By Kirtida Gautam
After getting the lead role in a Hindi movie, I had sat down with Vritika, my stepma, and Dad, and asked them if I should pursue acting or continue preparing for the IIT-JEE exams to get into an engineering school. A day ago, I had called Mom and my stepdad and asked them the same question.
First time in my entire life, all the four oldies were in complete agreement. “Acting. Priya, you’re an inborn show-stealer.”
During my next visit to Mumbai, Kabir Khan, the producer of my debut film, and a superstar who had reigned over the Indian film industry for decades, had invited me to his house. “I want you to meet someone,” he had said over the phone.
From the Santa Cruz airport, I took a cab to Pali Hills, Bandra. Mumbai was alive with the buzz of traffic and people hurrying to work. I loved the energy of this metro city. Mumbai was always pulsating.
I stepped out of the car, paid the driver, and moved towards Kabir’s mansion.
When I reached the entrance, a watchman entered my name in a register and opened the automatic gate with a remote control.
Kabir was sitting in a chair on the garden lawn, reading a newspaper. He wore spectacles that made him look super cool. He gave me a look over the top of his reading glasses and smiled. “Please, come in” At the door, he asked me, “Are you afraid of dogs? I’ve two Dobermans and a Husky. If you’re scared, I can lock them up.”
“Please don’t, I love dogs,” I said.
He rang the bell, and a woman opened the door. I had seen her paparazzi clicks on page three. She was Suhani Khan, Kabir’s wife. She used to accompany Kabir to all his award functions and was always heavily clad in makeup. Right now, she wore jeans and a T-shirt and surprisingly, looked way better.
“Hi, I’m Suhani.” She extended her hand. “Welcome to Zeenat.” So, the bungalow had a name.
Kabir wrapped his arms around his wife’s shoulders. “Did you call Meera? Is she coming for the reading?”
“She’s here, with Saahil. The kids are in the rehearsal room.” Saahil was Kabir’s son, a newcomer star-kid who was going to be launched opposite me in my debut movie, Spinster Villa.
Kabir’s dogs came running up to us, and I ruffled their necks one by one. One of the Dobermans didn’t seem to like my smell and barked at me. Kabir asked him to knock it off and the dog retreated. Impressive obedience.
He signaled me to follow him. “This way.”
We stepped inside a room with soundproof walls and almost no furniture. A boy and a girl of my age sat on the ground, reading from a script.
“Hey, look, look, what a chick!” the girl was saying. “Kutti-kamini has never-ending legs!”
“Don’t you have a mirror at home?” the boy said. “You look stunning too.”
I liked the peppy dialogues. This was how we—real teenagers—talked when we were amongst ourselves. Not in the preachy way most young adults talked in Indian movies.
When they noticed me, they stopped reading and scanned me from top to toe.
Kabir sat next to the girl on the ground, folding his legs. “Hey, Meera, sorry, I woke you up early for the rehearsals.”
She gave him a side hug. “No problem, boss.” Then she craned her neck to get a better look at me and danced her eyebrows. “I guess she’s the girl I’m going to lip-lock with?”
Kabir gave her a high five. “Yes, ma’am. Did you like her?”
Dramatically and with a hint of mischief, Meera licked her lips. “Loved her. Kutti-kamini has never-ending legs!” she said, repeating her lines from the script.
When I met her gaze, I noticed the prominent lack of symmetry on one side of her face. I didn’t want her to think that I was judging her appearance because I genuinely liked the fact that she looked different, but my eyes lingered a bit too long. Her jawline seemed misaligned.
She must have noticed because she said, “A year ago, I had an accident. My cheekbone was fractured. The doctors tried fixing it, but they could only do so much.”
I smiled at her. She smiled back.
“So, this is the second girl who’s going to jilt me,” said the boy who I believed was Saahil Khan, Kabir’s son. He walked up to me and poked my arm. “You bitches are going to break my heart.”
“Language, boy,” Kabir admonished.
“Sorry, Pa. I mean in the film.”
“In real life—language please.” Turning to me, he said, “Make yourself at home. Your drama teacher is on his way. He’ll help you understand my method of working. Before I started working in films, I was a theater artist in Delhi. I’ve worked at the repertory of the National School of Drama. Stanislavsky’s teaching runs in my bloodstream. I’m a hardcore method actor that way. Our girl here is a diehard devotee of Shakespeare’s larger-than-life drama. But for the course of this film, she’s agreed to follow the Method.”
“I haven’t changed my school.” Meera laced her fingers behind her head. “I agreed to bite the bullet and pretend that I listen to Anshuman Sir.” Turning to me, she said, “Anshuman Sir is our dramatics teacher, by the way.”
“My actors rehearse with the script for months and prepare their roles,” Kabir said. “It’s my belief that expensive sets or deluxe costumes don’t make good cinema; mesmerizing performances do.”
“Yes, sir.” I nodded.
People have a tendency to judge a woman’s professional competence in inverse proportion to her good looks. I was an attractive girl working in the entertainment industry. Therefore, everyone assumed that I wasn’t any good at acting.
Sad but true, they weren’t entirely wrong. I had been a fashion model for the last three years but acting in movies required a skill set that didn’t come to me naturally. Unfortunately, I realized it after landing my first lead role. For this reason, rehearsals had become a torture.
Spinster Villa was a pro-LGBTQ+ Hindi film, a true rarity. In the film, Riya, the character that Meera had been playing, was Rahul’s childhood friend. Saahil Khan, Kabir’s son, was playing Rahul. At first, Riya, who was a bisexual girl, liked Rahul, but Rahul was in love with Kismat, a Muslim girl—my character. Kismat was a lesbian and had feelings for Riya. Riya tried to bridge the gap between Rahul and Kismat. Upon seeing her earnest efforts, eventually, Rahul fell for Riya instead. By this time, Riya had moved on because she had realized that she was in love with Kismat.
Even though in the beginning I felt that Saahil was in the movie only because he was Kabir’s son, the more I observed his dedication to the craft, the more I realized that he was a good enough actor. Considering this was his first film too, and he was also a newbie like me, he was not bad at all. If he didn’t get a scene, he spent hours and hours with Anshuman Sir to make sure that he would nail it. Plus, he never behaved with a son-of-the-producer air. Even when he wasn’t in a scene, he diligently showed up for rehearsals, sometimes to prompt lines to Meera and me. He would even bring tea for us, like a spot-boy, when we were tired after long hours of work.
Radhika Shinde was the director of our film. She wanted to give a real-life feel to the rehearsals, so she had asked Saahil to hold the clapboard when we rehearsed a scene.
Every time I had a scene with Meera, a new wave of inferiority complex would crisscross my heart. When she got in her character, she was no longer a shy and introverted person who hardly spoke with anyone. She became Riya, a peppy photographer who liked to capture every moment of life on camera. When we were in the same frame, even a person with no understanding of cinematic art could tell that she was like a royal feast of Mughali cuisines while I was Domino’s Pizza.
This feeling of inferiority was alien to my psychological make-up. The more Anshuman Sir tried to loosen me up, the more frigid my performances became. Anshuman Sir was a disciplinarian, an old school, who had studied at the National School of Drama in Delhi. My lack of acting ability bothered him to no ends.
One day, as usual, Anshuman Sir sat in the rehearsal hall, scolding me harshly. Radhika was also there, and so were Kabir and Suhani.
Most of the time, during rehearsals, I looked rigid, but that day I felt so tight that I could barely move my limbs.
The scene was this: Riya, Meera’s character, confronts Kismat, my character. She calls me a coward for not admitting my love for Rahul. Paradoxically Kismat isn’t in love with Rahul, but with Riya, and is too cowardly to admit this. She is scared to let Riya know that she is a lesbian.
These were the lines:
“What are you scared of? Love? Is that your most primal, deep-down fear, a fear of feeling something for someone? Oh, you fattu.”
Fattu was a Hindi cuss word, a disgusting homophobic slur. Maybe that was why in this particular scene, I was worse than I generally was.
Again and again, I had requested the screenwriter to change this word to ‘chicken,’ but she was adamant about its use for two reasons.
One, it was widely used in India. In order to represent the colloquial language authentically, she needed the word in the script, even when she was aware how homophobic it was. Even to call out homophobia, first and foremost, one must admit that it exists. She had a point.
And two, even in the script, as Kismat knew that she harbored same-sex attraction towards Riya, hearing a homophobic slur from Riya’s mouth made Kismat flinch.
So, the word was a sort of a requirement of the script.
No matter how hard I tried, Riya’s lines failed to make Kismat feel anything. But the slur made Priya, not Kismat, feel disgusted.
As usual, in order to create ambiance, Saahil held the clapboard. “Spinster Villa, scene eighty-nine, take thirteen.”
Radhika spoke the regular command lines: “Sound, camera, and action.”
“I’m not scared of love,” Kismat had to say. “I’m scared of myself. What if that mirror breaks into tiny pieces?”
In response to Riya’s lines, I lowered my face, looked at feet, then lifted eyes delicately to meet her gaze, fluttered eyelashes, and burbled, “I’m not scared of love…”
After I said lines, Anshuman Sir tried to help me. Again. “How stiff are you? – Like a coconut tree. Loosen up, girl.”
With each make-belief take, my performance got worse. Anshuman Sir pressed his temples.
“Oh, god,” he said to Radhika. “Why have you cast this long-legged bamboo stick for the role of Kismat?” He didn’t lower his voice, making sure that I heard his harsh comments. “These fashion models don’t even know how to use their arms. Can you see how taut her movements are?”
Radhika said with a sneer, “Kabir’s choice. He’s the producer. The boss. I had cautioned him that she was no good. He said, give her time. Now see! It has been four weeks, and what has the brown Barbie learned? – Nothing.”
In my entire life, I had never been publicly humiliated in the professional arena. I was used to being praised for my appearance, my modeling work. I felt like digging a hole in the ground and using that tunnel to run back to Bangalore where my parents and friends showered their love and praise on me.
To my utter surprise, Meera walked up to where Anshuman Sir, Radhika, Kabir, and Suhani sat yammering their criticism.
“Last year, I was preparing for my IIT-JEE. I was a student at this coaching class, RK-JEE,” Meera said. “Have you heard of it?”
Utterly confused by the question, Anshuman Sir said, “My granddaughter studies at RK-JEE center in Juhu.”
Meera continued, “I had a teacher. His name was Rudransh Kashyap, aka RK-Ji. He was the best teacher in the world. Have you heard of him?”
Radhika and Anshuman Sir looked at one another, and then Anshuman Sir said, “RK-Ji is a visiting faculty in Juhu as well. My granddaughter is fond of him. She even copies RK-Ji’s speaking style.”
“RK-Ji used to say, and I quote: There are no bad students, only bad teachers,” she said. “You should practice the art of being a student first.”
Meera’s words were as much a shock to the big-boys club as they were to me.
Anshuman Sir, who was in the sixth decade of his life, didn’t take Meera’s words lying down. “Will you teach me how to be a good teacher?” he bellowed. “A new girl on the block.”
“If only you’re willing to learn.” Meera walked to where I stood and grabbed my shoulders. “When I say run, you run. Run as if you are a deer and I am a wildcat chasing you. Run for your life. If I catch you, I’ll slap you. Got it?”
I didn’t know what she expected me to say.
“Run!” she screamed.
I didn’t budge. Whack. In front of everyone, she hit me so hard at a corner of my head that my skin stung where her hand had contact with my skull.
“Run, I said!” she yelled again. “You fool.”
Slowly at first, I jogged around the room, but still, I didn’t understand what she was trying to accomplish. I kept my strides small, looked back at where the big boys sat, hoping they would intervene. But none of them said anything. True to her words, Meera outpaced me and swatted me on the back.
“Run,” she shouted again. This time, there was such urgency in her voice that running didn’t seem like an option anymore.
I picked the pace. At first, I ran only in the rehearsal hall, but after receiving three more blows on my back, I felt a need to find a way out. When her hand came up to hit me one more time, I ducked down and opened the door of the rehearsal hall to Kabir’s backyard. I headed for the beach that was right behind Kabir’s bungalow. For the next fifteen minutes, I ran on the beach, making sure Meera wouldn’t be able to tag me.
Now, thanks to years of dedicated practice at the gym, running was a skill that I was good at. The warm breeze stroked my face and whipped my curly hair around my head. I’d taken off shoes inside the rehearsal hall, so I was barefoot. My strides turned bigger, feeling the soil below my feet. It seemed like indeed, I was a deer, on the run from a leopard. I turned to gaze at Meera. She was well behind me, bent over, gasping for breath. When I was confident that she would stay far behind me, I took a shortcut and turned back towards the rehearsal hall.
Once I got there, I held my knees and gasped, “Will you stop Meera from bullying me?” I asked Kabir, panting. “That bitch slapped me in front of you.” Pointing a finger at him, I added, “I’m going to accelerate this matter. I’ll raise a complaint against her with the actor’s union. As if I don’t know why she is so bitter. It’s because I’ve got a flawless jawline whereas…”
I bit my tongue, but too late. Never in my wildest imagination, had I thought I could say such horrid words, but I had. Meera had returned to the hall and she overheard me.
“What did you just say, you bitch?” she asked, voice sharper than I’d ever heard it.
Rather than saying sorry, in the heat of the moment, I said, “You’re a bitch.”
I couldn’t believe that I was having a catfight with my co-star in front of the director and the producer of the film. How could I be such a kid?
Meera dug her hands in my hair and pushed me to the ground. I was still there, shaking with anger and regret, when she roared Riya’s lines, “What are you scared of? … Oh, you fattu.”
Either because of running, or her bullying behavior, or my own shame for saying what I had said, something inside me flipped.
I was no longer Priya but Kismat, and Kismat was angry because her love interest had yelled at her for not returning someone else’s love. Who the fuck did Riya think she was, dictating Kismat’s choices, calling her a coward?
Does it make you feel? Anything? If yes, then go for it.
Earlier, I spoke Kismat’s lines, filling them with the tenderness of unrequited love, but now, I said them as if I was calling names to Riya.
Sprinting back to my feet, I grabbed Meera’s t-shirt, narrowed my gaze at her face, and spoke my lines. “I’m not scared of love,” I yelled so loudly that Meera shuddered. “I’m scared of myself.” Balling my fists, I pulled out my hair. “What would I do if, on the path of this love, I reach a place where looking in the mirror, I won’t recognize my face?” My face contorted as if it gave me a scare. “What if in that mirror, I will see someone else’s face?” Jabbing a finger at her, I said, “Yours.” I covered my face in my palms and trembling uncontrollably, I started crying. “That’s what I am scared of. What if that mirror will break into tiny pieces?”
When I finished my lines, I was still sobbing, tears streaming down my cheeks. This wasn’t a gentle cry. It was a full-fledged weeping; snots ran from my nose that I wiped with the back of my palms. I had no memory of crying like this in front of anyone, not even my parents.
Saahil whooped. Kabir was on his feet, applauding.
“Wow. Where was this thunderstorm before today?” he said.
Radhika, Suhani, and Anshuman Sir joined in the standing ovation.
“I take back my words,” Radhika said. “Priya is not a brown Barbie. She is the Kismat, the good luck, of Spinster Villa.”
I looked at Meera. “Thank you,” I said between sobs.
“Any time,” she replied. “Bitch.”
Copyright 2021 Gautam