One of India’s first supermodels, Lisa Ray, published Close To The Bone, her memoir chronicling her battle with cancer, earlier this month. In the book she writes about modelling in the nineties, why Bollywood was never a burning desire for her and what meeting Maureen Wadia for the first time was like. Excerpts from our chat with her:
Anupama Chopra (AC): Lisa, there is a great story about you going to Maureen Wadia’s house for the first time and her Rottweiler biting you on the ass. This needs to be in a movie.
Lisa Ray (LR): I mean you can’t make that up.
AC: You just walk in and this dog is around?
LR: So imagine you’re being called (to a party). I don’t know who is who. I’ve always loved Bombay and I’m not saying I wasn’t swept along with the glamour and the party life. Someone said to me, ‘Maureen would love you!’ I was like, ‘Who is Maureen and why would she love me? What are you talking about?’ And I still remember he was a Parsi, this elderly gentleman who looked like a turtle in a turtleneck. He said, ‘Maureen likes half-breeds. She’s always looking for models and you must meet her.’ So somebody set up a meeting, I don’t even remember how it happened. I said, ‘Okay chalo, I’m curious, let’s go.’ I got into a cab, I couldn’t speak very good Hindi. The cab dropped me off in front of this huge gate and I didn’t know enough to tell the cab to take me inside. There was a long winding road to navigate that led up to her bungalow in Prabhadevi. I was walking along, taking everything in. I rounded a corner and I saw this huge bungalow. I think I describe it in the book as ‘fearlessly horizontal’. Bombay is a very vertical city so if you can afford to have this huge bungalow, you’re special. I saw Maureen, I still remember my first sighting of her and she just looked like a silent movie star. Just extremely beautiful and poised. She waved at me.
AC: And intimidating.
LR: I don’t know. I always had a connection with her so I didn’t find her intimidating. She was just very striking. And in my head, I’m already writing the story about this because that’s how I’ve always consumed my life. So I round the corner and I see Maureen and I give her a tentative wave and around the corner, and this pack of dogs come running. But there’s security guards everywhere and I think, ‘This is fine and I love dogs.’ And they come straight towards me. I’m still not feeling intimidated. And then they surround me. There were some Alsatians and Rottweilers. I really like Alsatians, so I had sort of extended my hand to pet one of the Alsatians, going forward, not realizing that I had backed into a Rottweiler who promptly jumped up and bit me on the bum. Like literally attached himself to my bum. And it was just one of those moments – ‘Has this actually happened?’
Fortunately, it wasn’t a bad wound. He’d just jumped up and given me a love bite. But I screamed, the dogs scattered, there was complete chaos, the security guards cleared them away. And Maureen dropped everything and was extremely thrown off. She promptly escorted me into the house and pulled my pants down and attended to the wound. But this was a really strange and surreal introduction. We never talked about anything we were supposed to talk about. She was extremely warm, very chatty, there was something very magnetic about her. But also deeply embarrassing. Like your first meeting with a very distinguished-looking woman is her jerking down your pants and making sure that you don’t need stitches.
None of us who had fallen into the industry, particularly as models, had a particular goal in mind. Because the industry was very amorphous, there were no agents, there were no managers
AC: At that time there were no casting directors, no sort of management agencies. It was literally the Wild West. Did you ever feel afraid? Or were you confident even at sixteen just to say, ‘Okay I can do this?’
LR: I think I knew that I was on an adventure. There wasn’t any particular goal in mind. It’s not that I set myself out to be in this business but when the opportunity came I said, ‘Okay, I’m curious, let’s see where this goes.’ And then even when I suddenly overnight became hugely successful, much to my sheer surprise, I didn’t have an exact goal in mind. Strangely at that time, none of us who had fallen into the industry, particularly as models, had a particular goal in mind. Because the industry was very amorphous, there were no agents, there were no managers.
AC: It wasn’t structured at all.
LR: There was no structure at all. There was no, ‘Okay, you do this cover and then we’ll get you this film.’ None of that. We all kind of bumbled into it. And to be honest, I was never at all intimidated. I enjoyed myself thoroughly in this unstructured environment, but that was also because in those days, the advertising business was actually like a big extended family. So I made a lot of very good friends, a lot of photographers, other models. Film directors, even ad execs…we were like this big extended family who’d bicker with each other as well. But we supported each other and it was a lovely atmosphere. Also there was no burning desire to join film.
AC: It was still looked down on by sort of educated upper class people.
LR: It was still considered a shady industry, particularly in the 90s. The modelling industry at that time was very small and close. There were just a few of us. We basically got all the work, we got a great deal of importance and we made pretty good money. I still remember considering it because I was offered films for a long time and I know it sounds completely shocking in today’s context, but I continuously said ‘no’. There was no burning motivation to do a film!
That bridge between the worlds, and cinema taking over, attracting and engulfing most of the great talent that was there in advertising, did not happen until the 2000s, until post the 2000s
AC: Kasoor was ten years after –
LR: But I had a couple of false starts and I would get into it and feel so profoundly out of everything. It just didn’t feel like the right place for me. It’s probably also because I didn’t grow up with that burning desire to be an actress. I was watching some Bollywood films but they were Mithun Chakraborty films, like ‘I am a disco dancer’. I watched them but didn’t feel like I had to gyrate along with him. So the idea was never to join film. That bridge between the worlds, and cinema taking over, attracting and engulfing most of the great talent that was there in advertising, did not happen until the 2000s, until post the 2000s. The caliber of people working in advertising – our Ken Ghoshes and Mukul Anand of course, who also offered me great ad films. He had that great vision.
AC: Yes, the scale and the spectacle.
LR: He was very keen on doing a film with me. Unfortunately, he passed away. A.R. Rahman composed the jingle for Garden Sarees. So it was that caliber. Or Ashok Mehta, one of the greatest DOPs that we’ve ever had, was also navigating and was doing a lot of ad films, he was also attracted to doing a film. Films took two years –
AC: With very little money.
LR: No money in films. If you spread it out over two years, you were making pennies a day. Might as well make an ad film and in three days, you make good amount of money and you’re done with it.