I remember being a girl of six and dancing to Umrao Jaan at weddings in Kabul. I would copy Rekha’s gestures with my little fingers and the women sitting around me would clap and cheer. I knew early on that I wanted to be on screen, with more people watching me than those modest wedding halls could accommodate.
Back home in Afghanistan, we all grew up loving Hindi cinema. Our culture has extraordinary music, but for cinema, we relied on India. Friday nights were Hindi film nights at the local theatre and my three younger siblings and I would wait all week for those. The films weren’t always new and they were often repeated over and over again, which is why I have a repertoire of film dialogues from the 1980s etched in my mind. Disco Dancer with Mithun was a special favourite. And apparently, at age four, I’d made my intentions to marry Amitabh Bachchan pretty clear.
Because of the political situation in the country, we moved around a lot. But as a child, amidst all the transition and disturbance—from Kabul to several cities in Pakistan before we finally got to Chicago in the United States—movies kept me enthused. They transported me to a world of magic. I pictured myself in place of whoever the actress was, mostly dancing divas like Rekha and Madhuri. I never watched the movies with subtitles and that’s how I picked up Hindi, as well as a smattering of Urdu and Punjabi. Mastering the language has been a perpetual quest and all my desi friends here have to suffer my linguistic flourishes. I think I do pretty well though, managing the North-Indian style along with Bambaiyya, and only messing up the genders once in a while!
Because I attend loads of Indian arts events and have Indian friends, I often get asked if I’m Indian (at other times, it ranges from Greek to Persian or Israeli). In some curious way, it makes me happy; I feel one step closer to my goals. I plan on quitting my job and moving bag and baggage to Bombay sometime soon and I hope to blend into the culture that I admire so much. I learnt Bharatnatyam as part of the Natyarpana School of Dance in New York and I’m continually amazed by a tradition that has produced such intricate art forms.
I’m single and for now I don’t have any personal or geographic commitments. That helps to stay focused. I’ve put in a lot of preparation: working day jobs and taking dance lessons, acting in student short films, attending auditions for practice. Now, it’s come to a point where it’s all or nothing. Even if things don’t work out the way I see them in my mind’s eye, I’ll be happy to know that I gave it my all.
Last week, I was in Baltimore to shoot a television pilot for a sci-fi series called c-47 that is set 800 years into the future in India. I travelled with the crew to Washington DC for lunch. I had to get back to work at 9 am the next morning, which is why I was limited in the choice of buses I could take back home. I had to take one that came via Philadelphia. And so, in the course of one day, I’d been to four states: New York, Maryland, DC and Pennsylvania. Riding on that late-night bus back home, I had an epiphany: I have a destination but I don’t have the map. I know I want to be in Bollywood and that I want it soon, but I’m not in control of the exact route that will take me there. I have no complaints though. I love every bit of the journey. I’ve come to realise that I’m living the lifestyle of a modern gypsy.
I left my parent’s place in Madison, Wisconsin, right after high school. I’ve been all around the place after that—Houston, then across California, Chicago and now New York. It’s been a struggle. My family has been supportive but they didn’t exactly help me pack my bags. It’s this Eastern thing: anything entertainment-related is still regarded with scepticism. Today, I’m independent. I live on my own and pay my own bills. But that said, I’m still very tied to my family and I fear offending them. For their sake and mine, with all my love for dance, I wouldn’t want to be labelled as an ‘item girl’. Slots and labels are terribly difficult to negotiate once they stick.
Dance is what drives me to make this immense journey, both physically and metaphorically. I wouldn’t say I’m a great dancer; I’ll let others say that. But dancing comes easily to me. Put me on a stage with an hour’s notice and I’ll have a choreographed sequence set to go. I like the lyrical expressiveness of Indian film dance that’s hard to find in the Broadway musicals or anywhere else. I like that over-the-top element, the costumes, the sets. Call me sentimental, but I’ll say it’s the old school hangover in me.
I don’t see New York as a climax to my entertainment industry aspirations. I thought I would love it, but I don’t. It’s a stepping stone to better places—Bombay, for sure. I’ve been meeting people from the Indian film industry here and they give me reason to think I won’t be totally at sea when I land up there.
I met Abhay Deol at a party in New York a few months ago and asked him what he thought of an Afghan girl from Kabul trying out for Bollywood. He smiled and said that there were too many try-outs, and that language might be an issue. I met his misgivings with a retort in Hindi, and we both laughed.
For all my Zen instincts, I do worry. I want to take things as they come, but that doesn’t mean I’m laissez-faire about it. I didn’t think of age as a possible nuisance. But people are polluting my mind now with the notion of the young, nubile, Bollywood debutante stereotype. I feel young and I do look young. I try to block these voices, but I know that time is precious and that perhaps I do need to step up my game.
I know I’m a 20-something outsider to the industry, dreaming from afar, but I’m not naive either. Not any longer, at least. Four years ago, I auditioned and signed the papers for a second lead in a Bollywood film that was being shot partly in the US. The producer seemed like a nice guy—married with children—and he asked me to get more involved with the production. Before we started shooting, he offered me the lead in a smaller production that was going to be shot in Bangkok soon after. When we met to work out the finances, he said he was ‘in love’ with me because I was an ‘interesting person’ and that all he wanted was one kiss. It was quite ridiculous and I opted out of both projects. I went home and cried for two hours straight. I had been forewarned by friends and family, but the reality of such a situation doesn’t hit you till it really slaps you on the face.
I don’t pray five times a day, but I’m a good Muslim girl. I’m happy to be where I am: a girl next door with dreams, working a nine-to-five job, taking the subway from my shared apartment in Harlem to work downtown in the West Village. I’m passionate about being on celluloid, but it’s such a pristine dream that I don’t dare make it murky. One day, it’s going to become a memory; something I’m going to look back upon. And I want those memories to be clean.
As told to Anindita Ghose