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July 18, 2008

The Big Shoot

An extract from Anuja Chauhan’s novel The Zoya Factor, releasing this month.

Zoya, chal, it’s time to go,’ Monita’s husky voice had an edge to it. She sounded both totally wired and hugely relieved. I told her I’d be down in twenty minutes and jumped to my feet, smiling excitedly at my reflection in the mirrored wardrobe.

The two of us had been chafing in the luxurious embrace of the Taj Mumbai for the last three days. We’d demolished tinfuls of salted cashews and trayfuls of fancy chocolate, sweated in the sauna, primped in the parlour, and watched television mindlessly. All with one eye on the massive bay windows, down which smooth sheets of snot-coloured water had been pouring for thirty-six hours straight.

‘It could be an award-winning ad for Coldarin or something,’ Mon had said gloomily surveying the rain that morning, lying on her tummy with her chin propped up in her hands. ‘One of those intense, Cannes-Lion-winning type of ads, made on a million-dollar budget. God has a thunderous phlegmy cough and a rainy runny nose. The mortals, drowning in celestial snot, spray the skies with Coldarin mist. The satanic streptococci flee, the Almighty recovers and a huge double rainbow forms in the sky and morphs into the Coldarin logo. Slow fade out.’

I’d shot her a concerned look – it wouldn’t do for my creative director to have a nervous breakdown bang at the beginning of the biggest cola ad-shoot of the year – and quickly handed her the Room Service menu for some light eating. ‘It’ll stop today, Mon,’ I said soothingly, after she’d ordered two Prawns-Pepper-Salt platters and a Triple Hot-Choc-Fudge in a tearful voice. ‘We’ll shoot tonight. You’ll see.’

Sure enough, by seven in the evening the rain had reduced to a slow snivel and an apologetic looking sun had put in a cameo appearance before drowning itself in the Arabian Sea, leaving behind a clear, star-studded sky.

And now Monita had called.

The Zing! Cola shoot was finally on!

Humming happily to myself, I dived into the shower cubicle at seven forty-five, and emerged in a cloud of steam at five past eight. Then I wiped the steamed-up mirror and examined my face critically.

People are always saying so cute! when they see me and grabbing my cheeks and squeezing them with gusto, which is okay when you’re a moppet in red corduroy dungarees but not so good when you are a working woman armed with a degree from a lesser business school, frantic to project a mature image in your job as a mid-level client-servicing executive in India’s largest ad agency, and twenty-seven years old to boot. By that age, people should be more interested in squeezing your butt, right?

Wrong.

‘I don’t know what it is, Zoya,’ Sanks, my boss, (a forty-three-year-old, hardened ad-man, not some cheeky, empty-nester auntieji, okay) once told me, ‘but just looking at your cheeks makes my thumb and index finger sort of spasm – I want to squeeze ’em and squeeze ’em and squeeze ’em till they pop.’ He’d got a manic gleam in his protuberent eyes when he’d said this and I’d backed away from him hurriedly, thinking, Okay, here’s conclusive proof that the CAT and IITJEE exam formats totally suck.

Oh, well, at least I’m not hideously deformed in any other way. I mean, my skin’s okay, and my hair’s actually quite nice – it’s dark and shiny and cascades halfway down my back in a mass of bouncy ringlets. I never tie it up.

Now I shook it out and yanked open my duffel bag.

It wouldn’t do to be late.

The call time for the shoot was 9 pm and it was only a short drive from where I was, to the location, Ballard Estate. We’d cordoned off the whole ilaka and got police permission and protection for the entire week. We needed both because we were blocking busy roads and because we were shooting with one of the biggest stars in the country. Which brought me back to the all-important question of what cool outfit I was going to wear.

I obsess a little about being ‘cool’, because, hello, when people ask me where I stay I have to look them in the eye, smile brightly and say ‘Karol Bagh’ with casual unconcern. Which is agony in advertising because when all the snooty ad people think Karol-Bagh-type, they imagine a pushy wannnabe in a chamkeela salwar-kameez with everything matching-matching. Someone who says ‘anyways’ instead of anyway, ‘grands’ instead of grand and ‘butts’ instead of butt. (As in: She has no butts, earns twenty grands a month and lives in Karol Bagh. Who does she think she is, anyways?)

Of course they don’t know anything. They have no clue that the fancy south Delhi movie halls where they all throng to see the latest Hollywood films are owned by an enterprising Karol Bagh boy who lives down my road, still, even though he now owns houses all over Delhi, including one in Golf Links, the poshest quarter in the capital.

Because Karol Bagh has Soul.

It may be a loud, expansive, dhik-chik dhik-chik music-loving soul that died and became a soul because its arteries clogged with too much high-cholestrol, ghee-laden Punjabi food, but it’s a soul nonetheless.

Think lousy old Golf Links has Soul?

Naah.

I finally settled on loose khaki cargos and a skinny black ganji. Then I fluffed out my hair, yanked on my red sneakers, grabbed my matching-matching red rucksack (fully uncool I know, but what to do – control nahi hota) and slammed out of the room, hugely excited.

Monita was waiting for me in the lobby, grinning happily. Tall, helmet-haired, strong-featured (her cheekbones are fully out there) and strong-minded too. She’s nursed me through not one but two major heartbreaks that I don’t like to talk about. She wears fusionish clothes and writes some pretty zany scripts. She’s very cranky nowadays though, being fully nicotine-deprived. Her younger son (twenty-six months old) is refusing to relinquish his rights to her Goddess-like breasts. ‘I swear, Zoya,’ she’d said on the flight in from Delhi, ‘seven whole days away from him, this time I’m going to pull the plug for good.’

Anyway, she said I looked nice and made some cheapie remark about how I’d duded up to meet movie stars. I beamed like a besharam and shamelessly admitted that I had as we stepped out jauntily into the dripping world, hailed a cab and told the driver to take us to Ballard Pier.

‘Wahan barrier laga hai, shooting chaalu hai,’ he said dourly and I got major thrills out of replying, ‘Pata hai, it’s our shooting only!’

Monita rolled her eyes at me, but I just giggled. Hey, she’s shot a million films but this was my first! I was allowed to chirp a little.

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