“Hello? Earth to Piya!”
Piya Mehra turned to grin at her best friend, Ami.
“What are you thinking? You looked a million miles away,” said Ami, with a slurp of her berry smoothie.
“Look at the sky, Ami. What do you see?”
Ami made a big production of looking up at the evening sky.
“Umm, I see… a gorgeous sunset. What do you see, Piya?”
“I see the story of my life,” said Piya, with a smile.
Piya turned to Ami.
“The sun does look gorgeous, but, have you noticed that it is just not willing to say bye? It lingers on, turning from a bright yellow, to fiery orange to a melancholic purple. But, it still holds on. Whereas, the moon, impatient as always, is already up in the sky, waiting to shine. How can the moon shine unless the sun gives up its hold on the sky? Get my drift?”
“But, my dear moonlight, your chance to shine is already here, waiting for you in the pages of that script. Why are you still moping?”
“Because, in my case, the sun has the moon on a very tight leash. If the moon tries to shine more than what’s allowed, the sun pulls on the leash, and all the lights go off,” said Piya, with a sigh.
“Darling, you’ve signed a contract. There’s nothing she can do about it. You’re doing this film and you’re going places,” insisted Ami.
The “she” in question, was Piya’s mother, Bollywood super star Sonali Mehra.
Seventeen year old Piya Mehra had just bagged the starring role in a huge-budget movie. If industry rumours were to be believed, talentless Piya got the role solely because of her mother. The producers were desperate to have Sonali in the film, so, they agreed to cast her daughter. One persistent rumour that refused to die, whispered at the casting couch.
Ami broached the topic, hesitantly.
“Umm, sweetie, is there anything you need to talk about…you know…regarding your journey?”
Piya turned to her and grinned.
“Relax, babes. Contrary to popular belief, my mother didn’t have to pimp me out to any old producer.”
“Stop joking about it! I was so worried,” snapped Ami.
“Piya! What the hell are you drinking?”
Piya and Ami turned towards the source of that screech.
“Think of the devil,” muttered Ami, even as the girls sat up straighter. Piya took a deep breath and braced.
Her mother walked briskly to their table and grabbed the glass from Piya’s hands.
“Who gave you this? Are you out of your mind? Sheela! Take these empty calories away. Baby can only eat and drink what I allow her to.”
Piya stayed silent. She knew there was no point in arguing. Ami, not being as wise, tried to pacify Sonali.
“Aunty, it was just berries with almond milk. It’s very healthy….”
Ami piped down as Sonali turned to glare at her.
She turned back to Piya, and leaned down menacingly.
“Darling, I don’t think you quite understand what’s at stake, here. The size of your waist can make or break this bloody film. If you can get your dense mind to work around big words, please try to read your contract. It says that if you put on more than half an inch around your waist before the film releases, you are in breach of contract. In which case, you have to return your signing amount, plus pay a hefty penalty, all of which, I promise you, will come from your inheritance. I’m not paying for you to pig out and get fat.”
Ami whimpered a little. She had never in her life, heard a mother talk to her daughter like this.
Sonali turned to her.
“Ami, I know you think I’m being harsh. But, you don’t know the strings I’ve had to pull, to get Piya this role. The producers didn’t even want to consider her, until I put my foot down and refused to come on board if they didn’t sign her. I’m lowering myself to work with an unknown director, for this stupid girl. Does she care? No! She does what she wants! Don’t forget what you are, Piya. If I got you into the film, I can get you thrown out, too,” she threatened.
“If you mess this up, I’ll throw you out… disown you…you’ll be out on the streets. Let’s see how far you get without dear dead Papa’s money and Mommy’s influence,” warned Sonali.
Ami was aghast at such abuse, but, Piya didn’t even react. She stared blankly at her hands. Sonali inferred from her bent head that Piya was well and truly cowed. The corners of her lips turned up and with a smirk at Ami, she stalked away on four inch heels, her mission accomplished.
The two girls sat frozen until they heard Sonali’s car swoosh out of the driveway. The minute her car cleared the gates, Ami ran to Piya.
“Sweetie, are you okay? Don’t believe her! You are not fat,” she insisted fiercely.
Piya looked up at her, and smiled.
“I know, love. That was utter bullshit.”
“Yes, it was! Wait, why are you smiling?”
Piya rang the bell to summon the housekeeper, Sheela.
“Sheela Aunty, I’m craving mutton biryani and some gulkand kulfi. Can you order some from my favourite dhaba please?”
Ami was horrified.
“Piya, dhaba food will be so greasy and unhealthy. Your mother will kill you! What are you doing?”
She didn’t want her friend to face such abuse again.
“Chill, babes, when Mom gets back, she’ll be sloshed out of her mind. Haven’t you heard? She has a “drinking problem”… which means, she drinks and her producers end up having problems.”
“What?” Ami was confused.
“I told you na? Whatever she said was utter bullshit! I wasn’t talking about my weight. Thankfully, I inherited Dad’s metabolism, along with all his money. I can eat what I like and never get fat.”
“I know,” said Ami with a roll of her eyes. “We used to hate you in school for that. But, I meant the part about you getting thrown out of the film.”
“Chill! That’s not likely to happen,” soothed Piya.
“No, because the true story is slightly different from Mom’s version of it. You’ve heard the rumours. Now, let me tell you what really happened. The director, Adnan Khan, has a daughter at our school. Do you remember that year-end play we did to create awareness about child sexual abuse?”
“Yep, you played the role of the victim, and you made everyone in the audience cry, without shedding a single tear, yourself,” remembered Ami.
“Well, Adnan was in the audience, and he cried just like you all did. A few months ago, when they were casting for this film, he thought of me. The hitch is, since I’m still a minor, he had to speak to Mom, first.”
“How do you know this?”
“Well, Adnan had Mom’s measure within five minutes of meeting her, and after I signed the contract, this was the first briefing he gave me. He knew what Mom would try, and he wanted me to know the truth.”
“When Adnan approached Mom, she thought he wanted to cast her. Imagine her fury when he made it clear that he wanted me for the role of a lifetime! She flatly refused.”
“Yep. Thus began a massive round of negotiations. It ended with the producers threatening to blacklist Mom in the industry.”
“But, your Mom’s a legend!”
“Not any more. Now, she’s more of a drunken liability and she’s physically and verbally abusive. The industry will put up with anything if you make them a shitload of money. When you’re past your sell-by date, and you still pull that kind of stuff, you’re a liability, and Bollywood knows how to offload liabilities. Mom was out of work. Finally, she managed to negotiate a small part in the film, but, she’s on sufferance. One slip and she’s out on her ass.”
“What if she kicks you out of the house and disinherits you, in revenge?”
“She can’t do that. In a few months, I will turn eighteen, and under the terms of Dad’s will, I get full control of my inheritance. My money’s safe, but, my career’s still on the line. As my legal guardian, she put in the clause that if my new career proves to be harmful to my mental health, she will pull me out of the film. If she does that, my career’s finished. So, I’m making sure I don’t give Mom a reason to use the guardian card. No alcohol, no parties, no arguments, and definitely, no talking back. When she rants at me, I just keep counting down the days to my birthday.”
With a high-five, Ami and Piya settled into their chairs, waiting patiently for the sun to set, so that the moon could have its chance to shine. Four months and thirteen days to freedom.
photo credit: Fré Sonneveld