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Chai and Chit-Chat with Lisa Ray

June 2006
Chai and Chit-Chat with Lisa Ray

Born to a Polish mother and a Bengali father, the stunning Lisa Ray was in Atlanta recently to inaugurate the release of her film, Water, at The High Museum of Art. Khabar met the model-turned-VJ-turned-actress for a candid and spirited conversation about her role in Water, her career, and herself.

With early aspirations of a writing career, she has published articles in various publications throughout India and Asia, including Cosmopolitan, the Times group of publications and the Indian Express. Discovered by a talent scout for a fashion magazine, her striking international looks were, as if, what the rapidly globalizing Indian modeling industry was waiting for. Lisa Ray was a runaway hit, appearing in many high profile international ad campaigns, including L'Oreal, MasterCard, Sprite, Elle Magazine, De beers, Camay, Ermenegildo Zegna, and Rado.

After modeling for many years and starring in music videos (Such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's super hit Afreen, Afreen), she went on to do a stint as VJ, hosting BPL Oye, a popular countdown show on Indian TV. Ray made the transition into cinema with her debut in Kasoor (2001). The success of this film caught the attention of acclaimed director Deepa Mehta, who cast her in the romantic comedy Bollywood Hollywood (2002). And there's been no looking back since.

On a recent afternoon the Canadian born Lisa Ray, as an ambassadress to Rado, made a public appearance at Atlanta's distinguished Bhindi Jewelers. Dressed unassumingly in a pretty chiffon floral dress, shiny brown hair held together by a simple dark-brown hairclip, she spoke decisively, while sipping hot tea or chai as she called it affectionately. Excerpts from the interview follow:

How was your transition from modeling to acting?

For the longest time, I was unsure of acting; and more so, acting in Bollywood films.

I had received a lot of offers, but I accepted only Kasoor (2001), the thriller directed by Vikram Bhatt. In the film, I play Simran, a lawyer who helps get her client acquitted for murder, but then fears for her own life, as she comes to believe he actually may have been guilty. Kasoor was a great experience because I was thrilled to be something I wanted to be, an actor. Right after Kasoor, I did Bollywood Hollywood, a Deepa Mehta film. I completed a few other films before I went to England to enroll in a drama school. I graduated in September 2004. It was whilst I was in London studying that Deepa offered me Water. I had to take special permission in-between classes to shoot for it and even take one term off to go to Sri Lanka for the shoot. Since then, life has been a whirlwind. I have finished another film and have been involved in a variety of independent productions in Canada and the U.S. and that is where my focus is now.

Are you planning to do theater?

I have received a formal, academic education in theater at the Central School of Speech and Drama, The London Centre for Theatre Studies, The Desmond Jones School of Physical Theatre, and I graduated from the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA) in September 2004 with a post-graduate degree in acting. I am trained in theater and did do some in London. Right now, schedule permitting, I would like to do theater, especially since I am based in New York and it has a very vibrant theater scene.

Rumor has it that you are a philosopher at heart and desire to author?

Writing is another one of my loves. You know I love reading and am passionate about writing but I think, again, that right now, my focus is very much on performance and acting and it is very fulfilling for me. As I said, I am a trained actress and I really come at it from a very different point of view. I am not interested in being a star. I am not interested in baggage. In a sense, you may say ‘experience the baggage and experience fame' and that does not faze me. It is the creative process that interests me. It is that what I am very passionate about. Eventually I will lean toward writing and have some interesting things to write about. Right now, I want to live life and gather my experiences.

How was it growing up in Canada having a Polish mother and an Indian father? How did you like the multi-cultural environment?

I think growing up in the mixed environment was lovely. It was a gift experiencing those two worlds and yet being a Canadian as well. I feel truly blessed that I am an informed person and it is fantastic to have both cultures. Furthermore, I had a choice and that is why I went, lived and worked in India because I had a choice between the two worlds and I will always have choices in the future. I love being adaptable—it is great. It is a global world, so we should not feel tied down to any one specific place. It does not matter where you are now or where you are from.

Who do you get your looks from?

Oh! (She starts blushing). Mostly from my father. He has light eyes. Most people think I must resemble my mother, but it is my dad that I favor. Out of eight brothers and sisters in my dad's family, five of them have light eyes. Surprisingly, I have no siblings and I am the only child.

So are you spoilt?

To an extent, but we earn it. (Starts chuckling)

Was it different acting in Water, an art film, compared to the commercial ones you had done earlier?

I guess you really cannot categorize a special film such as Water. You cannot call it an art film because it was a huge commercial success in Canada. It is very difficult to pigeon hole since it has many international facets. It is a world cinema and hence, you cannot even call it Indian. It is a Canadian production—it has many different elements. You cannot compare it as art versus commerce, since it is a big hit in many places in the world such as Australia, Spain and other parts of the world. Just because it deals with a compelling subject matter does not make it an art film. I don't understand these distinctions. For me cinema is cinema. The Water project drew me toward it because it was with another Canadian film maker and the subject was compelling. It is such a beautiful script with an important story. It is very fulfilling for any actor to be a part of a project where the director is so passionate, especially since all components of the Trilogy were so thought-provoking. It was a joy when Deepa sent me the script. I immediately said yes!

Did you prepare hard to do such a unique film?

A lot of preparation! First of, I read a lot of studies on widows in India, quite a bit of contemporary studies – in fact one is by an American scholar called Martha Alter Chat and her work called Professional Burning was given to me by Deepa to peruse. I did a lot of reading and intellectual preparation, which included a trip to India to do a workshop with a theater director. I lived in a village for a few days and I also visited Vrindavan and spent time at a vidhwa ashram (widow hermitage) there. Then, there were extensive rehearsals in Sri Lanka, where the movie was eventually shot. That's what I love to do and that's why I do what I do. I don't see the point in not researching roles.

One would assume the role of Kalyani required a certain vernacular semblance to the time and place in question. Yet, the rave reviews you have received suggest it was far from a miscast. How and why did Deepa Mehta pick you for the role of Kalyani? How did you get this close to the character you played?

I don't know, is the honest response! I feel very humbled by the entire experience of working in Water and working with Deepa and for that matter with any director with so much passion. It is a part of the process. So many people did a great job in the film and thus collectively, the energy compels you to give it your best – it is really all that it is.

What did you leave Water with?

It is a very interesting question. I must tell you that nobody has asked me that so far. Definitely, there was a lot to take from it. It was two-fold. There was professional growth as a performer and personal growth as a human being. Professionally, I got so much out of it. I learnt about my craft, my technique and my performance and had the opportunity to work with such incredible actors such as Seema Biswas, Manorama and John (Abraham) ?.everyone, including that little child who did not know English or Hindi was so talented. I feel that the period that Water was conceived in, India was a compelling piece of history. It must be explored again and again. We should not tire of it. Sometimes to move forward I think you have to refer back and see where we have come from, especially just before two great events occurred—the partition and the formation of India as a nation.

If you think that Water is just about the vidhwas (widows) living in India in the 1930's you are missing the point. It is not about trying to condemn Hinduism, but is about a particular form of injustice. It is about marginalization of a group of people at a particular point in history and how people turned a blind eye to it. It happens everywhere in the world. What is so interesting about Water is that everyone is able to relate to it. Americans have come out and said, ‘you know what, we realize we have marginalized the aged seniors in our community, we put them away in nursing homes and lock them up to feel they do not exist'. That's amazing. That is what you want a film to do. It is not about condemning our society or slamming India. It is about raising awareness.

What would you ideally like to do at this point?

Ideally, I'd like to sleep. (Chuckles again). Because I have worked non-stop since a year. It has been a good year for me, but also very demanding. I would like to take a mini vacation somewhere quiet, where it is just me, myself and I. In Europe (she adds promptly). I like Europe a lot! In addition, I look forward to getting on to the next project, doing something new, learning something new, which is what I like most. I just finished an interesting Nova Scotia film called A Stone's Throw. A completely different project from Water, shot in a small rural town with a population of 152 in the middle of winter. There is always something exciting going on in my life.

What is your message to your fans?

I love Bombay and hold Bollywood in great affection. I have a few friends still working in the industry. There is nothing wrong in the Bollywood formats, yet I would love to see the rise in alternative cinema—what I call independent filmmakers like we have in America, a far cry from big Hollywood blockbusters. There is a lot of untapped talent in India and I hope that movement kicks in and rises. If you look at even the present day Oscars; it is the independent films that take the cake – it is them that present the most interesting material. Crash, Broke Back Mountain etc? They are innovative and new and fresh?Although, I have lived the Bollywood life and loved it, I really can't say much since I am traveling so much these days. When I am not anywhere, I am in NY, but my home and family is in Canada, I have a home in Mumbai and my boyfriend is in Paris. I am sort of spread out all over the place. What I would like to share with everyone is to follow your heart with passion. I meet so many interesting people especially Indians. We are such a well-educated and dynamic community, but so many of them say, ‘This is really what I wanted to do with my life, but ?'.I'd really love for the new generation to follow their heart and not be afraid. Think of it. What is the worst that can really happen? We are very fortunate as we usually have a great network with our family and friends who are very supportive. We need to be significantly represented at and have a greater participation in the creative arts. We are usually there when it comes to the business and professional world – there is nothing wrong with that, but there are a lot of unfulfilled dreams, which I hope will change with the coming generation.

No matter what she gets involved with, this star has her head firmly on her shoulders!


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