Rajendra Lekhraj has spent nearly 30 years of his life on a film set. On a Tuesday evening, after a handful of set visits, he strolls into Mumbai's Film City to oversee the filming of a song in a major upcoming Bollywood film. He's not alone. He's brought with him a total of 720 junior artists who will participate in the song. Some of these are foreigners who have arrived in a Volvo bus, peeping out of their windows like unsuspecting tourists. As Rajendra, who goes by the name of Pappu ji on film sets, ushers them into their enclosure, he points out how he's managed to source a group of diverse looking artists in a matter of days. "I was asked to bring three types of people today. Some need to look like rich kings, some like poor villagers, others like British soldiers. That's what these foreigners are for. Do you know, I found them in Goa," he says with pride.
Pappu ji monopolises the junior artist supplier industry. It's a business that was started by his father, who was also a junior artist once. Every time a film goes into production, Pappu ji gets a call and he lands up on set with his people. These could be the hundreds of women who marched with Deepika Padukone in the famous jauhar scene in Padmaavat or the wrestlers in Dangal. He usually picks from the 2500 artists who are formally registered with the Junior Artists Association. With over 250 film releases every year, and each requiring droves of junior artists, he is never out of a job.
While Pappu ji is happy to share that he picked up junior artists from Goa, he won't go too deep into his sourcing strategy. He mysteriously says, "Mere aadmi chaaron taraf phaile huye hain." He does however give me a glimpse of his WhatsApp history which looks like a detailed menu card for all sorts of people. "I can find people for any requirement. If it's a wedding song, then I can get you band walas overnight. If there's a ladies sangeet situation, I can get a Rajasthani lady who sings. If you want fit looking men, I can get the bulky type from an akhada like I did for Dangal or 6-pack type from my contacts at gyms. For a Hollywood film, I was once asked to find eunuchs," he says, as he scrolls down the photo gallery of his phone.
To the junior artists on the set, Pappu ji is as good as their director, because they never really get to interact with the actual filmmaker. They have no lines and they're clueless about the scene, or why they've been assembled there. Anuradha, who's been a junior artist for 30 years, says she's there because Pappu ji asked her to turn up in her worst sari and no make up because she was in the poor villager category. However, she's sneakily put on some kajal.
Another junior artist, 64-year-old Kirpal Singh, has been given a fancy brocade sherwani and a pearl necklace. He's clearly in the rich king category and has a better idea of what he'll be doing, but only marginally. "The song is happy, so I guess I'll be asked to smile," he says. Singh started out 46 years ago with a Manoj Kumar film for which he got paid Rs 26 for 8 hours. He says he's lived a dignified life as a junior artist, even married one. Seated next to him is a young boy called Nitin. Till the night before he was a background dancer in Race 3. Now he's a young prince in a period film. Nitin says he's employed 25 days a month for various films and TV shows. He's rarely needed for more than 5 days of work in each. He's had a few speaking scenes in an old TV show, and that's enough to make him happy.
The world of junior artists is as lookist as that of regular actors. Only here, there are no pretensions or attempts at any political correctness. When one applies to the Junior Artists Association, they're given a card and a category based on age and appearance. The A category which is also called Decent, belongs to those who fit into the traditional parameters of what is considered good-looking – young, fair, tall, physically fit – and therefore can look rich. Pappu ji reserves them for scenes where he needs people to sit in a posh corporate office, drive a fancy car or stand behind the lead actor who is also good looking and rich. The guys in 'Decent' category also get paid 20-25% more than the rest. Then you have the B + category. "These are gundas, morcha wale, gaon wale or for funeral scenes," he explains. The lowest in the rung are the 'Talk Show' category. These guys have to fill seats for TV talk shows. They are holed up in a studio for hours, they're forbidden from loo breaks and are paid a pittance. Artists in all categories have a healthy understanding of their place in the world and have no qualms in being discriminated on appearance.
The business started getting more serious when Mansoor Khan started making films in the late 80s and 90s. For both Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, he needed young college going kids which was impossible to find. He was also the first director to hold auditions for them, which was unheard of till then.
When Pappu ji started his business, supplying junior artists was a simpler task. Any living, breathing person could be put in the frame. He says the business started getting more serious when Mansoor Khan started making films in the late 80s and 90s. For both Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, he needed young college going kids which was impossible to find. He was also the first director to hold auditions for them, which was unheard of till then. Pappu ji remembers putting out tens and thousands of flyers across the city to advertise for women junior artistes because there were hardly any available. He says only one girl applied and continues to work to this day.
The 90s also saw an influx of younger heroes like Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan which meant the background actors also had to look youthful. "All the usual junior artists at the time were much older. They used to stand behind Bachchan and Shatrughan Sinha. They couldn't fit into these new movies. In fact, the Khans are now in their 50s and I still need young looking junior artists in the frame. Aamir is 50 plus but if I put another regular 50 plus man in the frame with him, he will look like his dad," explains Pappu ji.
The next major shake up came when Karan Johar started making movies. For him, even A grade didn't cut it. His junior artists were sourced for a special 'model category'. They weren't a part of the union and were paid considerably more than the rest. In fact, Pappu ji still looks a little confused about the brief given to him for the song Shava Shava featuring Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukerji in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham... "It was a party scene and I was told to find people who look like Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi to pretend to be guests. I went to the Godrej office and brought some Parsi employees from there. I told them they could take photos with these stars. They got Rs 4000 for 8 hours which is a huge amount even for today," he recalls.
Some things in the junior artist industry have remained the same. Pappu ji still has to pay them their daily wages in cash at the end of the shoot. He's usually tailed by an elderly, trusted man clutching onto a worn out travel bag stuffed with currency. At the end of the shoot, Pappu ji and him call pack up and personally compensate their actors – each of whom they know by name – for their day's work. It's like he and his actors are running their own mini production company within a bigger production. For him, there's never a dull day. By the time he's done with this shoot, he's already on the look out a 'poor, old lady from the chawl' for an advertisement to be shot the next day.