A rather windy road brought me to India. My dad introduced me to his ex-student’s husband’s friend. We began collaborating on small projects while I was in Miami. Then, I was invited to come to India for three months to build sales efforts. Ten years later, I’m still here.
As someone who considers himself a global citizen, about two months before relocating to Tamil Nadu, India, I decided it would be a good move to learn the local language. I downloaded Rosetta Stone’s Hindi. With about a week of lessons under my belt, I was eager to share this gyaan with my new boss. “Aap kaise hain?” “Main acha hoon.” “But you should know most people speak Tamil in Chennai. Personally, Malayalam is my mother tongue,” I was told. Ayayayoo. I had a lot to learn.
With no Rosetta Stone’s Tamil available, I figured cinema might be a great way to start experiencing both the language and the culture before my arrival. I asked a new colleague for movie recommendations. He gave two: Ghajini, a great success, and Sura, a bit of a flop. Watching Ghajini I was, honestly, not very inspired. While the language, actors, and scenery may have been new to me, I felt like I had seen it before. Not Sura. The songs, the dancing, the coastal fishing village, Vijay-as-Flipper swimming scenes, the fights… I’d never seen anything like this before. And I loved it.
Like many great things in Chennai, my Kollywood career began with a random encounter at a tea stall. A stranger stopped me to ask if I lived in Chennai, spoke with an American accent, and was interested in making a few extra bucks. Yes, yes, and yes! I now know that the stranger is a casting agent with the mandate of rounding up foreigners for both on-screen and dubbing work. I didn’t hear from him, and had all but forgotten about the encounter.
Several months later, one fine Saturday I woke up to a half-dozen missed calls. Answering the next one, I heard “Sir! Filming today. I’m at the tea stall. Inge va!” I scurried out to the tea stall, hopped on the back of a bike, and away I went for a small on-screen (and lots of dubbing) role in Ajith-starrer Vedalam.
One common thread I’ve noticed in Tamil cinema is that behind many local villains there is a ‘white’ super villain. I, along with some Nigerian students, played the super villain’s security detail. Over the course of a few days on set, I was the “miscellaneous ‘white’ assistant to the villain” as well as someone who provided English voice-overs for several characters. These included fill-ins for major characters as well as general background chatter with an American accent.
Later, I lent my voice for another Ajith-starrer Vivegam. Listen closely to the opening scene. “Sir. Voice recognition. Fingerprint. Retinal scan.” That’s me! I could have never dreamt I would have the opening lines in such a major film.
On-set seems fairly similar to everywhere else — a lot of waiting around and shuffling back and forth for a few minutes of filming. My advice to people looking to get on screen would be: “If they say two hours, it’s eight hours. If they say eight hours, bring a sleeping bag.”
The voiceover experience was a revelation to me though. As an English-speaking American, my pride and ego initially got in the way. What sort of critique could these sound engineers, who don’t speak English well at all, possibly give me? The answer? A lot.
It is truly remarkable to watch them work, and work with them. From the importance of matching pacing, to what syllables to emphasise in a given line, I quickly discovered that 1) they are masters of their craft, and 2) I have a lot to learn.
I returned to the office later that week with a fun experience under my belt and a few extra rupees in my wallet. Not knowing the Kollywood lay of the land, I didn’t realise how large a film this was shaping up to be. The response to my offhand mention of “I was an extra in some movie with some people named Ajith Kumar and Shruti Haasan. Have you heard of them?” quickly clarified things.
Since that first film, I’ve had the joy of participating both on-screen, and through voiceovers, in a dozen or so Kollywood productions. I’ve also gotten my Manipuri wife involved in some of the dubbing work — her “speaks Tamil near-fluently, but is clearly not a Tamilian” cadence seems to be in demand.
Another interesting development to watch is how web series are changing the landscape. I really enjoyed the energy I found on set while acting in a recent series released on Zee5. There is a younger, seemingly more Westernised generation of writers leading the way, but they remain powered by the trusted hands of old-guard Kollywood folks who know how to get films made right.
The pay for both voiceovers and filming is typically between Rs 2,000 and Rs 10,000 a session. This varies not only depending on the production house, but also on how many hands the envelope has passed through before reaching me.
My work includes Topless (Zee5), Perazhagi ISO (evil white guy template), Kaaviyan (voiceover for main villain) and Tik Tik Tik (a lot of voiceover, including for a Chinese character).
During my time around Kollywood I’ve had the joy of interacting with actors, both aspiring and well-known and, perhaps, more meaningfully, production crew and assistants that are passionate about what they do and work tremendously hard to create the best product possible.
My thoughts have been with them during the pandemic as the film industry was shuttered for months. I went for some voiceover work in August, and it was great to see one of the casting agents I’ve developed a friendship with. We were both about 15 kilograms lighter. I asked him what did the trick — keto or intermittent fasting. He painfully smiled and answered, “This is my first production since lockdown started. No money for drinks or snacks.”
Glad to have you back, Kollywood. The industry, fans, and extras need you!