Russians get a hang of Bollywood’ starry dreams

Roman Fedorov, a 24-year old computer designer from St. Petersburg, landed in Chennai a couple of years ago. One fine day, a man approached him for a bit role in an Indian film. Thus began his brief but exciting acting career in Bollywood. Now, many Russians get to play a dazzling array of side roles from a gangster to a good capitalist in Indian movies.

A brooding darkness has descended in Chennai, the capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. A young European man is lying in a dirty smelly puddle of mud surrounded by a swarm of insects. Right above his lifeless body leans a sinister-looking Indian holding a smoking gun.

Don’t worry yet – this is not a scene from a bloodcurdling crime. This is just another day in the life of an Indian film crew shooting one of the Bollywood flicks.  The European man is Roman Fedorov, a 24-year old native of St. Petersburg. By the way, if you’re still worried, he was paid a double rate for that particular scene.

Roman’s tryst with Bollywood literally happened like a bolt from the blue. He landed in Chennai (formerly Madras) to work as a computer designer for a local company a couple of years ago. One fine day, he was approached by someone who offered him a job in the movies. Thus began Roman’s brief but exciting film career in India.

“When I was getting out of a rickshaw, my everyday vehicle over there, a young Indian came up to me, introduced himself as a casting agent and offered me a part in a movie. Since I have always been up for showing off a little, I did not hesitate for a minute. He said they were filming pretty far in the hills, so he had to drive me and a couple of other European debutantes to the location,” he recalls. “It took almost a day to get there. And, to be honest, we even started questioning the sincerity of his intentions. However, it all went smoothly. There was nothing to worry about, says the computer designer-turned-actor.

This movie was shot in a rented palace and had all the trappings of a typical Indian film. Bad rajah (king), a good but poor peasant, beautiful ladies, singing, dancing and an obligatory happy ending. Roman played a World Bank representative who helped the good boys expropriate the bad rajah’s dirty money. Everything went really well, and Roman got Rs 1,000 for a shooting day. Later on, he became an agent himself, recruiting his student friends to earn extra cash.

“I used to live in a student dorm, so there was no shortage of recruits by any means. All of them would jump at the opportunity right away,” says Roman.

In the next project he starred as a British colonialist. The best part about it was driving a vintage Aston Martin, he says fondly.

“The involvement of white people really affects the box office in India. I think, it sort of raises the level of a movie in the eyes of the public. Actually, a white man in India is still an ubermensch in a way. When we were shooting an epic costume drama where I played a piano player and the leader of a big band (Ilangyan, director Suresh Krishna, - editor), everybody called me Sir Mister Roman. I have to admit, it definitely tickled my ego,” says Roman.

That costume drama narrating the history of Madras was Roman’s Bollywood swan song. The shooting lasted for seven days and brought him his biggest reward ever, Rs 7000.

The scene from Ilangyan movie (director Suresh Krishna). Roman's playing piano behind. 

“We had to rehearse the same song over and over again for a week which was pretty boring but my wages, a decent hotel and good company were a nice compensation. I actually made a lot of friends on the set, both Indian and expats. I even had a chance to socialise with local actors who were real stars over there. At that time, however, I had no clue they were big stars. I left India in a little while since my designer contract expired, but still kept getting e-mails from my casting agent offering parts in new projects,” says Roman.

In the days of the Soviet Union, everyone enjoyed Indian movies.  In fact, many generations of Russians have been brought up on these action-packed and emotionally enriching song-and-dance movies. Over the last few decades, Indian movies may have lost out to Hollywood blockbusters in the Russian market, but the thrill of Bollywood extravaganza still remain rooted deeply in the collective memory of Russians. Every year the ever-growing Indian movie industry attracts many Russians to act as gangsters, drug dealers, British colonialists, good capitalists, bad capitalists and just about any other role. Many of them just go for it for some extra rupees, while others are drawn in by a desire to be a part of this incredibly fantastic and glitzy world.  

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