Khushi Gupta had a little secret.
Well, to be fair, she had a LOT of secrets. Some secrets would spell public ruin like that one very steamy, very drunken kiss with her first and very charming costar who had also been very married. Even now her stomach lurched uncomfortably at the thought. Some secrets would earn her snide giggles like the fact that her sharp nose that created such beautiful profile shots wasn’t entirely natural. Anyone who thought that you could look like a million bucks constantly without serious cosmetic help was a moron. And some secrets were plain silly like her addiction to Hajmola candy. She was reasonably certain that her dietician would forbid it the moment she found out.
This secret, however, Khushi wasn’t exactly sure where to slot. It had the tendency to grow into a multi-headed Hydra because it involved lying to so many people on so many levels.
For starters it had involved lying to her favourite niece and her much more perceptive sister. While Payal had been easily convinced that she had never heard of Arnav Raizada, she hadn’t quite been silenced on the matter. She had continued gushing at the dinner table. Khushi, of course, wasn’t a National Award winning actress for nothing. She had displayed the perfect mix of amused and indulgent exasperation with just a touch of disinterest. Kalpana was another kettle of fish, unfortunately. A good eight years older than Khushi, she had stepped in and fulfilled a maternal role in Khushi’s life after their mother had passed away when Khushi was ten. As a result, she knew how to read her younger sister like a book. Luckily, Payal’s giggling comments had only drawn a speculative look from Kalpana and an admonishment to eat quietly.
Then there was that distinctly uncomfortable fluttering sensation every time she suppressed the insane urge to tell Arnav about JoLav, whenever they saw each other. Khushi gave herself a shake. Just what was she supposed to tell him anyway? Do you know that you and I feature as the faces of a beloved fictional couple in the fevered, lusty fantasies of thousands of young women everywhere? God, that would happen over her dead body.
He wasn’t exactly falling over her to begin with. That piece of information would just earn her a roll of his eyes and one of his painfully blunt retorts.
No, this knowledge of JoLav was a queasy secret to keep in her stomach.
Khushi eyed herself critically in the large mirror in her vanity van. The bright lights all around illuminated every flaw– which was of course the point. It ensured that Harshad dada did his job thoroughly and prepared her for the unforgiving camera. There were tiny crows’ feet at the corners of her eyes and bruised shadows under them. A smattering of pigmentation dusted her cheeks and laugh lines had begun to appear around her mouth.
Khushi sighed. She definitely looked too old to play the fresh-faced, naïve, young girl that the big commercial films always seemed to want. She had just a couple of years before the masala entertainers stopped coming her way altogether. An actress’ shelf life was ridiculously short when compared to an actor’s. And frankly, she felt such a phony playing the virginal damsel in distress or the spunky young firebrand at this age. She was thirty two for crying out loud! Blushing awkwardly when the hero stared at her felt absurd. Especially when she often swapped fitness tips and inappropriate jokes with the same men during breaks.
Unfortunately, commercial cinema was where the money was and so she was determined to stick to it as long as possible. She had, however, started focusing more on alternative cinema over the last three years.
Which is where her first lie came in. She’d known perfectly well who Arnav Raizada was when Payal had mentioned him. She’d absolutely loved Aahatein and had been determined to work with him thereafter.
She had put her team up to it and when she had heard that there was a call to audition for Arnav Raizada’s third film, Ek Pal, she had been determined to nab the role. She’d auditioned for Ek Pal months earlier, and had been on tenterhooks until she’d received a call with an offer for the lead role. While her team had worked out the deal and ironed out all the details, it wasn’t until she’d returned to Delhi for a quick break before workshops for Ek Pal started that it had really sunk in. She was really going to be working with Arnav Raizada! So when Payal had sprung the little JoLav bomb on her, it had taken all her iron control to mask her shock. Not only was there a little NDA in place that prevented her from saying anything about the film until the makers officially released a press statement, her first instinct had been to defend herself against the possibility of something so…so ridiculous!
She may have been a fan of Arnav’s work, but she was not a fan of his. Arnav Raizada pretty much embodied the pretentious, indie filmmaker who continuously turned up his nose at mainstream, commercial cinema. He’d actually had the audacity to insist that she, Khushi Gupta, audition for the role along with the mandatory look-test. She’d agreed only because she’d always relied heavily on instinct and at that moment, her gut feeling had told her to go for it. And she’d derived a perverse kind of satisfaction in disproving that skeptical quirk of his eyebrows from when he’d first met her.
She remembered it as though it had been yesterday.
Out of deference for her seniority, the producer and casting director had said that she needn’t audition with the rest of the newbies– they would organize a separate slot for her at her convenience. Khushi had been manifestly thankful for it and had agreed.
At the audition, in one tiny room at MJ Kapoor Studios, she’d come face to face with Arnav Raizada for the first time.
“Khushi Gupta. What a pleasant surprise.” The derisive curl of his lip had suggested otherwise. “I didn’t think you’d actually go through with this. Why the interest in my little film?”
Surprised by the subtle hostility in his demeanor, Khushi had responded with all her poise and cool.
“I loved Aahatein. It is exactly the sort of film I wish was made more often in Bollywood. And the sort of film I’d audition to act in. Which is why I asked my manager to get in touch with your casting director when I heard of Ek Pal, even though it’s usually the other way around. Reason enough?”
Arnav had looked mildly taken aback by her sincerity but had recovered quickly.
“I hope you know that I’m ideally looking for a newcomer to play Jannat. In fact, a mainstream actress like you is probably the very worst choice for this role. I appreciate your interest in my work, but I feel as though I ought to warn you before you go through with this.”
Khushi had seethed with humiliation and anger. How dare her? She had half a mind to apologize for wasting his time and sweeping out of the room with as much cold dignity as she could muster. In the end, it was the triumphant gleam in his dark eyes that had sealed the deal. She’d tamped down firmly on her temper and smiled softly at him.
“Thank you for telling me. I assure you that I don’t let little details like that discourage me. All I ask for is a fair chance. Surely, you aren’t afraid of one superficial, mainstream actress?”
The gleam in his eyes had turned into twin angry sparks. “By all means, Khushi. Go right ahead.”
And she had. She’d delivered a stunning interpretation of a scene that had no dialogues, just Jannat reacting to a letter with heartbreak in its lines. Her expressions, her very body language had morphed into a reflection of Jannat’s aching solitude. After she’d finished, everyone– from the lowly cameraman’s assistant to the casting director– had clapped. Everyone except Arnav Raizada, that is. He’d curtly told her that she would hear from them soon. But the light of unwilling admiration in his eyes had told her that she’d won that round.
That had been almost six months ago. In the interim, she’d met him a handful of times to talk about the film, her character, her dates, even a substantial reduction in her usual fee, in further detail. But it wasn’t until the pre-film, mandatory workshop that he’d really started getting under her skin. He’d run her through the wringer with sessions on speaking the right dialect of Urdu with correct inflections and an era-appropriate accent, sessions on bearing and body language, script reading rounds where the actors and director sat together and dissected the dialogues and nuances of emotion– you name it.
Khushi had worked with plenty of demanding directors. But rarely had she worked with an obsessive perfectionist like Arnav. Every frame, every scene had to match his vision perfectly. And in order to meet the tight production deadlines, he pushed even harder. It had only been a fortnight since they’d started shooting but Khushi was already exhausted.
A sharp knock on her door broke her reverie. There was only one person who knocked like that.
Khushi grimaced at her reflection in the mirror and sighed. “Come in!”
She almost felt a grim sense of satisfaction when she saw him belatedly conceal a surprised double-take. Yes, Your Holy Highness, I don’t really look like a pin-up model all the time. Deal with it.
“Er…Khushi, just wanted to let you know that it’s raining cats and dogs so we’re postponing the first scene to tomorrow, provided the rain lets up then. We need a clear, sunny day for it. I’ve already instructed your stylist and make-up man, we’re moving on to the second section of the story, so be prepared for the change in your look.”
Khushi nodded. God, he was weird. Why hadn’t he just sent word with a spot boy? Or called? Of course, he wouldn’t have been Arnav Raizada if he’d ever done anything even slightly predictable. She realized with a jolt that he was still standing in her vanity van, looking at her expectantly.
“Got it. Was there anything else?”
For the first time in their brief acquaintance, Arnav looked a little uncertain, before ploughing on with determination.
“I do want to talk to you about something else, actually. The upcoming set of scenes– the penultimate part of this story, that is, is going to be emotionally exhausting. If you think it’s been bad so far, it’s about to get much, much worse. I’m going to be even more ruthless than I have been so far. I’m going to make you cry. Literally. It’s not that I’m sadistic–” Khushi cracked a smile which did not go unnoticed.
“Okay, maybe I am a little. But the point is, I will go to any extent to ensure that I get an honest performance from you. There is going to be a world of difference between the workshops and rehearsals and actually facing the camera. I need you to be prepared mentally and physically for that. Get as much rest as you can, and if you feel overwhelmed at any point– talk to me. You’ve done pretty well so far, but the next section is crucial. If anything bothers you at any point, if you’re unconvinced about something, you need to tell me about it. There can be no confusion about what we’re trying to achieve in this part.”
Khushi felt a little dazed. “Arnav, I’ve been working in this industry for more than a decade. That was unnecessary. I appreciate your concern but I think you’re being unnecessarily paranoid. I’ll be fine.”
His gaze disturbingly direct and fixed, Arnav shrugged. “Nonetheless, I needed to lay this out. This film hinges on you, that is, Jannat. I’ve noticed your exhaustion over the last couple of days. Unfortunately, the low budget means we cannot afford any delays– otherwise I’d have given you a day or two off.”
Khushi looked away, playing with the tassels at the ends of her scarf, trying to hide the hint of bitter resignation on her face. Her response was perhaps a little sharper than she’d intended. “I’m fine. There is no need for any of this. I may not be as young as I once was, but I’m hardly in my grave yet.”
She looked up again, eyes shuttered to meet the confusion and brewing annoyance in his.
“Wha– where did that come from? Who said anything about you being old? I’ve heard actresses being touchy about their age, but this is a little ridiculous. Not once did I–never mind. Just…hang in there.”
He walked out as abruptly as he’d appeared, leaving Khushi feeling just a little more tired and uncertain than before.