My blown opportunity to be a Bollywood star

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I am mostly OK with decisions I've made that affected my career path, but there is one opportunity I didn't pursue that still tantalizes me. Whenever I see or read something that rekindles the memory, I wonder what my final destination might have been on that road not taken.

A recent news story from London got me wondering again. That city is becoming a popular location for films that fall into a category known as "Bollywood." For decades, audiences throughout India have shown enduring enthusiasm for this style of filmmaking. The typical Bollywood production follows an established formula that includes romance, action, melodrama, and musical numbers. And if I had made a different choice 26 years ago, many of the films might also include me.

During the summer of 1980 I shared an apartment in Los Angeles with people who had connections in the TV business, and we spent endless hours writing scripts and trying to get producers to read them.

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One day I saw an ad in Daily Variety from an Indian film company that was auditioning actors. The producers wanted someone with a muscular physique. One of my writing partners was also a casting director. "You should go talk to them," he said. "I'll get you an appointment."

The "audition" took place at a rented office on Encino Boulevard. The two guys from India who had placed the ad looked at me dubiously as I walked in the door. "You are not big enough," one of them explained. "We're looking for someone like that Schwarzenegger fellow."

"I'm bigger than I look," I countered. "I work out at the gym."

"Well, all right," the other one said. "Go ahead – make your muscle."

I flexed my arms in a classic Mr. Olympia pose but it was no use. They wanted an Arnold clone. Why, I wondered, were they casting the part in Los Angeles?

"This character is a bad guy," they told me. "We often cast a Westerner as the villain who ends up being defeated by the Indian hero." The concept hit me like a hammer. I had met numerous actors that summer, people with long résumés and years of training. All of them were seeking the "big break," which was often nothing more than a bit part on "The Love Boat."

In that Encino office, I stood with people who held the keys to a different kingdom. Who needs public adulation? Not me. I've always been an outsider. Being reviled by audiences across the Indian subcontinent was a career I could envision myself pursuing with enthusiasm and success.

But it didn't happen. Instead of badgering those two guys into hiring me in some lesser capacity, then working my way up the ladder once we got back on their home turf and started shooting, I just thanked them and left.

Now, reading news stories about the growing influence of Bollywood films in Europe and other parts of the world, I'm intrigued about that part I didn't get, and all the other villainous roles that might have followed. To all the moviegoers of India, I apologize for not giving you the chance to despise me. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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