Following is an excerpt from Kubbra Sait’s “Open Book”, a memoir that traces the actress’s life from the time she was an awkward teen in braces to her journey after her iconic role as Cuckoo in Sacred Games. You can purchase the book here.
On the first day on the set of Sacred Games, I was scared shitless, asking myself: I am going to be acting in an Anurag Kashyap project?
Everything seemed unreal. I considered plunging my face into a bowl of ice, pinching my skin tightly, pushing down on that pebble in my shoe—anything to feel a sensation that proved that what was happening was, in fact, real, and that it was happening to me.
En route to the shoot, near the Fisheries University Road in Andheri West, I passed by Panch Natraj CHS. It felt serendipitous that the first day of my enormously big break happened to be in the vicinity of my first home, where this dream of being an actor had begun. It was a sign. Something in the air felt right. I smiled and told myself I was going to carpe diem the fuck out of this day.
I passed by a bustling film set with people yelling at no one in particular. I was on the edge of the seat in my Hyundai i20, holding myself back from jumping out of the car, running on to the set and declaring that this was the biggest day of my life. The assistant director (AD in short) recognized me and waved my car ahead.
I was now on a big open maidan where three vanity vans were parked. I saw that my name was on one of them, right above ‘Phantom Films’. Delighted, I indulged my vanity a little and took a picture of the door. I couldn’t muster up the courage to post it on Instagram, though the temptation was fierce. Instead, I smiled and savoured this moment in private.
I walked in to find Anil Sable, aka Anil Dada, a make-up artist who excels at prosthetic make-up and who has worked on films like Bhoot and Sanju. It truly baffles me how so many people in our entertainment industry are self-taught. They have assisted many seniors and HODs before they found their own ground to create opportunities for themselves. Of course, it’s not very different for actors too. In the entertainment industry, the pace is slow and steady. It’s a marathon, not a 100-metre sprint. After exchanging a few pleasantries, he said a short prayer and then, with his ring finger, placed three dots of foundation on the mirror as an offering to the make-up gods. Then, he looked at me, while still murmuring the prayer, and flexed his skilful hands on my face.
In keeping with the times—the show was set between 1980 and 1993—the make-up was garish. Cuckoo wore foundation, a shade lighter than the colour of my skin. It didn’t sit evenly, but that was the effect we wanted. Anil Dada used black liner to contour my lips. Then he pulled out a magic box called pancake, and proceeded to apply it, choona-style. The loose powder was scraped out of a box, mixed with water and used to whitewash
my face. My eyebrows were thickened, false eyelashes glued onto my eyelids, and my eyes lined with a kohl pencil. For the stubble, Anil Dada mixed a dark green and dark brown with alcohol, and gently dabbed it on my lips and chin.
‘Sahi hai [This is good.],’ he mutters to himself.
Next was hair. There was a variety of wigs laid out for me. I had long hair at the time, so the hairdresser tai put it up in a bun and pulled a net over it. I tried the first wig on, and without warning, something inside me shifted.
The AD, whose job it is to ensure you are ready even before the rooster crows, arrived for his thousandth check. I remained calm; I was not about to lose my cool on such an important day. Next, a crew member came carrying a mad sequinned outfit. It was a party dress. With feathers. They also handed me a deep-neck silk nighty and silk robe.
Finally, Cuckoo’s crowning glory arrived. The hero of this ensemble, one that I was eager to get a first look at. In a transparent box, wrapped in a green plastic bag, was my penis.
You heard that right. My penis!
I was thrilled and I was laughing and joking. This was really a dream. If not, what the hell was it?
I was given skin colour underwear that had holes in the crotch area which was marked with green crosses. (I was told the crosses were a technical necessity to help ‘edit’ the prosthetic penis in the post-production phase.)
Slightly unsure, the AD asked, ‘Will you wear it … now?’
Excitedly, I replied, ‘Yes! Let’s do it.’
The next moment, I was in costume from head to toe. The audience in the vanity van nodded their approval. I looked into the mirror. And there was Cuckoo, staring back at me, ready to begin.
I was offered a ride to the set in a production car, but I chose to walk instead. With my robe wrapped tightly around me, I took mincing steps, careful not to jostle my penis. I was only slightly conscious of the wig and stubble that were attracting soft laughs from the crew because I was wholly consumed by one crazy thought—nothing’s been plotted on a graph.
All I knew about my role was that I was playing a character opposite Nawazuddin Siddiqui, one of India’s most versatile actors. Anurag Kashyap’s words rang in my ears. ‘Don’t be awkward.’ On the set, I met him for the first time.
Anurag, or AK, as I would eventually call him, has this smile, notorious and childlike. He is trouble and he knows it. He looked at me like I was a fine find. He was sure that I would sail through. But I was on my guard because I had things to prove. He rose to his feet, unsure whether he should hug me or shake my hand. Yes, that was allowed once upon a time. I said hi, and perched myself on a plastic chair. There were nuts on the table and pointing at my crotch. ‘Mixed nuts, anyone?’ I quipped. Everyone on the set burst into laughter. Then, a coconut was broken, and prayers offered to Shree Ganesh.
I hugged and kissed the unassuming Nawazuddin Siddiqui, as if he were a long-lost friend. There was a palpable change in the air as we huddled around our director and listened to what was expected of us. I received one instruction from AK: ‘Do what you want. I’ll manage.’
I realized that we were shooting the scene I had auditioned for. Nawaz and I were quickly rolled into bed, my arms around him, he lay on my shoulder, as I took the lead. As personalities, we are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Nawaz is shy and reserved, while I am mad and unconventional. We both laughed, him coyly. I could see him thinking, ‘Is she really this eccentric?’ We rehearsed the scene, and when the director was happy, he called out the magic words—‘Action’—and my body leapt in response.
‘Jaadugar se uske jaadu ke bare mein nahin poochte; duniya se pooch [One ought not to ask a magician about his magic; ask the world.],’ said a sultry voice that I recognized. It was Cuckoo’s, no more a stranger in the mirror.
I heard a plane flying, so I paused for a moment. Once the whirring sound faded, I repeated the line again. That’s when I heard AK giggle. ‘Smart hai tu [You’re smart.],’ he said.
I knew then that I had made an impression.
We shot through that room, we did many things … but I found myself following AK, like his hutch puppy, saying, ‘How will I cry?’
For those of you who haven’t watched Sacred Games, this was the build-up to the massive revelation scene that shocked, stumped, stunned, and sent the world into a tizzy. We had shot for eight hours straight and still had the biggest scene of the day left to film. And there I was walking around the set with a frown, wondering how I will cry.
Finally, AK leaned in and whispered, ‘Achcha scene karate hain [Let’s get a good scene done.].’
‘What’s your poison?’ AK wanted to know.
We were in AK’s vanity van. We still had to shoot the last scene of the day, the greatest scene of my life thus far, and I was also scheduled for a costume change. But AK had said that ‘all that could wait’.
‘Wine?’ I said, politely.
He looked at me with disbelief. ‘Nah! The real deal. What’s your poison?’
I had only started drinking when I was thirty because I had never enjoyed the taste of alcohol. Also, it was just conditioning, I suppose, because no one in my family drank. At most parties, I’d either choose caffeine or Red Bull, and was always the designated driver. My first drink was in 2014, in Bodrum, overlooking the fort. I chose a glass of red wine and drank it all in one go, pretending I was a pro, as I watched Mumma sip her strawberry milkshake. So, I obviously didn’t know my poison of choice.
‘Whisky!’ AK barked, turning to his spot boy. ‘Go home, bring me “that” whisky, three crystal glasses and ice rounds.’
‘Bolo saab, kitne saal ki dosti hai humaari? [Tell me, sir, how many years have we been friends?]’ he asked Nawaz.
‘Dus [Ten.],’ Nawaz replied.
‘Yeh bottle toh aapke liye abhi nahin kholi hai. Aaj bada din hai, isliye it deserves the best [I’ve not opened this bottle for you now. It is a big day today, and that is why it deserves the best.].’
A fresh bottle of Wolfburn whisky appeared, along with three glasses and ice.
‘Water?’ I asked.
AK gave me a long, hard stare. I took a sip as he handed me a handwritten sheet of paper. It was the scene. He started reading, and I followed the written lines. My mind was clearly on the paper. So, he snatched it from my hand. ‘Sunn [Listen.],’ he said.
So, I listened. He spoke ever so eloquently about Cuckoo’s misery, the imperfection which is hers and only hers to bear. She shares a love that is enormous, but also harbours a deep, dark secret. The inability to birth her man’s children. The ache that surges from not being able to do so. What would a powerful man do? Leave her, obviously. She doesn’t want him to. But can Cuckoo choose to keep this love alive knowing she can’t give him an heir?
Shaken by the story, I listened to AK read the dialogues. When tears rolled down my cheeks, he quietly closed the sheet he was reading from and instructed the crew: ‘No one talks to her. Get her into hair and make-up, and I’ll see her on set.’
I dragged myself to the vanity van. There seemed to be a weight upon my heart, very heavy. The chirpiness I had brought to the set that morning had fizzled out. I felt burdened by the secret Cuckoo carried. I was no longer Kubbra. I could feel what Cuckoo felt and was numb with pain. AK’s words, the lines he had read out aloud from the sheet, lingered in my heart. I walked to the closed set and saw Nawaz, the cameraman Sylvester and AK.
‘Come, let’s do this,’ AK said.
I sat down in front of a mirror and took a long look at myself. A secret was about to be revealed. My character was ready to erupt and destroy her own love story. She would abandon the man for whom she existed. I stared and stared … until I could hear nothing but ‘Khol, Cuckoo, darwaaza khol. [Open it, Cuckoo! Open the door.]’ And just like that, we were rolling the scene.
Every time I was done with the lines, I would fall to the floor, in tears. The words were so powerful that they weighed me down. The first time it happened, AK walked in, brushed my shoulder, and said, ‘We’ll do it again.’
We did it again. And again. And again.
This one time, he came up to me, and said, ‘Sorry, sorry, I am terrible. I am a terrible person, but we’ll do it again.’
By the seventh take, I had lost count of the many hours we had been filming. Finally, I fell to the floor and could not get back up. I was exhausted; the wind had been knocked out of me. I was crying uncontrollably. Nawaz and AK picked me up and held me tightly as I sobbed.
Dimly, I heard. ‘Cut!’
As I left the room, I heard a quiet burst of applause. It was 11 p.m. I didn’t watch the take on the monitor because I didn’t have the courage to do so. A production car was called for me. This time, I didn’t insist on walking. I was still sobbing when I got to the vanity van. It was the end of the first day of the shoot, the first of many more to come, and I already felt weightless, fragmented and tired. I had no time to think of how good or bad the scene had been. There was an absence of the self because it had felt so real to be Cuckoo.
That night, I texted AK. ‘Am I still working on the show?’ I asked.
‘Of course, you are,’ he replied. ‘You gave us gold.’
And that was how I landed one of the most iconic roles in the history of Indian web series.