The Little India Dozen

Ayesha Dharker turns Goddess


She is the lead actress from The Terrorist and The Mystic Masseur as well as the voluptuous Bollywood star from Bombay Dreams. Now Ayesha Dharker stars in a reading of Goddess – the film the late Ismail Merchant was to make with Tina Turner.

1. How did ‘The Goddess’ project come about?

A.. The Rubin Museum of Art in New York decided to do a play reading based on Suketu Mehta’s  screenplay, with Zakir Hussain’s music as a live component, using the dramatic setting of the museum.

2. What was unusual about this play?

A: It starts in an unconventional way, with the audience travelling with the actors through different parts of the museum, and being drawn into the performance. We were blessed with fantastic live musicians. Zakir’s brother agreed to play for us with Sultan Khan’s son and they really added all the atmosphere we needed to create the illusion of taking the audience to ancient India.

3. You’ve also acted in Ismail’s movie The Mystic Masseur What were your emotions on doing this play now, after his death?

A: I hadn’t been back to New York since Ismail died and it is a very different place without him. It hadn’t hit me till then that Ismail isn’t going to be here any more, and that was heartbreaking.

4. Your connection with Ismail goes way back?

A: I have known Ismail all my life, because he is an old family friend. I remember I was visiting London and wasn’t sure of where to stay. My parents had said that I could stay with Ismail, and though he left that morning, I got to his house to find that he had made me daal and chicken for dinner, which was left for me to find when I arrived. I don’t know many people who are as busy as Ismail who have time to really look after their friends like that.

4. What do you think was unique about Ismail as a film maker?

A:  He was the last of a certain kind of filmmaker – the kind of person that has a spirit of adventure about making movies. He wasn’t bogged down with getting lawyers and confidentiality agreements and contracts (which was crazy), but sort of got his friends together, went to gorgeous locations, found a great story, and made a movie.

5. Any fun memory of Ismail you’d like to share?

A: He turned up at my parents’ house one day with a raw fish out of the blue and said, “Have you had dinner? I found this wonderful fish!”  and fifteen minutes later, we were eating his delicious fish.

 6.  The best part of doing The Goddess?

A: It was strange serendipity, because I had worked with two of the actors already. I had just done a film with Samrat Chakraborty and Bombay Dreams with Manu Narayan.

7. How did it feel to play Shakti/Kali?

A: The character of the Goddess was so much fun because she keeps changing form. So I was a museum guide, a tempestuous and irresponsible goddess, a bad tempered but wise old man, a girl on roller-skates! 

8. How challenging was it to perform a song meant to be sung by Tina Turner?

A: I was very nervous. Zakir was really great and gave me the freedom to interpret the song the way I needed to, to play it my way. Not all composers would be as generous! Anyway, at the end of the reading he said I did a good job of the song and I finally stopped being nervous.

9. What do you have cooking now?

I’m doing an episode for a series called “Bodies” for the BBC and have just finished filming two American independent films in Bombay – one about a fictional “Indian Idol,” the other about call centres.  I am going back to India in August to work on a film and am hoping to work with Shyam Benegal on his next project. 

10. You’re hopping among three cities – Bombay, London and New York. Where do you feel you truly belong?

A: Luckily I don’t have to choose, but when people ask me where I’m from, I find myself saying I’m from Bombay, even though I haven’t lived there for ten years now!

11. Do you have a special talisman or lucky anything?

A: I have a few. I always buy a little Ganesha to put in my flat, and I have to confess I have a tiny one in my handbag.

12. What’s your comfort food and what do you enjoy when you want to celebrate?

A: Comfort food is daal and rice – or even better, South Indian curd rice with crisps – huge imrovement!  The same is great when you’re celebrating. I come back home sometimes from a big premiere or awards do and have some daal and rice, because that is normally the perfect end to a good evening.

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