recently married an Indian woman, Shweta from Calcutta, whom he met while she was holidaying in London. It was a whirlwind romance. One week after their marriage they are in the forests of South India where James is doing his research.

James loves Indian culture and all of its religious traditions, and adores Shweta. Shweta, on the other hand, loves all the "bad" aspects of the West, and is not so sure whether she adores James. James cares passionately about everything, but Shweta cares little for anything. Mr Sunderjee explains that this is a simmering powder keg of disaster. She likes to drink alcohol and sleep around, while he likes to work and thinks he has married a woman who is dedicated to the finest traditions of India. Nothing is further from the truth. She turns out to be James’ nemesis as the plot thickens into a fog of lust, betrayal and blackmail, leading eventually to James’ murder by their "servant" and Shweta’s lover.

Mr Sunderjee assures me that the film will make international waves. There is only one slight problem, however - a minor difficulty by Indian standards, but one which would slide off the Richter scale anywhere else. The shooting begins in five weeks and all of the actors are in place - all of the actors that is apart from the two lead roles. "There will be a small financial re-numeration" Mr Sunderjee says almost apologetically - "we cannot afford much as we are only a small production company".

After sleeping on it for a few days, I agree to play the part - or should I say "attempt" to play the part. Five weeks later we are "on location" in the mountains for a twelve day "shoot". We are in a Kipling jungle-book fantasy land of waterfalls, and fruit orchards. The cool air is sharp relief from the baking, mosquito-ridden plains below. I am playing the part of James. While he works in the forest, Shweta goes into the nearest town each night with their "servant" for a bucketful of drink and an evening drenched in passion.

Shouts of "action" and "cut" were intimidating, and Mr Sundarjee’s frequently furrowed brow was usually drowned in beads of sweat. He always looked to me that he was about to keel over with a heart attack at any second. His worried appearance and chain smoking, however, belied an inner calm. As promised he was extremely helpful throughout, offering advice and assistance. Every night he would give me my lines which I would learn, and sometimes fluff the next day. He was a monument to patience. It never took more than a couple of takes to get things right, however. Each scene lasted for no more than forty five seconds, preceded and followed by a seeming eternity of waiting as the sound, lighting and positions were worked out with meticulous precision. I became acutely aware that patience is an actor's greatest virtue.

The whole film was laden with emotive phrases such as "Your kisses are like poison", and "You shatter my heart into a million fragments". I was saying strange things to a complete stranger, surrounded by other complete strangers. My self-consciousness often showed through, and Mr Sundarjee had to coax me to relax and forget about the camera and crew. He was oblivious to the fact that it wasn't so much the surroundings that were offputting, but his script and the delivery which he desired. He wanted me to say my lines with an exaggerated intonation and distorted facial statement for added effect. I thought that I was sounding false, looking stupid, and that it was all becoming a case of bad film making and poor acting. But he seemed happy enough. I guess he knows his audience and I presume that they like improbable dialogue and over-the-top acting.

Apart from two or three other actors in a scene at any one time, the set consisted of Mr Sunderjee as producer/director/editor, his junior partner, Mr Sooryia, and five assistants who arranged the props, lighting and sound. Mr Sooryia was the sole cameraman. He was also the make-up artist, wardrobe-man, driver and tea maker. Each morning we would suffer a gut-wrenching endurance test as he would drive all of the crew up the bending mountain pass in a battered jeep to our location. On arrival, he would usher everyoneout with a prevailing sense of urgency. Then it would seemingly take hours to for him to make the tea and, when he felt like, lay out the wardrobe for the day’s shoot. In typical Indian fashion an intitial bout of urgency is followed by lingering lethargy, and endless impatience and frustration on my part. If we were lucky, the equipment would work first time. But more often than not wires had to be cut, bulbs replaced or clothing re-stitched.
Rabindra, who plays Shweta, is an aspiring big-time actor and hopes the film will launch her to where she wants to be - a Bollywood star. It may well do; she plays her role with poise. She struts around the set wearing tight jeans and listening to hard-rock music, giving James a taster of just where whirlwind romances can lead - in this case, disaster, with James getting more than he bargained for.

The last two days of the shoot take place back in pollution-choked Madras - which, for the purpose of the film doubles as Calcutta. It’s an ideal backdrop for the opening scene as the monsoon skies hang heavy with a sense of foreboding. This is where James meets Shweta’s parents after touching down in India. In these opening scenes of the film, Shweta plays the perfect daughter, dressed in traditional attire, and in the role of dutiful wife, providing no insight into the tragedy about to take place in the jungle where she transforms into some kind of bizarre version of a 1970s "rock-chick".

Much of the shooting appeared to be a kind of organized mess. A film with no stars, a lead actor who hadn’t acted in his life, and a rag-tag production crew that seemingly couldn’t produce anything if their lives depended on it. Yet the near-impossible was transformed into the possible, the extraordinary became ordinary, and the high drama of it all turned into daily routine. Somehow I felt we would never get through it, but someway we did. Every day seemed to last forever, and often bordered on drudgery. But the hardship of doing it is now offset by the satisfaction of having done it.

And the name of the film? - I nearly forgot - "Poison Kiss". I don’t know what the finished product will be like, but if Mr Sunderjee has his way, it will be at least passable. And me? - I have returned to the UK and have drifted back into obscurity - well maybe. If you ever pass through Kazakhstan, have a quick look to see what’s showing at the local cinema. You never know, Mr Sunderjee’s latest blockbuster may be on show. I suppose that now I am "on-screen", I travel all over without actually leaving home - a case of always somewhere, but never anywhere.

© colin todhunter 2002

(If you really do se this film and have any stills, do send a review in to hackwriters for all the word to see! Ed.)

Previously by Colin Todhunter

The unique experience of going to the gym in India
Colin Todhunter

From Copenhagen to Byron Bay
Colin Todhunter
"In India first you get married and then you work these things out", he said with amazing casualness.

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