Lisa Ray has never been quintessentially Bollywood but the few films she has done, the actress has managed to leave a mark. With her next film Ishq Forever, she returns to the industry after a long hiatus. Being one of the Bollywood’s first model-turned actresses, Lisa’s experiences in the industry have been one-of-kind. In a freewheeling chat, she shares her journey in showbiz, recalls some amusing anecdotes and tells us, why, going mainstream has never been her priority neither in Bollywood nor the West. Excerpts from an interview:
Have you shifted back to Mumbai?
Yes, I have permanently shifted back to the city. But I continue to divide my time between here and Hong Kong equally as my husband stays there. He too tries to visit us here. My father is in Kolkata and now I am here in Mumbai. For me it would be very confusing to live in one place, as I have always lived in multiple places.
Let’s go back to the 90s… people still remember you as the Afreen girl.
Yes and you know what, today, I take it. There was a moment in my life where I would probably be irritated to be perceived as just that. But now I am 43, going 44 next month. So yes, I’ll take it.
Do you think that music video would have broken all social media records had it existed back then?
(Laughs) Sure! I would have crashed the Internet those days.
You became an overnight star and you were still very young. Did you understand the magnitude of what was happening?
I had no clue what was happening. There is a reason I call myself an accidental actress, because it was all circumstantial. I know it would be hard to believe in today’s world but it was literally by accident. I had no desire to be in front of the camera, neither as a model nor as an actress. In the early 90’s, you know how it was — we were spotted by others.
I was on a vacation here with my parents and I was 16 at that time. Someone saw me and said to me, ‘Why don’t you model?’ The next thing I know, I find myself in a photo studio, modelling for Maureen Wadia. When she saw the results of my photo shoot, she signed me for Bombay Dyeing.
I didn’t think about it so much as a next step or anything, because I was soon to return to Canada to begin my university. But unfortunately, we had a serious accident, as a result of which I couldn’t attend university. My mother was very badly injured and my whole life turned upside down. And exactly, at that moment in the other side of the world, my images were released and I became an overnight star.
Did you take the next flight to India?
No. It was Maureen Wadia who flew to Canada. I had no idea. How would you know in those days with no Internet that you are famous in the other side of the world? I was going through so much. She met me, found out what had happened.
Once my mother was stable and we realised that it is going to be a long rehabilitation for her, Maureen convinced me to come back to India. She acted as a guardian and also convinced my parents. As I said, it was literally accidental. I was so young and confused. And that’s why it took me a decade to say yes to a film after I came back.
But why were you confused?
Let’s not forget that there was no motivation to be part of Bollywood in the early 90s. If you were a successful model, we were stars in our own right. We
(models) had a lot of respect and we got attention. It was dirty money in Bollywood in those days, laundered money, everything was disorganised. It would take two years to complete a project and the money was also not great back then. We were making better money in ads. So it was a very different time.
You had a crazy time during the costume trials of your first South Indian film. Could you recall that experience for us?
(Laughs) It is like an open secret. The taste of people down south is very different. I don’t know how it is like today, but I continue to have a lot of respect for the industry there because they were much more organised, long before Bollywood became organised and got their sh*t together.
Working there was a pleasure from that point of view, but the aesthetic sensibilities… what can I say… In those days I was much thinner. They wanted the bust and hips and things like that and if you didn’t come pre-programmed that way, they would give you the enhancements. It was long before the Kim Kardashian era. They were ahead of times, already into the balloon butt. (Makes a hand gesture)
With Kasoor, you went straight into the big league. But then you decided to leave the industry. Why?
I didn’t take my stardom seriously at all until I did Kasoor and thought about acting seriously. Before that I was just having a ball, and would say no to a lot of mainstream offers. I agreed to Kasoor because it was a different kind of film back then and my role was not cliché. I really wanted to do that kind of cinema — gritty roles, not just lead roles.
I wanted to do parallel cinema but all that I got were offers from mainstream cinema, which I didn’t want to take up. So to find opportunities where I could truly act, I had to leave. And then I got an offer from Deepa Mehta for Bollywood Hollywood, which ended up as a huge success in Canada. So I had a career in Canada. But I still withdrew because I wanted to understand this acting thing. So, when I was 30, I decided to go to a drama school in London. And many things spiraled out of that.
Do you regret leaving at a high point?
No, not at all. I feel I am very successful because the kind of career that I have built, I have done it on my own terms. That’s the boldest thing you can do. I managed to do projects on my own terms, in my own time and managed to live in different countries. I have lived in Paris, Milan, London, New York and my life was rich outside my career.
I respect Bollywood but probably I had just jumped into it. Bollywood takes your life. At at that point in my life, it would have been only about work. I managed to be a part of an Oscar-nominated film, Water. Who would have predicted that? I managed to even appear at the Oscars and LA opened her arms for me. I was down to the last three for one of the Bond films. Even in Hollywood, I was hesitant to go full mainstream. I am a strange bugger, take it or leave it....