Prison Time: What did I learn?

Seize the opportunity

It was a Tuesday, 27 August 2019, when I noticed a shout-out on the Radio Sangam Whatsapp group. The CEO said he had been invited to work on a Bollywood film as an extra. It was set in a male prison. Did anyone want to join him?

I did not expect it to be a paid opportunity, but it sounded like an adventure, and I had nothing to lose by throwing my hat in the ring.

My CEO asked me to send him two photos – a top-half and full-body shot. If I was going to be in an action film, I wanted a slice of the action, so I sent in two pre-fight photos from my first full-contact kickboxing fight – along with a list of my martial arts credentials. I even offered my services as a fight choreographer.

Game on

The next day, Wednesday morning, I was told that I had been accepted to be a part of the film, and I would have to be on set for 10am Friday. The set was a disused prison near Bath, and I had very little time to rearrange my plans. At least I knew my costs would be covered as all extras would be paid a modest amount each day to take part.

In the back of my mind, I expected that they had probably found my photographs and stunt pitch quite amusing. After all, I am a 49-year-old man with a face for radio…

“We’ve got another one, Jim.”

“What, another topless shot?”

“No, it’s another has-been going through a mid-life crisis.”

pre-fight-photo
pre-fight-photo

Where there’s a will…

… there are plans to be made!

The pay was not great, so I now had to organise travel and accommodation at a budget, not to mention having to reschedule a few things, but I was absolutely determined to get there.

I got together with the other four Radio Sangam presenters who were all going to be extras. We agreed to take two cars and book two double rooms. On Thursday evening, I had to drive to one of the other presenters’ houses in Altrincham. From there, we had to rise at 5am and set off at 6am for the long drive to the prison. What an adventure! This was happening. I was going.

My first day in prison

I will let you in on a secret. It wasn’t actually my first time in jail. When I was in advertising, I visited a young offenders institution to discuss a campaign they were running, and a few years later, I delivered a mindfulness workshop to some of the staff at HMP Leeds, more commonly known as “Armley prison”.

We arrived at the prison at 9.50am. Phew! The last thing I wanted to be was late. And we managed to wing a parking spot within the prison grounds. Result. The casting agent told us to sign in, and I was pleasantly surprised when she complimented me on my photos: “Great pics, Martin.”

Reality hit me in the face

Shortly after I’d signed in, another group arrived; five young, Asian bodybuilders. That’s me finished, I decided. This was an Asian production, a Bollywood film, and if anyone was going to get action shots, it made more sense to give it to these human tanks.

Then the next group of lads arrived… straight out of the next biggest boy band. They looked like a gang of male models (two of them were!); each one of them at least six foot with young, good-looking faces and bodies like Action Man. Put it this way: I wish my physique had been as good as any one of theirs when I had entered the full-contact kickboxing ring.

I’ve had it. What was I thinking? The action roles are going to be given to these guys.

A shout-out from the stunt coordinator

An older, stocky man entered the mess room where I was sat with all the other extras, or SAs as we were called – an abbreviation of “supporting artists”.

“Hi, everyone. My name’s Dom, and I am the stunt coordinator. Does anyone here have either theatrical combat training or real fight experience?”

One of my Radio Sangam colleagues pointed at me and shouted, “Here!”

As the guy looked over at me, I piped up, “I am Sheffield’s oldest active full-contact k1-rules kickboxing fighter,” and then another guy stepped up as being theatrically trained, so the two of us were then put through an on-the-spot test; we had to demonstrate that we could make it look like we had been hit with a fake punch. Child’s play. Time for some real adventure.

Riot in the cell block

We were introduced to a couple of professional stuntmen. One was a former dancer and taekwondo expert while his on-screen opponent was a former professional wrestler. They were going through their moves slowly, “marking” the key strikes and manoeuvres, and it was fascinating to watch.

Dom told me and my opponent to leave the security of the cell block’s steel walkway and step out from the balcony on to the suicide-prevention netting. What you will never know if you haven’t been to prison is that the netting is made out of wire, not some kind of fibrous material, and it is joined to the balcony with springs, much like the ones you see at the edge of a trampoline. Stepping onto it was quite unnerving, but this was going to be my new home for the next few hours.

prison-wing
prison-net

As my combat experience was primarily full-contact and focused on really trying to hit someone, I had to be taught about theatrical combat. It was explained to me that although I knew how to pull my punches, I would have to aim to miss my opponent by a good foot. Then, with some guidance from Dom, we worked through a fight sequence that was believable, safe to execute and dramatic to watch.

Repetition, repetition, repetition

We had to rehearse the moves over and over to be absolutely certain that when we did it for real with cameras rolling there would be no mistakes and no injuries. However, since the routine involved both of us being smacked down onto the deck, we both started to feel worse for wear after around the fifth time.

My elbow took most of the initial impact as I was crashing down on to the space to my right, so I adjusted my move by literally throwing myself in the air and landing on my back. The results were quite astonishing…

bruised-back

The bruising on my back makes it look more painful than it actually was. The elbow looked broken, but the swelling was caused by a build up of fluid around the joint. Again, it didn’t hurt, but I had to reduce the swelling as an emergency because I know from previous experience that such swellings can quickly become infected and then you do have a problem!

Doing what it takes

At one stage, Dom said to us, “There’s no need to be a martyr on this shoot. These guys are being paid for it,” pointing to the professionals. As far as I was concerned, this was my chance to be noticed by someone in an industry that I had always fancied. Of course, he was going to tell us not to take too many risks, but I also felt in my heart that if we did and if we pulled it off, he’d love us for it. Besides, a bit of pain killed no one. I wasn’t going to break my neck!

We practised that routine many times in rehearsals and then many more in front of camera. On the final take, the director wanted us to carry on fighting, so after what seemed like a lifetime of not knowing what was going on, we got stuck in. We had only rehearsed one routine, so we had to wing it.

Instinct took over and at one point, when my opponent had his guard down, I threw a high roundhouse kick with my right leg, and it felt like the most natural thing in the world. He clocked it and acted as though it had hit his head. It was cinematic magic, but whether or not they caught it on camera or chose to keep it in the final cut, I won’t know until the film is released.

Ask and ye shall receive

My strategy paid off. Dom was delighted with our fighting and said we were awesome. Was there any chance of any further work based on what he had seen, I asked him. “Of course, mate,” he said. “I am always looking for good fighters to join the team,” and we swapped numbers. I was only one day in to the four-day shoot, and I already felt I’d bagged more work as a professional stuntman. Great start!

Basketball forever

After limping home, tucking into some fried chicken and getting my eight hours of shuteye, it was back to the studio for 8am. After tucking into breakfast and sitting around for a while, they asked for volunteers for a basketball game. I raised my hand even though I have only played the game on a handful of occasions and have neither the height nor any natural ability to play well.

Anyone who has been on a film set will tell you two things: firstly, there is a lot of waiting until you are needed, and secondly, you might have to spend several hours doing many takes just to get a 30-second scene.

A killer on the court

Every scene has a purpose and when it comes to prison films, a scene set on the basketball court is rarely about basketball. This scene was no different, and it turned out I had been chosen to be an assassin. I can’t really say much more about that at this stage as the film has not been released, but it certainly put me in the spotlight.

Sharing the screen with a star

Nothing of any significance happened on the third day, but on the last day I shared some scenes with one of the main Bollywood stars. His character was my character’s boss. As it was the last day that the production team would be working in the prison, we would all have to stay for as long as it would take to complete all the scenes. We had started at 8am, but we didn’t finish until 10pm!

What did I learn?

The whole experience was gold, and I learnt one hell of a lot.

Recognise opportunity

When my radio station’s CEO had asked for volunteers, I had not even thought we were going to get paid and I expected nothing, but I felt a strong intuition that I was supposed to do this. If you had asked me a year ago if I thought I would end up in a Bollywood film, I would have told you that it was on my list of things to do. However, I had expected some kind of cameo role as a radio presenter, speaking Hindi terribly in a light-hearted comedy scene, not action scenes in a thriller. My Bollywood experience beat all expectations.

The director is second only to God

From what I saw, the way film sets are portrayed in films is pretty accurate. The director was really focused, passionate and enigmatic, and he reminded me of an Indian version of Prince, the musician. And yes, he wore a baseball cap most of the time. Once the scene was set, he would shout “SILENCE,” followed by a tense moment that seemed to last a lifetime as everyone waited for him to give the signal to start: “ACTION”

Renowned film director Bejoy Nambiar (minus baseball cap). I felt privileged to be a part of his film.

Acting is like performing martial arts forms

Over the years, I have practised many martial arts from karate to wing chun kung fu, traditional jiu jutsu to MMA, freestyle nunchaku to Japanese sword, and of course full-contact kickboxing. I love it all, but always had a passion for practising the forms.

Karate has kata, iaido (a Japanese sword art) has seiteigata, wing chun has its forms, and with freestyle nunchaku you learn how to feel the natural forces of the weapon and dance with them. Either way, once the action starts, you dissolve into it.

Similarly with my stint on a film set, no matter how small my acting role was, once the director shouted “ACTION”, I was totally immersed in the task in hand. I was later told this is “method acting”.

Give a lot and get a lot

Bollywood expects a lot but gives a lot. Extras get paid the same whether they finish on time – at 7pm! – or have to stay until midnight to complete the scene. I won’t get paid any more for taking on more of a key role, but only in Bollywood can you arrive on set for the first time in your life as an extra and come away with a bit part!

Don’t assume

Remember my initial assumptions about the weight trainers and the young heart throbs. I couldn’t have got it more wrong. The weight trainers got to stand around pushing weights in the prison yard, and the young athletes got to look fantastic on the basketball court. It was a mistake to put myself down. On the second day, the casting agent told me the director had loved my photos and had specifically asked for me to be invited to his set. I had a look that he wanted.

Put yourself forward

Had I not expressed an interest in doing further stunt work, the stunt coordinator might never have given me a second thought. Since my stint in prison, we have exchanged messages and on Wednesday we had a detailed conversation over the phone. There will definitely be more stunt work in the future.

locked-up
Locked up with the CEO of Radio Sangam, Qaisar Mahmood. It was thanks to Qaisar that I ended up in prison!

Having been relieved of duty at 10pm on Monday, I finally arrived home at 5am on Tuesday morning. At 8am, I received a phone call from the casting agent thanking me for my efforts and telling me in no uncertain terms that I have a future in the film industry. Doing more extra work will not make me a millionaire, but it will give me further experience and exposure.

Go with your gut

I had laughed at myself for sending in my pre-fight photos, but that turned out to be an excellent move. The casting agent told me that everyone else had sent in pictures of their best selves, and that my photos stood out because they showed a character. The director was looking for characters, she explained, and as soon as he had spotted mine, he had insisted that she get me to the studio.

Make sure you want the prize

Life on a film set is not glamorous. We had the same breakfast and lunch every single day; scrambled egg and spicy dal for breakfast, then a minced lamb curry, some chicken, soup, nan bread and salad for lunch. The canteen was an outdoor set-up, eating with plastic cutlery from plastic trays. There was one toilet for around 30 extras and production staff. Being on set involved a lot of sitting round and being kept in the dark about what we were going to be doing from one hour to the next. Whatever you are aiming for, make sure you are ready for everything it involves, not just the juicy bits. As a writer, I spend a lot of time sat down in silence. Musicians on tour spend a lot of time either travelling or spending time in hotels. It is not all excitement.

jail-food
Jail food, al fresco!

What do I get to take away from the experience?

I am so glad I stuck my neck out and grabbed the opportunity when it was presented to me. It has given me more options in life. The life of a ghost writer and editor is not fixed from one week to the next. Being able to work as a stuntman has given me an extra avenue to take during quiet times. Compared to my life in advertising, I have so many more choices now – writer, speaker, radio presenter, stuntman, coach, actor… whatever next? Anything as long as it fits my values of truth, justice and well-being. I feel more agile and adaptable than ever before, but more than that, life is fun!

Bollywood has given me an unforgettable and rich experience. It has provided me with some fantastic content for future talks. Now I can’t wait to see the finished product, the film itself!

One of my missions is to show others that anything is possible. Several years ago, I decided to live a life without limits, to go with my passions and see where they took me. If you are looking for a quirky and energetic speaker to motivate and inspire at your event, get in touch.