Standing in a white-and-peach georgette Manish Malhotra sari, glowing like a diya, Lisa Ray is all set for a Diwali to remember. But it isn’t even Diwali yet.
In her gorgeous new Bandra apartment (Mumbaikars, the space will make your jaws drop; Dilliwalas, its sparse simplicity will make you want to redecorate, everyone else, it’s so Lisa Ray!) she’s merely getting ready for the Brunch cover shoot. And even then, the model and actress looks like she could make a festival arrive early.
It’s going like clockwork. “I’ve been doing this for more than 25 years, you know?” Ray says by way of explanation. And we do know. Only too well. The 43-year-old half-Bengali, half-Polish, brown-eyed, Toronto-born model has been smiling at us from posters, billboards, TV shows, magazines and soap cases (remember those white bars of Evita?) ever since she debuted in a Bombay Dyeing ad in the 1990s.
Ray, posing in a high-cut black swimsuit with Karan Kapoor, was just a teenager then. She hoped to become a journalist. But India was just starting to get a taste of economic liberalisation. For many, the international face and Indian connection (and those eyes!) were the very embodiment of how we wanted India to be seen.
That ad led to a cover shoot for Gladrags magazine. Ray wore a red Baywatch-style swimsuit, and that in turn led to more magazine appearances, modelling assignments, a music video for the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Aafreen Aafreen, and even an assignment to anchor a TV show.
Growing up with India
Whether it’s a photoshoot, or life in general, it’s safe to say that Lisa Ray has always followed the light. And with Diwali coming around, it’s no surprise that she’s excited. “Apart from decorating my new flat with diyas, candles, and rangoli, I will also buy gifts for everyone in my life,” says Ray.
Her plans encompass two cities: Mumbai and Hong Kong, where her husband of three years, management consultant Jason Dehni, is based. Flitting within Asia actually seems like the more settled option. Ray has divided her time between continents, and in her avatar as a film actress, travelled far more.
Bollywood came calling soon after her modelling success. She hit the big screen in 2000, in the forgettable murder mystery Kasoor, but it wasn’t until two years later that her big break arrived.
In 2002, filmmaker Deepa Mehta cast Ray in the hit romantic comedy Bollywood Hollywood opposite Rahul Khanna. For an India that was learning to laugh at its own stereotypes, Lisa Ray was once again the poster-girl for the changing nation: Westernised, Indian, and great fun.
Her portrayal of a young widow in Deepa Mehta’s Water in 2005 showed good signs of the way her career could go, but instead of returning to Bollywood, Ray decided to move back to Toronto where she starred in a slew of films and TV shows. India, and Ray, it seemed had moved on.
A different turn
In 2009, Ray was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare kind of cancer, considered incurable. Well-meaning industry experts asked her to keep it quiet. She went though bouts of anxiety herself. But somewhere, the woman who’d stood for change decided to change her story. She went public with news of her disease and battled it head on – going bald from chemotherapy but facing the camera with a courage not many 100-crore actresses would likely show. After undergoing a stem cell transplant, Ray was declared cancer free in 2010.
Ray says she’d always intended to return to Mumbai, not only to work and be with her close friends, but also to be an inspiration to other victims of the disease.“It’s a kind of personal experiment, says Ray. “I’m 43, and the fact that I can work in India post cancer is a strong message for women and cancer survivors.”
The Yellow Diaries, her blog about her fight against cancer, became a huge success. A book that touches on her life experiences and struggles will be published by Harper Collins soon. “I talk all the time about my cancer experience,” Ray says. “I believe in sharing openly. This offers hope and support to others going through the illness. Fighting cancer is tough. Maybe one of the toughest experiences you can have. But it doesn’t mean you can’t get through it. We are put here to live and love fiercely and to do our best. The rest is in God’s hands.”
Rising from the ashes
Back in Mumbai, Ray is delighted that, at this stage in her life, she doesn’t have to take the first film she is offered. “I don’t have to work, but I choose to be in India because it’s an exciting time, with new stories in cinema,” she says. “Loads of fresh talent and endless possibilities. I’ve completed two films: a romantic comedy called Ishq Forever, releasing in January, and a thriller, Zahhak. There’ll be new projects next year.”
India has changed while she’s been away. Our films have changed too. “It’s a positive evolution,” Ray says. “The work ethic, bound scripts, start-to-finish schedules, none of this was around in the late ’90s when I was here last. There’s always room for improvement, but I think it’s worthwhile to acknowledge how far things have come,” she says.
But while the industry has changed, the producers’ perception of Ray has not. Abroad, Ray was seen as an actor. Here, she’s still seen as a model and TV anchor. “So in this innings, I’m looking to do some soul-satisfying and fun work,” she says.
Love, pray, celebrate
And amidst it all, there’s Hong Kong and a successful long-distance marriage. “I have just celebrated my third wedding anniversary and instead of ordering flowers, my husband flew down to deliver them personally. That is the sort of relationship we have. We are both strong, independent individuals who are busy in our respective worlds. We miss each other, and we don’t go more than three weeks without one or the other flying to Mumbai or Hong Kong,” says Ray.
It was Dehni who encouraged Ray to work full time in India again. “He knows how important India is to me. My marriage has not chained me, it’s given me wings.” Ray will celebrate her Diwali in Hong Kong with her husband. “I will take a morning to meditate and express gratitude for my rebirth and all that I have in my life, and set intentions for the coming year,” says Ray.
But will the celebrations in Hong Kong be as grand as they are in India? “Diwali is celebrated wherever there is an Indian community,” she laughs. And you just know, she’ll find her light, just as she always has.
Of festivities past and present
Lisa Ray has beautiful memories of Diwali in Mumbai, during the 10 years that she lived and worked in the city. “I moved to Mumbai at 16, so I have a lot of memories of celebrating Diwali with friends, complete with diyas, pujas, crackers, presents and great saris,” says Ray. She loves wearing saris and is going to be dressed in one on this Diwali too.
Being half Bengali, Ray says that Durga Puja was celebrated with more fervour at home but she remembers being equally excited during Diwali too. “We always dressed up for Diwali regardless of whether I was celebrating in Kolkata where my father’s family is from, Canada, London, Milan or this year Hong Kong. Diwali is a moveable feast, to borrow a phrase coined by Hemingway. I’ve never been into crackers, but Phooljadis and diyas are a must. There is something so primal and soothing on a soul level about fire and light. I also traditionally clear the living space energetically. I have my own special mantras and meditations. I prefer to begin Diwali on more contemplative, quiet note and end with a bang.”
Talking about mithais, Ray says that since she is a Bengali, so rasgullas are always a hot favourite, but barfi, and rasmalai are popular too, besides low sugar chocolates. “Since my diagnosis, I’ve very careful with my sugar intake so one rasgulla is good enough for the year,” adds Ray.
Recalling about her last Diwali, Ray says. “Last Diwali I was in Toronto with my husband. I was really missing Mumbai, friends and family but we were also in the middle of moving to Mumbai and Hong Kong and I was terribly jet lagged. However, I threw on a gorgeous sari from the ‘RayofHope’ collection which I had designed for Satya Paul, my mother’s jewellery and we went out for a fine meal at an Indian restaurant called Pukka where the owner made a special spread.” That Diwali says Ray was significant as she had successfully completed a clinical trial for Multiple Myeloma and was also embarking on a new chapter of her life, moving back to India while her husband moved to Hong Kong.
For this Diwali, Ray has planned to light up her new flat in Hong Kong with diyas, candles and rangoli, as she will be celebrating the festival there with her husband, Jason Dehni.
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From HT Brunch, November 8
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