The year is 1975. The place is Ramanagara, Karnataka, in south India. It is high noon. A beautiful woman driving a carriage is hotly pursued by villainous men on horseback. From her attire—a short blouse with an exposed midriff, a long colorful skirt, and a long veil that billows out behind her—it’s clear that the woman is the belle of the local village. Her mare is white as snow and is at a full gallop, but she is tiring. The woman urges her on with cries of, “C’mon, Dhanno! Fly! Fly to preserve my honor!”
The men in pursuit are dressed in black with scabbards hanging from their belts, and they ride black horses. They are slowly but surely catching up. Dust rises beneath their feet and the sound of pounding hooves echoes.
“Cut!” yells the director. “All right. That’s enough for today.” He yawns, stretches and stands. The fans stirring brown dust powder stop whirring, the bright sunlight suddenly disappears as the overhead incandescent lights flicker off, and the crew erupts into loud chatter and a bustle of activity. Props are carried away. Within minutes the equipment and the people are gone, the set roped off and shut for the night, and all is silence.
Decades later, I watch the very same chase scene on the television screen in the iconic Bollywood film Sholay, which is among the highest grossing movies in Indian cinema.
Today I am at a beach, observing another movie production. I have been invited by a crew member to visit the set in return for a week’s loan of my brand-new car. This movie, too, will feature a white mare. I watch a young, skinny boy leading her half a mile down the shore before turning around to walk back. She is saddled, and they are waiting for their shot to be called. We’ve been here for half a day, and filming hasn’t even started yet. The lead actress has not yet arrived.
I walk up to the young boy. He watches me approach and stands still, most likely anticipating a rebuke of some kind. He looks poor and lonely. I smile to show my friendly intentions and ask his name.
“Bandya,” he says.
“And what is her name?”
“Ah, just like the one in Sholay?”
He nods wearily, without enthusiasm. He has probably been asked this question a thousand times.
“How long have you been waiting?”
“Six hours. We were told to arrive at the crack of dawn.”
As though sensing the lateness of the hour, the mare stamps her foot. The boy continues, “All these people are time wasters! They promised me 500 rupees for today. Said it will only take an hour. Now they won’t allow me to take on customers while I’m waiting for them. I’m losing my business here.”
I nod in understanding. This is typical Indian mentality when it comes to time. No one is ever punctual, so you always quote a time a bit earlier than required. “Where are you from?”
He names an unfamiliar village.
“Where is her stable?” I ask, caressing the mare’s forehead. She pays no attention to me.
He tells me it is three train stations away from the beach. But he is not allowed to ride her, so they had to walk nearly 10 miles to get to the set. “And here they haven’t even started.” He shakes his head in disgust.
I shrug. “They are waiting for the heroine. She is going to ride Dhanno, isn’t she?”
He looks away and doesn’t reply.
I wait for a beat, then ask him if the mare belongs to him.
“My father. He keeps a stable.”
I get curious. “Do you know how to ride?”
“Then why does he not let you?”
The boy shakes his head as if to say, Fathers! Who can understand them?!
“You look like you’re about 13. Where did you learn to ride?” I ask.
“At my father’s stables. He taught me.” Bandya turns and begins grooming the mare. As his hands work down her neck and flanks, he croons to her softly. Her nose and ear turn toward him; her nostrils flutter in a gentle nicker as he works.
“Is she always this docile?”
He nods. “She used to be spirited, my father says. She comes from a long line of warhorses. Her great-grandfather was in the army that revolted against the British rule. I’ve seen a picture of his.”
I murmur sympathetically.
“Imagine! Her ancestors fought in battle, and here she has been reduced to carrying children and actresses on joy rides on the beach. You hate it, don’t you, Dhanno?” he says, rubbing her nose. Dhanno snorts.
“What did she do before this?” I ask.
“Started out in the circus. Her stage name was White Angel. Her master used to make her prance about and do all kinds of stunts. Circus folk are kind to their animals, though. They are their livelihood, no? Dhanno loved that life. The limelight, the applause, the sparkle and glitter of the world of stage. Then she got injured. Father never tells me the details. Says I won’t be able to bear to hear about them. But she could no longer perform.” Bandya stops talking and starts walking the mare again. I fall into step beside him.
“Then she was sold to a wedding planner. Eight bookings per day. Nonstop. She was terrified of the loud noises of the bursting firecrackers. And the wailing of the reed flutes and the honking of the trumpets. But you can’t have a wedding without noise, can you? They couldn’t take the risk of the mare bolting with the bridegroom still sitting on her. So they sold her to my father.”
We turn and retrace our steps.
“I was 2 years old. She was my birthday gift. He told me to take good care of her. I try.” His voice trembles and I spy a tear glistening at the corner of his eye. I pretend not to notice.
“I’m sure you do. You sound like you love her and she looks like she loves you, too.”
His hand strays to her mane again. Fiercely protective. “Now her day typically starts at nine in the morning. We’ll get six or seven groups of children, if we’re lucky.” After a pause, he says, “I’m going to make her better. She will get her glory back. And one day I will ride her bareback.”
The shot is called. The diva has finally arrived. A technician deftly applies makeup to the actress’s face while another styles her hair. She is going to be wearing a windblown look for the horse-riding scene.
While others set up the cameras and equipment, Bandya holds the reins as others help set the actress onto the saddle. The boy whispers something into Dhanno’s ear. Then he runs across out of the camera frame and calls out loudly to the mare. The camera starts rolling, and the mare canters forward as the actress gives the right expressions. All eyes are on the beautiful woman, except for Dhanno’s. Her gaze is focused only on Bandya. She runs straight to him. For her effort she receives several warm pats on her forehead and a lump of sugar.
And then she does it again. And again. After four repetitions, the take is approved and canned. It is now getting on toward evening. I watch Bandya have a word with a crew member and lead Dhanno off the set. They pause at a sugarcane stall where the boy has a glass of juice to drink and feeds the spent cane to his mare to chew on. Then boy and horse amble off together.
So did you enjoy the shooting? Isn’t she beautiful?” asks my friend, who settles down beside me, gazing at the actress as she climbs back inside her air-conditioned van.
“Yes,” I say, watching Dhanno the mare saunter away.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #456, September 2015.