Capturing bits of life

Capturing bits of life

The ‘extras’, as we call them, are an indispensable part of films, whether in India or elsewhere. They are people on the street in a crowd scene, farm workers in the countryside, or guests hovering around the hero and heroine in a wedding scene.

But, what’s their life like behind the scene? Filipino director Jeffery Jeturian’s film, The Bit Player, shown at the Bengaluru International Film Festival recently, attempts to look at these men and women without whom a film would be incomplete, but whose pathos and love, problems and aspirations, are of little interest to the big people controlling the production or the director who is ‘supplied’ these human faces when necessary by the casting crew.

Marginalised

Jeturian treats the subject with sardonic humour and empathy. “As a filmmaker and TV serial maker, I interacted with the extras constantly. Observing them, it struck me that these actors, shifting from one role to another, from one costume to another as the situation demanded, had a life of their own behind the scene. What was it like?” he says.

As the story unfolds, Loida Halabanan, bleary-eyed in the early morning, hurries to be bundled into a van with her friend Venus, hoping to be selected as an extra by casting director Josie. The aspiring extras, some coming even from far-off villages, jostle to be seen, to be selected by Josie to make that extra buck.

Every one of them has some constraint for seeking out work in this uncertain profession. A single mother Loida (Filipino actress Vilma Santos) has to earn some extra cash to pay for her college-going daughter Joyce’s tuition fees. She is determined not to take help from her ex-husband.

As the story unfolds, Loida and Venus, lucky to be recruited for the day’s shoot of a outrageously romantic soap opera You were Mine First, set off to the location in the countryside.

What follows is both comic and pathetic. The director is compelled to change the script as the production head nixes anything that ‘costs more’. The extras, for whom the big guys don’t care anyway, are moved like balls in a bagatelle game. They also indulge in friendly rivalry to get a “speaking role” somehow, the height of achievement for an extra. Loida is noticed for a “speaking role” as a housemaid. Her secret desire to become an actress one day overwhelms her as she gets the chance and she is pipped at the last moment by another ambitious extra. Well, another disappointment, another day in Loida’s humdrum life. But she can still hope for a role in the future, can’t she? She returns home, weary but with money enough for her daughter’s tuition fee.

What stands out in the film, other than its hilarious sequences, is the camaraderie among the bit players, their empathy for the others though it is a cut-throat business, and an understanding of their lot. They could be the underbelly of the glamorous world of celluloid, but they have not lost their humanity.

Jeturian never loses grip on the screenplay, peppering it with humour, pathos, and a tongue-in-cheek look at the entertainment industry, of which he himself is a part.

A real perspective

Working in different areas of filmmaking before becoming a director, Jeturian was a production assistant, script continuity, art director, production designer et al. No wonder he has intimate knowledge about the process of making films and teledramas, and it shows. He shot The Bit Player in just 11 days.

Jeturian says that intimate stories of people on the street move him. In his earlier film, The Bet Collector (Kubrador), he portrays a woman, a bet collector, May, in the slums of Manila. She is ever on the lookout for people who would bet on the illegal game of jeuteung, a kind of bingo.

Whether The Bit Player, or The Bet Collector, the appeal of Jeturian’s films lies in their universal appeal containing elements recognisable across the border. They not only talk about human aspirations and personal difficulties, but also about the will to survive. No wonder his films have won critics as well as audience awards in the international film festival circuit.

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