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Published: February 27th 2013
I currently write from a one-computer little installation in the lazy town of Orchha. It has proven to be the ideal place for me to relax and gear up for the months alone that now loom ahead! Though it hasn't got the hassle and noise of other tourist centres, Orchha is blessed with a heavy spattering of 16th century Mughal temples, forts, palaces and other ruins which I've been having fun exploring alone. It conjours happy memories of years gone by when I would scamper and clamber over old dusty staircases and bat-infested caves in far-away countries! I stay one more day here before moving on to Khajuraho and one of the best tourist destinations in all of India. But first, an update on the 25th - Aneirin's last day - when we visited the undisputed Queen of Indian attractions, and got a whole lot more than we bargained for.
We nearly didn't make it to Agra atall. The one lesson we've learnt in our time in this country is that they don't bother with public transport unless it leaves jam-packed every time. Therefore there are fewer services and, if you want a space on a train, you really do have to book in advance. We therefore missed out first train to Agra as we were only on the waiting list, damning us to another night in the transport hub of Gorakhpur - somewhere that the guidebook rightly advises the traveller not to linger. Luckily, we managed to get 2 economy tickets for the next day. This would mean we would arrive in Agra at 430am, with Aneirin having to leave at 830pm that evening for his flight home to Singapore. As we anticipated, we got no sleep on the noisy train; we blearily stumbled into a cheap hotel on arrival, dropped off our luggage and collaped for 2 hours sleep before the day of enjoying Agra and India's jewel - the Taj Mahal.
We breakfasted on the roof terrace that the hotel claimed was the best view of the Taj in Agra. Due to the price of the room, I was sceptical as I climbed the many stairs but, emerging and turning towards the Yamuna river, I was hit powerfully by the view that greeted us. The Taj, glimmering softly in the morning sun, was perched majestically about a kilometre infront of us. It is such a perfect building, with such an intricate beauty and meticulously conceived shape that I think the eye simply cannot comprehend it; it dismisses it as an illusion. It has to be the most hypnotic and addictive visual stimulant that man will ever create. I cared not that my cornflakes took 20 minutes to get to me, the view held Aneirin and Itotally captive - mesmerised.
We couldn't dilly dally here all day though! We enjoyed the Taj from various angles - from the Agra Fort, from the other side of the Yamuna, from the East side. It's impact did not lessen from overexposure.
Agra's fort is very similar to the Red Fort of Delhi, bar the intricate Taj-like marble-work and a few Shajahan touches of brilliance. Shajahan, for those who don't know, ordered the consturction of the Taj as a mausoleum for his dead and most precious wife, Mumtaz. The story from here is like something straight out of a fairytale. Shajahan lived happily in his fort after the Taj's creation. For one reason or another, his son got a bit uppety and decided to form his own army and lay seige to his father's fort. Luckily for those who now enjoy the fort's architecture, they merely cut off the water supply, forcing the occupants out by thirst. Shajahan was then 'imprisoned' here until his death. He could hardly complain about the location and view from his 'cell' though; his tower overlooked the meandering Yamuna and the distant Taj that he has so restlessly, and perhaps recklessly, constructed. The tale is made peotically complete in the transport of Shajahan's dead body, by boat to join his wife's in the Taj Mahal. Thus, the emporer with an eye for architecture immortalised himself and his wife. A suitably brillaint story for a building so magnificent.
We walked to the 'Baby Taj' which lives up to it's name perfectly, before heading to the banks of the Yamuna to see the Taj from across the river. We decided to give the tourist gardens a miss - 150R each being a bit steep - and so walked down parallel to the gardens on the non-paying side, hoping to slip in by the river. The watchful gaze of a military gentleman prevented us, so instead we sat in the dust to admire the view. After 15 minutes of gawping, we headed back to the main road to try and get some lunch. On the way, we were approached by what appeared to be one of those annoyingly curious Indian men, with a reel of generic questions. He was on a moped, and stopped next to us in the dust. This chance encounter opened us up to a surreal, unexpected world, and granted us by far the most amazing expereince of our trip. Aneirin and I had, just that morning, been discussing the possibility of a scam performed by a man in Mumbai appraoching tourists and pretending to be recruiting for Bollywood. This is exactly what the man declared to be doing. We exchanged wary glaces, but obliged to take a lift to the 'set' on his moped, curiosity winning over any reservations we might have h.
To say this decision 'paid off' would be a ludicrous understatement. The moped wound down a dusty path, but we began passing actor motohomes, tents, and a mob of people who were craning their necks to see... a Bollywood movie set. There, on the banks of the shining Yamuna, with the Taj as their backdrop, was a movie set. Aneirin and I laughed nervously. Could it really be that we'd just been plucked from the middle of nowhere to star in a Bollywood Blockbuster? Yes, it turned out, Aneirin and I were to become stars.
We were led down into the enclosure, where we met the artistic director, script writer, MP of Agra (or equivalent) and various other important-looking people who we shook hands with in giddy awe. We assumed we were just to be extras in the background, but the script writer plonked himself down in a chair between Aneirin and I and began scribbling on a piece of paper. As we watched, it became apparent that we would have speaking roles! This was unbelievable. Over all this, in the background, a scene was being filmed over and over and the director, over a megaphone, was barking orders from inside a special tent. The script writer gave us a brief plot-summary.
The film, to be released in 2014, is called 'Wah Taj' (Wah meaning wow). The premisce is that a farmer discovers that his forefathers owned the land that the Taj was built on, and thus he owns the Taj. He engages in a dispute with the government, who shut the Taj to all visitors and deny the farmer (named Tikoram) his 'right' of ownership. Tikoram goes on hunger strike in protest. Enter 'Englishmen'! We were to be led by a guide to Tikoram, where the following dialogue played out:
GUIDE: He is the pure owner of the Taj Mahal!
ME: OH! Glad to meet you, Shajahan!
GUIDE: NO NO, Shajahan is duplicate owner. HE is pure!
ANEIRIN: Oh! You mean the REAL owner! Hi, Tikoram!
I then gavmy camera to our guide, who would take a snap of us with Tikoram and his family (I asked him to actually take a photo, which he did!)
My line was evidently a comic one, and so I felt pressure to deliver it in the most clueless-tourist, bewildered-whiteman way possible. Of course, the more over-the-top and exaggerated our acting, the more the Bollywood fans would lap it up!
As if all this hadn't totally blown our minds already, we were then introduced to the director and a man who had worked with him on Slumdog Millionaire! We felt utterly star-struck and very honoured. We have thier names and email address to contact them about the film's progress. Additionally, we were to be acting alongside 2 huge Bollywood stars in the form of Tikoram and his wife!
We then met out co-actor, the guide, who's name was Krishna. He turned out to be probably the nicest Indian we met on our jounrnies, and he calmed our nerves as we ran through a few rehursals. For Krishna, who was a student of engineering and also acted in an Agra theatre group, this was a 'dream come true'. As he said, there are only 2 types of celebrity in India - cricketers and Bollywood stars. He was about to meet and act alongside 2 of his heros, and he was visably as star-struck and agitated as us. We were so pleased for him and we're sure he'll go to the cinema to see it with all his friends and family in towThe scene being filmed behind us then dissolved to a brief round of appluase, and a woman with a headset on ushered us onto the set, infront of the camera. This was to be our time in the spotlight.
Surrounding us as we were thrust onto the set was a crowd of fans and extras - it was hard to tell which. Extras had camera, TV cameras and microphones while costumed 'policemen' held back the crowds swarming to see Tikoram. Behind the main camera were giant mirrors reflecting the sun's rays onto the set. Over to our left, the directors tent was full with ten people all leaning over the boss's shoulder to watch the screen-feed. Aneirin and the guide had microphones attached and hidden (I hope that my not having one won't mean my voice is dubbed) and we were given a face-dabbing by the make-up man, just like you see in the movies! Truth be told, we felt like we were in a movie before the cameras were even rolling. I half expected some American loon to jump out from behind one of the tents,laughing manically and telling us it was all a hoax.
We were instead given a brief run-down of our movements for the scene in broken English. Aneirin and I were still dissecting exactly what was bing asked of us when - "ACTION" - our scene commenced.
We probably did between 6 and 10 takes (I lost count, busy reciting my one line in my head in fear of stage-fright. The scene lasted around 20 seconds. After the first take, the two most friendly directors and the screen-writer laughed loudly and high-fived one-another. Encouragingly, they were very happy with our acting and the scene as a whole. We were repeatedly patted on the backs after each take, and afterwards the Slumdog-involved director said "I am very lucky to have found you today!" High praise indeed!
We had brillaint fun on the set, both improvising a little and generally acting like idiots, much to the pleasure of the directors. I cannot wait to see the scene, which apparently will be sent to us seperatley. If we don't get cut out by the final release of the film, I cannot wait to bore everyone who knows me with my clip and Bollywood debut! What a ludicrous thing to happen on our last day! We ended our scene to tumultuous applause and much hand-shaking. Many people wanted photos with us, though sadly no onasked us for an autograph. Still, I was getting a bit too big for my flipflops as I walked up to the food tent for a free lunch! We ate in the actors tent, disturbed frequently by people praising our performance and wanting more photos! What a pity Aneirin had to leave that evening, we were being inducted into the high society of India!
Our scene over, we bid a long farewell to the friends we met on set, and were scorted up to the road, where Krishna gave us a big hug - grateful for our help in establishing his first film role! We jumped in a crammed passing autorickshaw, and left behind a world of glamour and fame that we could scarecly believe we had flettingly inhabited. We were both laughing spontaneously at the events of the past 2 hours. I shouted forward to Aneirin over the wind and honks "We deserved that!" Aneirin nodded, smiling.
That did actually happen, everyone! Unbelievable. I didn't think anything could top the Taj, but I was proved wrong. I bade farewell to Aneirin at the station. It is a very sad parting and I feel like I've lost an essential part of my travelling gear. Aneirin will recognise this quote as plaigurised, but I do keep turning to the seat or patch of ground next to me to deliver a slight observation, only to discover that my companion is no longer there! It's taking some adjusting to but an introvert like me won't suffer too much being alone here. For one thing, in India you are never alone!
I lastly want to thank Aneirin for enjoying this mad country with me, and his family back home for permitting him to engage in all the craziness we've experienced. We hope to re-ignite old travelling flames after his service and my study, in a different but equally magical part of the world. Best of luck,Aneirin, in the naval divers of Singapore. I'll see you on the other end!
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