Journalists get used to hearing slighting jokes about how "those that can, do; those that can't, write about it". When I got the chance to be in Gurinder Chadha's new movie, It's a Wonderful Afterlife, it was too good an opportunity to pass up - a moment to prove my acting chops. I've been a friend of the director since I interviewed her for a piece about her 2004 film Bride and Prejudice in an Indian restaurant in London. She's immediately likeable, with a bubbly personality and a great sense of humour.
The story of my big-screen debut began at a party to celebrate the inauguration of the US president Barack Obama, where I cheekily asked if I could have a part in her new film, completely expecting her to laugh off the suggestion. To my surprise, she said yes. Little did I know that she was harbouring a plan to make fun of five of her friends in a speed dating scene in which they try and disastrously fail to impress the leading lady, played by Goldy Notay.
Notay is the latest in the line of British acting "discoveries" made by Chadha; it's a list that includes Keira Knightley and Aaron Johnson. In the film, Notay plays a podgy girl who keeps getting rejected by the families of potential suitors. The Indian acting veteran Shabana Azmi plays her matchmaking mother, who decides to kill anyone who rejects her daughter's hand. Her weapon of choice: Indian food.
If it sounds over the top, it's because it is. Chadha, who also directed Bend it Like Beckham was after a madcap flavour. "I set out to make an Ealing comedy," Chadha says, "so despite the arranged marriage plot line it's a very British comedy in that respect." The romantic lead is played by Sendhil Ramamurthy. The Heroes star plays a detective who is brought in to investigate the murders taking place in Southall, West London. In the speed dating scene that I had a part in, he makes his first romantic move.
The film is something of a departure for Chadha in that it's a relationship comedy that downplays cultural differences. It's something she says is reflective of her experience. "I now feel I'm at a point where my Indian and British identities are not mutually exclusive; they are fused to the point where I don't know if something is too Indian or too British. For example, there was a time when if I put in an Indian reference I'd feel like I'd have to put a reference in for a non-Indian audience too, so you are constantly going back and forth."
The process of being in a film was simultaneously more arduous than I imagined it would be, and far more mundane. I may have got the role easily and in a flippant manner, but I was soon left under no illusions that this was anything other than a serious business. A few weeks after suggesting I become a cast member, I received a call from Nina Gold Casting, who confirmed that a part was to be offered to me. They also told me that I would be paid £500 (Dh2,830) for my services, which took me so completely by surprise that I forgot to ask what part I was being offered.
The excitement continued to ramp up as I went for a costume fitting. I was like a kid in a candy store when I walked into the costume warehouse. The costume designer, Jill Taylor, let me know that I was to be an accountant type and - much to my surprise - cross-eyed. Being at a costume fitting felt like being Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman except that the clothes I was putting on were bad suits rather than high-end designer gear. Still, it was nice to be mollycoddled. I began to think that I could get used to this acting lark.
The day of the shoot, however, was a different story. The car arrived to take me to the set at 6am. We were filming at Ealing Town Hall in London, and even at the early hour there was a bustle of activity as the crew geared up for the day ahead. I grabbed some breakfast from the canteen and went to get changed. My costumier was waiting for me like clockwork. I was called for make-up, which sounds exciting but, sadly, involved little more than a quick brush of my hair and some foundation on my face. Then, for the next two hours, I sat in the changing room with nothing to do. There wasn't much in the way of glamour.
On set, there was an army of extras playing speed daters, and I was impressed by how much effort was being put into lighting the town hall. Then Chadha arrived. She was surprisingly relaxed on set and the next two hours were spent listening to her bark out orders about where we should and should not be. Then the moment of truth arrived. I was called to do my one shot in front of the camera. It was at this moment that the director discovered that I couldn't cross my eyes. Thinking quickly on her feet, she asked me to read one of the other lines. Being difficult, I said that I didn't like the line that was written in the script. (It's not every day that one can behave like Sean Penn.) Thankfully, Chadha agreed, but told me I would have to improvise.
I found myself nervously sitting in front of the camera with an enormous lens pointing at me. The rest is a blur but Chadha later told me: "These days, people who go speed dating are not nervous but are quite with it. I think what was great was the line you did - which was, if I remember, 'My mum irons all my shirts. Do you like ironing?' - is not exactly something you'd say to endear a girl, which is why it's really funny. However, the combination of your suit and your tie and your hair and your nervousness took all the irony out of the line and it felt like you were being very serious. It didn't come over as funny, just real."
I tried to tell her it was like Robert De Niro, but to no avail. My line was cut from the final film. But Chadha was quick to point out that this was because the gag became a visual musical montage and it would have taken too long to set up the joke. At the world premier of It's a Wonderful Afterlife in Sundance, Chadha said that she would be putting my scenes on the DVD edition of the film as part of the outtakes.
Well, Kevin Costner got cut completely from The Big Chill and that didn't do his career any harm?