Mr. Jeff goes to Bollywood

On the evening of July 28, a large group of students took a trip to the local Ritz Cinema in the Library Bazaar to watch the new film Raag Desh (2017). As they waited in the theatre lobby, a debut actor featuring in the movie walked through the entrance to the delighted screams of the students. That actor was none other than Woodstock’s very own Dean of Student Life, Mr. Jeff Doerfler.

Mr. Doerfler enters the Ritz Cinema (Courtesy of Akshaya Pradhan)

The students were cheering on for Mr. Doerfler as they couldn’t hold in the excitement of seeing him in the movie.

“The students treated Mr. Doerfler as an Oscar-nominated star,” Akshaya Pradhan, Class of 2019, a student at the premiere, said.

“It was great to see the support that students gave to Papa Jeff,” Tenzin Taklha, Class of 2019, a member of the basketball team, said. “It showed how much everyone cared, and you could see the students’ pride in their faces.”

All but four of the seats in the theatre were booked for Woodstock students and staff. Those four seats were occupied by local tourists who were probably expecting a normal Friday night at the movies. What they got was a bunch of delighted teenagers screaming their lungs out whenever Mr. Doerfler popped up in front of their eyes.

After finding out about Mr. Doerfler’s role in the film, one of the bewildered tourists smiled and said, “I’ll ask him for an autograph.”

A student poses with the movie poster Photo by Kritin Garg

Harsh Garg, Class of 2019 and one of the attendees, said, ”I was really excited to watch the movie as our very own Mr. Jeff was going to star in a movie and the atmosphere inside the theatre was mesmerizing as everyone was at the edge of their seats, eagerly waiting for Lord Wavell to appear in front of their curious eyes.” Mr. Doerfler played the role of Wavell in the film. 

Garg’s distant family member Mohit Marwah also starred in the movie as the protagonist.

All the glee within the students stayed true till the end of the movie. However, after waiting through the long credit scroll, students were left dismayed as they were unable to spot Mr. Doerfler’s name in the credits.

Raag Desh is a film set during the Red Fort Trials of 1945. It follows a story of three soldiers, who, while showing a great display of diversity and unity, fight for freedom against the British in India’s struggle for Independence. It is based on a true story.

An assistant director of the film asked Mr. Doerfler to audition for the role. “I’ll just say that I said yes, and see what happens,” Mr. Doerfler said.

Mr. Doerfler received this opportunity through Steve Alter, Class of 1974, a notable Woodstock alumnus and Landour resident, whose late brother Tom Alter, Class of 1968, contributed greatly to the Bollywood film industry. Mr. Alter had suggested Mr. Doerfler to the filmmakers.

“I sent an audition video and didn’t think I would make it,” Mr. Doerfler said.

But the next thing Mr. Doerfler knew, without any background or experience in drama or acting since high school, was that he had to memorize his lines (which were changed during the shoots, according to Mr. Doerfler) as he got the role to portray Lord Wavell, former viceroy of India.

“My initial experience was fun, because to my surprise, I had my own dressing room. I did not expect one, as I had a small part,” he said.

At the same time, the experience had its challenges, too. “Nervous is not the right word; I was not mentally prepared for the role,” Mr. Doerfler said. “I thought I had a small role, and even though the scenes were short, I was the main character in the scene.”

Additionally, he was required to travel to Dehradun and Delhi multiple times, and his role required more than just speaking on camera. “I had knee problems during my first shoot because I had to walk down a flight of 50 steps, remember my lines, count the steps, and get used to having 50 people surround me with lights and camera equipment,” he said.

A highlight for Mr. Doerfler was, he said, “I got to see the inside of the Red Fort and Rashtrapati Bhavan (the President’s residence), where you wouldn’t normally be able to visit.”

Ultimately, though, his screen time was limited to five short scenes in the 135-minute feature film. This led to some disappointment for the novice actor: “For the amount of time I spent at the shoots, I only got a fraction of that much screen time. I understand now that this is a part of the business,” Mr. Doerfler said.

Would he consider another role? “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I learned a lot about how movies are made,” he said, adding, “I would do it again if it were over a holiday, so it wouldn’t affect my work at Woodstock.”

Missing work meant that one of the shoots required him to miss part of one his responsibilities at the school, coaching the boys basketball team.

“The worst was when I had to miss the final game of a district basketball game because the shoot was at the President of India’s residence and the date couldn’t be changed,” he said. “I’ve never missed a final game in my coaching career, so it was really hard.”



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