Much before I joined the Film Institute as a student, I began to go there as a reluctant actress. I was flattered at first by the offers that came my way, but soon realized that in the conservative town that Pune was then, the Film Institute with it’s reputation of rowdy, ‘junkie’ students was not exactly one where parents were keen to send their young daughters.
However it may have been, I found myself doing all manner of incomprehensible things in the Tarkovsky-Bresson-Godard influenced student films. “Walk, no, more slowly, more slowly, walk to that window, then look out, then turn slowly, no, more slowly, and smile.” That was the least of it.
I spent one evening floating on a makeshift raft in the middle of a make-believe pond in the ancient Studio No.1.
Another day, I was put to playing the guitar. Since it was the first time, in my 23 years, I was holding one, I did what most Hindi film actors do, plucked away on the strings with huge gusto, swaying my head, my shoulders and arms in what was meant to be musical involvement. I wonder now how the director hid his horror, though I’m certain the crew went back to their hostel rooms that evening and bitched about what an idiot I was.
Once someone wanted to recreate Vermeer’s paintings in his film, and I spent a week, reading letters at a window, and pouring milk from a jug and so on.
So, when I did become a student at the Film Institute, and had some voice in the proceedings,
and Gurpal, the irreverent, wicked Sardarji decided to make a spoof on Hindi films as his diploma, I begged and pleaded to be the vamp in his film. Being one of only six women in a campus full of boys, I knew there would be a role for me, but what I wanted was to be the gangster’s moll, nothing else. I’d had more than enough of playing strange, mysterious women, whom I knew nothing about. Gurpal, perhaps out of pity, agreed.
Out came the bottles of make-up that I had hoarded all this while, out came the eyeliner, and the mascara, and the shiniest eye shadow I could find. I worked out elaborate designs for my hair, for fake moles and fake tattoos. I went scrimmaging in the musty, forgotten trunks inherited by the Costume Department, from the Prabhat Studio, which no one ever used any more. I found odd, jangly, grotesque bits of jewellery, masks, eye-patches. I rummaged for shiny, satiny costumes, and wondered if I could make holes in them,
or Sonia Sahni,
then aware of the smelly bits of history I was holding in my hands, I refrained from using my scissors. I found a cigarette holder for one hand, and a gun for the other. I practiced crossing my legs with a mini-skirt on, and more than ever, I practiced leering lecherously at good, nice men, one of whom would be the hero, who would rather die than be tempted by me.
Finally, perched on the armrest of the gangster’s throne like chair, legs daringly crossed before the entire set, cigarette holder and gun held proudly aloft, I reached the peak of my acting career. After that role, I did not ever want to essay any other. I had been the gangster’s moll. No way you were going to catch me smiling vacantly out of set windows, onto dark studio lots again.
By the way, Teja played the hero in this film, a village boy who fights twenty villains at the same time.