It was about nine this morning that I realised something was amiss. I was just checking my e-mail before heading out to work, when this dropped into my inbox:
To: Physics Dept
Date: 14th January 2011 09:01
The Physics lecture theatres, Sciama and Lindemann, are to be used as locations for a Bollywood film. Film crews will be shooting in the Lindemann theatre on Monday 14 March and the Sciama theatre on Tuesday 15 March all day, with up to 100 extras involved in the filming.
We apologise for any inconvenience to Physics staff that may be caused but interference with normal activity will be kept to a minimum. Please contact me if the filming activities cause any problems.
I’ve seen some pretty incredible stuff being filmed in Oxford: the biscuit-taker is still one night when, staggering mildly inebriated home from the pub, I happened upon Oxford’s iconic Rad Cam surrounded entirely by billowing fake fog, illuminated bright as day by enough lights to burn the retinas off a creature which has evolved to live on the surface of the Sun, as a giant camera on an enormous boom swooped through capturing a sequence for the epicly mediocre Philip Pullman adaptation The Golden Compass. Never, however, have I knowingly worked in the set of a soon-to-be subcontinent-sizzling cinematic sensation.
It was as I approached the Clarendon Lab, my place of work, that I realised quite how serious this was. Triple-parked vans chock-full of scaffolding tubes and cable were blocked in by posh rides with besuited execs leaning on them, nattering in Hindi and smoking cigars. The front door was propped open for a snake of cables, leading upstairs to the Lindemann lecture theatre…and to my office. I weaved through a crowd rather thicker and rather less predominantly public-school Caucasian than you’d expect for the average undergrad lecture, past a small monitor showing a close-up of a face looking astonished at a piece of paper, and finally staggered onto my corridor. To get into my office, I literally had to push past a topless Indian fellow. Having hacked my way through a good fifty metres of Bollywood film set cliché, I’d finally made it to my desk.
Time to find out what the Hell is going on. A bit of surfing established that this film, the impenetrably-named Desi Boyz, is a Bollywood rom-com, the protagonists of which, it seems, are two male pole-dancers. Now, of the two types of pole dancer, male is probably my second favourite. Thus, this news came as something of a disappointment. Were it not for subversive, post-feminist scriptwriting, empowering women by mocking men doing disempowering, girly jobs, the building would be heaving with Mumbai’s top totty. Instead, the Desi Boyz boys look more like oriental exports Harold and Kumar (a ‘comedy’ duo about as funny as getting thrown in Guantanamo Bay) than gorgeous Gujarati goddesses. Not only this, but Bollywood is kitsch at the best of times; to totally judge a film by its DVD cover, this baby comes loaded with a premise ‘quirky’ enough to make the cast of Glee vomit all over Richard Curtis.
The takeover of the lab was pretty comprehensive. From my office, you could see that the filmmakers had installed a huge spotlight (bright enough to burn the retinas off a guy operating the rig towering over the Rad Cam) on an adjacent rooftop to beam in through the lecture theatre’s north-facing windows. Every so often, I would be reminded of the strange madness unfolding mere metres from me, by a shout of ‘action!’ through a megaphone. I grabbed my camera; it seemed a shame to let all this pass without taking a quick snap.
My biggest disappointment was the total lack of a song and dance routine of any kind. I’ve been led to believe that no act, scene or even line of dialogue in a Bollywood film is complete unless a full-cast, high-kicking sing-along spectacular ensues. I had hoped that, at some point during the day, an irresistible Bhangra melody would drift down through the laboratory, prising open office doors and awakening the boogie in normally sunlight-shy physicists as we were drawn, like children to the Pied Piper of the Punjab, into the blinding rays of Bollywood’s artificial sun to dance an incredible set-piece whose moves we had buried somehow, somewhere in the same primitive part of our nerd brains which regulates heart rhythm and differential calculus.
But liberation never came. I sat in my empty office, pecking at my keyboard in a vain attempt to persuade my computer to draw some graphs, as shouts of ‘action’ reverberated down the corridor. Someone should turn my life into a Bollywood rom-com: a stirring tale of a guy failing to be recognised for what he isn’t, starring a dancing man who can’t. Middle-class-dog Milli-millionaire. That’s right, I pull in upwards of £1,000 a month in pure, tax-free PhD stipend. Queue up, Gujarati goddesses.