BANGALORE: When I was all of seventeen years, I left the relative comforts of my home in Bombay to go and live with my grandmother in Birmingham, UK. I was desperate to do only one thing -- become an actress. Being half Kashmiri and half German and having been born in the U K, I felt that perhaps my future lay in the West rather than in the Hindi film industry.
My sweet German grandma was delighted to have me live with her whilst I studied for my A levels and looked around at how I could get into an acting school. I started off with evening classes at the Birmingham Theatre School, where I also left some of my latest portfolio pictures one day, simply at the request of one of the teachers there who ‘had friends in London.’
Eventually I auditioned for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and won a place despite the fact that they only take nine girls and 21 boys in a year, out of some hundreds of applicants!
I was over the moon with joy but did not have the kind of money required to pay the fees. We had a good, middle class background but not huge sums of money in the bank. I tried all avenues open to me. I am a British citizen, so I wrote off to a hundred charitable organisations to fund my course. No one wanted to fund an actress, it seemed. I was not eligible for those government grants that students in the UK avail of, as I had not lived there for three years prior to my course. Deep down, I knew that chances like this did not come every day so I ended up working all my holidays to earn and save money to pay the fees. I worked in a hospital as an auxiliary nurse. This meant that I basically cleaned floors and toilets and brought in the tea trolley and the lunch trolley and so on. After a few months, I had the money for the first term’s fee.
A call from my father, who is directly related to the Nehru family, to the then Indian High Commissioner in London, the late B K Nehru, resulted in a room for me at the Indian Students Hostel in the heart of London in Russell Square. So I packed my bags and drove down to London and then drove up to every single hospital, looking for an opening for an auxiliary nurse on Saturdays and Sundays. Not one did! It was a Sunday evening and there was just one hospital left to try. I almost didn’t but well... I did and that was the one that had a vacancy!
I joined the following weekend, as my course at Guildhall was starting on the Monday. Whilst I was there, cleaning away, I happened to pick up the Evening Standard newspaper. There on the front page was a picture of an actress I admired very much, Olivia Hussey. She had starred in Franco Zeffirelli’s film Romeo and Juliet and was now going to play Mary in a three part serial Jesus of Nazareth. I sighed to myself and thought, ‘lucky girl,’ and went on with my work.
I started school on Monday, and loved every minute of it. But the Indian Students Hostel was quite another story. Although it was housed in a series of lovely old buildings, the hostel was the saddest place a student could hope to stay in. One look at the old, dirty curtains, sofas that looked like they had been picked up at a junk yard, and peeling walls, and my heart sank deep into the depths of my being. Thoughts of struggling actresses starving in garrets flashed through my mind, appealing to my sense of romantic struggle. Later I would find out about the rats the size of cats too. But the place was cheap! In those days it was 13 pounds a week inclusive of food and board.
The cook Pati would dish out very bad slushy Indian vegetarian food and passable chicken and mutton curry. So I managed not to starve. But the fact that I was in a little mini-India in the heart of London helped me to get through many a dark patch. The comfort I got from just being in an environment which felt a bit like home, even if it did not look like home, was an immense support. I also started to realize then, how Indian I actually was inside of me when I started missing the sound of Hindi film songs and the smell of masala dosa. But London is so amazing. Ten minutes from where we lived, was Drummond Street, where dosas were cooked up along with bata vadas and sev puri!
On my third day in school we were called in for an assembly at around 11 am. As the programme came to a close, one of the senior students spoke into the mike. ‘Will Soni Razdan from first year drama please contact the office immediately? Regarding something that could make her into a star of television and screen!’ I nearly fell off my chair and rushed to the office. I was told that Franco Zeffirelli, (yes the same!) had asked to see me! How did he even know I existed I wanted to know? Well, Mrs Knight from the Birmingham Theatre School had given my pictures to her agent friend in London who had passed them on to Dyson Lovell, the casting director for Jesus. When was that? Nine months ago! And nothing had happened after that. But a few days ago Franco had chanced upon them and had apparently gone ballistic wanting to meet me immediately! So there it was!
Well, off I went of course. I met Zeffirelli, who kept looking at me and saying ‘Maria Maria’ in a very Italian accent. He was a darling. He asked me if I would be able to come to Italy for a screen test. I said sure, as long as you pay for it because I don’t have a dime. They all laughed and after a few more Maria’s he told me that he wanted me to test for the part of Mother Mary. Olivia had been signed up so that was the only hitch. The Evening Standard flashed through my mind. I thought things like this only happened in films! They told me to come back in the evening to find out. Well, I just couldn’t go back to school that day. I walked around London feverishly all day, my mind in a total tizzy. I think I even went back to the hostel and wept. Out of relief, excitement, gratitude and fear too maybe. Finally I went back in the evening. They told me that they could not get Olivia out of her contract without paying a lot of money. But they wanted me to be a part of the series, as part of the ‘rep’ group of actors, and shoot for two months in Morocco. I would be paid 700 pounds a week! For a poor student who was struggling the way I was, this was enough to make me believe in God all over again.
I grabbed the opportunity and a week later I was off to Morocco. My school even let me go for the whole first term, saying that it would be a good experience and I think they knew how hard I was working to put money together.
I had a wonderful time shooting in Morocco, and played various different parts. I was something of a glorified extra if you like. But it really didn’t matter to me. I earned enough to pay for the rest of the year’s fees and even a ticket back home to see my family. And more...
I also became very good friends with the beautiful Olivia Hussey and even shared a room with her one night when there was a shortage of rooms at a place the unit had gone to!
But most of all, I learnt that anything that you get out of life, is in proportion to what you put into it. I had struggled so hard and somehow, somewhere, the universe was giving me something back in return.
And this truth has stayed with me all my life and I have always lived by this tenet. You do not get anything out of life by sitting at home and thinking about it. You only get by doing, doing, doing. And putting yourself out there to play the game of life.
Other really amazing things happened to me after this too. Equally serendipitous if that’s a word. But then, that is a whole other story!