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Diary of an Extra: Behind the Scenes at K. Rajagopal’s ‘Lizard on the Wall’

Singapore International Festival of the Arts‘ (SIFA) O.P.E.N (Open Participate Engage Negotiate) pre-festival this year has a unique focus on audience participation. This was especially so in its programme Lizard on the Wall by K. Rajagopal (of A Yellow Bird fame) which invited SIFA audiences to serve as extra as cast and crew aimed to shoot a full-length feature film called Lizard on the Wall over three days.

K. Rajagopal (third from right) with some of the cast, including Anvita Gupta (extreme right) who plays Amrit. Photo by Jeannie Ho.

Lizard on the Wall is based on Balli Kaur Jaswal’s book Inheritance and concerns Amrit, the bipolar daughter of an uber-rich family, who is forced into marriage in order to protect her family’s inheritance. Amrit though is also a nymphomaniac who has sex with construction workers in the mud as a way of dealing with her bipolar condition.

So I set out on this adventure of covering the first day of filming, which was June 30. We were told to meet at Theatreworks’ 72-13 site where we had to register and fill out talent release forms. Then we were all gathered (about 20-25 of us) into a bus, at a little before 7pm, to be taken to a secret location. Mine was the second of the day’s four batches of attendees.

At about 7.15pm, we pulled into a magnificent colonial house perched on grounds so massive that my mind was blown as I had never seen such rolling hills before in a private property. A huge tent was set up in the front lawn (or rather plantation!) for the wedding scenes that were to be filmed on July 1 and 2. On the day I was there, June 30, we were filming the engagement scenes, to be shot inside the main house and on the driveway.

The first thing we did when we arrived at this gorgeous location was surrender our bags. Luckily we were told we could hang on to our phones and I retrieved mine before giving up my bag. The mistake I made though was in not taking some tissues with me, for we were then sent to what were historically the ‘servant quarters’ of this pre-war British-built house, in order to get wardrobe and makeup sorted out. There were no fans here as we waited for a protracted amount of time for the one makeup girl to do our makeup.

Also, unfortunately the young ‘wardrobe’ ladies who were manning this side of things weren’t very organised and some of us were repeatedly approached for wardrobe consideration. At one point, two girls came out to assess each of us, but they just whispered to each other without saying anything to us, so we had no idea if we needed to change. My feeling was that these ladies weren’t experienced in the film industry or were hired as interns. Either way, they should have been given more training because of the number of participants (about 100 or so) we had that day.

This is also where things went a bit awry. We were the second batch of attendees, but because of the reliance on just one makeup girl, and the confused wardrobe ladies, a few of us were still in this makeup-wardrobe part of things when the third batch of participants arrived and so we ended up mixing with the third batch, adding up to a batch even bigger than intended.

After makeup, we were huddled into what was once upon a time a carriage house (now a garage), where Marie biscuits and bottles of water were provided – and much appreciated. The heat by this time was killing most of us, and we were sweating away all the makeup we had had done. Here, a narrator appeared to talk to us about the movie’s plot and characters. She also showed a short video that had the actors’ profiles.

Finally after about 20-30 minutes, we were taken from the carriage house to the main house where upstairs featured art installations that symbolically captured the characters of the movie. Whilst the downstairs was decorated beautifully to reflect the family’s opulence and upcoming wedding, the upstairs showed the real fractures in the characters’ lives.

My favourite was the elegant four-poster bed in Amrit’s room, which was filled with sand to signify her constant sex with all the construction workers of the neighbourhood. The imprint of a lady’s body in the sand was meant to show Amrit’s position as the workers devoured her in the dirt. The installation just made the image of this sad and broken character seem more real.

When we exited the house after the exhibition, we were privy to the ending of the driveway shoot involving the second batch of participants (our original group). It looked like fun as the wedding procession was filmed walking up the driveway and into the house, with the participants holding scarves and umbrellas and dancing to an upbeat Indian song.

The second batch of extras filming in the driveway of the bungalow. Photo by Jeannie Ho

After that was done in about 15 minutes, K. Rajagopal came to talk to us about what was to be expected. He was calm and explained things very clearly. He told us our batch was to be combined with the final, fourth batch, and we were all to be inside the house where something dramatic was to happen. We all filed into the living room of the main house and sat on the floor. The time was close to 10pm.

However, although the fans had to be switched off for filming purposes, and it was very uncomfortable sitting on the floor with so many people around in the very warm and humid environment, it was very evident that Rajagopal had organised this part of the programme with utmost precision.

He did not take long at all to place us in our positions and start the camera rolling. The actors walked in for the first time into the hall and they were all very well rehearsed. ‘CUT!!’ yelled Rajagoal though. Oh, apparently the actors weren’t interacting with us extras enough; it started looking like we were an audience and they were putting up a play. Okay, take two, said Rajagopal. This time, people around me started making plans as to how we should react with each other too – everyone really started to commit to the scene, and to this film! The second take went brilliantly. The actors walked in, and we all acted like we knew them for years as we said hi and smiled and waved and nodded and ‘namaste-d’ in Indian fashion.

Then as the actors spoke to each other in Punjabi, which I’m sure many of us didn’t understand, we looked at them and reacted as if we did, and we looked at each other and pretended to talk as if we knew what was going on. The music came on and the actors started to dance and because we were completely in character as friends of this family, we all started to clap instinctively.

But suddenly, Amrit had a meltdown and started screaming. She ran away as we looked on. And Rajagopal yelled ‘CUT.’

He wanted us to do just the dancing scene again, but this time not to clap so loudly during one of the verses of the song but to go louder during the chorus.

We of course obliged because we were all part of this family now. So take three was called, and we clapped loudly, then we heard the verse kick in and we lowered the volume of our claps, only to crank it up during the final chorus.

Amrit once again acted up and stormed away. And Rajagopal called ‘CUT.’

He was happy with the take. We breathed a sigh of relief. We had done our job.

Next Rajagopal said he wanted us to dance! Some of the extras were happy, some were worried. Since we were a big group, he divided us into two groups and one of the actresses taught us a simple dance move that involved us encircling the cameraman. Amidst Singapore’s natural tropical heat and the warmth from the lights, we all danced and sang phonetically to the song playing. We did this twice, for two takes.

And Rajagopal finally cheered ‘IT’S A WRAP!’ He joked that we could all find agents now and start booking acting gigs. He’s funny. He also showed himself to be very organised, calm, and communicative – thereby making the shoot go smoothly and quickly.

We all clapped and then took off into the cooler areas of the house and grounds.

As a filmmaker myself, I know this is what making a film is really about – the unglamorous side of the entertainment industry is the oft-times uncomfortable environments actors and crew find themselves in, the many takes they need to do, the constant tweaking of actors’ expressions or movements or gestures, the adjusting of the lights or mics or a leaf that is blocking a camera, the eye on the clock taking note of what little time is left, and on and on and on. And in Singapore, the heat too can affect filmmaking as everyone toils in sweat amidst humidity that can be dizzying.

So whilst the critic in me was most definitely battling with the temperature, the filmmaker in me knew that K. Rajagopal along with Producer Fran Borgia and SIFA, whether intentionally or not, had certainly brought a realistic and raw experience to us SIFA attendees. It definitely opened up the eyes of many of the participants as to what real filmmaking is like before one gets to the premieres, the galas and the red carpet, something people not involved in the film industry would never get to be aware of, or experience, ordinarily.

On the flipside, this experience also showed the attendees the pure exhilaration that comes when a scene is done as the director wants it to be. This was clearly evidenced by many of my fellow extras feeling very satisfied with themselves when the scene was wrapped.

As I clung onto the wall, crippled from the heat more than anything else, I overheard one attendee say, ‘Oh this was so much fun. I just wish we had been in an air-conditioned room!’ I wanted to explain to her that even in an air-conditioned room, most of the time you’d have to turn off the air when filming due to the noise it creates. I wanted to explain this to her – but I was too exhausted.

Despite the heat, humidity and climate-endorsed fatigue, I smiled to myself because this is what making a film is really about. This is the raw gritty reality behind making the movie you eventually watch in an air-conditioned cinema hall with comfortable seating. This is the unsanitized, uncensored, authentic view of what cast and crew go through on set – and now, people know. They really know.

About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.

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