Looking for the village of Bollywood extras
- 29 December 2013
- From the section Asia
It was the most exciting thing to happen to Central Asia's poorest country in recent memory.
In 2004, Bollywood legend Aamir Khan shot part of his film The Rising in the mountains of southern Tajikistan, close to the Afghan border.
In a region where the only employment is basic agriculture, that would have been exciting enough, but the film also hired dozens of local horsemen as extras.
Nearly a decade on, I wondered, what had become of them? What mark had this brief brush with Bollywood glamour left on the community?
The first challenge was finding the place. My BBC colleagues had filed a report on the filming, from a village called Aychi, an hour south of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.
But that was before 2006, when Tajikistan's autocratic leader, Emomali Rakhmonov removed the Slavic -ov from his surname; changing it to the more authentically Central Asian Rakhmon.
Some towns and villages had obediently followed suit. Aychi might have been among them.
Phone calls were made, maps were consulted, but no one could agree where the location was.
North. South. East. West. Every possibility was suggested, in a country where notions of time, date and place are relative and road signs are rare.
We headed south, out of Dushanbe, through the arched gateway on the edge of town.
After an hour or so, we stopped at a roadside tea house, where questions about Indians, filming and horsemen brought nods of recognition and gesturing.
No one knew the name of the village where the film had been shot, but they thought it was about 7 or 8km (4 miles) away. So, we pressed on, passing women picking cotton in parched fields, under the benevolent eye of President Rakhmon.
In roadside posters he inspects succulent fruits and vegetables, in the company of adoring villagers.
The only non-presidential advert we saw was a permanent one: a local company had burned its name, in giant letters, into the side of a hill.
And then, all of a sudden, we stumbled upon a village called Achi.
One letter out, but it sounded close enough.
A man standing by the roadside with a leathery face and green felt boots remembered the filming, but thought most of the horsemen had long since galloped out of town; part of the steady exodus of young Tajiks who leave to seek work in Russia.
Were there any left? He scratched his head. He was pretty sure that two of the extras hadn't gone; one younger man and one 90-year-old, who, he gestured helpfully, lived by a distant tree.
He hopped into our car and took us to the old village, past the valley where the filming had taken place.
But there was no drama today. In fact, there were no men.
Just a few sleepy cows and one young woman, pushing a wheelbarrow containing four empty, plastic pots.
The town's water supply had broken several weeks ago and the nearest source was 3km (2 miles) away.
A few enquiries revealed that the men were at a funeral, where - our impromptu guide insisted - we would be welcome.
Feeling slightly awkward, we took him at his word, arriving in a courtyard, to be met by the funeral party.
There were a few teenage boys, wearing white, circular hats, a few shy, teenage girls, in long flowery dresses and the owner of the house, a sad-looking man in loose, green robes.
He'd recently lost his daughter and insisted that we share the funeral feast: naan bread, grapes and giant jellied candies, arranged around a steaming bowl of plov, the rice, meat and vegetable dish that plays a central role in Central Asian occasions.
He asked politely about the foods we ate; intrigued to discover the existence of seedless grapes.
He hadn't been one of the extras, but both he and his sister remembered the filming well. She, in particular, grew animated, recalling how she watched local horsemen play the role of Indians rising up against the British.
Did they wish there'd been more films made in the village?
"Of course," the host said, "They gave everyone 50 somoni ($10; £7). Who else will give you that much money just for sitting on a horse?"
They hadn't seen the finished film - in fact they didn't think any local people had - but they did know where to find the 90-year-old.
So, we waved goodbye and headed uphill along a dusty track, weaving past carpets, laid out in the road to be washed.
And eventually we found our extra; sitting Buddha-like on a raised outdoor bed, a pot of tea by his side and a bag filled with packets of pills tied to a nearby tree.
Suspicious at first, he soon warmed up and told his story. His name was Kookiepalvon and he was, in fact, 93-years-old.
He'd fought for the Soviet Army in Leningrad and Ukraine, during the Second World War, before returning to Tajikistan to become a firefighter.
Somewhere along the way, he'd lost two fingers. But his real claim to fame was that he'd been a champion wrestler. Even now, you wouldn't want to take him on.
"Wrestling helped keep me fit all these years - and it's why everyone around here knows me," he chuckled proudly.
What did he remember about his brush with Bollywood? The money, it turns out.
"The local authorities forced people to take part," he recalled. "But not me. They gave me 100 somoni ($20; £13) a day"
He was a bit vague on other details, so it was hard to work out whether he'd enjoyed his celluloid experience.
But when it was time for photos, the firefighting wrestler showed that he'd not been unaffected by his fleeting moment in the limelight.
As we posed together, he surreptitiously slipped off the embroidered cap he'd been wearing and put on a new, black one: his best.