I was bitten by the acting bug very early in life. Well, I was thrust on stage by teachers in schools. You see, I was a fair girl in remote towns in Tamil Nadu. My nickname for a really long time was vella ponnu – white girl. That’s how my teachers spoke about me too. So, for the first time, six of the eleven schools I studied in had plays based on non-Indian stories. It was fun being Foreigner, American Tourist, Foreigner’s wife, Alice lost in Wonderland, Hollywood actress, but soon, someone came up with the brilliant idea of the role of Snow White for me. (Snow White, that nickname has stuck to date, but for some un-funny reason that I choose not to remember.) I loved playing Snow White for the first time. One boy from the same auto that I took to school was Droopy, and his older brother was Sneezy. (Funnily, on the day of the play, he actually had a cold and sneezed all morning.) But then, slowly, I got typecast and no longer enjoyed the roles I was getting – Snow White. I was Snow White three times in succession. I once suggested to my teacher, much to her horror, to modify the story to make Snow White fight back and kill the Queen. So in a way, I actually came up with the storyline of Snow White & the Huntsman much before Rupert Sanders. And I’m quite sure I would have had more expressions on my face than Kristen Stewart. (Has that joke been recycled too much?)
One day, after moving to a new school, I was asked to play Sita. Superb. My family was really happy because I had to wear one of my mother’s silk sarees, a bindi and have my hair in a long plait. My great grandmother was especially happy because she was convinced that Sita was an Iyengar. I attributed it to her 91 years of life. I was content too, in a way, as I got to bunk my new dreaded Sanskrit classes. I was eight.
The play was focussed on Hanuman finding and rescuing Sita from Lanka, Sita reuniting with Rama and a bharatanatyam dance sequence to celebrate that. My two teachers decided to focus on the eight dancers first and practice the dance sequence till it was perfected, and then get to the dialogues. Fine with me, I got to miss classes for just standing around with a bunch of students. Once this process of fine tuning the dance to such an extent that I could do it at home myself just by observing – and I have to point out here that you definitely dance better than me, no matter who you are – we barely had a week left to practice our dialogue delivery skills. I helped write the dialogue as well, in a day, because vella ponnu spoke better English than her English teacher. No, seriously.
Flash forward to the School Day. I came to school all dolled up with my mother when I heard a rumor that Hanuman was missing. My teacher confirmed this. The boy who played Hanuman had come down with chicken pox, so we were in a huge mess. My then-best friend Kamala who had tailed me all week piped up,
“Miss, I can play Hanuman. I was with Sandhya always and watched all the rehearsals.”
Pat came the teacher’s reply, “But you have long hair.” That’s the objection she raised.
Kamala’s mother, who was wearing lots of red lipstick, was really excited. “No problem, madam. We can tie it up in a bun and you put the crown on top. She knows almost half of Hanuman Chalisa also.”
The teacher’s engines did some furious calculations, and she agreed. However, she decided she would stand at the edge of the stage and prompt Kamala with dialogues in case she forgot. Everything was back on track.
After getting on stage, I had a brief conversation with Ravana. I was then alone, sitting among trees in the cardboard jungle, gazing into the audience-filled oblivion, weeping. (I have the ability, to date, to shed tears upon will. That’s the one thing I’m actually proud of and my sister is extremely jealous of.) Hanuman was late by a few seconds, during which the silence became a bit awkward and someone inside one of the paper trees sneezed.
Then came Hanuman with her back to the audience. As a seasoned actor, I knew that you never enter with your back to the audience. Hanuman spotted Sita and made a beeline for her, instead of searching behind the trees and bushes first. Her costume – which now included a shirt with colored paper stuck on it to give it a Hindu mythological feel – was funny enough, but her face stole the cake. She looked like she ought to have been at a child’s birthday party with a conical hat than be a Monkey God. Her lips were painted on with the same red lipstick, akin to The Joker’s, and she had two huge, round, red apples of cheekbones, also made of the red lipstick. I clasped my hands to my mouth, and this time, there were tears of silent laughter in my eyes.
Hanuman had no idea how she looked. She narrated her dialogue at lightning speed and waited for me to respond. Upon seeing that I wasn’t responding, she turned towards the audience to wonder why Sita Devi was so distraught. Ripples of laughter broke out among those seated, and flashbulbs went off. Kamala smiled through it all.
By this time, the teacher had also noticed I wasn’t responding. She started hissing my line to me from beyond the stage, “My beauty is my bane! My beauty is my bane! “. I finally overcame my fit upon catching my teacher’s expression and opened my mouth to say my line, when, to my horror of horrors, Hanuman screeched, “My beauty is my bane!” It went eerily quiet. Then, for some reason, Kamala decided to take it upon herself to spell out all my lines.
“My beauty is indeed my bane! That’s why evil Ravana desires me, he has no true love for me like Rama does. Why did Rama send you, monkey, instead of Lakshmana or coming himself?”
The audience burst into laughter. I remember scrambling to my feet and shouting, “Shut up Kamala!” , but nothing more. I don’t remember what happened after that or how the play ended. All I know is, the play did have that well rehearsed dance sequence where I was so wrought with anger at having missed my most dramatic lines, I sulked through all the pictures. The applause made it look like we had been very successful as young, talented actors.
My teacher came up to me and my mother at the parent-teacher meet the week after and handed us photos of the play. Not surprisingly, I was grumpy in half of them. After a lengthy discussion with my mother about where she had bought that particular sari I wore, she exclaimed,
“The teachers were discussing after the play, madam. We have come up with a wonderful idea!”
“Next year, Sandhya will play Snow White!”
And I did. Twice more.