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!
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.
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?