What’s Wrong With Poor Part 3

I was ushered into the plush offices of someone or the other in the ITV building as if I was already almost a star. Finally, after a short wait of a few minutes, I was taken in to meet the great man himself, Franco Zeffirelli. Those of you who are my peers will have seen Romeo and Juliet directed by him. It was a rage and a super hit all over the world. That I was actually meeting this man at the tender age of eighteen, in this unexpected fashion, was completely bizarre and unreal for me.

He looked at me for a moment and smiled warmly, those sharp blue forget me not eyes boring right into me. Then he gabbled away in Italian to his team. ‘Maria Maria,’ they kept on saying while staring at me. Finally they sat me down and explained their conversation.

It seems that they felt I bore a strong resemblance to what they had in mind for casting for the Virgin Mary. However, as I had already read in the Daily Mail, Olivia Hussey had actually been signed for that role. They were trying to figure out if they could get out of that contract with her and cast me instead! Would I be able to fly down to Italy for a screen test? Would I? Well if you guys pay for my ticket and stay, why not, I joked. They all laughed and told me to come back the same evening.

The question I really wanted to know was this … how did they know about me, where I was studying and all that jazz? Remember in Part One I told you about the good old Birmingham Theatre School? Well turns out that the Vice Principle, a terribly stylish Mrs. Knight with platinum dyed hair at the age of 65 plus, had passed on my photographs to her agent friend in London around eight months ago. Maud Challenger turned out to be one of those agents you see in the movies, a diminutive shrunken chain smoking lady with the grand canyon etched all over her face, sharp as a razor. She was an agent for chorus girls and such things, and heaven knows how and why, but she passed my photographs over to the Zeffirelli team all those months ago. And no one did jack shit about them till the man himself saw them a few days prior to our meeting and then apparently all heaven and earth was moved to locate me! I have to say that in the days of no cell phones, well, people certainly had their ways!

SONI 17
The photograph of me that caught Zeffirelli’s eye 

 

Anyway… to cut a story short, they couldn’t wriggle out of the contract with Olivia, but they offered me a job (as an actor) on the series. I would be a part of their ‘actors rep’ for the duration of the Morocco schedule. The duration was two and a half months of filming and the salary was … 700 pounds a week! I nearly fainted. That was my fees for Guildhall taken care of for a while anyway.

My school was terribly supportive. They don’t ever allow students to work. But they knew I needed the money so they told me to take the first term off, do the series and come back for the second term. Of course I did that and even managed to go back home to India and family for a short trip after one and a half years time, because now I had some extra dosh.

Filming the series JESUS OF NAZARETH has been one of the highlights of my life. Never mind that I wasn’t playing the main role, or any important role, or didn’t become an overnight star or anything. As an experience it was just incredible. I met and worked with brilliant actors such as Robert Powell and Ian McShane and we were all actually like one huge happy family. If there was a hierarchy we were never informed about it. Everyone sat together, ate together, did make up together and travelled in a huge bus together. We were actors, travelling gypsies, making a six part mini series for ITV. I realized then, and this is a universal truth, that all actors, all over the world, are the same. We are a tribe of people. It doesn’t matter what the border or the boundary. We are almost one species. We have the same insecurities, the same understanding of what it takes to be an actor, and the same greed for life, because it is life after all, that gives us the fodder for our craft.

JESUS OF N 2
That’s me on the far left looking over the lady in black 

My big moment in filming came when we were doing a scene where Herod’s soldiers come on horseback, to kill every male child under the age of two.  I was playing one of the young mothers who loses her baby and runs out screaming.  I was so involved with the scene that as I ran out screaming in panic because they were killing my baby, I lost my self to the moment, and didn’t realise that I was running around in the middle of charging Arab stallions. I truly forgot what was going on. At one moment I almost ran underneath one.  The noble beast reared up in front of me,  like right over me, and made sure that he didn’t kick me.  Zeffirelli did not call cut.  Finally the scene ended with me weeping desolatley at the loss of my child.  When it was done, the whole set rang with thunderous applause and Zeffirelli came and hugged me.   I think they were clapping partly because I was still alive !

He didn’t forget me either.  A few years later, he tried to get in touch with me for a play that he was directing on the West End.  My bad luck, I was in India, and those were not the days of a quick e-mail here and there.  So I lost out on that one.

When I came back to school, (and down to reality with a bump) I still had to work every Saturday but was able to take Sunday’s off. My first job was in Selfridges in a restaurant there waiting tables. To this day I tip well because I know how hard people work.

Holidays were coming round again and I needed a summer job. I answered an ad in the papers for some market research work for an insurance agent. My job was to stand on the street with a questionnaire and buttonhole people into answering a list of questions. Then take their numbers if it transpired that they would be interested in insurance and so on.

Well, that summer was particularly hot. The streets were almost boiling. I was wearing Kolhapuri chappals and the tar on the road melted, and stuck to my feet, burning the soles. I ran into a nearby coffee shop to ‘cool off’. And then went back to Mr. Constantinou my Greek boss. I told him this job wasn’t for me and even though I really needed the job I couldn’t do it.

Now Greek men are so similar to Indian men its not even funny. He must have felt the same way about me perhaps. A kindred spirit in London. Anyways he was one of the nicest kindest people I have ever had the privilege of meeting in my life. He offered me a job cleaning his house and answering some calls while he was away at work, for about three hours a day. So that way I had also some time off during my holidays as well as a great job!

I also worked part time as an usherette in the Old Vic Theatre, among other jobs. My life was always about work and more work in those days, but I don’t remember ever really minding it much.

In my second year at drama school, I received a call one day from the BBC. They wanted to meet me for a drama series called PADOSI that was going to air on BBC 2 and was a soap about Punjabi immigrants who basically had ghettoized themselves in Southhall and didn’t really integrate with the local community or even learn how to speak English. So this series was targeted at them and every 5th episode was an English lesson. Quite clever! I was to play a young Punjabi immigrant – Amarjeet Kaur Gill. And guess who had recommended my name to them? You guessed it – Sayeed Jaffrey of Birmingham lift fame.

I also met some wonderful actors who are friends to this day, Roshan Seth, Indira Joshi, and the inimitable Zohra Segal, who became a really good friend to me while I was in the UK. Indira’s house in Cambridge became my refuge. And Roshan and I worked together later in a wonderful film, Such a Long Journey, and also became great friends. It was an honour working with him, gifted actor that he is.

The pay here was even better than what I was earning before. So I packed in Drama school finally. I was getting work and life was going to be so much easier.

But finally, I decided to come back home to Bombay and my parents.

You see it took me those eventful four years in the UK to discover that at the heart of it all, in the fiber of my being and the core of my soul, I was Indian. And I didn’t want to live in another country anymore. If I was to struggle and struggle I would, I wanted to do it in India.

Finally I packed my bags and bid farewell to my lovely hostel friends with some sadness and to the rats with great relief. But the rats had chewed that place down to a shred. A day after I left – I kid you not, one day – the roof of the floor above me fell onto my bed. Thank God I wasn’t in it. If ever I wondered subsequently why I came back to Bombay all I had to do was remember that incident and thank my lucky stars that I did!

Shortly after that the building was declared an endangered site by the council and everyone had to move out. I wonder what took them so long!

Please do not think that on these pages I am trying to glorify or romanticize ‘poverty’ in any way. Being worried about where the next few meals are coming from is in no way romantic. Its very tough and stressful, and not something I recommend as such. But I tell you what it does do. It makes you a stronger person and also makes you aware of how powerful the universe really is for those who make the effort. Every action truly does have an equal and opposite reaction, and the more you make happen for yourself, the more seems to happen to you in return. It is true it is true it is true.

All of us struggle at some point in our lives. And there are so many brave and incredible stories that can be told. Each one is a book by itself. My friend Raj Nayak came from a simple village near Manipal, and today he is the CEO of Colors. What a story he must have to tell. I must ask him about it one day. My friend Neena Gupta came from Karol Bagh to Bombay and lived in PG’s with pink walls and earth shattering train noises that made the walls shake and shudder till she made it. And today she is the proud owner of multiple houses. Another friend and her daughter left the sanctuary of a large new age foundation to come to Mumbai and live in a tiny hole while they both went to acting classes, while trying to make it in the entertainment business at the ripe young age of over 50 plus. In Bollywood alone, almost every actor’s journey will read something like a thriller….

And of course my own husband, who came from a film family past its prime, worked at odd jobs and then climbed the ladder from lowly production assistant to making five flop films as a director before hitting the jackpot. Who struggled with his inadequacies, gobbled up books on philosophy and film alike to learn about life, and dazzled everyone with his ability to excite and inflame passion within, to finally become so much more than a film maker.

But one thing is common to all who struggle valiantly to make a better life for themselves. They have audacity, courage and pragmatism. There is no fake need to prove anything before you actually land on the red carpet of success. There is no need to pretend you are other than who you are and what you are. That frees up so much of your energy to focus on what actually matters.

We are all students of life. I am still struggling to work and keep my dreams alive and kicking. But what on earth would life be if I weren’t?

So to anyone out there who cares to listen, if there is one thing that I have learned, it is this – yes its important to make it. But in order to do that if you have to lose who you really are, then your whole journey is a lie. And without being judgmental because who am I to be, what is the point of making something out of nothing when you don’t exist at the end of it all? What is the point of becoming a somebody when you are really a nobody because you betrayed the one person who struggled to get there – yourself?

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48 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Poor Part 3

    1. Amazing ..amazing read . You should write your memoir because your insights and observations are so well articulated and in a good spirit. I loved reading this. Thanks for sharing!

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  1. Superbly written, Soni. You express yourself beautifully. I recall those Sunday mornings when we used to gather in the ‘lounge’ in front of the b&w tv to watch you in that BBC serial. We did have fun though, the rats notwithstanding. As you rightly said, it was a home away from home and you all were the family at our wedding.

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  2. your writing has just taken me back to my times of struggle , instead of seeing it as difficult times I always feel that’s the time which has molded me to be a better human being ,i enjoyed each and every bit of it, it has made me more humble and thankful for what I have , Thanks for penning and sharing your thoughts which resonates so deeply with people who has taken the challenge of life with a smile.

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  3. Good read but major typo vice ‘principle’ should read ‘principal’! U may say what’s the big deal and yes it is as I almost didn’t read the rest and would have lost on reading an otherwise fine piece!

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  4. What a lovely piece! Loved that line: “Every action truly does have an equal and opposite reaction, and the more you make happen for yourself, the more seems to happen to you in return.” I hope that it is true it is true it is true. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  5. What an inspiring experience… I am 41 yrs and not in the most pleasant state of mind… what an appropriate timing!!! Thank you Soni ji..keep inspiring!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow! I wish people can understand how important it is know yourself before living a fake life… I hate this about our culture. In other cultures people openly tel you why they can’t come out or how they are broke. Struggle is so real, one thing which got stuck with me when you mentioned that you really didn’t mind doing those odd jobs at that point. I remember my university days when I was juggling three jobs… I really didn’t mind it. When you are honest with yourself priorities take precedence over pretence.

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  7. And here we 20 somethings crib about all that we go through when it all so sorted. True, every bit of success comes from sheer perseverance, determination & hard work. Thank you for letting get back to a piece that is an undeniable truth when we feel the world’s going against us.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. What a wonderful read of a real journey! Thank you for sharing..I am sure it is going to inspire many to take a reality check yet follow their dreams.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Soni, I love your English. You were always my favourite and now it’s Alia who resembles you so much. Very nice article. You seem to have lead a very content life doing creative things

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  10. Beautifully penned,Soni.

    I so relate to the growing up years you describe…as the daughter of an upright and honest bureaucrat , I received the best education, enviable exposure to the arts, culture and literati and a very privileged upbringing in Lutyens Delhi ..but we never had luxuries. We travelled in DTC buses, special treats meant eating at Nirulas and lived happily in our Rs 50 pm pocket money that covered the cost of our music cassettes and birthday gifts!

    We all knew we had to work hard to carve out our own destiny and success stories. Today, by Gods grace, having achieved some measure of success (or so defined by current standards) I still maintain that all the money in the world will not help me provide the same privileged upbringing to my kids…its just not possible. Yes, that life was different. Agree those times were simpler but somewhere today, our value system has changed. We may be monetarily rich, but the richness of being is another matter all together. This desire to show the world that we are happy, successful and have arrived no matter what has permeated into every layer of our society and is eating into its very core. Wisdom and experience are undervalued when compared to monetary success. Culture and class are sacrificed at the altar of wannabe show-ism. Everyone is aping the same stereotypes as a result of which individualism has been damned and they all look the same. I detest comparisons…and comparisons between generations are the worse not to mention unrealsitic. Nevertheless, this slow erosion of self worth over conforming to societal expectations and keeping up with the Joneses is alarming.

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    1. Very well said ! Yes – those times were so different… even those that had money didn’t really have the opportunities to flash it around like there are today.. I mean at the end of the day which car could you really buy and what could one really do with it to show that one had it ? The whole ethos was different. You are absolutely right when you say we cant provide the same to our kids even if we tried very hard.

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  11. Love,love,love the last two paragraphs! Even after being an Blogger/Youtuber for more then a year now! I still find I have so much to learn from you! So inspiring!😘 Look forward for more such amazing blog posts!

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  12. Love,love the last two paragraphs! Even after being an Blogger/Youtuber for more then a year now! I still find I have so much to learn from you! So inspiring!😘 Look forward for more such amazing blog posts!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. this is such a wonderfully written piece, so inspirational. i could never have imagined that you had to struggle so much. i once read in your daughter’s interview that her lifelong ambition is to buy a house for you in london and i was like why london?? now i understand 🙂 looking forward to more such pieces from you

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  14. You are so Beautiful Mam and so does your autobiography is.so once I happen to hear that Beautiful things a person has experienced in his/her life makes that person more beautiful. I think you have experienced the most wonderful things in your life that makes you More Beautiful. Thanks

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  15. Thank you so much ma’am for sharing your story, giving hope to disheartened twenty-somethings like myself, brought up with more privileges than most yet struggling to make something of ourselves, that we will always get what we deserve in the end; that even the best have to struggle, but if they pursue their goal doggedly, then they would always achieve it.

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    1. Oh Neha, enjoy the journey ! Its a great time to be twenty something today, and yet, I understand how much more stressful it probably is today than ever before. But the world is always waiting for you to claim it 🙂

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  16. Part III literally speaks for itself. It gave me the inescapable and primitive signs of admiration and shock common to most mammals: goosebumps. The end crescendoed poetically yet humbly. You are truly a kind, gifted, and beautiful mind.

    Your words of caution won’t fall on blind eyes or deaf ears. Indeed, chipping away at oneself may seem like a small price to pay to fit in somewhere, but in the end, you wake up one day and don’t recognize what’s left because you’ve taken too much away. It’s absolutely amazing how much resolve you had at such a young age. It reminds me of the fire that raged in me when I would sell things I wanted but didn’t need so I could pay for school. I remember the quiet when I studied for my courses juxtaposed against my grumbling stomach because I skipped meals to instead be able to feed my brain.

    Compromise is integral to success, but defining success is where people go awry. I think very often those who succeed are the ones that do not abuse their future selves at the expense of their present or past. Putting off life goals for fleeting and hollow rejoice today is extremely shortsighted, figuratively and literally. Myopic thinking is contradictory to real perspective.

    I’m excited for what this blog holds in store for me and the rest of your audience. I’ve just one favor to ask: if you’re ever in Los Angeles, please don’t deny me the pleasure of philosophizing with you over coffee some day! I would be eternally grateful 🙂

    Oh and you would have rocked the role of Mary!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha Sana that was a great last line !
      Would love to meet you someday. You know exactly what I’m talking about – i can sense that spirit there that drives one to do ones utmost to deliver. Look forward to your replies always, they are so enlightening. You are an attorney ? Please tell me some more about yourself 🙂

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      1. So happy you accepted my invitation 🙂 I have my Bachelors degree in psychology and history, and then I attended law school after undergraduate and obtained my Juris Doctor degree. I was licensed at 25, and in the 5 years I’ve been practicing, I feel my brain has expanded and become more efficient in a lot of ways. For the first 3.5 years, I practiced all sorts of areas of law from business litigation to medical malpractice, family law, criminal defense, and civil rights litigation. It was very exciting, but I had to rip apart the way I was used to thinking and reconstruct my entire framework to live up to the responsibility of holding people’s lives and well-being in my hands.

        In the modern age, especially in America, legal dilemmas are more frequent and far more taxing on a person’s health than actual medical illness. I’ve watched CEOs of successful companies fall to their knees and lose sleep because of legal problems. I’ve had the good fortune to give single mothers peace of mind while they were working very hard to support their children in the absence of a financially supportive and emotionally attentive ex-husband who had decided to file paperwork to gain custody of children just to reduce the amount of child support owed. I learned very early on that I strongly disliked bullies, and I had the power to affect the direction of change with legal practice.

        Life is a composite of manifest and latent realities. The law is nothing more than translating those realities into words to understand how things operate best in their natural state – similar to how mathematics is a numerical representation of natural phenomenon. Factual scenarios that deviate from the law create imbalance, and restoring imbalance is the true purpose of the law. Many people think it’s all about posturing and innovation to get ahead, and that belief is not entirely misplaced. Anything can be abused: you can use a knife to cut bread and feed others or you can use it to harm. The law is no exception to the consequences of free will, but I’m inherently optimistic about the innate kindness people possess. I think everyone’s just trying to get by, and when I dealt with clients I tried to remember their legal dilemma was a trying time in their lives and it may bring out the worst in otherwise good people. So I sort of saw my role as a shield, guarding them from the legal posturing of their opponents, and protecting their interests to the best of my ability.

        In actuality, practice has given me more than I have contributed so I’m pretty indebted to it. It has allowed me to grow a lot as a person. The responsibility of another’s well-being can ignite hidden potential in the person taking it on. Life is full of opportunities to learn, and my philosophy has always been that knowledge, from any source, is a blessing and priceless commodity. If you’ve ever been in a desolate landscape devoid of human invention, you look around and you see trees and plants or maybe desert and sand. You wonder how far man has come, but the more impressive realization is that every single thing we have today – from iPhones to cars to factories to aircraft to the clothing we strut around in to impress one another – all of this has always existed. The knowledge to create all of this came from the same places that seem “empty” today. All these places were teeming with the same electromagnetic forces that allow cell phones to work, and beneath your feet were the same silicon deposits that form the circuits of computers. In the bark of trees was the potential for paper. It wasn’t until we sought knowledge and cared and questioned that we were rewarded with what we have now.

        The mind works in the same way, I think. There are so many avenues of understanding that remain unexplored, but it isn’t until we ask the right questions, interact with all sorts of differing minds, and expose ourselves to the stories of others that we have any chance of uncovering new modes of thinking, feeling, and processing the reality around us.

        You are a prime example of this. Before your blog, I assumed you were a generous but entitled individual who was handed certain things in life. Yet your story is so telling, and it seems you’ve struggled and, more importantly, endured things most people would encounter and relinquish their drive because of. You pressed on. I think in your story is hope for people who assume that to “make it” in life, you have to have it already made. That just isn’t true. So for that priceless reminder, thank you once again!

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  17. Its one of the best ways to make people understand that hard work pays off… Your story is an answer to certain article which I have read multiple times.. But didn’t know how to tell them that just to look good and being able to pay bills pf five star lunches, brunches, dinners for others is not the way to be noticed or say to be Urban Poor..

    I really wish they read this story which says hard work and to ‘make it happen’ in good spirit does help to climb one stair at a time and be a sure shot way to have best of life..

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  18. This is such a pleasant readand inspiring too. I love it where you talk of the universe working to bring us closer to our goal. There is certainly no substitute to hardwork. Being in my 20’s , i think my generation really needs to learn a lot from you guys. There was thought, there was fermentation of mind. Even luxuries were marked with simplicity, at least till the upper middle class. Values were important and were respected. There was a certain way of life tha, atleast I , much envy!!
    Beautiful piece that certainly brought a smile on my face. Looking froward to more of your wise words.
    Tada!

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  19. I am the Urban Poor you are talking about here. We want everything now and right now. We define our success with the cost of clothes and phone we own despite we compromising on important things.

    Very very though provoking Maam

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  20. Mam,
    Wonderfully written. I came to know about this article from a newspaper and found it finally.
    I was so glad that its available so easily and I don’t have to go and find it on some book store like we do for other personalities.
    It feels like next door.
    Please do keep writing. For eg : your experience with Mr Bhatt, and ofcourse Alia.

    thanks a lot

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  21. Dear Sonijee,
    what a wonderful real life story you have told us. It’s truly honest and inspiring. You have written it so well and fluently that one just can’t help but go on reading. Hats off to you, really! My best wishes to you and your lovely daughter.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. So beautifully written. You take the reader through this journey! I lived every moment, and this comes in as such a relief in these times when there is so much numbness all around, and one is searching for some feeling to flood the senses. Snippets of life, weaved in so beautifully by the words. Words that light up the dark corners of our lives and teach us that it takes a dark night to see the abundance in the glow of a firefly. Artists, and not just actors, are a tribe. And you can recognize them instantly…for who else can be so alive? And the ending- you couldn’t have summed it up better! I read this whole post to my mother, and as I read it, I was so overcome, and so was she. Please keep writing!

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    1. Thank you so much ! Your words are full of feeling … and it makes me feel so good that my feelings resulted in making another feel too 🙂 You also express yourself beautifully and I think you should write too !
      Love

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      1. What makes your writing so moving is that it has captured life- the essence of human experience. Thank you for replying on such a warm note- I shall cherish this comment from you and hope that some day, I will get to talk to you in person! In the meantime, please keep writing! Love!

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