This Year's Models

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This dingy, leaking, central Bombay office, the headquarters of the Junior Artists Association, is where Bollywood dreams go to die. All 750 members of this union for film extras once had visions of movie stardom. They drifted to Bombay from all over India. But after years of futile auditions, rejections and bit parts, they ended up as extras, part of the background crowd in a musical number, or among the faceless masses in a street scene. Extras, if they find work, will make seven dollars a day. (The highest paid Bollywood stars make a million dollars a picture.) They are willing to put up with incredible hardship — sleeping on pavements, hunger, illness — rather than return in defeat to their villages. Eventually, they pay hefty membership fees to join the Junior Artists Association. "Ambition can be like that," shrugs 42-year-old Suraj, an extra who fondly recalls his best role: as a dying soldier in a now-forgotten epic, he had the camera linger on him for a whole second. "You want to be something, and end up something else."

But now he is close to losing even that. As Indian movies become glossier and younger, producers feel that extras should also be glossy and young. Members of the Junior Artists Association, living on the brink at the best of times, where owning a decent shirt can swing the job, have no place in this new cinematic order. The work is going instead to college kids hunting for pocket money or youngsters looking for modeling jobs. These newer, more glamorous extras are called "models." They may be more expensive, but producers feel they are worth the price. "If I need a scene in a shopping mall or in an expensive store, I really can't hire junior artists," says Shahnab Alam, executive producer for Sunny Supersound Productions. "My director will complain that they don't look authentic."

But each time he hires a "model," an extra like Suraj loses work. Suraj, who dreamed of being an action hero, now thinks he is lucky to have a union card. The money is awful, and he is often at the mercy of corrupt agents, but still Suraj says he will never go back home to Bhopal. "I can't do anything else," he says. Nevertheless, he might soon have to. He waits every day at the dank office, but producers are no longer calling. "This is a cruel industry," says filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, who tries to hire junior artists but still, like everyone else, needs the models as well. "And these guys have the worst deal."

Not that they are going quietly. Every morning, Aziz Ahmed, a Junior Artists Association official, scouts locations from his van. When he finds a production that does not employ junior artists, he works the phones, calling a threatening mob to the set. Ahmed, a burly 39-year-old, heckles producers, demanding a token quota of junior artists, even if it means the extras are "left outside the frame." Most producers comply, or just pay up, to get rid of him. Ahmed admits he has resorted to violence, but says he has no choice. "People say we are quarrelsome and abusive," he says. "But what can we do? We are fighting for our food, our children's futures."

Ahmed's greatest venom is directed at the models. "Every time an outsider is hired, a family of 10 is done out of a week's rations," he grumbles. The models argue that they work hard for their money, go through an audition process like everyone else, and shouldn't be held responsible for the shortcomings of others. On a set, the two groups break down along class lines. Rosy, a pretty 26-year-old extra, looks jealously at the models. One of them is smoking, another is chatting on her mobile phone. "They are here just to have fun," Rosy says bitterly. "They want money to blow in discos. I need to pay bills."

"Look at those girls," hisses Vishnu, another extra. "How is Rosy any different from them?" Junior artists are graded during their selection. Some, who can pass as upper class, are called "Decent." The rest are called "B Grade." Rosy is "Decent," and therefore feels that non-union models are taking her jobs. "They are prostitutes," declares another of Rosy's friends. "These so-called models are given preference because they sleep with the producers and the agents."

Despite the competition, would-be stars and starlets keep on coming. Thirty-year-old Prem Pandit, the son of a businessman, arrived six months ago from Jaipur. "I will never join the junior artists," he says. "I have talent. I have good looks. Why should I want to be one of them?" Every morning, armed with his head shots, he visits studios and producers. Assistants take his pictures, promising to summon him for auditions. Very few call back. But Pandit is sure someone out there is going to give him a break. "That is the magic of this business," he says. "One day, I am going to find a godfather who will recognize my talent and give me a chance to act." That, of course, was once the dream of every junior artist. Now they would tell him that break is most likely going to a glossy, young model.