Strange but True Hollywood Stories -- Escape from India
This is the first in a series of blog posts on strange but true Hollywood stories. I’ve changed the names and a few details, for anonymity.
A few years back, a friend of mine, Peter Muster, took a job as an audio supervisor on an independent movie being shot in India. It was a re-telling of the story of The Thief of Baghdad, but set in current times, financed with mostly foreign money, with an international cast, and produced by a mostly American crew. Peter took the job because he was friends with the producer, Nita Kumari, a citizen of the United States of Indian descent, and because he could travel the subcontinent for a month after shooting ended.
Production took place in the ancient and beautiful Aurangabad district of Maharashtra in the northwest corner of India. Known as “the City of Gates,” Aurangabad is a tourist hub with world heritage sites, including the Bibi Ka Maqbara, which looks similar to the Taj Mahal.
Peter’s job was to capture the audio, and his biggest challenge was keeping his equipment dry in the humid weather. Piles of terry cloth towels helped.
In one scene, Abu the thief confronts a powerful magician, so the production designer (let’s call him Bob) had to create a book of spells for the magician to consult for his conjuring. First, Bob went to a store and bought a book with mysterious looking writing printed on thick white paper. He then brought it back to the hotel where the crew was staying, went to his room and ripped out fifty pages. He wanted to age the torn pages so that they looked like they belonged to an ancient text, after which he would stitch the aged paper into a leather cover that he’d also bought —and voila! — the magician would have his book of spells.
One trick for “aging” paper quickly is to soak it in tea, so he took his torn pages, burnt the edges with a lit match, and let them soak in a bowl of warm water steeped with brown tea. Next he had to dry the pages, but the hair dryer in his hotel room was on the fritz, and the pages were already disintegrating. Hoping to salvage his project, Bob took the bowl filled with the tea-soaked paper outside to the sun-drenched building across the street, where he carefully laid out each wet page on the hot stone steps. Soon the pages would be stiff, yellow, ancient looking, and ready for sewing.
Unfortunately, the building turned out to be a mosque. Even more unfortunate, the book he’d bought and then destroyed was a copy of the Koran. Upon exiting the mosque, devout Muslims discovered the abomination —ripped and burnt pages of the holy book, brown with tea, were lining the stone stairs of their house of worship. Bob abandoned his art project and fled back into the hotel.
An angry mob of young men surrounded the building, demanding the arrest of the American film crew. The hotel staff locked their front doors, and the crew locked themselves in their rooms. Police came to arrest people, especially Bob, but the officers were worried that the crew would be killed by the mob if they tried to leave the building, so they placed everyone under house arrest and seized all their equipment. The mob, in turn, grabbed some of the gear as the police tried to carry it to their cars, and destroyed it in the street. The mob did not leave for three days, and the crew was trapped inside.
Nita, the producer, got on the phone, worked her magic and was able to strike a deal with the authorities. A judge came to the hotel and held a trial in the coffee shop, with the entire crew present. All were found guilty and sentenced to six weeks in jail.
The judge then went outside, announced the verdict to the mob, and said that their jail sentences would start in two days. The people cheered.
No one wanted to go to an Indian prison for six weeks, but it was better than being beaten to death in the street. Meanwhile, Nita still had two days to work something out.
The judge returned the next day and announced that it was now possible for each crew member to pay cash to a local Indian who was willing to serve his jail time for him or her. (This sounds like an odd arrangement, but paying another to serve prison time on your behalf was once possible in the United States, and is still common in modern China, for instance.)
Nita coughed up the money and paid twenty locals (hand-picked by the judge) to endure each crew person’s jail sentence, paid an additional fine to get any film gear back, and then everyone fled the hotel in the middle of the night after the lead Indian movie star paid the hotel bill. The judge had found a way to serve justice, appease the mob, keep everyone alive, and avoid an international incident.
The film was never finished, the insurance did not cover the destroyed gear, and Peter Muster didn’t get to see the rest of India. I do not know if any real jail time was served. However, Bob the designer is now working on big Hollywood movies, and even shared an Academy Award nomination with two other people for Excellence in Production Design.
Production Lesson One: Learn the local customs and don’t offend your hosts.
Production Lesson Two: Even if you ruin an entire movie and blow millions of dollars, it may not hurt your career at all.