“Arnav? Could I talk to you for a minute?”
Immersed in conversation with two of the ADs, the cinematographer, the art director and a couple of line producers, Arnav shook his head impatiently, barely turning around to look at her. “Not now, Khushi. Unless this has anything to do with the next set of scenes, it has to wait.”
“I don’t mean right now, but just…whenever you have time, okay?”
A short nod in her general direction was the only indication that he’d heard her. Khushi sighed and trudged towards her vanity van to get dressed and prepare for the morning shift. It had been raining steadily all night and it was still drizzling at seven in the morning. The sky was a murky grey and the watery sun peaked out occasionally from behind the clouds. Khushi tried to rub some warmth into her arms. Arnav had been strangely distant for a week. From the day after that blasted tabloid article had been published, to be precise.
Initially she’d brushed it off as increasing stress while they raced to meet what seemed an impossible deadline. But now, she wasn’t as sure anymore. He hadn’t eaten lunch with the gang in a week; heck, he hadn’t even spoken to her properly beyond talking about the film and what he needed her to do in each shot. Arnav Raizada was avoiding her and Khushi Gupta hated it. She hated how dependent she’d become on his solid, comfortable presence. She hated how she’d started looking forward to the twinkle in his eyes and unsuspecting grins over shared jokes. She especially hated missing the warmth of his gaze when he looked at her without saying a word, just to disconcert her.
She was no stranger to gossip columns but had a feeling that this had everything to do with that stupid article, and she was determined to clear the air. But for that, he had to first agree to talk to her.
When she’d first seen the article, she’d been amused and more than a little embarrassed. It was one thing to be linked to people she didn’t give two hoots about or was good friends with. It was a whole different ball game to be linked to someone with whom she couldn’t define her relationship with anyway! And just how had the writer gotten access to such detailed information about them?
Maybe Arnav thought she’d leaked it to the press! It wasn’t unheard of. Actors and actresses did it all the time to generate publicity for their films. Khushi had cringed. Speculating would do her no good. So she’d decided to grab the bull by his horns and get this uncomfortable conversation out of the way. Now, if only His Highness would spare her a glance.
“Khushi, this is the fifteenth fucking shot. Could you at least pretend to care? If I’d wanted a doll to sit pretty in my film, I’d have picked any of the two dozen random pageant winners from last year alone. Now will you fucking show me why you’re Jannat? Roll sound, roll camera again, take fifteen,” Arnav hollered from behind the video assist.
Khushi closed her eyes for a second, her face completely impassive. On cue, Jannat turned to her grandmother, Amina and began talking. Her voice stayed steady, her Urdu flawless as her tone changed and the anguish visible in her eyes started pouring into her speech. Amina held her arms out towards Jannat, helpless tears streaming down her cheeks but Jannat was too agitated to listen. Amina whispered a few broken words to her and Jannat started laughing hysterically, an eerie echo ringing through the dusty old shop, until the laughter melded into tears and Jannat crumpled to the floor, sobbing her heart out.
“And…CUT! Finally. That’s it for today, people.”
Khushi straightened up and wiped her cheeks before looking him in the eye. Her lips thinned and she nodded, walking away towards her vanity van.
This time when the sharp knock sounded at her door, she was almost expecting it. But that didn’t necessarily mean she was willing to entertain him. Khushi ran her fingers through her long hair, pulling it free from its braid, trying to ease the throbbing ache at her temples and the burn in her eyes.
“Khushi? I know you can hear me. Open the door, please?” He knocked again.
Khushi looked mutinously at the closed door. “No.” She was too tired to yell but she was fairly certain that her voice had carried out to him.
“Did you just…refuse to open the door?” His incredulity came through loud and strong and Khushi gleefully imagined the disbelief on his face.
“Yes. I did. Now fuck off, Raizada, I’m really not in the mood.”
“Khushi, stop being juvenile and just open the door, damn it!”
“Juvenile? I’m being juvenile? You have some nerve saying that after you’ve been avoiding me for a week. And don’t even try to deny it!”
“You’re right. I’m not going to deny it. Now will you please just open this door so that we can talk? This is not how I imagined this conversation taking place.”
With a quick look in the mirror and a fresh swipe of lip gloss, Khushi marched to the door and threw it open. “What do you want?”
“Can I come in, or would you rather we did this so that everyone in the vicinity has more gossip for tomorrow’s edition of Bombay Glitz?”
Khushi rolled her eyes and backed away, making space for him to enter the van and shut the door behind him.
“I’d tone down the sarcasm if I were you. So, now that you’re here, what do you want?’
Khushi steadfastly held his gaze, refusing to let the warmth and intensity lower her defenses. So what if he was finally looking at her like he used to, before everything had gone wrong? Khushi had no time to spare for people who played hot and cold with her.
He finally cracked a wry smile and sat down on the couch opposite her chair. “I came to apologize. I was being an asshole and I know it. I’m sorry, Khushi. I had no business flipping you off and then getting mad at you when you were clearly trying. My anger was misdirected and I…it won’t happen again. You’re doing an amazing job and have been nothing but accommodating. God knows, this film couldn’t have afforded your regular fee and it’s got none of the fancy frills that come with the 200-crore mega-hits you usually work in. So…thank you. For wanting to do this film badly enough, for having faith in my vision, for getting people to take notice because a mainstream successful actress is attached to this film and for not throwing any of the tantrums I’d been expecting.”
“Are you trying to compliment me or insult me?” Khushi’s outraged expression told Arnav to tread carefully. An unrepentant grin flashed on his face. “What do you think? Alright, alright. Look, I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that I didn’t like you very much in the beginning. I didn’t know you and in my head you were an overrated actress who worked in films I’d be embarrassed to be even distantly associated with.”
“You sure have a way with words.”
“My point is, nothing you’d ever worked on made me want to call you in for an audition. Except one film– Suhana Safar which was a crazy, feel-good, absurd movie– and I enjoyed every minute of it. Even your National Award winning Amaanat wasn’t as enjoyable as Suhana Safar. And even though Suhana Safar is almost eight years old, it was on the basis of that one film that I told the casting director to call you. And when you started working with me, I realized how wrong I’d been about you. I’d been prejudiced and I almost lost out on the perfect Jannat because of that. I don’t pretend to understand why you do the films you do, but you’ve been nothing but cooperative, professional and crazy dedicated. And you’ve done absolutely nothing to warrant this sort of behaviour from me. I’m sorry, Khushi. I did warn you that I’d make you cry, but I went overboard today and got personal. That shouldn’t have happened and will not happen again.”
Khushi regarded him with a wistful expression on her face. “Is this about that silly newspaper article that they published about us? I promise I had nothing to do with that, you know?”
Arnav laughed but there was no amusement in his tone. “Yes and no. I’m not going to lie, I was fucking pissed off about that article– not because I thought you had anything to do with it, but because I hate cheap bids for publicity like this. If Ek Pal does well, I want it to be because it’s a good movie and not because the audience is trying to figure out whether you and I are having an affair behind the scenes. I never thought for a second that you were responsible for that bloody article. But I did think it would be best to stay away from you so that we don’t give the old hags any more fodder for gossip.”
There was a sharp ache in Khushi’s chest. Something about his brittle honesty and cynical amusement made her want to get up and slide onto his lap and ask him to hold her again. Instead, she shook her head and looked at the bottles of nail paint on the table in front of her. “You’re right. It’s an absurd idea any way. I can’t believe people would make something like that up about us.”
“Hmm. Completely bizarre.”
“I mean…you lending me your coffee mug doesn’t mean a thing. I can’t believe someone would pick that up and write a column about it.”
Khushi shivered slightly, tilting her head back as his fingers gently scratched her head, raking through her hair. She hadn’t even realized when he’d come over and kneeled down beside her chair. He continued, “If for instance, I were to do this, it would be a lot more scandalous.” He traced a calloused thumb over her collarbones, over the pulse thrumming wildly at the base of her throat and leaned forward to press a kiss to the corner of her mouth.
“Arnav…you’re one sadistic bastard.” She laughed shakily, conscious of one hand curled into his collar and the other tangled in his hair.
“No. More masochistic,” he whispered back, leaving another drugging kiss on her lips and pulling away. “You’re a real witch, Khushi Gupta, and impossible for my sanity.”
His hoarse voice echoed in the van long after he was gone and Khushi felt an irrational desire to burst into tears again.
Remember what we’d said about old-fashioned romances, darlings? Well, you can roll that up into a little cone and eat moong phalli out of it (also perfect for the rainy season). Our resident birdy tells us that nothing about our newest favourite couple is old-fashioned in the slightest. It turns out that the brooding director has been in a foul mood recently and took his anger out on the hapless actress doing her best to please her man. Sir, is that any way to treat your lady love? Our plucky heroine, however, gave it her best shot, kept her cool and finally walked away after the director was satisfied. But don’t worry, sweethearts! We hear that director saab, unable to bear his lady’s displeasure, ran after her and apologized. Information on what followed behind a closed door, we cannot corrupt our younger readers with. Let’s just say we’re a little worried about all this rain disappearing in a burst of steam.
And just when we start seeing hearts everywhere, another busy bee tells us that the birdy has been wrong all along! The heroine of this tale was spotted in a cosy restaurant with one of her ex-flames for company just yesterday! The plot thickens. Is our damsel playing our idealistic director and pulling one of the oldest known publicity stunts in the book before her movie releases? Or has this ship sunk before it ever properly set sail? Or better yet, is this a ploy to bring out the angry young director’s possessive streak?
Only time will tell, lovelies. Stay tuned!
Khushi pushed herself out of bed with sheer force of will. She’d gone to bed with a raging headache the previous night and luckily today’s shift was in the evening. Despite having slept in, Khushi felt feverish and exhausted. The combined stress of the last couple of months was finally beginning to take its toll and Khushi could feel the telltale signs of illness creep through her system. Her back hurt and a tiny jackhammer pounded away inside her skull. Dragging herself through a few rounds of the Surya Namaskar and a hot shower, she fixed herself a cup of green tea and plopped down on the big armchair in her balcony with the newspaper.
She skimmed through the pages, too restless to actually read any of the articles until a large picture of herself smiling back at her from the front page of the entertainment supplement caught her eye. She began to read the accompanying article titled ‘Trouble in Paradise?’ with a groan. By the time she was done, the one jackhammer inside her head had multiplied to twenty and she felt distinctly nauseous.
Determined to sleep it off and praying that the article magically disappear by the time she woke up, Khushi went right back to bed, dropped a message to her PA directing her to respond to all work calls, turned her private line off and disappeared beneath the covers again.
“Hi, sorry I’m not available at the moment! Leave a message after the beep and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”
Arnav gritted his teeth. This was the eleventh call he’d placed since the early evening and all he’d received was this pre-recorded voicemail message. Calls to her official number had all been answered by Khushi’s PA who volunteered no information except that Khushi was unwell and resting and would call back soon.
Unwell, my ass. He knew exactly why Khushi wasn’t answering his calls. She was embarrassed about the article that had been published in the morning edition of Bombay Glitz and was hiding at home. This was absolutely ridiculous. Khushi knew that he didn’t blame her in the slightest for these salacious articles, so then why was she hiding? Unless…unless she did have something to do with those articles and was now feeling guilty?
Arnav shook that thought away almost immediately. Even hypothetically if Khushi had leaked those articles herself, she was far too much of a professional to hide away because of residual guilt. No, this was not guilt. This was embarrassment.
Arnav could feel the familiar mix of frustration, desire, concern and anger swirl in his gut; all that this one woman seemed to arouse in him without even being physically present. Damn it! He sure as hell didn’t need Khushi’s oddities to add to an already stressful situation.
He knew he was being a coward by not addressing their undeniable attraction, but their equation was complicated enough and he just didn’t have the time to think about sorting it out. Khushi was important– but their relationship would have to wait until they finished this movie.
He would give her till 6 PM which was when she was supposed to report to the sets. If she didn’t show up or call back by then, he was going over to talk some sense into her.
The loud, jarring sound of her doorbell pulled Khushi out of an uneasy slumber.
Her head still heavy, eyes bloodshot, she looked at the time and cursed. It was just past seven. She was supposed to have reported to the sets an hour ago. Why hadn’t her PA called her? Just as she was furiously dialing his number, Khushi remembered that she’d asked the nervous young man to not disturb her until she called him. Too bad she hadn’t specified for how long. She turned her private number back on with a sinking feeling in her stomach. She had nearly twenty voice messages and almost double the number of texts. Quickly scrolling through the list and responding with a quick ‘Call you later’ to the ones she deemed important, she hopped out of bed and almost fell back down, a wave of nausea hitting her.
The doorbell rang again, longer this time.
Khushi swore under her breath. Rubbing her hands over bleary eyes and through disheveled hair, she slowly managed to pull herself out of bed and make her way to the door.
A glance through the peep-hole made her stomach plummet further. Standing on the other side was an absolutely livid-looking Arnav Raizada.
She opened the door a little sheepishly and began apologizing at once.
“Arnav! I am so so sorry, I don’t know how this happened. I had a bit of a head ache earlier in the day and I thought I’d sleep it off and–”
Arnav interrupted harshly, his eyes little chips of ice. “I don’t fucking care, Khushi. I thought we were clear last night that stupid gossip columns aren’t going to sabotage my film. I cannot believe you just didn’t show up without so much as a warning! Do you even know what this sort of a delay costs the film? We don’t have the capacity to absorb too many losses, Khushi! This is a very small-budget film and any delays or unexpected disturbances cost us precious money! I’ve managed to make up for this evening by asking Manish to shoot one of the scenes that don’t involve you but this–”
Traitorous tears began welling up in her eyes. She tried blinking them away but it seemed more than she was physically capable of at the moment.
“Are you—fuck, that’s just perfect. That’s all I need right now. If you think you can guilt me by turning on the tears, you have another thing coming. I know exactly–”
He grabbed Khushi’s arm and immediately stopped. The anger on his face rapidly melted away into disbelief and concern as he placed his other palm on her forehead and on her neck.
“Christ, you’re burning up! Why the hell didn’t you tell me you’re sick?”
Khushi shoved at him weakly, unable to budge him an inch. “I’ve been trying to tell you from the beginning but you wouldn’t listen. I really did fall asleep and just wake up. I didn’t intentionally not show up, you asshole. I can’t believe you thought I’d do something like that. Just give me an hour, I’ll shower, take a tablet and we can still do today’s shoot.”
“Like hell we can. You’re going straight back to bed.” Without another word, Arnav swept her up into his arms and carried her to her bedroom, stopping only to deposit her on the sheets and tuck the comforter over her.
Khushi recovered her power of speech. “I finally have it. The root of your weird bipolar behaviour is a deeply rooted Hero Complex. You never got over playing the hero in your soap opera, did you? First, you project your insecurities on to me. Then, you think you can just walk into my apartment and do–”
“When was the last time you ate anything?”
Arnav sighed like he was talking to a child. “When did you last eat, Khushi?”
“Er…last night, I think. I had some tea in the morning, but no food.”
With a muttered oath, Arnav walked out of her room. The distant sounds of banging doors and clattering pots made her want to get up and investigate but she was too tired. He was back in a couple of minutes with a small cup of hot milk with cocoa, a slice of toasted bread, and a glass of water.
“You’re going to eat everything on this tray, unless you want me to personally push it down your throat.”
Khushi sat up and scowled. “You’re not my father. Stop bossing me around. Let me take a paracetamol and I’ll be fine. It’s just exhaustion!”
“Khushi, don’t test my patience. I told you right in the beginning that this would be an exhausting schedule. It’s no wonder you’re sick if you haven’t been eating properly! Eat that damn slice of toast and drink the milk. How the heck are you supposed to work like this? Where is Archana Maushi? And where are your meds?”
Khushi pointed to a small box on her side table and began tearing the bread into smaller pieces. “Archana Maushi is on holiday. Her daughter’s getting married back in Solapur.” She gingerly dipped a piece into the milk and popped it into her mouth, sniffling loudly.
She watched in resignation as a big fat tear slipped out of her eye and splashed into her glass of water.
“Khushi? Jeez…I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to yell. Please stop crying! Look, I was just worried about you. You’re right– some of it was projection too.” He sat down next to her on the bed, placed the tray on the bedside table and brushed her tears away. A couple of drops immediately replaced the ones he brushed away. “Khushi, please stop crying! You’re going to get sicker if you keep this up.”
Khushi sniffed and resolutely pulled her hands away from his. “Wouldn’t want that now, would we?”
“Wha–of course not! Why are you saying it like that?”
“Nothing. Give me the food. You’re right, I need to eat if I have to resume work.”
Instead of returning the tray to her outstretched hand, he grabbed it between his own again, using his thumb to rub soothing circles on the back of her palm.
“No, Khushi, you need to eat to get better. Not for any other reason.”
She tried to withdraw her hand but he refused to let go, so after a minute she gave up trying and sighed. “Yeah, I know. Get better so that there aren’t any further delays. I heard you the first time.”
This time he tugged at her hand, and raised her chin with a finger, forcing her to meet his eyes. “Is that what this is about? Listen to me carefully, Khushi Gupta. You need to get better because your health is important…because there are lots of people who care about you– not because you have work pending or any other bullshit like that. Do you hear me?”
She nodded halfheartedly.
“Damn it, Khushi! This isn’t like you at all! What are you upset about? I can’t help you if you won’t tell me.”
“You don’t have to, Arnav. There is nothing wrong.”
“Like hell there isn’t. You’re clearly upset. You’ve worried yourself to sickness…what is wrong?”
His exasperated concern was her undoing. She snatched her hand out of his and looked away, blinking back the tears that seemed to hover at the surface today.
“Damn you, Arnav. There is nothing wrong! And why do you care anyway? What business is it of yours? We’re not even friends, for God’s sake!”
A hurt silence followed her words and she dared not look at him again. Finally, he began in a quiet voice, “You’re right. We aren’t friends. I had hoped, however, that we were a little more than friends. I apologize for my unwarranted assumption.”
Khushi turned again, this time a gurgle of bitter laughter on her lips to match the sheen in her eyes. “Are you serious? More than friends? Just how do I make that assumption, Arnav? Have you ever indicated anything more than a passing interest in me? I’m an actress, Arnav! I get hit on all the time! Every fifth person I work with wants a quick fuck on the side! I stopped making assumptions about what I mean to people a very long time ago, Arnav Raizada. It only spelt heartbreak for me. I don’t live in a fairytale and I don’t expect Prince Charming. What I do expect is honesty. And you always have been honest, haven’t you? You’ve never held back from telling me the most uncomfortable truths. So why not tell me about how you feel? Tell me the truth about what I mean to you! I don’t give two hoots about what the tabloids say, but I do care about what you have to say about this.”
“You have some nerve, Khushi Gupta, playing the wounded heroine now! I’m the one who never told you about how I felt? And just how was I supposed to? You were always so…so…oblivious to everything and caught up in your own world! Half the time I’m not even certain if I have your attention! You don’t even seem bothered by my physical proximity! You have more than half the country running after you! Tell me, Khushi, how on earth am I supposed to make a move in this situation?”
He made as if to get up from her bed but was prevented by her surprisingly strong grip on his arm.
“Tell me now, Arnav. It’s important to me.”
The storm in his eyes slowly died down as he took in the tiny furrow between her brows, the nervous quivering of her lips and the vulnerable light in her eyes. Miraculously, his mood lightened and he cracked the half smile that made her heart beat just a little faster. He leaned forward until he was inches away from her face, and brushed the back of his fingers down her cheek.
“I like you, Khushi Gupta. I like you a whole lot. I hadn’t expected to at all. But I do. What a cliché, right? Falling for the heroine of my film? I guess it’s the universe’s way of reminding me that I’m not as cool as I like to believe I am. I want you to give us a chance, Khushi. You know I’d never claim to be anyone’s Prince Charming. But I think I could be your boyfriend. Yes, I know we have our differences but I don’t think any of them are strong enough reasons for us not to be together. I worry about how we’re going to work together after this, about how this might affect our professional equation. But not enough to walk away from this. Now it’d be great if you could say something too.”
Khushi did the only thing she could at that moment. She threw herself into his arms with a muffled sob. She could feel his torso shake with silent laughter as he gathered her closer and stroked her back. “I had no idea you were such a watering pot, sweetheart. I would have thought twice about coming here today, had I known.”
In response, Khushi turned her head and nipped at his throat, making him groan and tangle his fingers in her hair. “Khushi…your sense of timing is terrible. Do you have any idea of the things I want to do to you? I’m trying to be nice here and not take advantage of a sick girl.”
Khushi pushed herself firmly onto his lap and dropped leisurely kisses up his throat and on his lips. “Arnav, you are not the only one with X-rated fantasies. And I’m not sick, I’m just tired. I have a feeling I’ll feel a whole lot better if you make good on some of those promises.”
Tightening his grip on her hair, he pulled her head back and pressed his mouth to hers, almost lazily stroking her back. When they finally broke apart for breath, Arnav pushed her back onto her pillow and tucked the comforter around her with a decided air.
“You’re not seriously going to stop there?”
“Khushi, I swear there’s nothing more I’d like to do than continue, but you are sick and you need rest.” He handed her the now lukewarm cocoa, bread and tablet with a look that brooked no debate. Khushi sighed and started dipping pieces of bread into the milk.
“Were you jealous about me getting dinner with an ex-flame, as the article said? I didn’t, you know. They just made that up.”
“Stop playing with your food and eat it, Khushi.”
“Are you always going to be this bossy? I don’t deal well with authority in the bedroom.”
“Shut up and eat, Khushi.”
“One last, question. Did you steal that proposal from an obscure foreign film that I haven’t watched?”
He grinned, using his thumb to swipe a drop of cocoa away from her lips. “You forget: I’m a filmmaker. I write drama for a living.”
“Oh please, that doesn’t mean anything. Every third guy with a DSLR fancies himself a filmmaker. I’m beginning to think you stole those lines from your Hindi soap that you get so defensive ab–”
Arnav shut her up far more effectively this time, with a kiss that tasted of sticky warm cocoa.
A/N: Thanks for waiting, folks! Sadly, we’re STILL not done. I have just about a 1000 words left but I’m too sleepy to finish it off tonight. The story is almost done. I’ll put up the last part in a couple of days with a note about what we’re celebrating. Cheers!