Bollywood Chai: Behind the Scenes with a Legend

As we entered the gates of Mumbai’s massive Film City, security guards descended upon us demanding to know what business we had there. Just a few yards in front of us was Kareena Kapoor Khan, one of Bollywood’s biggest names, makeup artists fussing over her face. But we weren’t there to see Kareena. We had come to meet another legend of India’s booming entertainment industry – Balwan Singh Negi, who has worked as a spot boy for the past 40 years, serving chai on the sets of upwards of 200 films.

Balwan Singh Negi, who goes by the name Bahadur, has been serving chai on Bollywood sets for the past 40 years.

From behind the scenes, Bollywood’s spot boys keep the industry going. They move equipment on set, keep gawking crowds out of shots, perform odd jobs as needed, and of course, make and serve the chai that gives actors the boost they need to film the same scenes over and over.

When we told security we had come to see Mr. Negi, known affectionately as Bahadur, a guard replied, “Oh, that is a very senior man you have come to see!” We were whisked past Kareena’s entourage and beyond a table with a thermos labeled “VIP Tea,” to the side of a film prop warehouse where Bahadur was stirring a pot of boiling milk.

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Jalebis, Dahi and Chai Along the Border

Gary Shostak

Since returning from his time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal, Gary has devoted his career to improving the lives of others, working in state government health care and social services. He has returned to South Asia several times, worked with Bhutanese refugees in Massachusetts, and currently volunteers at an English tutoring program for immigrants in Boston.

Gary Shostak fondly remembers tasty moments from his time as a Peace Corps volunteer near the India-Nepal border.

From 1967 to 1969 I lived in a small village about two hours walk east of Birganj, Nepal along the border with Bihar. Every two or three weeks I would leave my village of Jotpur at first light to walk to Birganj for mail and to see other Peace Corps volunteers. I had a favorite chai wallah who also served freshly made jalebis along with really excellent dahi. His roadside shop was always my first stop as I got to Birganj. I shall always remember savoring the sweet and sour combination of dahi and jalebis taken with milky tea while chatting with the chai wallah and his regular customers.


Golden Temple Chai: Tea For All

If you’ve ever thrown a dinner party, you know cooking for guests can be a logistical challenge. Imagine cooking for 500,000. That is the task faced by the volunteer chefs and chai wallahs at Amritsar’s Golden Temple, the Sikh religion’s holiest site, on Guru Nanak Jayanti, which celebrates the birth of Sikhism’s founder.

The langar, or community kitchen, at the Golden Temple serves free food to anyone who visits the glimmering shrine, from pilgrims to tourists to locals in need of a hot meal. On on average weekday, about 80,000 people eat in the langar; on weekends, close to double that figure. But on Guru Nanak Jayanti, an estimated half million diners descend on the langar.

Every 15 minutes, a new group of diners enters one of the langar’s vast halls. They take a seat on one of the mats laid out in neat rows and watch as their steel thalis are loaded up with dal, vegetables and rotis by one of the many volunteers constantly marching down the aisles looking for plates to refill. After eating their fill, diners toss their plates and bowls at metal shield-wielding volunteers who deflect them into buckets bound for washing.

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A Tea Tale from Sri Lanka to India


After completing an M.A in International Studies, Asma conducted research on South East Asia. She now focuses on the Middle East. You can read more of her travel tales at

Asma brings us the story of one of the most important women of her household. Referred to in this post as “Woman Friday” – a take on the character Friday in Robinson Crusoe – she is “a housekeeper, a breakfast chef, a now retired maid, the market shopper, the family ‘news messenger’, a friend to all in the neighbourhood, a cricket lover, an avid newspaper reader and a watchful aunt.”

My late grandmother’s Woman Friday has a history interesting enough to relate over tea. A daughter of a Sri Lankan headmaster and tea plantation owner, she worked at the tea company’s office. Her job was to cater to the European buyers. She proudly arranged for their tea tasting ceremonies and helped her father with the business.

Alas, the war in Sri Lanka redrew her destiny. After finding their father murdered for not cooperating with certain factions, she and her siblings migrated to India.

My grandfather discovered her when he was posted as a Forest Officer in South India’s tea plantation district. He wanted my grandmother to have company and a capable friend while he was busy travelling. She happily agreed and arrived at my ancestral home 30 years ago as a young woman, barely out of her teens.

The doorway at Asma’s ancestral home.


She was never considered a servant; our grandfather had shunned discrimination.Today she remains as close to us as our own aunt. She is a housekeeper cum butler, friend and confidant. When we were children visiting on vacation, she was a watchful governess, leaving our mothers to relax. She refused to leave to her brother’s home after both my grandparents passed away, such was her sense of belongingness. She even cooked for orphans as is the community  tradition of those who want to add good deeds for their erstwhile elders.

Today she continues to preside over the sprawling house, and we remain confident in her ability from afar. We never mention her past life in the tea gardens. It is a bygone era. But she still makes a beautiful cup of tea.

India’s One-Woman Tea Party

We’ve seen the role chai can play in politics, whether in Bihar where the BJP set up NaMo tea stalls to remind voters of PM candidate Narendra Modi’s past as a chai wallah, or in Haryana where having a cup with villagers is an essential part of any campaign stop. But in the remote hills of southwestern Odisha, tea isn’t just part of a publicity stunt or a meet-and-greet ritual, it’s the party symbol.


Ahalya Kandapan, a local politician from the small village of Kelar, uses the tea kettle on her campaign posters as a symbol of everyday life. “I represent common people and common people drink tea,” she said.

Check out our article in the New York Times on Mrs. Kandapan’s fight for good governance in this often underrepresented part of the country.