AGRA, INDIA -- "Okay, everybody," the director shouted. "Pretend it is not 2:30 in the morning. This party is at its height. You are wide awake."
For one very long night earlier this year, I traveled 150 years back in time as a dancer at a glamorous pre-British raj ball that will be a scene in "The Deceivers," an adventure thriller that is Merchant Ivory Productions' most ambitious and trouble-plagued film to date. Even getting dressed as an extra was an elaborate procedure. I was done up in a pale green silk taffeta ball gown, a necklace of fake diamonds and a strawberry blond wig of curls with a large white plume nesting over my head.
From 8 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., with 39 other extras hired on the cheap from the European and American communities in New Delhi, I waltzed and danced the quadrille under a crisp, starry sky in the city of the Taj Mahal. The dance floor was the white-columned veranda of the Agra Club. There were turbaned servants pulling the ceiling fans, palms in brass urns, silver candlelabras, fire jugglers in the garden and a stuffed tiger in a corner. Like all the other extras, many of them Foreign Service officers and spouses or American students on fellowships studying such things as the politics of Third World development, I felt faintly ridiculous. But the chance to be in a period spectacular -- by the same people who won an Oscar for the costumes in "A Room With a View" and who do period films better than almost anyone else -- was not to be resisted. It turned out to be tedious, humbling -- and fun.
That last has not been the case for the producers and directors, who are facing a furor of criticism in India. Several politicians, newspapers and women's organizations have charged that the film denigrates a Hindu goddess and glorifies the Indian tradition of sati, the immolation of a Hindu widow on her husband's funeral pyre. Last month, 25 policemen in five jeeps arrived at the film's production office and served the producer, Ismail Merchant, with an arrest warrant charging that the film would "pollute the minds of the viewers" and was in violation of the laws that control pornography in India. Merchant posted his own bail of $80, but had to appear at a court hearing before he was permitted to leave the city of Jaipur in the Rajasthan Desert, where the film was on location at the time.
"I have never experienced anything like this in my life," said the director, Nicholas Meyer ("The Day After"), an American who has been bewildered by his first taste of India. (James Ivory, the American who usually directs Merchant Ivory films, is in London as an "unofficial collaborator.")
In recent years, India has been a popular, exotic backdrop for Western-made films, most notably "A Passage to India," "Gandhi" and the television series "The Jewel in the Crown." But it is also notorious as a difficult place for filmmakers to work, not least because of Indian resentment toward Westerners who are making money interpreting India for the rest of the world. Indians view most recent films made here as romanticizations of the Raj; only "Gandhi" has been well received. Merchant is a native of Bombay who has been making films here for 25 years, but the lead actors and many of "The Deceivers" crew members are English, which Merchant acknowledged creates problems. "Having these 'white people' with you gives off the impression that we are foreigners, and foreigners are not supposed to know about the culture of India," he said.
This has not kept local Indians from accepting jobs as assistants and location scouts with Merchant and other Western producers, who pay well. Merchant dismisses the lawsuit against him as a case of harassment by a disgruntled but well-connected Indian not hired for "The Deceivers" because of rumors that he had, in Merchant's words, "fleeced" the producers of "The Far Pavilions," "Queenie" and "Octopussy," all of which filmed in India. The case is still in court.
"The Deceivers," based on the novel by John Masters, is the story of William Savage, a hesitant English magistrate in charge of a district for the British East India Co. He stumbles upon a gang of Indian "Thugees," or "Deceivers," who murder innocent travelers in the name of the Hindu goddess of destruction, Kali. Savage, played by Pierce Brosnan, who was Remington Steele in the television series of the same name, is determined to stop the evil in his district by infiltrating the Deceivers disguised as an Indian. He ends up killing people himself -- and enjoying it. The actual Thugees operated in northern and central India in the 1820s. The British eliminated them, but their name lived on as the origin of the English word thug.
Merchant has repeatedly denied that the film glorifies sati, but both the novel and the existing screenplay contain a culminating sati scene that could easily be interpreted as doing just that. At the end of the screenplay, a beautiful, smiling widow walks voluntarily and steadily into the fire, then sits calmly down in its center while music plays and the flames consume her -- a rendition considerably at variance with historical accounts of widows who were drugged, tied down to logs or pushed back on the fire with bamboo poles.
The scene might have gone unnoticed by the Indian public were it not for a real sati, the first in many years, that occurred in a village near Jaipur in September. An 18-year-old widow either placed herself -- or was pushed -- on the funeral pyre of her husband, shocking the country and setting off a raging nationwide debate. Merchant, responding to what he characterized as a "personal request" from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, last week agreed to alter the scene as it is now written and not show the fire. "Instead of making it into a full-blown thing, we're going to make it into a suggestive thing," he said.
Very little of this controversy reached any of the extras, who were too busy and exhausted to keep track of developments. Occasionally someone would ask if Merchant had gone to jail yet. Then he would appear on the set, bustling around with files under his arm and not always managing to disguise his irritation over the controversy. "I don't know why people are spending so much energy and wasting so much space talking about this," he said. "Why don't they talk about something else, like drought or famine?"
The work of the extras actually began in New Delhi at a six-hour dance rehearsal the Saturday before going to Agra. Our choreographer was Denny Martin Flinn, a dancer for 20 years on Broadway, who had whisked into India for a week and a half to teach us amateurs what a big-budget Hollywood production would have hired professionals to do. At $6 million, this is Merchant Ivory's most expensive film, but the producers are well known as classy cheapskates who make movies for a fraction of what it costs Hollywood. This was not Elaine May doing each shot 50 times in "Ishtar" -- most of ours were filmed in two or three takes.
"It was not in the budget to fly in $200-a-day dancers from London," said Flinn. "So obviously, we got what we paid for." That was $35 a day and a hotel room in Agra, but Flinn eventually granted that talent is not everything. "Amateurs usually kill themselves to satisfy you," he said. "It's more fun to work with people like that. It's the professionals who think they know it all who can make you crazy."
Our first number was the quadrille, a French dance of bows, curtsies, promenades and pinwheels that later migrated to America and loosened up as the square dance. "Action!" the director's assistant shouted, which was very exciting, and then as we danced the camera moved slowly up and down one side of the room. We finished and heard the word "cut!" Nicholas Meyer, circled the veranda and thoughtfully chewed a large cigar. At last he gave a small nod of approval. "Is this how Cecil B. De Mille got his start?" he muttered, looking pleased with himself.
For the waltz, each couple had to spin clockwise in a tight circle and at the same time move with everyone else in a counterclockwise oval.
Flinn told us that the waltz, introduced by the prince regent at a ball in London in 1812, at first created a scandal because the man held the woman around the waist and the constant turning was believed to put people into a hypnotic trance. "It was the first time that dancing became a mating ritual," he said.
Between shots, the hairdressers and wardrobe people fanned out, gluing back sideburns on the men, fussing with the women's curls, or adjusting the dance cards we wore on satin ribbons around our wrists. Many costumes were modified copies of romantic-period dresses in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. "The waist was beginning to come down a little from the Empire style, and the dresses are a little more decorated and flamboyant," said costume designer John Bright. For our big movie debut, we women were ordered not to wear makeup, which had most of us aghast. But Bright said it would not look "period" if we were made-up.
Most of the evening was spent waiting around between shots. We did not begin our third dance, the Sir Roger de Coverly -- known in America as the Virginia reel -- until 1:30 a.m. When it was all over, we had danced at most an hour altogether, and probably only a minute of that will be on camera. But we had been in a movie in India and gone to a great party.
When some locals approached a few of us at dinner and asked if we were actresses, we told them that well, yes, we were. Could they have our autographs? There was just a moment's hesitation. "Why, certainly," we said.