The phone is ringing when she walks into the room but Deepika ignores it. She doesn’t want the husky, anonymous voice to spoil her day. Everything is going perfectly. Her cleavage is mesmerising her ageing co-star, Chet, into speechlessness, and she’s slowly upstaging him. Her ability to turn up sober and on time is making sure the director, Hanif Masood, is letting her get away with it. If she has a reputation for being over-friendly, she might as well use it. This is shaping up to be her second big break, what she needs to banish the spectre of Sajani for good. She kicks off her shoes, and throws her peach and gold dopatta over the violet plush armchair. The colours clash magnificently. There have been fresh flowers every few days, and this time it’s jasmine, sweet and heady.
The phone is finally silent, and her hand hovers over it. She could call Jayvita, but their father will be preparing for bed and wouldn’t let her answer. They keep early hours in Shirgaon. She decides to test the kitchen at the Novotel and her starlet status, and order room-service. She could get ukdiche modak, truly commemorate where her resurgence started, meeting Adarsh at the Ganesh festival. That might be tempting fate, the movie is only halfway through. She settles for mango poli, made with Alphonso mangoes, and ginger tea.
She’s soaking in the tub with the marble surround, in the bathroom that’s the same size as her flat in Kolad, when the phone rings again. She takes it off the hook, and settles into the king-size bed, into well-pressed, lavender-scented sheets. She’ll need to be rested for tomorrow. The hotel’s almost inperceptible aircon has tamed the Mumbai humidity, but they’re filming on Juju beach tomorrow. Even with the sea breeze, the temperature will be exhausting.
“I was surprised to see you at the Ganesh festival. I thought you’d left Shirgaon for good, the film career was going well?”
“You must be the only person who didn’t hear the horrible things my co-star said after we finished shooting Sajani. I’m taking a rest from the drama.”
Deepika’s kept the studio taxi waiting, looking for her powder-blue high-heeled mules, which she’ll need for the scene in the nightclub today. She wasn’t supposed to take them off set, but they match her favourite sequinned top. She’s five minutes late walking to the lot and she’s mobbed by reporters as she tries to cross the street. They’re waving cameras and microphones at her face, but she’s learnt her lesson after Sajani, so adjusts her Donna Karan sunglasses and holds one beringed hand up to block them out. The trick is to feed them enough for them to think you’re worthwhile but not let them devour you. The blaring of horns and the shouting of a panni puri vendor is almost drowning them out.
“Deepti, Deepti, what’s your relationship with the happily married Legislative Member Tandon?”
“He knows my father.”
“Deepti, what do you say to rumours there is proof you have a more intimate relationship?”
“Rumours are just rumours. You know this. There will be no proof.”
“What about the proof that he’s financing this movie?”
She sees her chance and squeezes between a sunshine-yellow rickshaw and a man waving at his cow that’s decided to sit in the middle of the road. The reporters get stuck behind the traffic patiently waiting for the cow to make up its mind, and most turn away. As she slides into the lot the set bodyguard, Vandit Singh, strides out to meet the press stragglers. He nods at her. With his tall, broad-shouldered silhouette and imposing turban, he could have made it on camera if it hadn’t been for the smallpox scars that cover his face. She rushes into make-up and is having her long, wavy hair teased into a beehive as Chetan “Chet” Mehrotra slinks into the room. He reeks of stale smoke, Vicks VapoRub and something saccharine. He’s been trying to catch her undressed since the begining of the shoot last week. Her powder-blue mules match his eyes, and he’s taken that as a sign.
“So, Deepika, those reporters, hein? Already, we’re creating buzz.”
“Deepti, please. Only my father still calls me that, and you’re not old enough.”
He runs his hand through his thinning, slicked-back hair, secure that those famous eyes and square jaw are still enough to cast a spell.
“You don’t need all that make-up, muje phool, my flower.” Nila, the willowy dark-skinned make-up artist, snorts. He folds his manicured hands over his burgeoning paunch and licks thick lips. “So, your outfit today. Good change from those widow clothes. For a Mussulman, Masood knows what sells a movie.”
Deepika pouts for Nila to apply dark-red lipstick but flutters her eyelashes for Chet. He swallows and licks his lips again.
“So I’ll see you on set. Make sure that kipstick is lissproof.”
As he oozes away, Nila breaks into giggles.
“Make sure that kipstick is lissproof! I’m sorry for you, darling. I could smell the Bacardi from here. He thinks that Vicks covers it up! Watch out for wandering hands.”
“Oh, Nila.” Deepika stands up and adjusts her long, silver, filigree earrings. “There are worse things, believe me.”
The phone is ringing as she rushes into the hotel room, dropping her bag, kicking off her shoes and untying her hair as she goes. Jayvita has promised to ring today, a “first day on set” tradition. But the voice on the other end is muffled and she doesn’t catch what they’re saying. Then there’s a clicking sound and she hears herself speaking, low and seductive.
“He was lying, you know. I’d never throw myself at a boy like him. I prefer older men, more experienced.” A pause, filled with rustling and murmurs. Then, lower still, so the voice is almost unrecognisable:
“Tumhi mlaa kru shkaal kaay, can you help me?”
She hangs up, and sits trembling on the edge of the dark-covered king-sized bed, that seems now like a fathomless hollow.
Hanif has hired out fashionable China House in Bandra for Chet’s birthday party. They’ve stuffed themselves with Cantonese and Sichuan delicacies from a vast buffet, tended by slender girls in gold and red kimonos with gold chopsticks in their hair. Tea-smoked duck, spiced fish, crispy squid, all fragrant and delicious. Deepika is finshing a plate of lychees, perfumed but cloying. Vandit has brought his wife, and they are just leaving. They made a striking couple, in matching blue turbans and chunky steel braclets. Him in a Prussian blue linen kurti and tightly-laced black Oxfords, her in a lavender salwar kamees and jewelled slippers. They’re starting to clear tables to make space for the dance floor, and the achingly hip DJ flown in from Hong Kong. Deepika is staring at the Singh’s retreating backs as a soft voice, as honeyed as the lychees, says:
“Have you heard the story that he lost that finger on his left hand in a machete fight? Or the one about a tiger? Everyone has a backstory in this place.”
She smells citrus and menthol, and turns to see Suria, the PR lackey from Jaguara Petroleum. She’s poured into a green and silver kimono-style dress she must have brought with her from Singapore, and four-inch strappy silver sandals that bring her up to Deepika’s chin. Her hair is back-combed into a bun and studded with fake diamonds. If she didn’t insist on wearing yellow-toned lipstick that doesn’t flatter her very white teeth, she’d fit in with the models that flock to Hanif’s parties. Even though he’s married and always brings his wife.
“I was thinking about leaving, I’ve never heard of this DJ, and it’s my big scene tomorrow.”
“Stay a half-hour more. Hanif will notice who eats and leaves. Chet’s chasing one of the servers, he won’t bother you.”
This woman has been in Mumbai for five minutes and she thinks she’s worked out all the angles. Deepika raises one eyebrow and picks up her Mai-tai.
“There’s nothing happening with Chet. We’re just co-stars.”
“So is it the young gangster with the girlish cheekbones you have your eye on? I think you might not be his type.”
Curly-haired, sallow-faced Xavier Alva is standing by a golden statue of a laughing Buddha, looking uncomfortable in a crisp white shirt that strains across his well-muscled chest. He’s with Geet, just Geet, the bald cinematographer with the thin moustache and the Rolex. He usually leaves his wife at home. This is Xavier’s fourth picture, and his first co-lead, and there are whispers about his sexuality. Something about always wearing open-toed sandals, even on his Harley. Bollywood’s ability to make 2+2 into 22 is breath-taking, and Deepika seems to be talking to a master of the art.
“I haven’t got my eye on anyone. This picture is just business for me.”
Suria is biting her bottom lip, as if she’s trying to stifle a smile.
“I hope I’m not making you uncomfortable? It’s just my job. Making sure nothing comes out of the woodwork that we can’t spin. Your love-lives are much messier than oil spills!”
Deepika must have laced up the strings of her sequinned bustier too tight. This woman is openly confessing to professional stalking. She puts down her glass and reaches for the water jug.
“But you’ve got nothing to worry about, right? All that’s behind you. Everyone’s almost forgotten about, well your other movies.”
Deepika holds the cold water against the pulse jumping in her neck. Suria is primping at her hair, sure of the effect she’s having. The glass feels slippery in her hand.
“Tumhi kaay mehntaa te melaa sumjit naahi, I don’t understand you.”
“Oh, is that Hindi? It’s one of my languages but you speak so fast here. My Tamil is better.”
“It’s Marathi. I said, I think you’ve got lipstick on your teeth.”
Suria produces a compact from an invisible pocket, and starts staring at her face. Deepika slides away and takes refuge in a white-washed niche containing a tall bamboo plant, on the way to the bathrooms. Was all that a threat? Or just casting a lure, to see if she bit? Professional, not personal.
Her chest is easing, and she slips out of her mules. Two slim almost-definitely models glide past, in short silk skirts, Jimmy Choos and a cloud of Anna Sui.
“I don’t know if I could show my face.”
“She’s been through this before, yaar, with Sajani. All publicity is good publicity.”
“But with Adarsh Tandon! I mean, he has that older man, touch-of-grey hottie thing, but he’s old enough to be her father.”
“She’ll be older than she looks, And, Sweetie, it’s her father who introduced them!”
As they walk, giggling, into the black laquered bathrooms, Deepika throws up the lychees into the plantpot.
“So, your family is well, Deepika?”
“Thik aahe, they’re well, Mr Tandon. But did you bring me to your hotel room to talk about my father?
Deepika sprawls awkwardly in the plush violet armchair. She wants to call Jayvita, hear a friendly voice, but the phone hasn’t stop ringing since she got back from the set two hours ago. She grinds her toes into the coffee-coloured plush carpet and realises she’s only managed to kick off one of her high-heeled powder-blue mules.
Her low-cut matching blue dress is starting to wrinkle, worn all day for nightclub-scene reshoots, but she can’t summon the energy to get changed. Her long dark wavy hair is loose and sticking to her neck, she’s forgotten to turn on the aircon. She misses the whirr of ceiling fans, brushing cool air over skin. The indigo walls, splashed with gold flowers, are swamping her. It’s not only that the phone now rings every hour, on the hour, until three a.m. every night. If she did ring someone, what would she say? And is this room bugged too?
Suria has told her to meet her at the Jungle cafe in the Mega Mall. The shiny, white, faux-marble monstrosity has glass automatic doors and coloured flags fluttering at the top. A man in a white dhoti and brown chapaals spits red paan juice into the street nearby.
The petite Malay woman is holding a menthol cigarette as Deepika walks up.
“That’s a great dress. Fashion Street? I can’t get into any of the clothes at the market, they’re not made for women with hips.”
“They’d look at your shoes and charge you double anyway. Is this a social visit?”
“Sit down, order something. They have great seafood.”
A waiter appears, dressed like a forest ranger with short-cropped hair and an apron. Deepika points to the first thing on the menu, crab salad with mango salsa. Suria gets a grilled chicken sandwich and iced tea. Across the mall, denim-clad teenagers are giggling at the fishpond with the statue of Venus, before taking selfies next to the glass elevator.
“So, you know we’re both village girls? I expect Shiragoan’s got nothing like this place. And it’s hard being a Malay in Singapore business. You have to work much harder if you’re not Chinese.”
“I’m glad there’s nothing like this in my town. You should see the Hanuman temple. We’re not bonding, Suria.”
“I was just trying to make this easier for you.” She pushes her shiny, black bob over one ear, showing off yellow gold studs.
“There’s been some … concerns about how things are going on set.”
The waiter brings their drinks and she smiles at him automatically. She squeezes the pineapple slice from the garnish on her Jungle Juice. Hanif wouldn’t have told, he’s an Actors’ Director. Chet wouldn’t dare, she knows too much about him, Vandit is the only one who looks her in the eye. She moves to crushing mint leaves. It couldn’t be Nila?
“Everything’s fine on set. I’ve had a little stomach bug. Hanif gave me the day off, they’re filming the ambush at the gang hideout.”
Suria takes out an ice cube and crunches it. Then that bitten-bottom-lip trick is back.
“Come on, we both know your big scene was a little … lacking. You’ve been … distracted. You’re looking tired.”
There are dark circles under her oversized sunglasses, and under the turquoise chiffon maxi-dress she hasn’t bothered to shave her legs or paint her toenails. All offences that would put her at the top of the Walking Disaster column in Femina magazine.
“The company are wondering, do you need some more time off? Maybe go back home? There’s time to recast.”
The pressure is back again on her chest, and the aircon must have stopped working. Suria is sipping iced tea calmly, lipstick perfect, showing no sign of equipment failure.
“Everything is fine.” She tries to breathe slowly through her mouth.
“Look, cards on the table. I know about the Ganesh festival. We both know your best performances are … off-camera.”
Deepika picks up a toothpick and stabs it into the table, pretending it’s Suria’s stubby-fingered hand.
“Are you threatening me? Are you working for the company, or for him?” The toothpick breaks. “Are you phoning me?”
“Calm down, you just sound paranoid now. I’m trying to help you. You know, this business isn’t for everyone.”
The waiter has brought their food. Deepika pushes away from the table.
“I’m not hungry. “ Suria is smirking openly, reaching for her sandwich. As she strides away, Deepika whispers to the waiter. “Hya sāheb sarva denaṅ detīl, this lady will pay for everything.”
It’s a tiny victory.
There was a different hotel suite, with soft velvet curtains, a mini-bar and a larger bed with a purple, quilted-silk bedspread.
“So, your father is well, Deepika? And your sister? She was promising well. But then your mother was a very beautiful woman.”
“Thik aahe, they’re well, thank you, Mr Tandon. But did you bring me to your hotel room to talk about my father?”
“I thought you might like a quiet drink, my dear. Hanif throws excellent parties but they can be crowded. We have privacy here.”
“Coke and a splash of whiskey then, Mr Tandon. Can I sit here on this bed? I’ve never seen anything so comfortable.”
There is the sound of throat-clearing, the swish of silk and the bounce of bedsprings.
“Hrmm, call me Adarsh, my dear. Let me just get those drinks.”
The clink of glass, liquid glugging. Soft, indistinct murmurs.
“Do you know Hanif Masood well? I hear he’s casting for a new movie.”
“He’s talking to me about finance. I’ve helped him before and the petroleum company is doing well.”
“Oh yes, you’re opening an office in Singapore. How exciting! I’ve never been further than Jodhpur, for shooting.”
“That’s why I was surprised to see you at the Ganesh festival. I thought you’d left Shirgaon for good, the film career was going well?”
“You must be the only person who didn’t hear the horrible things my co-star said after we finished shooting Sajani. I think he got caught up in his own publicity. I’m taking a rest from the drama.”
More chinking, perhaps ice in whiskey tumblers. Or earrings as hair is tossed. Or bangles being removed.
“That’s a very pretty dress, my dear. You know, if I’m going to make a success of this run for the Legislative Assembly, I’ll have to spend more time here in Mumbai.” Words overlaid by footsteps. “I’m thinking of buying a place on Marine Drive.”
“I think that was more than a splash of whiskey, Adarsh.”
The last word is breathy, then voices are muffled again by movements. A clunk, a glass being placed down. Louder rustling of fabric.
“He was lying, you know. I’d never throw myself at a boy like him. I prefer older men, more experienced.”
Murmurs now, indistinguishable sounds. Crinkling? Creaking? Someone whispers, tumhi mlaa kru shkaal kaay, can you help me?
It’s her big scene today. Chet has tracked her down, and is about to tell her the real story of her husband’s death, killed by gangsters behind his nightclub. She has to show surprise, disbelief, grief, anger, resolve. All while being back-lit in her white window’s sari so it’s partly transparent. They’re on the eleventh take.
She covers her ears, and turns her head away.
“No, no. I don’t believe you. My husband would have told me. He wouldn’t take on … gangsters.”
Chet has spent two hours in make-up with cold cucumber slices on his eyes to reduce puffiness. Someone has told him Brut smells better than Vicks. It’s not true.
“He wanted you to be safe. No one else was standing up. It was something he had to do.”
“Cut!” someone yells.
Deepika flops to the floor. Rajesh. Her fake dead husband’s name is Rajesh. Hanif is suddenly in front of her, she can see his brown leather sneakers. She tilts her head up slowly, past Calvin Klein jeans, and a dark-grey Armani shirt with trails of white embroidered ivy leaves up to a ponytail and neatly trimmed goatee. She squints tentatively at his face. He’s rubbing his bulbous nose.
“Deepti, look. Sometimes it just doesn’t flow. Xavier’s here, Chet’s here and mostly functioning. We can block out the scenes in the gang hideout. Take a day. We can come back to this.”
He gives her that charming, mischievous smile that has actors nodding along and models flocking to his parties. She knows she’s being dismissed. She gathers her belongings and waves at Nila, who catches her eye in the mirror but doesn’t wave back. Vandit nods, his thick, frizzy eyebrows drawn together and his mouth a thin line under his greying moustache. Someone starts a slow clap as she walks off the lot but she doesn’t look back.
The phone is silent tonight, and Deepika is sprawled on the bed wrapped in the white cotton hotel bathrobe. It’s the motorbike chase tomorrow so she won’t be needed until the afternoon.She didn’t let the maid service in today, suspicious of strangers, and the jasmine is starting to brown. The heady fragrance bordering on overripe. She turns on the forty-inch flatscreen TV, and flips to MTV. It’s the Celebrity section of the news. A skinny VJ in skinny jeans and false eyelashes finishes gushing about Shah Rukh Khan and starts talking about her movie. She turns the sound up.
“Deepti Kamble’s new movie Badala was set to be a smash hit. It’s her first since the scandal that was Sajani, but Sssh!” Fake fingernail held up to pouting pink lips. “She wouldn’t want us to talk about that. She played it smart and waited for this remake of a Sri Devi classic, directed by award-winning Hanif Masood and shot by the one and only Geet. Deepti plays a young woman whose soldier husband is killed by a gang leader, played by hot commodity Xavier Alva. She turns for help to Bollywood darling Chet Mehrotra, a nightclub owner and love interest with underworld connections. But how far will she go for revenge?
“Now the set is dogged by rumours of how far Miss Kamble will go for a role. Her friendship with Legislative Assembly member Adarsh Tandon is also in the spotlight, and threatens to overshadow anything that’s happening on scr—”
Deepika jabs at the off button, then throws the remote on the floor. She needs some time away. Some quiet time.
“That’s a very pretty dress, my dear. You know, if I’m going to make a success of this run for the Legislative Assembly, I’ll have to spend more time here in Mumbai. My wife would stay with the children in Shirgaon. I’m thinking of buying a place on Marine Drive.”
“I think that was more than a splash of whiskey, Adarsh. But I’ve always loved Marine Drive. And the good thing about this dress is, it’s so easy to take off.”
She leaves through the kitchen and the tradesman’s entrance, as the front is still mobbed by reporters and photographers. In a dark green salwar kamees, hair simply tied back, just eyeliner and no powder to cover up her freckles, Deepika blends in with the crowds that flock to Juhu beach. No cameras turn in her direction.
She passes a panting beige street dog with an upturned tail, a dark-skinned man in a thin white singlet selling buta, roasted corn, and people eating bhel puri. There is salt in the air and the smell of prawns from the fishing boats, who’ve sold their catch and gone home. There used to be an elephant before they cleaned up the beach, and now there are horse-drawn carriages for the tourists. She makes straight for the edge between sand and ocean. She removes her sandals and lets the waves splash over her feet.
The sun is starting to set, and the sky is turning pink, creating purple highlights on the water. A crowd is gathering around a dancing monkey, the emerging shadows darkening its fur and creating deep pools under its liquid brown eyes. It moves slowly and deliberately, in contrast to its bright red fez, gold waistcoat and the bangra music coming from a radio held by a tall, scrawny man. She pictures the Hanuman temple, with the flanking coconut-palm trees and carved stone arches, then brushes at damp eyes and looks back at the sun.
It was a place like this where she was discovered for the best-friend part in Pyaar, that lead to Sajani, that lead to this. There is nothing left for her here. They can finish the picture without her. She could take up some modelling offers in Kolad, but she never really unpacked there. She could apologise to her father, finish college. Spend her evenings sipping mango lassi on the porch with Jayvita talking about her day at school.
Water swirls onto the beach and washes everything away.