Dun dun duuuuun! This popular sound effect is used liberally in cheesy horror films to warn you when something dark and dangerous is about to happen. It’s also how actress Nargis Fakhri describes her last five years in Bollywood or what she calls “hell on earth” with widened eyes and arms outstretched. “Hey, don’t be taking no funny faces of me because I make a lot of them,” she instructs my photographer mid-performance in her Queens accent. “I always feel like an alien on earth. I don’t fit in with most of the humans here. I have arms that fly in the air when I’m talking and I smell my armpits during a conversation,” she warns.
In the room we’re in, she certainly did seem like an alien. We’re at a suburban café in Mumbai that is overrun by journalists, all waiting to meet Nargis before the release of her new film Banjo. An actress smelling her armpits is not known to happen at these PR-controlled meets. Banjo is Nargis’s sixth Bollywood film and her third release this year, but evidently she remains a fish out of water.
By her own admission, she has no friends, a non-existent social life and doesn’t care much for movies – which essentially disqualifies her from most film circles. “To make real friends, two people have to make an effort – through the down times and up times. It’s not only about, ‘Hey come to my party.’ No I don’t want to fucking come to your party! And I don’t even stay up past 10 PM so how am I getting to a party,” she exclaims.
The down times started rolling in 2011 after her debut film Rockstar opened to scathing reviews of her awkward performance. “I was kept in a bubble till then and had only met the people I was working with. Nobody prepared me for this. I was basically put on the street and left to fend for myself. I had no money in the bank because you still have to pay rent and take care of a family. So now what do you do? I thought I better stay and make that money back. I just kept going,” she says.
There’s an unmistakable strain of regret in her voice and she doesn’t try to hide it. The offer to move to India was a raw deal and she had almost turned it down. “Basically they weren’t paying enough. I found out much later that I actually got paid a lot in comparison to other people’s first time here. But I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I make more money in a day with modeling. Is this what you’re paying me for two years of my life?’ I laughed at them.”
An assistant director on Rockstar made a strong case for moving to Mumbai – after all, any actress would kill to star in a tragic love story with Ranbir Kapoor and be directed by Imtiaz Ali. Nargis gave in. This was meant to be an opportunity of a lifetime. “But I didn’t know who they were. To me it was like some dude and another dude with big hair,” she says with indifference.
Nargis is one of the many foreigners who have shifted to India to work in showbiz. They have to work doubly hard at learning a strange new language, mastering Bollywood thumkas, and in generally trying to belong. They end up being no more than showpieces in films or item song specialists. Nargis is no different. “Sex and sexiness sells, right? You can say that I’m not going to do a film like this but that only comes when you have more power. Only the women at the top can say that. Also with me, people are like, ‘Oh look at her. She’s a foreigner, she’s so free. She must be up for anything.’ I can’t even watch Game of Thrones because it’s too scandalous for me. But people probably think the opposite of me,” she says.
She sounds like she’s resigned to this blatant cultural stereotyping and objectification. Unlike Katrina Kaif or Jacqueline Fernandez, who despite their limitations have always expressed their desire to be taken more seriously as actors, Nargis can’t wait to bolt. “Some may say I’m not ambitious enough. But my ambition is to live life and to experience as much before I die. Because I could die tomorrow. And what am I taking? The house, the bags, the money? I just want to be free and happy and not stuck somewhere feeling pressured,” she ends.