Richard Attenborough's Gandhi needed hundreds of thousands of extras. Meet one of them

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and you're tuned to The World. Yesterday we paid tribute to movie director Richard Attenborough. He died on Sunday. We also talked about what an epic challenge Attenborough faced in 1980 to film "Gandhi" on location in India. Gandhi's funeral scene alone pulled 400,000 extras into the streets of New Delhi. Many Indians across the country worked on other scenes. One of those extras was Aseem Chhabra. Aseem, what scene were you in? Aseem Chhabra: I watched the film again last night - so there's one scene that comes after the intermission, when a train pulls up, the radio station, which is a Sabarmati Ashram, where Gandhi had his Ashram, and a number of important dignitaries have come to visit to him - some Indian politicians and this British woman who goes by the name of Mirabehn. You can actually see a glimpse of me sitting right by the train window. I still remember that we were told not to look at the camera, so you could see the side of my face and I'm sort of looking inside the train. That scene was shot over two days. Werman: How did you end up in Gandhi in the first place? Chhabra: Well, it was actually very interesting - I was in a university - December 1980 and it was very cold - the university I was at, Jawaharlal(??) University in Delhi, there was a student strike. I heard from some of my friends that the Gandhi team had set up their office at this 5-star hotel, which is called the Ashoka Hotel, it's still there in New Delhi. They were looking for extras, so they said "Why don't you just go there with your passport, photograph," and I went with my younger brother. We were hired right there. Essentially, they made us try on some costumes. We wore these white kurta pajamas and then they told us - I forget if the shoot was the next day or a couple of days later. But the most exciting things was we were paid 75 rupees a day. It's like $1.25 really, so it means nothing really. But back in the 1980, so I'm talking about 34 years ago, that was a lot of money. So over a period of 4 days, I got 300 rupees, my brother got 300 rupees and it was a lot of money I made, actually. We picked up our costumes the next day, like 6 in the morning at the hotel and then the bus took us to this train station, which is outside Delhi actually, it's a small town called Faridabad (??). Converting a train station from the 1980's into a train station from the 1920's or '30's, that requires a lot of production design and they did a very good job in that. Werman: Did you ever get a glance of Richard Attenborough himself? Chhabra: Yes. So, before the shoot started, we were made to sit on the train and because I was older, I went and sat by the window and my brother couldn't argue with me. I saw Richard Attenborough right there, he was welcoming the actors and he was very warm, very jovial. He was probably in the 60's at that time but he had a very father-like presence; this round, warm guy with grey hair. The thing was was that there were so many young actors from stage in Delhi, people who then eventually ended up having television careers or film careers. So I recognize many of those actors and it was remarkable. They were all very - it was almost like they were meeting a senior teacher of theirs or something. They were very respectful towards him and he was very warm towards them. So I saw a little bit of that. I actually saw Ben Kingsley. He looked very authentic. They had aged him very well and it comes across in the film also. Very believable. Werman: Were you at the premier in India when it came out in 1982? Chhabra: No, I was in New York City. I saw it at the Ziegfeld here. Werman: Ah, I saw it at the Ziegfeld too when it came out. That's funny. Chaabra: It was, I think December of '82 and I went with a bunch of my friends. I can point myself - because there are two very brief shots that you can see a side of my profile and it was my major acting career, as such. Werman: What was that like when you saw yourself finally on screen after so much ramp up? Chaabra: It came as a big shock. You know how big the screen is at the Ziegfeld. It's a huge screen and to see myself - I hear actors and how they get very conscious of seeing themselves and I saw myself - it's so brief - but I watched the film a few times, including last night, I watched it again on Netflix, and it still comes as a shock as such. I was much younger then. Werman: So now you're a film critic based in New York City. Now be objective, "Gandhi," thumbs up or thumbs down? Chaabra: I think thumbs up. I think the film still holds itself very well. That was a very interesting year in terms of the Oscars. There was "E.T.", there was "Tootsie," there was "Sophie's Choice." There were these major films and I think Gandhi still stands the test of time. It was done with so much love and regard and respect for India. Attenborough's acceptance speech, which is on Youtube, I think everyone should watch that, it's such a wonderful tribute he pays to Gandhi, actually. It was a great way for the world to discover this history of India and Pakistan also. Werman: New York-based film critic and, for a few seconds, an actor in "Gandhi." Aseem Chhabra, thanks very much. Chhabra: Thank you.