I was reading Filmfare while waiting for my turn at the barber shop. The magazine was crumpled and creased, but I didn’t mind. I was engrossed in the cover story: the wedding of a young Bollywood actor to an older actress. It was 1988 and—although we permitted our film stars excessive social transgressions without much scrutiny—marrying an older woman was still unusual in India. The details of courtship and elopement captivated me as I sat alone in the small alcove at the back of the shop, facing the door, away from all the messiness of the place, the hair everywhere. I had one eye on my friend Ajay who was perched like a king on a throne upon a newly upholstered red chair. He was animatedly discussing the nuances of parting his hair with the barber. The barber had wrapped him in a white cotton sheet and tucked his shirt collar inwards and was patiently listening with a pair of long and thin metal scissors in one hand and a small black comb in the other.
“Make it short on the side, shorter. And long at the back,” Ajay instructed. “But it should look well-groomed even though it’s long. Part it in the middle. I want a parting in the middle, I’ve decided. No side business anymore.”
We were fourteen. Hairstyles had taken on a larger role in our lives than was healthy.
The shop wasn’t officially open for business at this hour. Nevertheless, braving the heat and humidity of a July afternoon, instead of playing cards at home, we had ventured there instead. We had made the off-hour trek to avoid our regular barber, the septuagenarian who had opened the shop decades ago. His taste in style reflected his age, but our fathers were convinced that he was more skilled than any of the younger barbers. They had instructed him not to let anyone else touch our hair. But we knew that if we went to the shop after lunch, the old barber would be enjoying his afternoon siesta. Today, his nap was lasting longer than usual, giving us generous time with his grandson, the trendiest barber in town. Ajay was committed to minting this opportunity.
As the hair on his head began to take shape, I could see his vision come to life and I thought Ajay’s hairstyle was a little too adventurous, unlikely to hold up to his father’s stern scrutiny. I envied his audacity though. He asked for my opinion and I said it looked great. Unbeknownst to him, I had decided to break our pact to get similar haircuts and opt for my usual style – medium length, parted on the left.
As the barber put the finishing touches on Ajay’s hair, our friend Shikhar poked his head inside the shop. His bicycle, on which he was still sitting, balanced against the door frame.
“They are shooting a movie at the airport,” he announced, looking at me. He knew I was a big Bollywood film buff; anything to do with movies excited me. “I just stopped by the market to buy some soda for the crew,” he added, gesturing to the crate of twenty-four soda bottles tied to the back rack of his bicycle.
Shikhar’s father worked as a clerk at the airport and must have roped him in to run this errand. Shikhar was known to make up stories about the airport, often to do with the heroics of his father in some dire situation. I seldom paid attention to what he said but the mention of a movie had won my attention.
Ajay, whose face was covered with a towel while the barber massaged his head and his face, must have been intrigued by Shikhar’s information. He mumbled something while trying to pull the towel off his face. For a few seconds, a struggle ensued between the barber’s energetic toweling and Ajay’s effort to untangle himself. Once in the clear, he turned towards Shikhar, “What film? If it was a real Bollywood movie everyone would know.”
Shikhar who had not established it was Ajay under the towel till then said, “Everyone does know and is standing at the airport. It is a big budget movie, I can’t remember the name, but it has big stars in it—even a superstar.” Now I was really curious and asked him who. He thought for a moment or two and then shook his head. “Not sure.” I asked him if he could recall any movie the actor had been in. He said no. I started naming all the actors I knew. Nothing. I asked him if the actor was young or old. He said he wasn’t sure. He was not the smartest kid in our class.
“Anyway, I need to rush back. By the way,” he said to Ajay as he rode away, “Nice haircut.”
Before the barber could finish the vigorous head massage that ended the cut, Ajay leaped off his chair and said, “Let’s go to the airport.”
“What about my haircut?” I asked.
“You can get it done tomorrow. This is once in a lifetime opportunity.”
He was right. Nothing exciting ever happened in our small town. Entertainment options were limited. Televisions were uncommon and there was only one state-run channel. Bollywood movies were the only stand-out, and the prospect of watching a Bollywood movie shoot with top stars was too good to miss. Ajay and I got on our bicycles and pedaled furiously towards the airport at the edge of the town, ten minutes away.
To have an airport in our town was a matter of convenience. We lived on the last flat piece of land before the mountains took over. The airport terminal, which looked like a modest-sized government building, had probably been built for another purpose, as the runway appeared to be an afterthought. The airport was used so rarely that, thanks to Shikhar, we had often used the runway to learn how to ride our bicycles. It was the emptiest road in town.
When we reached the airport, however, it seemed like the whole town had gathered there. The harsh three o’clock heat had not been a deterrent. It was hard to see anything from behind the crowd assembled along the round driveway at the entrance to the terminal. The tarmac and the runway were hidden behind all the people. We parked our bicycles near the entrance and crawled our way through the crowd to the main terminal door. On the way we passed a side entrance with a sign “Staff Only” and among the people lined up there to go in, at the front, was Shikhar with the crate of drinks.
“We are Shikhar’s friends,” Ajay said to the security guard at the door. The guard looked at us as if we were mosquitoes he wanted to squash and was waiting for the opportune moment to do so. I felt that if we held still for one more second, his hand would come crashing down upon us.
“Oh, I meant, Mr. Kumar’s son’s friends,” Ajay added when he saw no reaction was forthcoming from the guard. This additional explanation did little to change his expression, but it did warrant some reaction.
“So?” The guard sneered. “Everyone here is someone’s friend.”
Shikhar’s father was low on the official hierarchy. The guard’s response was meant to remind us that the fortunate ones, those in positions of power like the airport manager and his friends, had already been accommodated and were inside. The mere mortals, which included us, had to watch from afar.
After our less than stellar banishment, we made our way towards the edge of the crowd.
“We need a plan,” Ajay said.
“I thought we had a plan?” I said. “Go to the airport and watch the film shoot.”
Before Ajay could respond, we heard a loud roar, and the crowd started moving closer to the fence next to the terminal. On the other side cops were preventing daring spectators from jumping over. Some onlookers pointed towards an aircraft on the tarmac, and I brought it to Ajay’s attention. We could see the top of the stairs leading to the aircraft door and it appeared that a politician wearing the traditional India dress—a long khadi kurta, a Nehru cap—was disembarking from rear of the plane. He had his hands folded in a Namaste posture and his head was bent in a mark of respect to the crowd. He then looked up and started waving; the crowd went wild. He did that for a few seconds and then abruptly stopped. Instantly, he was surrounded by half a dozen people. After a few minutes that seemed a lot longer in the heat, he turned around and walked back into the aircraft.
“What the hell was that?” asked Ajay.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Is this a film shooting or a political rally?” Ajay tapped the person next to us and asked him, “What’s going on?”
“Shooting, shooting,” said a man chewing tobacco.
“Who is that politician? Is he the hero?”
“He is the villain. Don’t you recognize him?”
We, of course, didn’t. From this far away he could be anyone. Before Ajay could ask for any more information, the man spit a stream of tobacco juice right next to us. We jumped back to avoid the splatter. He then turned his head around and started staring at the aircraft. There was another loud roar and the minister came out again—his hands once again folded in the Namaste pose. He waved. Soon, he was surrounded by another group of people and he went back inside the aircraft. This drama kept unfolding in front of us for a while. We could make no head or tails of what was going on.
We had never seen a film shoot before. We had no conception of how films were made—at least I did not. I had no clue about shots or takes or retakes. Up until that day, I had imagined it unfolded like a stage drama that was simply captured by a camera. Now that we were experiencing one firsthand, the shooting started to feel idiotic and boring. A spectator looking to create some excitement of his own jumped over the guard rail while the cops were busy watching the shoot. He didn’t get far before a cop caught him and dragged him back as he kicked and screamed. We stepped back from the crowd and moved to a shady area under a Peepul tree. There were people up on the tree trying to catch a glimpse. One of them shouted excitedly, “There he is,” pointing at a distance. Someone else on the tree shouted back, “You moron, that is not the superstar but the make-up man.”
“I’ve had enough of this,” Ajay huffed. “Where is the real shooting?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, “but it is definitely not on the airplane. The only thing that is happening there is that the guy going in, coming out and waving.” By then we had been there for almost an hour. We wanted more than ever to see the superstar, and to have the bragging rights to say we saw him.
“OK, here is what we are going to do,” Ajay said, “We are going to go to the door and say we are extras.”
“Extras—people who make up the crowd.”
“We are extras. We are making up the crowd.”
“No, we are not. There are no cameras pointing in this direction. Look at the camera on the aircraft stairway, it’s pointing to the other side. The extras are on the other side.” He pointed towards our right and that’s when I noticed that there was another crowd, inside the airport, still waving enthusiastically whenever the minister came out. The rest of the crowd—the real spectators—had given up by now. They were busy fanning themselves in the heat.
Ajay started walking and I followed. I wasn’t sure what gave him the courage after our previous encounter with the guard and the beating the other spectator just took. Perhaps it was the haircut—he looked like a new person and had started acting like one too. Still, even before Ajay could say anything, the guard shouted, “You! Why are you back again? Get lost.” We retreated fast.
But Ajay was not one to give up. We walked over to the staff entrance we had seen earlier and right next to it was the crate of soda bottles that we had seen Shikhar transport. We were not sure what they were doing outside but we walked towards them, picked one end each, and knocked on the door. Someone opened up, and we were met with a crowd on the other side.
“We need to take these inside quickly,” Ajay said to no one in particular, “or they will become warm.”
“Yes,” I added, “the superstar has requested them.”
Ajay looked at me quizzically as I said that, but everyone on the other side quickly made way for us. They were busy staring at the staircase in front. Finally, we were inside the terminal.
We pushed our way through the crowd and carried the crate through a hallway until we ran into man who was standing below a staircase in the middle of the terminal lobby. He motioned to us to stop and put a finger to his lips. We stopped in our tracks. On the other side, I noticed Shikhar and pointed him out to Ajay. Shikhar was looking up the stairs and our eyes naturally followed his gaze. Coming down the stairs was the superstar.
We were awestruck. Even though his popularity was on the decline and his best roles were behind him, it was impossible to not feel his presence. He was walking with a beautiful actress—regal as a princess, just like a Bollywood beauty was supposed to be, fair-skinned with an hourglass figure. She was decked out in jewelry and wore a dark-red saree with a thick golden border, her high heels glinting with each step she took down the stairs. As they walked down the stairs, they were looking at each other lovingly. A smile on both their faces.
It felt as if it took them eons to walk down the two flights. Once they reached the bottom, we heard someone shout, “cut,” and “one more take”. At that, the pair turned and started walking back up the stairs.
“Did you see that?” Ajay asked me.
“Yes, she is beautiful,” I said, admiring the heroine walking back up the stairs.
“Not her, him.” Ajay’s face was beaming. “His hairstyle—he has the same haircut as me.”
I hadn’t noticed the actor’s haircut but to appease Ajay, I said, “Yes, it’s exactly the same. Also, can we put this damn crate down? It’s killing me.” In our excitement we had continued to hold on to the drinks.
Shikhar, who had seen us, came running, “What are you doing here?”
“Oh,” I said, “We just wanted to make sure you had the sodas.”
“You will be in trouble if someone sees you.”
On cue, the guard did see us. I think he was alerted by the soda bottles that someone had started distributing as soon as we put the crate down. Before he could get to us, someone shouted “action” and everyone came to a standstill. The actor and actress started to descend the stairs again. This time I did notice the actor’s haircut—it was the same as Ajay’s. Ajay looked in my direction and smiled.
As soon as we heard “cut”, we hastily made our way around the stairs, away from the guard, and headed towards the door to the tarmac where we had seen the crowd of extras. Before the guard could track us down, we mingled into the extras. Even though he could see us, there was nothing he could do at that moment as a new take had started and everyone had to stand still. Except us—we were now in the crowd and on cue from an assistant, we started waving enthusiastically. The shot took a while, but we didn’t mind the delay. We knew what was waiting for us.
When the guard finally got to us, he was not happy. He started admonishing us and was about to get violent when a media-person pointed his camera at him. The guard released his hold a little but continued to push us until we were outside. He still held on to our collars and was admonishing us when we heard someone shout at him. He let us go and ran towards the door. He had left it unguarded and a throng of people was making its way in. His boss, who was guarding the door from inside, was not happy. We laughed at him and walked towards our bicycles.
Next day I was back at the barber shop, still needing my hair cut. While I was flipping through the magazines waiting for my turn, Ajay arrived accompanied by his father. When he avoided eye contact, I knew something was wrong. His father did not look happy and asked, “Who cut his hair?”
The young barber, who was busy shaving someone, said, “I did.”
“What kind of hairstyle is this?” Ajay’s father asked.
At this point all activity in the shop stopped and everyone was looking intently at Ajay’s father. The senior barber moved towards Ajay’s father and said, “What happened?”
“What happened? Look at the strange haircut he gave my son.”
The young barber, fearing the worst, deflected any blame pre-emptively. “He asked for it.” He pointed at Ajay. “He said this is what he wanted, so that’s how I cut his hair. He wanted his hair long.”
At this point the senior barber intervened, “What can we do? Young boys these days. They don’t listen to us.”
Ajay’s father asked what could be done about it and the senior barber said not much. Given the short length at the sides and the long hair at the back, the only thing that could possibly be done was to make the hair shorter.
“Don’t make it shorter,” Ajay’s father said. “Make it very short. Take it all off, I say. Let him learn a lesson.”
Ajay’s head was shaved clean even before I could finish my haircut.
Next day at school, I saw Ajay talking to a classmate. I thought I would go and commiserate. As I walked towards them, I overheard Ajay say, “It was very sudden. We had no idea he was so sick. He died peacefully.” I wondered who he could be talking about. When the other classmate left, I asked Ajay. To explain his clean-shaven head, Ajay had concocted a story. According to Hindu traditions it was common for the men in the family to shave off their hair when someone in the family died. To explain his sudden baldness, Ajay had decided to re-bury his already dead grandfather.
The fact was that he didn’t look half bad in his new haircut—it made him stand out among all the boring or the very fashionable styles. He started a trend and ended up keeping his hair closely cropped for years.
But for a day there—as he liked to remind me—Ajay had the superstar haircut.
The movie flopped and never made it to the big screen in our small town. Years later, I watched it on video, curious to see what the director had shot. In one scene, which I recognized as the one inside the airport, the superstar came down five flights of stairs. The airport only had two. That is what took so long, I realized, editing the walk down the staircase so that it looked like the hero had landed at a large international airport. The scene with the minister came much later in the movie and what do you know, Ajay and I had made it. I had to rewind and pause and look around for a while—but there was Ajay in his superstar haircut, waving enthusiastically in the crowd.
Author Aditya Johri is an engineering professor and a writer. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University. His short fiction received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers, 2019, and the 2019 Alan Cheuse Fiction Award for students, at George Mason University.