The movie star
On a visit to a movie set, I discovered a love story as powerful as any portrayed on the silver screen.
The year is 1975. The place is Ramanagara, Karnataka, in south India. It is high noon. A beautiful woman driving a carriage is hotly pursued by villainous men on horseback. From her attire---a short blouse with an exposed midriff, a long colorful skirt, and a long veil that billows out behind her---it’s clear that the woman is the belle of the local village. Her mare is white as snow and is at a full gallop, but she is tiring. The woman urges her on with cries of, “C’mon, Dhanno! Fly! Fly to preserve my honor!”
The men in pursuit are dressed in black with scabbards hanging from their belts, and they ride black horses. They are slowly but surely catching up. Dust rises beneath their feet and the sound of pounding hooves echoes.
“Cut!” yells the director. “All right. That’s enough for today.” He yawns, stretches and stands. The fans stirring brown dust powder stop whirring, the bright sunlight suddenly disappears as the overhead incandescent lights flicker off, and the crew erupts into loud chatter and a bustle of activity. Props are carried away. Within minutes the equipment and the people are gone, the set roped off and shut for the night, and all is silence.
Decades later, I watch the very same chase scene on the television screen in the iconic Bollywood film Sholay, which is among the highest grossing movies in Indian cinema. too, will feature a white mare. I watch a young, skinny boy leading her half a mile down the shore before turning around to walk back. She is saddled, and they are waiting for their shot to be called. We’ve been here for half a day, and filming hasn’t even started yet. The lead actress has not yet arrived.
I walk up to the young boy. He watches me approach and stands still, most likely anticipating a rebuke of some kind. He looks poor and lonely. I smile to show my friendly intentions and ask his name. “Bandya,” he says. “And what is her name?” “Dhanno.” “Ah, just like the one in Sholay?” He nods wearily, without enthusiasm. He has probably been asked this question a thousand times. “How long have you been waiting?” “Six hours. We were told to arrive at the crack of dawn.”
As though sensing the lateness of the hour, the mare stamps her foot. The boy continues, “All these people are time wasters! They promised me 500 rupees for today. Said it will only take an hour. Now they won’t allow me to take on customers while I’m waiting for them. I’m losing my business here.”
I nod in understanding. This is typical Indian mentality when it comes to time. No one is ever punctual, so you always quote a time a bit earlier than required. “Where are you from?” He names an unfamiliar village. “Where is her stable?” I ask, caressing the mare’s forehead. She pays no attention to me.
He tells me it is three train stations away from the beach. But he is not allowed to ride her, so they had to walk nearly 10 miles to get to the set. “And here they haven’t even started.” He shakes his head in disgust.
I shrug. “They are waiting for the heroine. She is going to ride Dhanno, isn’t she?” He looks away and doesn’t reply. I wait for a beat, then ask him if the mare belongs to him. “My father. He keeps a stable.” I get curious. “Do you know how to ride?” “Of course!” “Then why does he not let you?” The boy shakes his head as if to say,