“What would you say was your defining American moment? An incident that was authentically and unabashedly American?”
Ask me that question. I dare you. No, I double dare you. Cause, I have the answer ready. It would be the day Obama won. I was still in university and living in a rundown apartment on top of a bar. It was right in the intersection of two busy roads and peeked over the happenings on the street. We were all huddled over a laptop, five Indian guys living in a tiny 3 bedroom apartment that was legally supposed to house only three. The moment it became clear that Obama had won my roommate Prem Singh jumped with joy and started pumping his fists in the air. He, who sported an American accent even before getting on the plane to get here and whose only dismay was that he could not vote to aid his fellow democrats. Soon, there were voices coming from the street below. We looked out to see the guy from the apartment across the street, perched on the ledge of his window, blasting the national anthem on his electric guitar. There were some other students out in the streets, but the most conspicuous was an ecstatic chubby spectacled girl with curly hair, standing smack in the middle of the intersection like a traffic policeman, jubilantly swinging her hands in the air, waving at cars whizzing by and shouting at the top of her voice “We got it right, We finally got it right”. With a little wardrobe changes they could have fit right in the 70’s. The Punk Rocker, up in his apartment, serenading the Flower Girl down below. A somewhat Romeo and Juliet reversal. Quintessentially American, almost stereotypical, reaffirming (and shouting) their faith in Truth, Justice and the American way.
Well the other night I had an experience that would rival this one as my most American experience. We cannot deny that the world we live in is dominated by American pop culture. As a former British colony, whatever links we had to British culture are being phased out, for better or worse, as time nudges us farther and farther from the early half of the 20th century. Going by Shashi Tharoor’s definition of Soft power, America remains the mammoth yielding and submitting everyone to the sheer potency of its soft power. Naturally I would be excited to be part of anything related to popular culture and getting to be an extra in a Hollywood movie was a chance I was not going to pass on. Ok, so it was not a Hollywood movie, but a Not For Profit film being funded by a South Florida Film Initiative. And it was not a movie per se but a short film (Short for short), about 30 minutes long. But hey, Art cannot be bounded by temporal or spatial constraints, even though how a Post-Apocalyptic (PA) gore fest qualifies as art is up for debate. Yeah, I played a Zombie. Actually the technically correct term is The Living dead, from an unwritten rule in PA movies that the word Zombie is never uttered or used. The Infected, Walkers, Ghouls and Stiffs are also accepted.
So how did I get there? Well here I was trawling through craigslist, when I found this posting that wanted extras for a day’s shoot. Of course it was volunteer work, but I would have actually paid them just for getting in on the experience. So I showed up on set at the time prescribed by the Production Assistant, Tim, A University of Miami student, and part time film enthusiast. I soon found out everyone there on set was more or less helping out for free and the crew was mostly U of M students. But for the first time I found myself on a movie set, an abandoned bottling plant run rampant by extremely talented local Miami Grafitti artists. The place absolutely looked the cold , solitary, unforgiving terrain that the directors envisioned in their script.
I was quickly ushered in to the make up tent, and soon found myself sitting in front of the Make up artist, Giancarlo. Now the thing about Miami is that everyone speaks Spanish and 4 times out of 5 is from Cuba or one of the Central American countries. So When the kindly bearded Miami native told me he was friends with Somy Ali (Yes , Salman Khan’s Ex from the 90s, that Somy Ali) I was taken aback. But he was for real. Apparently she runs a charity in South Florida, having given up on the glitz and glamour of showbiz. Now, I have never had any kind of make up done. So I didn’t know what to expect. Giancarlo told me I was the first Indian face he was going to do up and so he was going to spend some time on me. Sure enough, I was there for a good thirty minutes and by the time I was done I was turning heads, as much as a zombie with flesh hanging from his cheek could. I also got a good idea why Alan Cumming never returned for X-men 3 and What Ron Perlman and Rahul Roy had to go through when they did Hell Boy and Junoon respectively. Sitting still with your eyes closed lips pursed is excruciatingly boring. But what was even more tortuous was still to come.
They say people who have learned music hear chords and ragas where mere mortals would just find a melody. It’s a different perspective that you gain when you find out what exactly goes on behind the curtains. And its something you cannot unsee. Well let me tell you apart from the cameras, lights and dollys what laymen don’t realize is the sheer excruciating amount of just standing around. Yes, you just stand around, twiddling your thumbs while they get the shot ready. Now I am not calling anyone inefficient. This is just how things roll. Things take time and naturally you have to wait. So here we were a rag tag team of volunteer zombies – a film student, a retired chemist, an ex-cop, a civil engineer and a truck driver among others, standing around with burnt faces, ripped cheeks and amputated limbs. But the real soul of the party had to be Carlos a guy who was just driving by in a car, who stopped at the commotion, just to ask what was going on and was roped in to play a zombie. He was just so enamored by everything that he volunteered to help out the remaining days of the shoot as well. By the end he was actually announcing to everyone that he wanted to be a full time actor!! Turns out anyone can play a zombie. You just have to growl and move around menacingly. And when your face is hidden beneath layers of fevicol-like substance you lose all inhibitions. The big question was, were they going for George Romero Zombies or Danny Boyle Zombies. Romero considered the father of the Zombie subgenre with his “..of the Dead” series had slow moving, zombies with legs dragging and hands held out, while Boyle popularized the raging, wild, sprinting zombie in 28 days later. Turns out rabid zombies are all the rage now. As a film enthusiast Post Apocalyptic films appeal to me because in essence they say that what you and I deem as important, even monumental could in an instant become entirely frivolous and superfluous. Think about it, one day you are worried about finishing up a report and the very next day you could be holed up in a house praying for your life. Talk about perspective shift! It reaffirms that relativity is the only truth in life.
The shoot lasted well into the wee hours of the morning. We shot four scenes where we just ran around chasing people or as we zombies call it “dinner” and getting shot at. A SFX team was brought in to perform several stunts which included firing several guns at us poor zombies and setting one of us on fire. I hear the same stunt team worked on a new Charlie’s Angel’s TV show set in Miami which would premiere in Fall of this year. Gun shots, even blanks, are ear-drum popping loud. And you definitely need ear plugs if you are at either end of the gun. Finally one of the PAs shouted “It’s a wrap, folks” and we all heaved sighs of relief. We just wanted to get out of there. Most of us had to work the next day and I briefly wondered whether being “the living dead ” would qualify me for sick leave. Good byes were said and Facebook ids exchanged. Tearing apart a live human together can apparently make you close to people. I knew getting off the makeup would be a pain. While I tore away all the prosthetics, the blood and decay still remained. Giancarlo recommended a hot shower and lots of soap. I did not want be pulled over by a cop looking like this. But the best part of the day was when I pulled up into a Taco Bell drive in window and scared the bejeezus out of the employee. Also, sadly taco bell does not serve human brains.