The Pardesi Extra’s Story

Earlier this month, this blog hosted a guest post by Fred Miller, son of the talented (but alas, largely uncredited) Sam Millar. Fred had promised us another post, of his reminiscences from his days with his father in the big, bad world of Hindi cinema in the 50’s, and here it is: a delightful, very personal and up-close memory of an extra in the Indo-Soviet film, Pardesi (known in Russian as Khozhdenie Za Tri Moray). In Fred’s own words:

And now dear Dusted Off readers, the untold story of the early days of Bollywood continues with a look at my role in Pardesi, an Indo-Soviet film from 1953, tied up in post-production until its release in 1957…

Nominated for the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival, 1958, it won the 1958 Filmfare Best Art Direction Award for M R Achrekar. In my opinion, it was one of the great collaborations in the timeline of Indian cinema history, given its proximity to India’s freedom from British rule. While I had not fully viewed the film in its entirety due to a lack of a decent copy, I was recently overjoyed to find the Youtube link to a perfect – and subtitled, colorized Soviet version, thanks to Dusted Off. What a treat it was for me to view the particular clip where I appear in full color with the subtitle of the leading man’s words to me, “Look at you!”

Those fifteen seconds of edited, on-screen moments have privately haunted me for my entire life. Only now, at the request of Dusted Off, have I chosen to take you along on a painstaking journey, all the way back through the mists of time to the actual events that occurred during the filming of Pardesi. From growing up in India to growing old in America, my entire existence has been colored by those days of filming with Russian actor Oleg Strizhenov, who in Pardesi so ably portrayed Russia’s greatest Adventurer-Traveler, Afanasy Nikitin.

It was a charmed life I lived at the Worli Seaface back in those days around 1954. I was a mere lad with nothing on my agenda but eating, sleeping and playing at Worli Beach. Months of playing from dawn to dusk with other boys, some of them neighbors, some who were the working children of working fishermen and some who were homeless vagrants.

Drinking deliciously refreshing coconut water from beach vendors, enjoying the wealth of fresh seafood in the area, most of the time I ran around bare-chested, with only tiny shorts or a lungi (or sarong, as Westerners call it). Jumping in and out of empty little fishing boats resting on either side of the pier that appears in the film, we only stopped when the tide came in.

A scary moment I recall till today is when one day I placed one foot each in two different boats floating side by side. There was a strong tide that evening and the boats swayed in different directions, with the result that I found my legs being tugged in opposite directions, and I had to let go of one leg. I felt the strong surge of the water that started dragging me out to sea, it seemed. Fortunately some fishermen in the area came running and hauled me out, drenched and shaken. After that dangerous episode I learned to respect the sea for life and made sure the boats I was playing with were safely secured by their coir ropes, weighted down by large rocks. I also learned that day to only play that game when adults were nearby to jump in and save my skin. Otherwise, there was no supervision of my outdoor activities with the neighborhood kids I mingled with, many of them homeless orphans who lived by the sea, under the stars. I shudder to think of how in modern times I could easily have been kidnapped, maimed, sold, bought, disfigured, abused, etc. as depicted in the hit film Slumdog Millionaire… and how my Dad never seemed to worry about all that back then. It was, perhaps, a kinder, gentler time indeed.

In the haze of those childhood days I remember there occurring what appeared to be a mela (carnival) in town… more food vendors and attractions than the usual nimbu pani (lemonade), seaside snacks and pony rides that I was accustomed to. I do vaguely remember riding in an early tumbling box type of thrill ride, which has its parallel in the ferris wheel rides of so many carnivals and county fairs these days. I had no idea that this was all part of a film set, just one of Pardesi‘s many international locations. What I do remember is that one day I was told by my Dad to go running to some men who were shooting a film near the beach and to tell them every chance I got, that I could act and speak English. As I see it now, my Dad through his friendship with the Art Director and Film Producers managed to get me a part as an extra in the film. But not satisfied with me just playing one of the onlookers in a scene, he convinced the producers that they could add a more dramatic scene for the hero’s arrival at the Indian port. And so I went through many takes of running towards the hero (Oleg) who was on horseback. Oleg would reach down and whisk me up into his arms. That was my Dad… in his fantasy Hollywood/Western mindset, he had them bring in a majestic white stallion, à la The Lone Ranger, so that there would be this unknown stranger who rode into town, very heroic and friendly.

Unfortunately, the directors had fantasies of their own that didn’t involve a white horse but a brown one instead. Perhaps this was to better fit into this epic moment in Indian film-making, when they were still new to the idea of not only international versions but also color and black-and-white post-processing. Today, so many Indians see the skin tones in the film as off-color and a poor depiction of the actors’ natural Indian skin. Even Oleg, the white leading man got a few extra shades added to his already rosy cheeks. Nothing wrong with that, in theory. But I do believe the black-and white version for Indian audiences was an economical more than an artistic choice for the producers. Also remember, this was barely six years after a new India was created when independence was declared from the British. The Russians were obviously ready to jump in and take what they could while anti-British sentiment was still fresh. They came bearing gifts and promises in the form of venture capital, technology and joint international film distribution rights, and I’m glad they did, because the Indo-Soviet alliance and friendship was further enhanced, creating some wonderful moments in Indian history.

Of course I don’t recall needing any real makeup to complete my screen debut. I believe I looked the part and played it to the hilt… even overdoing it when I was required to be lifted into the arms of Oleg/Afanasy. I was beyond thrilled, excited (thanks to my Dad’s inspirational fantasies) that Oleg really, really liked me and tickled me and hugged me on that set that I remained starstruck and mesmerized for months afterward. My adulation certainly shows in the screen capture below.

… as you see me clinging onto him for all I’m worth. I ran to share the excitement after each take with my Dad, as he kept on coaching me endlessly… for what finally (after editing and post-processing) turned out to be a mere 15 seconds of posterity on film.

So there you have it. My Dad did do a bit of directing (me) in the film, a bit of consultation and a lot of talking to his friends the directors and producers of the film. In return I got a lifetime of wonderful memories, while all he got was no credit. Hopefully he was paid some money for my debut turn as a thespian.

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35 thoughts on “The Pardesi Extra’s Story

  1. I love this post, Fred – there’s something so delightfully innocent and beguiling about that childhood you describe! (though sometimes scary too; that incident of the two boats was frightening). I remember the scene very well, where Oleg Strizhenov comes along the beach and meets the child, whom he picks up and hugs. I wish I’d known, when I saw the film, that there’d be a guest post on it on my blog so soon after! Thank you so much for sharing your memories.

    P.S. One question, though I don’t know if you’d have known this, since you were quite small, and I don’t know how much interaction you would’ve had with Strizhenov (besides the hug!) Did he know any English? Oh, and did you get to meet any of the other stars of the film?

    • A journey beyond many seas in my mind, dear Dusted Off and readers ! Once again, it was not just a pleasure to share but deeply therapeutic for me as well. A psychiatrist friend of mine in NYC just last week was mentioning the old Freudian concept about our childhood past defining who we are, and that seems to have struck a chord, because I found myslef letting go the years and just becoming that ragamuffin boy once again, running the streets free and innocent.

      Sorry, but I can’t recall any details about ol’ Oleg except that I called him ‘Pardesi’ and he called me ‘baccha’ which everyone on the set did….except for my Dad. I was also destined to go uncredited through life until now, with this post, so a big thank you to this Blog owner !

        • I read a (lost in, and) translated page about him and it’s an amazing story of a very talented, driven youngster from early childhood who had a scandalous romance and was highly strung but very passionate, which is why he probably was so popular in the gossip columns.
          Yesterday Kiran Ahluwalia asked me how she could get a hold of a copy and wanted to buy the VCD online….I might get around to sending her a DVD copy of the youtube version….

          btw you have such wonderful, loyal readers and comments…..I hope they can visit and comment on my blog (oh nooo, here comes another plug) at:

          http://virtualpoona.blogspot.com/2010/10/dustedoff-has-published-my-pardesi.html

          because I did the linkback today and that went to Facebook and Twitter and Linkedin.

  2. Uncle,
    Thank you for sharing so many insightful stories about our family and my grandfather. Thank you for sharing all the memories. See you soon.

    • Hey my nephew who is more like a cousin brother to me ! All my little stories are nothing compared to the real-life ones your Mom and Aunt experienced. Unfortunately those stories are too personal and sometimes painful to re-live and so you’re stuck with my limited archives which I maintain partly to exercise my brain and ward off Alzheimer’s :-)

      Always a pleasure to hear from you especially when you sign in and comment like you did for Bombay Tadka…..

  3. What a perfectly lovely childhood.
    I would wish all children to have as free a childhood, with as many playmates and freedom to run around.

    Thanks to dustedoff, I too was able to enjoy this film following the link to Richard’s. I will rewatch the scene as now it holds a different meaning :-)

    Thank you Fred Millar. This post is truly engaging.

    • Dear Pacifist, what a neat comment ! If only all the wonderfully loyal commentators of Dusted Off would share the link to this post worldwide, think what could happen ! They might release a new DVD copy (not a re-make, please) or better yet, a re-release for the movie houses! Ahhhh then my cup would be overflowing….to see myself in full color at the movies on the big screen ! And what if the Soviets agreed and found the ‘lost’ reels ???? Sorry, this is making me regress into the 5-year-old……..Cheers !

      • One can only hope! The Russian version (with English subtitles – the version that is on youtube) is available as a DVD on Amazon, so that’s one place where it can be got. I do wish the Hindi version was more freely available; I’d like to hear Balraj Sahni’s, and Prithviraj Kapoor’s, and Nargis’s actual voices, rather than dubbed Russian voices. :-)

    • Harvey ! So nice of you ! I mentioned that I was hanging out with neighborhood kids but it was not all that next-door…….I had to literally run to cover the distance to the beach and the kids were homeless orphans or from fisher families, not real friends that I knew by name. I wish I could meet someone from those days, especially the stars and Bollywood VIPs I met back then….most are dead anyway…….

      Cheers and keep this blog alive with your comments !

    • Ahh Bollyviewer…..it was my 15 seconds (or less) of fame ! Never did anything on film except a music video, one of India’s first, back in ’76 for a student’s final exam at the Film Inst. of Pune. I played Lead guitar on 3 songs with a Pop-Rock band, and it was amazing to see the results moments afterwards onscreen ! We never knew such technology existed (VHS) and hopefully they have archived it, because it marks an important step for film-making, albeit in B/W. It was the time when the first B/W music videos were shown on Indian TV for a specific number of hours, on certain days. Otherwise it was always the Govt news and Cricket….although I do remember now…they had the ‘I Love Lucy’ show which people were crazy about.

      So sorry……look no further until I update you all !!

  4. Thank you for your lovely story. Brought back memories of my own childhood where I would be “gone” from lunch time right on to dusk with my other army brat friends, only to return in time for dinner. Now, I have to make sure I know exactly where my kids are going, with whom and not without their mobile phones!!! How times have changed….sigh.

    • Right on, Veen !

      Cell phones and texting are not exactly my forte nor are all the SMS symbols and codes…..I am trying but I’m not crazy about using OMG and lol to end every other bit of communication……..but it’s so vital to the lifestyle of today !
      Enjoy the time now, one day they will be keeping track of you with their cell phones and the tables will be turned……sorry, I’m being impolite !

    • Hi bollywoodeewana !

      Yes, because I didn’t expect too much. The way I look at it, the folks in the visual production dept. took ordinary scenes, made some lighting adjustments that rendered some very brilliant and attractive cinematic moments. If they hadn’t, it would have been a documentary approach and that wasn’t what they had in mind. I cannot understand those who are upset with the film to the point of protesting about the way it depicts the slum kids etc., claiming exploitation etc. I cannot comment since I am an outsider now….as close to a ‘Pardesi’ as I can be ;-))

  5. Hello my dear brother,
    Dad always wanted us to be linked up to the films I think and thats why I think he one day took me to a director whose name started with “J” but I cant remember the name now . Naturally I was thrilled ! But Horror of Horrors my neck had turned peacock blue…..I was sweating profusely and my duppatta colour had coloured my neck blue. The first thing the Director did was ask me “Are you turning into Krishna? ‘When I realised what had happened i was so embarrassed and sweated even more so that all the layers of make up I had put on (Feeling 100% sure I would be a heroine) just turned into horrible patches ! that was the end of my little attempt getting any role in films! But Wow that sounds like every child’s dream.. to run on the Beach, to play on the sands live life freely… Its soooooo beautiful. and no one can ever take away that experience .Thanks for sharing this anecdote.

    • What a delightful tale, Jennifer – delightful for us readers, now, not I’m sure for you back then! I can imagine that would’ve been a very embarrassing situation to be in. Thank you for sharing that anecdote with us!

      I suppose a lot of people tried to get into films and then couldn’t make it due to the most unfortunate of reasons. My father was telling me once about a family friend of theirs (my father’s and his brothers’) who wanted very much to be an actor. My uncle was a musician at Filmistan, so this aspiring actor pestered him until he got hired as an extra in some film in the late 60’s, starring Dev Kumar. In the very first scene he was in, Dev Kumar was supposed to slap this extra – and slapped him so hard that the poor man went pleading to my uncle to get him out of films, he’d had enough!

      • Love it, funny little tale !

        As you can see, Jennifer my sister has probably more neat stuff tucked away then even I know of…..now i come here and find out. Is that not wonderful how life brings people together in such remarkable ways ? I love this blog for bringing so many people and thoughts together !

        • It’s a question of shared remembrances, I guess… shared in many different ways, perhaps sometimes in very convoluted, second-hand ways that have very little to do with the person actually sharing the memory! But these memories – whether ours or someone else’s – go such a long way in defining us today!

  6. This was an interesting post. Although I have not seen Pardesi, I do remember that some of the songs were really nice.
    Whenever I read such stories about the film industry, nostalgia grips me. I do not know whether others will agree with me or not but I have always felt that the film industry is the best. I have never seen any snobbery. I have seen a great deal of snobbery in the corporate world

    • Dear Shilpi,

      you have a point there…..the snobbery in corporate arenas will never go away, whereas those in the filmi world must work at building and maintaining a fan base. Snobbery will not keep them working.

  7. Loved reading this.
    Thank you, Fred, for giving us such a vivid and interesting insight into the life of a carefree young boy in those days. It does feel as if those were much simpler times.

    And thank you, Madhu, for providing the platform for all of us to enjoy this post.

    • Raja,

      it was a pleasure to write my feelings and opening up to Madhu was one of the easiest things I ever had to do because she just made me feel so special……SHE is special, and so are you all who so neatly and simply speak out your heartfelt opinions.

      • My goodness, Fred: that is really kind of you! Thank you so very much. But I must admit that I can be very abrupt with people I don’t really care about. It was just that your mentioning your father intrigued me so much that I wanted to know more, and then of course I was so totally absorbed by what you had to recount… the first guest posts my blog has hosted have been a wonderful experience for me too!

  8. Fred, thanks for painting such a vivid picture of your 15-second star turn ;-), and for sharing some of your childhood experiences. This post made me smile.

    • Dear DG

      I’m glad you got a bit of amusement out of my little tale. I rarely write anything without adding a touch of humor even thought it may not be evident at first sight. I wish you and all the readers much joy….as much as it has given me to read and respond !

  9. Pingback: Nice Oleg Strizhenov photos | Celebrity Agency

  10. This is a very poignant, sweet story. A lovely moment of your childhood, hugged by a great and charismatic actor and coached by your dad, who must have been very proud of you.
    I love the evocation of your carefree days and can quite imagine you, as a little boy, running on the beach and playing wild games with the other kids, regardless of where they came from.
    Thank you for sharing…
    Jocey

  11. Hey FredMikeRudy, how come you never ever narrated this story to me during all these past fifty five years of the best friendship in the world. You have narrated many a fascinating anecdote to me in the past on the life you lived, before we met, because after we met our lives have been so interconnected it leaves no room for narration, as we share our experiences via email or fb. But this is a really fascinating piece I am thankful to having read, albeit late, and also adds, metaphorically speaking, another piece to the puzzle. Not that you or your life to me was an enigma, as we are so close and soul brothers to boot we do not really need to say anything or even utter a word for we already know what is going to be said and the answer was also understood before being spoken to. I am so overjoyed to read that you lived such a carefree existence and the experience you had living it. I don’t know if you will ever read this and presuming you do, email me and let me know what you think. Later bro……… Rusty

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