Why you should care
Because with your name on a billboard, baby, you’ve made it.
There is a stretch of road along the beach in Juhu, a suburb of Bombay, with five or six huge billboards announcing the latest Bollywood releases. It is a busy stretch of road, one of my favorites in the city. On weekends, big empty buses await tourists visiting from nearby small towns. Weekday mornings are often quiet; lone couples — taking their cues from the latest box-office hit — walk the beach, holding hands, eating vada pav, the Bombay street-food of choice: a fried potato patty between two pieces of bread, topped with a spicy chutney, bought from stalls along Juhu Beach for about 10 rupees. The air is humid and saturated with Bollywood. This is the center of the country’s massive film industry.
I spent nearly four years in Bombay, in and around the peripheries of Bollywood. I regularly took rickety auto rickshaws up past that stretch of Juhu Beach Road for meetings with directors, producers and casting agents. Their offices boasted smaller versions of the posters lining the beach. When I passed the billboards, I would poke my head out of the auto-rickshaw to stare up at the names and faces: Kareena Kapoor and her permanent pout, Shah Rukh Khan with mischief in his eyes, Deepika Padukone, more radiant than all. The stars loom larger than life over this mad city. To be up on those billboards, I thought, was to have arrived. And finally, this month, there I was — my name on one of those billboards. My face was absent; the advertisement instead had the timeless face of Shabana Azmi, the most recognizable actor in the cast. Four years after filming, A Decent Arrangement — a small and beautiful independent movie — released in India Nov. 7. And I am in it.
My name is up on one of those coveted billboards at last.
I couldn’t make it to India for the premiere. Friends sent me blurry cellphone pictures as they whizzed past Shabana’s face, and my name, on their way to meetings with producers and directors in Juhu and beyond, the same trek I used to make. I made a decision to leave Bollywood, frustrated with how little control I had over my own life, three years ago. But this release allowed me to look back on the experience fondly. Four years later, my name is up on one of those coveted billboards on Juhu Beach at last.
In A Decent Arrangement, I play a free-spirited girl-next-door who charms the lead man, a confused young copywriter visiting from America. (No spoilers here; you will have to go see the movie to find out how our romance plays out.) I spent about seven weeks filming in North Indian city of Chandigarh. The main event looming large through the shooting: a scooter, which my character was to drive in several scenes. The assistant director brought it to me a few days before we began shooting. He told me to practice so I could drive casually. I practiced off and on in the hotel parking lot over three days and felt quite confident, but on the day that I was to actually film the two scenes on the scooter, my co-star — the male lead of the film — joined me on the vehicle. I had never practiced with a passenger. Behind us, a van rattled along, the back door open for the director, the cinematographer leaning out, camera in hand; an assistant driving a production car followed, too, to keep away the regular traffic. My co-star wore an earpiece into which the director gave instructions.
Chandigarh is a planned city, designed by Le Corbusier. The roads are laid out neatly, but little roundabouts interrupt the streets every so often. On that first day of the scooter shoot, after an initially wobbly start, we headed off down the roads of Chandigarh; I was feeling good. I made it through my first roundabout, managing to stay in character. And then I heard my co-star tell me to pull over.
“What?” I screamed, the wind, the excitement all too much to handle.
“We have to turn around.”
The next thing I knew, we had slammed into a motorcycle and were both thrown off our scooter.
Suddenly there was no production car protecting us to the right. The next thing I knew, we had slammed into a motorcycle and were both thrown off our scooter. India being India, a crowd formed, the production car returned and I was whisked back to my trailer. I was shaken but relatively unharmed. I lost a fingernail (which is actually unimaginably painful and proved surprisingly difficult to keep hidden from cameras for the rest of the shoot) and suffered a few bruises — but it was nothing serious. A doctor arrived at my trailer to look me over.
Though nothing much hurt, I was crying from the shock. The doctor declared me fit … and then asked if he could get an autograph for his son. My protective hairstylist scolded him for his insensitive timing. But my tears dried up: It was the first autograph request I’d had on that set and I dramatically wiped my eyes and scribbled my best wishes onto a piece of paper for the doctor’s son. Sitting now in New York City, feeling the winter’s rapid approach, I like the idea of that billboard up, keeping a small part of me warm on Juhu Beach.
I wonder if the doctor’s son will see the film.