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Meet India's only African-Indian model co-ordinator

Last updated on: August 01, 2013 12:32 IST

Image: Juliana Harnodkar is India's only African-Indian model co-ordinator
Abhishek Mande Bhot

Juliana Harnodkar hails from the tiny Siddi community that has its roots in Africa. When she failed to get a regular day job, Harnodkar began sourcing models of African origin. Today, she remains the only one from the community to do so.

Sometime in 2004, Juliana Harnodkar stood in a corner on the set of a commercial shoot, watching a heated argument unfold. Members of the production team and the ad agency were involved in a free-for-all while Juliana and her husband Juje, along with a bunch of extras, stood by and watched silently.

She does not recollect the product for which the advertisement was being made. "I think it was for Coca Cola, South Africa," Juliana says uncertainly. But she does remember Juje walking up to one of the production managers.

Unlike her, Juje had been to several of these shoots so he was comfortable with the environment, and consequently more confident. Juje discovered the bone of contention was the number of extras, all of whom were of African origin.

"Why don't you get in touch with my wife and me? There is an entire tribe of African people in India," he told a bewildered producer. "We can get them all."

The Harnodkars hail from the tiny Siddi community that has its roots in Africa. They landed on the shores of Gujarat for the first time around the seventh century AD and have, barring few customs and their traditional dances, adopted the Indian way of life.

Even so, there is little known about the Siddis, who are categorised by the government as part of the Scheduled Tribes of India. Unlike the Zoroastrian Parsis who also landed in India a century or so later, the Siddis have largely restricted themselves to the forests in Gir and certain pockets in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

Poverty and lack of education remain the community's major drawbacks. Few get past Grade 12; fewer still graduate. Juliana herself just holds a diploma while Juje has completed his higher secondary certificate examination.

Despite their assimilation, the African origins of the Siddis, also referred to as African Indians, are revealed by the colour of their skin and their distinct features. It often marginalises them further.

One of the reasons Juliana was at the shoot as an extra that day was because she wasn't getting any better job opportunities. Vacancies tended to close mysteriously whenever she applied for a position; and she had applied many, many times.

"And these weren't high profile jobs," she says. "These were call centre jobs!"

In a sense, the closest she could get to a job back then was that of an African extra in an advertisement of an African product being shot in India.

"Most advertisements for the African markets are shot in India. There are a few companies in South Africa and Kenya who produce ad films (for local markets) but, more often than not, the African Indian companies bring the business to India where they are shot, edited and the final product is sent back to Africa," Juliana says. "Often, it is cheaper than shooting it in Africa itself."

So the secluded Marve Beach in Mumbai becomes a Caribbean beach; Mumbai's Sanjay Gandhi National Park becomes a venue for a picnic and a local bungalow becomes the home of a happy African family using Blue Band Butter or Kilimanjaro mineral water.

Juliana's husband Juje, a civil servant working with the state provident fund office, had by now moonlighted in several such ad films, playing a member of the Zulu tribe or the head of an urban African family, promoting everything from local tourism to cheese and chocolates and ice-cream.

His claim to fame in India is the tackily-made but nevertheless famous 'Sehwag Ki Maa' advertisement for Reliance Telecom, in which he played the bowler giving Virender Sehwag a tough time before the cricketer receives a call from his mother and hits a six. (Watch it here)

It would, however, be a while before Juliana would find her calling. For now, she was playing the reluctant housewife, searching for a proper day job with no success.

Meet India's only African-Indian model co-ordinator

One of Juje Harnodkar's earliest memories of Mumbai is that of sleeping outside the ticket booking offices at Kandivali railway station. Frustrated with his paper pushing job with the Karnataka Police, Harnodkar had applied for a position with the state provident fund office under the sports quota.

"I arrived the evening before the tryouts; I had no place to stay. I spent most of the evening looking for a lodge. All I needed was a few hours of sleep so I could run the next morning. I begged the people at Sports Authority of India (who were conducting the tryouts) to let me sleep in the verandah; they refused. Finally, after roaming around for a good few hours, someone suggested I sleep at the railway station," he recollects.

For the next few hours, Juje rolled up his hair into a pillow, held his few belongings close to his chest and slept; the next morning, he ran and finished second. The man who came first, Suresh Shetty, would become his closest friend and greatest supporter.

"If it wasn't for Suresh, I don't think we'd have even thought of doing something like this," Juliana says. "He really helped us out. All this was his idea."

Much before Juliana married Juje -- theirs was an arranged match -- he made decent money from his acting assignments.

"Juje used to give Suresh's number to anyone (from the film industry) wanting to reach him; back then, people looked at you differently if you had a mobile phone number on your visiting card," Juliana says.

"Suresh used to patiently take down messages for Juje and pass it on. Juje would also get some of his (African-origin) friends with him for shoots as and when required. So when Suresh heard I wasn't getting a job (because of the colour of my skin), he suggested I start scouting (for people of African origins) for ad films."

At first, both husband and wife laughed it off. It wasn't possible they said. You needed a computer, a camera and what not to build a database. And it wasn't like Juliana knew how to operate a computer.

"Suresh's logic was if he was receiving so many calls for Juje every day, there was a demand and we could meet it," she says.

The very things that were keeping Juliana back -- the colour of her skin and her features -- would help her reach out to the African community scattered across Mumbai, Shetty argued. He transported his personal computer to their apartment and handed her his Olympus digital camera.

"What else do you need?" he asked and quietly went about organising every single item on her list. He taught her to operate the camera and the computer. He travelled with them to Pune where they auditioned their first batch of models in Spicer School, which had a large number of Siddi students at the time.

Shetty was right. The hundreds of people of African origins who have made cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru and Pune their home opened up to Juliana. To the few Siddi girls scattered around the city, Juliana is something of a mother figure, always there for advice and support.

Meet India's only African-Indian model co-ordinator

Image: The Blue Band butter advertisement that turned Juliana Harnodkar's life around

Long before she co-ordinated her first independent shoot, Juliana had worked as an assistant to a model co-ordinator. She had a fair idea of what to expect. She'd even done her first independent shoot, a smallish affair with a dozen or so models.

Her big break came with a commercial for Blue Band butter in 2005. "Neeta (Ratwanti), the producer needed some 75 models for the shoot; it was for the Nigerian market. I was really worried about whether I'd be able to manage it all. Some of the children who were to be featured were to come from Spicer but, at the last minute, the school refused to send them. Suresh chipped in once again; early that morning, he drove down to Mira Road (a distant Mumbai suburb) to pick up someone we knew who had four children. We literally carried the kids, who were still asleep, and drove them to the sets. Initially we were scared that they wouldn't meet the requirement so when the production team said it wasn't an issue, we were relieved."

After a long day's shoot, and having paid everyone off, Juliana returned home with the remaining money. "I was so tired, I simply went to bed. The next morning I woke up and counted the money. It was 70,000 rupees! I had NEVER seen kind of cash in my life before. That was when I realised I could in fact do this for a living."

Needless to say, there was no turning back.

Today Juliana does about 15 shoots a year. The bigger ones last for a fortnight or so; the smaller ones, a few days. Her database of photographs occupies over 500GB of hard disk space, which she updates every three months to account for the students who travel back to their home countries in Africa or those that simply fall off the grid.

Dealing with the African community leaves Juliana open to occasional scrutiny. She recalls the day the Delhi Police came looking for her and Juje because their company's visiting card had been found in the pockets of a drug dealer.

"We told them he may have been part of one of the shoots. They realised we weren't involved in any illegal activities so they didn't bother us after that," she says.

The road, however, has been long and difficult. The initial years involved a lot of struggle. Juje and she would keep dropping their cards at agencies announcing their USP -- specialising in African models for ad films -- and wait to hear from them.


Meet India's only African-Indian model co-ordinator

Image: The MasterCard advertisement that features Juliana and Juje's son Julius.

Today, agencies approach her and, though she operates solo and out of her home, the database she has put together, one name at a time, helps provide models from specific regions to agencies.

"We don't often realise that a West African has different features than an East African, just like a Kashmiri model is different from a south Indian one. So when agencies approach me, my first question is what market it is for," she says.

For most part, Juliana works on ad film projects.

She says: "We've done a feature film or two but I've found that payments (for films) are more difficult to come by. Agencies usually pay up on the same day. If not, it is never delayed by more than a month or so. We did have an offer to supply some 500 African extras for a film. It was a big banner but we hadn't heard a lot of good things about it. So we let it go."

She also believes that, over the years, the African community settled in India has become more professional in their approach towards work.

"Earlier they were very laidback. You didn't know if they would show up on time. Or show up at all. When there were no mobile phones, we used to take their land line and their neighbour's land line numbers because, often, their phones wouldn't work!" she recollects. "Now they know it is important to show up on time, behave properly on the sets and not turn up drunk."


Juje doesn't drink; he doesn't smoke either and, as he likes to say with some pride, 'I don't party', which is a thinly veiled way of saying he isn't a philanderer. I ask him if it doesn't bother that his wife earns more than him and his instant response is: 'Should it?'

Juliana nods in agreement. "It's never been an issue with him," she says.

In many ways, the house runs like a well-oiled machine. From what they earn, they put aside a bit for themselves and regularly send money back home to educate their nephews and nieces. One of them is studying to be a lawyer, another one is completing her graduation.

The couple has a 10-year-old boy, Julius, who is always at the top of his class and occasionally features in advertisements himself (like the one above). When he was teased about his look, they wisely sought counselling. Today, his classmates and he have adjusted with each other.

Even so, the society in which Juliana and Juje live doesn't necessarily look kindly upon them.

When Juje travels in local trains, people pass remarks in Hindi thinking he doesn't know the language.

During the time they were looking to purchase an apartment, a prospective seller refused to sell his house to 'Nigerians'.

Recently they had to run from pillar to post just to get their passports. The local police officer refused to sign the verification form.

The list of racist experiences is long but it is something the couple has learnt to live with.

Meanwhile, Juliana is planning on learning to operate a video camera so she can conduct auditions herself. Eventually, she hopes to get into production. Times are changing, she says. "And I must change with it."