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Chasing Julia Roberts in Pataudi

Last updated on: September 29, 2009 

Chasing Julia Roberts in Pataudi

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Matthew Schneeberger in Pataudi

"She's the star of Pretty Woman. She won an Oscar. She's very, very famous. Hurry! I have to see her today," I told Mishra, my inimitable Delhi-born taxi-wallah, as we sped down the National Highway 8, with the shimmering glass skyline of corporate Gurgaon, in Haryana, in the rear-view mirror and dusty, rural India in front of us.

"Pretty woman. Hmm. You want a pretty woman, sir? I can arrange this," he dutifully informed me. "Nepali, Indian, gori."

"No, Mishra! Never mind. To Pataudi!"

We presented quite the duo, the pair of us: I, the intrepid American-turned-desi journalist battling food poisoning and bad Hindi, and he, the 5'3 taxi-wallah with dubious English and remarkable driving skills.

We were on the trail of Julia Roberts, one of Hollywood's leading ladies, star of Pretty Woman and Erin Brockavich. For, if you don't know by now, the illustrious Ms Roberts is indeed in India.

The 41-year-old is here to shoot for the Hollywood film Eat, Pray, Love, the film adaptation of American Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling memoir of the same name. In the film, Roberts plays the then 35-year-old Gilbert -- a soul-searching, NYC-based writer, who, in the wake of a bitter divorce undertakes a year-long sojourn to eat in Italy, pray in India and love in Indonesia.


Image: Julia Roberts on the Eat, Pray, Love
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters
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Chasing Julia Roberts in Pataudi

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Since arriving in the country on September 17, Roberts and her three kids -- four-and-a-half-year-old twins Hazel and Phinnaeus and two-year-old son Henry -- have stayed at the Pataudi Palace hotel in Pautadi, Haryana, about 60 kilometres outside Delhi.

The Palace, incidentally, is the former abode of Pataudi Nawab and Indian cricket legend Mansoor Ali Khan, husband of actress Sharmila Tagore and father of Bollywooders Saif and Soha Ali Khan.

Ryan Murphy, the film's director, and Hollywood actors Billy Crudup, Javier Bardem and Richard Jenkins are also in India, as part of a large group of American and Indian cast and crew. So large, in fact, that every room in the Palace has been booked for the entirety of the team's stay: September 17 to October 9.

To hear initial media accounts of Roberts' security detail, you'd think half the Indian Army was at her disposal: Helicopters, 350 armed bodyguards, snipers, area-wide curfews, 50-car processions, etc.

But, as Mishra and I soon discovered, most of this seems to be the conjecture of imaginative scribes. While it was physically impossible to gain access to the Palace (we tried, a dozen different and creative ways), no more than 50 metres from the main gate life in Pataudi was business as usual.


Image: On the sets of Eat, Pray, Love
Photographs: Matthew Schneeberger
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Chasing Julia Roberts in Pataudi

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"Yes, there is a famous person staying in the Palace. Her name is Julia Roberts. But I do not know who she is. Yes, the media have been here in great numbers. But this is not the first time a famous person has come to Pataudi. Many films have been shot here, and in the past Salman Khan and Aamir Khan have stayed here," said one local chai-wallah, who works in the lane next to the Pataudi Palace.

"Curfews? No. There have been no such restrictions," he explained incredulously when told of media reports suggesting that police have cracked down on the movements of area residents to ensure total protection for the crew.

At the entrance to the palace, rather than hundreds of well-trained, heavily-armed security personnel, we saw maybe a dozen ragtag musket-clad guards, who themselves had no idea who Julia Roberts is. A lone cop sat nearby in the shade, reading a newspaper.

"Sorry, sir. Please turn your vehicle around. If you do not have an entry pass, you must leave," said one of the guards. "100 percent, you cannot enter.

"The woman? I do not know who she is. She is very nice and has worn some Indian clothes. She speaks no Hindi, but she has done namaste when we see her. I do not think she is such a big Hollywood heroine. How can she be? She is not nearly as beautiful as Priyanka Chopra or Kareena Kapoor," he added when probed.


Image: A view of the Ashram

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Chasing Julia Roberts in Pataudi

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A production unit arrived a few weeks back to start working on the sets, for the two main shooting locations in India: one at the Hari Mandir Ashram in Pataudi, which began on September 20, and the second in nearby Mirzarpur village, Haryana. There's also shooting to be done for scenes that in the film take place in Connecticut, USA.

The ashram is definitely the main shooting locale, as the author's ashram experiences constitute the bulk of her account of India.

And though access is extremely limited, rediff.com managed to spend two hours inside the compound, taking pictures and speaking to members of both the ashram and crew. Contrary to some reports that the shooting had sparked a furore with local residents, a few devotees told us that their worshiping schedule had been affected only minimally and that the film's crew had been very respectful about shooting on hallowed ground.

The 25-acre Ashram has a magnificent temple, a Sanskrit Mahavidyalaya school and dormitories for boys and girls and a clinic and an old-age home, a student explained. He added that all of the Love, Eat, Pray crew members -- many of whom are on the film's art team and have been working in the ashram compound non-stop -- were welcome guests.

It's obvious that Roberts genuinely loves India. When visiting in January of this year, she was graceful when photographed outside the Taj Mahal, while still sporting red bindi on her forehead.


Image: Julia Roberts
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters
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Chasing Julia Roberts in Pataudi

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And by all accounts she's handling her first film shoot here with equal aplomb. A few locals deconstructing the sets at the Hari Mandir Ashram to a man said that 'the foreign madam was very nice'. Shooting began inside the compound on September 20 and continued for nearly a week, before moving to Marzipur village.

Scenes feature Roberts chanting the Gurugira, washing temple floors, serving food for a langar and moments of intense introspection that require Roberts' character to overcome her ego in order to gain some kind of enlightenment.

Workers at the ashram relayed that Roberts ate food with the rest of the cast and crew in a large, dusty, normally unused room. And that she ate the same food as everyone else too: 'dal, subji, paneer, roti, gulab jamun'.

To show her respect and good intentions, Roberts met the Hari Mandir's chief official, Swami Dharmdev, on her second day at the ashram, to ask for his blessings. She also purportedly brought along her children, and told Dharmdev the children's 'Hindu' names: Mahalaxmi, Krishna Balaram and Ganesh.

They reportedly spent roughly 30 minutes in conversation, during which the Swami tied Raksha-Sutra protective threads around the family's wrists. They also posed for a lone photo, in which a kneeling Roberts, at the side of a seated Swami, looks the very picture of bliss.


Image: On the sets of Eat, Pray, Love
Photographs: Matthew Schneeberger
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Chasing Julia Roberts in Pataudi

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At the Pataudi Palace too, officials said Roberts had been an ideal guest. While not forthcoming with details, they said they were honoured to have such a universally known star staying with them and that they would welcome her back any time. Contrary to unsubstantiated rumours of a Kareena and Saif led Bollywood bash for Roberts at the palace, as of Sunday night staff said there had been no party and that everything occurring inside was low-key and professional.

Even in Gurgaon, Roberts made quite an impression wherever she went. The staff at the Leela Kempinski hotel were effusive in its praise. At the reception desk, a hostess said, "Julia's not staying with us, despite what some media reports have said. However, she did come here one day when shooting was off, and she was very courteous and no problem at all. She met her children here for brunch."

Apparently, after all that dal and subji the star was beginning to miss western-style food, as she indulged herself and the children in a brunch meal at the Leela's high-priced and classy Spectra restaurant, where Continental, South Asian and East Asian are available. The Roberts family opted for continental food and enjoyed the meal immensely, we were told by restaurant staff.

Later a second reception desk attendant confirmed that Roberts and her children stayed in the hotel in a suite for some time, and that the Oscar-winner availed of the Leela's luxurious spa services, before returning to the Pataudi Palace that night.


Image: The Leela Kempinski hotel
Photographs: Matthew Schneeberger
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Chasing Julia Roberts in Pataudi

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Interestingly, though her presence in India is clearly one of the top media stories of the hour, Julia herself seems to dislike all the hullabaloo and extra security. She was low-key at the Leela and reportedly used the main entrance rather than one designated for VVIP guests.

Every worker at the Leela we spoke to said Roberts was extremely pleasant and casual and was mostly pre-occupied with spending time with her children. They also said she seemed 'very professional'.

But if things were relaxed at the Leela, they couldn't have been any more different in nearby Mirzapur village, Haryana. There, on September 27, the level of security met and exceeded some of the more fantastic initial reports. Though film crew said the shoot would start at 5 am, things didn't really swing into gear until 7 am.

Dozens of police officers and highly communicative private security guards -- reports say many of them were once commandos of the National Security Guard  and the Special Protection Group -- carefully prowled the area and blocked access to even the periphery of the set. Roberts own US bodyguards were also on-hand and working in tandem with the Haryana police and an elite private team.


Image: Julia Roberts' chair
Photographs: Matthew Schneeberger
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Chasing Julia Roberts in Pataudi

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Journalists were ushered down a dusty path and forced to broadcast far from the action, leading to the surreal scene of reporters standing in empty fields amidst rows of corn and delivering live reports.

Mishra and I were stopped and checked every few hundred metres on the road leading to the shoot. And despite my protestations that I was a foreign staffer with access to the set, I -- like other media members -- was denied even the slightest glimpse of the star.

Huge black barriers had been erected around the shooting area to keep prying eyes from seeing anything of note, and only occasional flashes of white skin in Indian-style clothing confirmed a shooting was happening at all.

The scene was set in a typical Indian village market place, with Julia and fellow ashram devotees at a chai stall. Dozens of locals were employed as extra to give the scene a more natural feel.

Roberts, wearing an orange kurta, baggy pants and a sea-green dupatta walked in sight of the cameras just once. Unfortunately, I was busy looking for a roundabout route to the set when the golden opportunity came and went.

A very frazzled Claire Raskind, the film's unit publicist, had the unenviable job of controlling the roughly 300 hundred villagers and media that had come to observe the shoot. Overall, she said, India was an exciting but challenging place to shoot.


Image: Julia Roberts
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters
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Chasing Julia Roberts in Pataudi

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Villagers climbed trees and onto rooftops in the surrounding areas. Journalists were also employing every trick in the book to get close. Bystanders even allegedly risked the integrity of a few shots with all their hollering, despite Raskind's repeated calls for restraint and quiet.

She said the media enthusiasm was very much appreciated, but that because the film was still in shooting and was expected to release only in 2011, access to journalists was necessarily very limited.

She also said that language had been a barrier, as it was difficult to communicate with many of the villagers who wanted to watch the shooting. She added that it felt like trying to brush away flies from food because no matter how many times she requested, the villagers and media would soon return past the space designated for them.

One man, whom everyone called 'uncleji', told rediff.com that he had prepared parathas and chai for Julia Roberts at his house down the road and that he wouldn't leave the set until the crew acquiesced and she joined him.

However, his friend Rohan thought the shooting was much ado about nothing. "I don't understand Hollywood films. I have seen two or three and they are very boring. Julia Roberts does not seem like a good heroine. Indian women actresses are more beautiful than those in the West. Katrina Kaif is my favourite. I have never seen so many foreign women before today. From television, I had the wrong idea that all foreign women are beautiful. I now know that Indian women have more beauty," he explained.


Image: The Pataudi Palace

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A third man chirped that Madonna is more beautiful and likable than Roberts, and that she also has travelled to India many times. He wondered why she doesn't shoot movies here. When told that Madonna is primarily a singer, he said she should become a Bollywood singer and dancer, where her talent would be more appreciated.

But the extras who worked with Roberts had a different take on things. Kajol, a young small-town Punjabi girl who, along with her family, was hand-picked to be in the film some time back while riding a train to Mumbai, said that Julia Roberts was very nice. "She was very kind and a very good actor," she explained.

Kajol's mother added that Roberts was kind and did Namaste for them, but did no dancing or singing. She didn't understand the scene as the dialogue was in English.

Though earlier reports claimed that shooting was to later shift to Cherrapunji, Meghalaya, a crew member said Sunday that Mirzapur would be the last outdoor set. The shoot has already finished in New York, Naples and Rome. After wrapping up here by the end of next week, the team will fly to Bali, to shoot the final segment.

As for Mishra, by the time I returned to the cab from the set in Mirzapur village, he had read two full articles on Julia Roberts in a local Hindi paper. For the life of him, he couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. "I was thinking this was some Ashwarya Rai or Sushmita Sen-type beauty. Who is this woman? She must be a talented very actor to cause so much publicity."

A talented actor indeed.


Image: On the sets of Eat, Pray, Love

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