At the end of last term Bollywood came to Oxford to film Desi Boyz, a film so momentous that it will not be translated into English. When I missed the deadline to apply as an extra I was sure that my chance to shine was gone forever. Luckily it turned out that what was sold as a limited opportunity was actually open to anyone hanging around at the time and I was recruited while attempting to buy lunch.
To capture that frantic, bustling vibe that sets Oxford apart, the film-makers packed the garden quad of Balliol and sent a few cyclists weaving through the crowds. The challenge of surviving this devil-may-care choreography lost its appeal as we did endless retakes because of mistakes that happened too far away to see. For hours we did this routine, clutching our props that we weren’t allowed to drink, and talked about the film work.
Unfortunately we soon discovered that no one on set knows anything at all about anything. None of us were entirely sure what the film was about, or if it was even set in England. Occasionally we made a wild stab at guessing what was happening in this scene, or whether we were in shot. Eventually we ran out of other things to say and started grumbling about the pay but it turned out that none of us knew what this was either. Some said £25, others hoped for £50, but in the end neither of these numbers were true. After a couple of hours this was wearing thin and the odd confused third year wandering into the scene was as exciting as it got.
Most of the people involved I had never seen before, and many of them were not students. Apparently the reason I was ambushed outside the JCR was not that I had star quality but that they were desperate enough to use literally anyone. Happily for them there were equally desperate people who wanted to be used. There was a small number hoping to kick-start their acting career by getting spotted as an extra; they had travelled into Oxford just for this job and earned enough to barely cover their train ticket. Generally they spent their time trying to get into shot and complaining about not having a line. Hearing from one girl about her hopes to forge a career in the industry was the most depressing part of the day, although I heard later from someone who didn’t bail out of the conversation quite so early that I shouldn’t be sympathetic because she was actually alarmingly racist.
Possibly it was for fear of having her job stolen by one of the huge number of Bulgarians who had been bussed in from London despite all looking about a decade too old to be students. Shortly after being instructed to kick a football around the lawn some of them had it confiscated by the Dean, proving that rules are rules even if you hand over a suitcase of cash to hire the College.
Probably the closest we got to an insight into film-making other than that it requires Zen-like patience was the process for checking continuity errors. Frequently we would be photographed to ensure that we didn’t capriciously alter our outfits when they weren’t watching. They didn’t seem to quite grasp the concept however and one girl reckoned that she appeared in the same sequence in three different places after being randomly moved around by bored staff.
After the interminable first scene we were taken to Exeter College, which inexplicably was where the hero ends up after walking into Balliol hall. Here we were served food and, much later, asked to begin eating to create the dinner atmosphere. Some very dedicated people did force down the congealed chips and ossified bread, their grimaces creating the impression that hall food is worse than even it manages. After a day where things as simple as dinner were drawn out into joyless, repetitive hours I felt that if this is what film stars have to endure, they’re welcome to all the trappings of the red carpet.