Sahana hopped into the car. The streetlights were not working, the headlights of the oncoming vehicles were streaking past and retrospectively guiding her. This wasn’t her car. She had sold her Jetta, 3 days ago. The borrowed luxury made her a bit uncomfortable. She was speeding to her destination but had to come to a stop at a rather busy traffic signal. There were too many vendors and beggars. She heard someone knocking at the car’s window. She could see a rather thinly built 12-year-old pleading desperately, trying to sell mirrors, “ek mirror kharidiye na madame, bees ka hai”. The girl moved her tanned hair away from her eyes. Sahana had a better look of her face now and smiled at her, then she bought the mirror. The girl was dark, and lovely! She pressed her foot on the accelerator and sped past the rest of the signals.
Sahana was highly respected at the institute. She had a unique ability to play multi-layered characters such as Cordelia and lady Macbeth, on stage and before the camera, with ease. She got her first break as a lead actor, in films, 10 years ago. Since then she has only managed to do two other films. Vipul was a senior to Sahana in the institute. His diploma film was nominated in one of the award sections, at the Venice film festival. Vipul was yet to direct a feature; in the past years he had made ends meet by assisting other directors and shooting ad films. This was the first time a producer was impressed by his script and agreed to work with him. The script had a female lead. Rumor has it that many of the popular actresses, who were initially offered the lead role, turned it down as it seemed too progressive and laborious. Sahana had decided to leave to the Netherlands to work and do research, in a university. However, two days ago she got a call from Vipul. He invited her to an audition, for the lead character, in his new film. Initially, she was taken aback, then she posed the most important question “Why me?”
Vipul said, “hear the gist first.” He started narrating the storyline, he said that the film was set in south India, in the early part of the twentieth century, before independence. The narrative described the life of a devadasi named Maitreyi, an exponent in the art of sadir. Maitreyi falls in love with a Zamindar, who visits her frequently. Then she confronts the Zamindar with her true feelings. The Zamindar asks her to position herself before a mirror and says, “you are dark and lovely, I can play around with you, but….” The next night Maitreyi murders the Zamindar and flees. She then sets up a dance school in a faraway city. The movie ends. Vipul added that only an actor who were a classical dancer could do justice to the role of Maitreyi.
Before Vipul had narrated this gist, Sahana had decided to pleasantly refuse. When she had finished hearing it, she started staring at the mirror, got lost for a while. Almost oblivious to the fact that she was talking to Vipul on the phone. Then once her senses kicked in, she conveyed her agreement. After having disconnected, she continued staring at the mirror, for some time and then mumbled to herself, “dark, and lovely!”
The phrase “dark, and lovely” meant a lot to her. When she was a kid, she was often mocked at and called as, “dark, and ugly!” Every day she would come home from school crying. Her mother brought her up by herself, as her dad was working in the merchant navy. One day, surprisingly, her dad was visiting, and spotted his daughter, returning from school, crying and extremely sad. When Sahana shared the situation, her dad took out his wallet and pulled out a photograph of her. Then he said, “When I am at sea and home sick, I look at this photograph, at my dark and lovely princess, and you wouldn’t believe all my worldly sorrows seem to melt away. My dear Sahana, it is not what you see, which makes the difference, but how you see.” From that day she stopped reacting to the bullying. After a few years, even the classmates, who bullied her once, turned into friends.
She had to take a U-turn to get into the studio’s gates. She took the elevator to the fourth floor. Vipul had mentioned that it would only be her audition on that particular evening. As she met her old friend, an instinctual smile took hold of each other’s face. He informed that they would be shooting a short dance sequence and a dialogue sequence with Mr. Uttam who had already been cast to play the Zamindar. The mention of Uttam shook up Sahana a bit. He was a big star and a well-respected actor. Feeling a sense of anxiety take hold of Sahana, Vipul said that there was nothing to be afraid of. He said, “after all you are a great Bharatanatyam dancer and the dialogue scene will be a cake walk for you.” The name Uttam made her a bit desperate. She rarely had had an opportunity to share screen space with a decent actor. After all the necessary shots were taken, Vipul asked her to wait in the lobby.
Sahana was getting restless. She knew that she had given her best. The dance guru had even applauded her performance. Though Uttam was a man of few words, he gave her a warm hand shake after the dialogue scene. She could hardly get any view of the cinematographer, so she couldn’t say how he felt, but Vipul seemed pleased. She heard the sound of the elevator. Vipul and another middle-aged man walked out. Vipul introduced the other man as, “Mr. Dhiraj Sanyal, my producer, he is a hardcore cinephile. He has produced one of our senior’s films as well, he is for good content, unlike the run-of-the-mill producers.” Mr. Sanyal intervened “Ms. Goswami, we all liked your performance and I think most likely you will be donning the role of Maitreyi. However, for formality I would have to check with the other directors before I send you the contract.” Vipul then said that he would get back to Sahana at the earliest. Though the words of the producer allayed her restlessness a bit, she knew the ways of the industry. Three years ago, at a similar juncture, another producer had made such a prediction but called and apologized a week later.
Mr. Sanyal was the head honcho at Bhairavi studios, yet he never did anything without the consent of his dad. His dad Bharath Sanyal had been a producer for 35 years. Bharath was aware of his son’s progressive ways, yet he made it a point to remind him of the risks, when necessary. There was no round table where the director’s decided, it was just son and father. As Dhiraj walked out of the door, Vipul reminded, “Mr. Sanyal I would really prefer if Ms. Goswami gets the part, I feel she can add many layers to this character, which not many of her peers are capable of.” Dhiraj replied “Sure thing. Even I felt that her skill set would be apt for this role. I should be able to let you know by tomorrow.”
It was a long walk from the studio to the car park. Mr. Sanyal’s associate and man Friday, Pankaj was restless and visibly disturbed, “Spit it out Pankaj, why are you fidgeting” asked Mr. Sanyal. Pankaj grinned for some time, then scratched his head, and muttered “Sir that black heroine, is a bad omen for our film sir. I didn’t utter a word even when the subject matter was about devadasi. I know it would titillate men and that is good business. But sir her presence would be a death knell on our project sir, stop that institute guy from casting her sir, I think they both are in love sir.” The last observation caused Dhiraj to laugh out loud. Rain started to pour, and they ran into the garage.
Mr. Bharath Sanyal gets up early every day, goes for a walk, and then has a cup of tea in the living room with The Telegraph. However, today he was in their private preview theatre. He had left a message for Dhiraj, asking him to come over to the theatre at the earliest. Dhiraj walked into the theatre, to find his father having a cup of tea with the projectionist, in the balcony.
Dhiraj eagerly inquired, “Did you like it dad.” Bharath took a deep and loud sip of tea, “Dhi, I saw the three auditions, and I guess the last one by Ms. Goswami was the one you and Vipul are interested in.” Dhiraj replied, “Yes dad everyone including Mr. Uttam and the dance exponent were impressed.” Bharath leaned back on the chair and crossed his leg. As he started to stare at the morning traffic, he also observed, “I really don’t have a problem with the devadasi role nor with the fact that she is dark, I still think it will work in the box office, but something about this Ms. Goswami seems off.”
Bharath lit up a cigarette, asked the projectionist to leave, he pointed at the people on the road, “Dhi, the commoners waiting in the bus stop are our main customers. They are the ones who visit theaters even on a week day. They are addicted to films, the vicarious lives they lead through the movies is their sole solace. Their real lives are otherwise consumed in drudgery.” Bharath takes two puffs from his cigarette, plays around with the ash-tray, then continues, “your Ms. Goswami cannot be that window that enables a vicarious experience, for she looks like a commoner. It is not how they look at what we serve, but it is always what we are serving; which is important. Isn’t that a simple formula, take it, you are after all my son. I have given it to you for free.” After that Bharath once again gets lost staring at the traffic and Dhiraj gets busy with his phone.
Sahana was looking at the mirror she had bought from the girl. She had placed it next to a framed photograph of her dad, which had been garlanded. Looking at the image of her, on that mirror, brought a smile to her face. Her phone started to ring, it was Vipul. As she got the news the smile dissolved into nothingness. She didn’t say anything in response, and hung up. Then she continued staring at the mirror for a few more minutes. A week passed. Her cousin had helped her rebook the tickets to Netherlands.
Sahana had hired a taxi, this time, to go to the airport. The street lights had started to function. It was too bright for her and she put her sunglasses on. She asked the chauffeur why the drive was so long. He replied, “Sorry ji, we had to take two U turns. Construction work is on.” She looked at her mobile, there were 8 missed calls and 2 apology emails from Vipul. Then she looked at a snap of her father, which she carries in her purse, and smiled. As the driver takes the last U-turn to reach the airport, Sahana made a call to Vipul. The car was now in the airport’s vicinity, a large hoarding overlooked it and cast an enormous shadow. The car sped past this dark patch of tarmac. The advertisement for a Chocolate occupied the hoarding, in bold font, it read, “Dark, and lovely!”