The Casting Couch
"This way, this way!" he said, as he guided her into a little wooden cabin in the studio. "Sit down, sit down!" he said pleasantly, pointing to a large couch and proceeding to close the door.
Tania looked around - on the walls were a few pictures of the director taken with Bollywood luminaries, a desk and chair stood in a corner, and of course there was the large divan.
"So this is it!" she thought to herself. The thing she had heard from everyone around her, the one thing that stood between her and her acting dreams. But she had come so far, a great director was giving her a chance, and he had brought her here for 'discussions'.
They spent over two hours in that cabin. She was a bit disappointed, all he did was ask a lot of questions. A lot of questions. A really huge number of questions. That's all. No mention of that thing.
Her first film got her a Filmfare Best Supporting Actress. She played a tribal belle who fell in love with a city boy who got lost in the forest. She couldn't complain about the clothes or the waterfall or the gullibility, that is supposed to be the tribal ethos. But she resented having to lose the hero to the city babe.
In her second film she played a tribal belle, who lost her tribal hero to a city girl. He went to the city looking for work and forgot her, and when she went to claim him had a tough National Award-winning time there.
She said no when the script of the third film was narrated to her. Yes, the media called her the director's darling. Yes, it said she was around in filmdom only because of him. Yes, yes yes to all things the media said about her. But no, she was not going to play the part of another tragic tribal belle, even if she was going to get the Best Actress Filmfare for it.
Shireen Mehnaz was now the director's favourite. Shireen Mehnaz, the actress who won a National Award for playing the role of a burqa-covered woman from Budayun, abandoned by her husband for a sexier babe from Bandra. Shireen Mehnaaz, the actress who won a Filmfare for the next film she did - in which she was the burqa-covered woman who saved her husband from the clutches of a vamp from Delhi. Shireen Mehnaz, who didn't want to play burqa-covered women ever again.
She was replaced by Minal Bhatt. Whose Filmfare, Screen and IIFA-winning performance for the role of a Brahmin girl caught between her love for a non-Brahmin boy and her community prejudices was the talk of the town. Whose next role as a Brahmin girl in a village overrun by Hindu-Muslim riots was being spoken of as certain to grab a National Award. Who walked out of her next film.
Tania, Shireen Mehnaz, Minal Bhatt. All award-winners. All whose careers now sat in the deep freezer. All of who were sharpening their axes. The need of the hour was a conspiracy - a meeting in a secret location. So they met at Tania's Lokhandwala house.
"You know, when I first met him, I was so scared. There he was, the fat, balding guy, in his cream-coloured safari suit, and always chewing red paan and speaking through the side of his mouth. He looked at me from head to toe, then toe to head, and head to toe again. And then he spit out his pan and called me into his cabin."
"Same here. I said to myself, "Well, Shireen, you've come this far. He's ugly, but he is a big man. He can make your life. You got to do what he says." But nothing really happened."
"Nothing. Oh no, you can't say nothing. "So Tania, tell me this" and "So Tania, tell me that". He just went on and on, man, like he had nothing to do."
"Yeah, I agree. He asked me all the weirdest questions. "Minal, what's your dad's name? What does he do? Isn't he finding you a groom?", blah, blah, blah!"
"And "Tania, what's your caste? Did you walk miles to school? Did you have drinking water?""
"Wait, wait, wait. He asked you your caste?"
"And what did you say?"
"I said I'm a Korku."
"It's a scheduled tribe."
"Don't you get it, girl? That's what he's been doing. Stereotyping. He makes you comfortable on that couch of his, and talks you into telling him all your personal stuff. He gives you a role based on your caste. You only get to do tribal roles 'cause you're ST. That's why Shireen does Muslim girls. That's why I did Brahmin girls. He's a bloody casteist pig, that's what he is. I'm calling Mumbai Mirror right now!"
He defended himself in a press conference. "I'm not casteist. I respect all castes equally. But I respect art more. Only a tribal girl can play a tribal girl, else it won't be authentic."
"But take Shireen, Minal. They've never been in a village. They're cosmpolitan, Mumbai girls. What suited them for the roles they played?"
"I told you. It's in their genes. I don't want any further argument on this."