When I needed to find a local actor in Delhi to play Vish Puri, I called a veteran film director friend of mine. Arun assured me that finding a suitable amateur thespian wouldn’t pose a problem. “Gentlemen of that build are not hard to come by in these parts,” he said.
In the event, only a few candidates came forward. The most suitable was Mr. Ashok Bajaj. His ‘manager’, who I suspect was his nephew, assured me that Mr. Bajaj was a big thing in Haryana soap opera (Haryana being a state abutting Delhi with a TV industry that enjoys huge audiences, though the production standards have room for improvement).
There was just one thing Mr Bajaj was missing: a moustache. Not an issue, his manager told me at the casting interview – a makeup man would “do the necessary”. Did he own a Safari suit? I asked. No, they were not Mr. Bajaj’s style. He did not have a flat cap, either. These I would have to provide, along with transport and chai.
With the fees and other sundries agreed upon (and the manager’s large lunch paid for), I set out to hire a white Ambassador, Vish Puri’s trademark car. When I first lived in Delhi in the late 1990s, the only cars plying the roads were Ambassadors and Marutis. But white Ambys are a rare sight these days, the only ones being Government of India vehicles with whirring emergency beacons and antennas affixed to their roofs.) Sure enough, when I asked around at all the local taxi stands, I came up empty handed. No one I knew owned an Amby, either. I was going to have to go without.
On the day of the shoot, Mr. Bajaj arrived with his manager. The makeup man brought an assistant, too, and once Mr. Bajaj had changed into the Safari suit, they set about affixing the moustache: a piece of synthetic hairy fluff that looked fake from 10 paces. Adjustments were duly made. A great deal of glue was used.
When at last we headed over to India Gate to get some shots of Mr. Bajaj eating at various snack stands, he could hardly move his upper lip. This resulted in quite a lot of golgappa water dripping down his chin and onto his suit. Worse, when I asked Mr. Bajaj to deliver a couple of scripted lines to the camera, he was unable to say them – his upper lip was almost frozen.
We carried on regardless, shooting in Khan Market and Connaught Place, before heading over to Bengali Market. And there we had a stroke of luck.
As we emerged from one of the restaurants (where Mr. Bajaj had struggled to eat lunch, dropping quite a bit of his rajma and pickle into his lap), a white Ambassador pulled up across the street. Anu, my wife, who had been helping me all morning, hurried over to speak to the owner. The young man didn’t seem the least bit phased at the prospect of lending his car to strangers, and promptly handed over the keys, inviting us to use his Ambassador while he had his lunch.
Thanks to that trusting, generous man, I got the shots that I badly wanted. I was especially pleased with those of Vish Puri driving through Delhi on the back seat, something I had pictured him doing so often while writing the novels. And although Mr. Bajaj was unable to deliver a single line, it didn’t seem to matter very much at all.
You’ll find the photos from the shoot here.
If you’d like a limited edition hardback copy of The Delhi Detective’s Handbook, please go here.