All In A Day’s Work
A cheerful gaggle of kids emerges from the narrow lane that leads to Cuffe Parade’s Dhobi Ghat as I stand at the entrance of one of Mumbai’s landmark tourist spots, waiting for Pooja Sinha Roy to show up for what I predict to be a lesson in humiliation for me. I’ve combed through her Instagram profile to gain some insight into how she dons various professional hats throughout the day; especially unnerving for someone like me who procrastinates for the first half and spends the latter rushing to meet deadlines. I often wonder if I’ve been prematurely visited by a quarter-life-crisis gremlin who is gradually sapping my energy as I chase an unattainable speed target on the figurative running wheel. I’m not usually this maudlin but 7 a.m. shoots tend to overthrow my otherwise-sunny disposition, and it’s hard not to plunge into the pool of melancholy once I’ve dipped my feet in it. Sinha Roy promptly appears in front of me, and my gloomy thoughts dissipate almost immediately as if physically chased away by her infectious energy. “I’ve been up since 4 a.m.”, she announces to nobody in particular and continues in the same breath, “That is late for me because I actually wake up at 3 every morning.” She catches me gawking at her and recognises me from my profile picture on WhatsApp, where we’d been in touch until today. Before I can say anything to her, she’s chatting with the aforementioned bunch of kids — residents who live in and around Dhobi Ghat — and informs them of the next time she plans to visit, pressing a few crisp tenners into each of their upturned palms. The 34-year-old is a cultural tour guide who works part-time with No Footprints, a boutique tour agency which curates niche travel experiences for exclusive international clients that range from CNN reporters and New York Times journalists to Hollywood producers, in a bid to fully immerse them in the city. This, however, is only one aspect of what she does; the enterprising tricenarian is also a content manager and rescues helpless strays when she’s not dispelling bigotry and inherent racism through her walking tours. She directs tourists to spots that are of queer historical significance — where the community ate, shopped and partied before section 377 was scrapped. “I also consciously steer clear of typical tourist sites like CST and Marine Drive and take visitors to areas that have communities, which have been pitted against each other for ages, peacefully co-existing. For instance, if you go to the Byculla vegetable market, you have a temple, a church and a mosque within 100 metres of each other. The Magen David Synagogue in Byculla also has two schools inside its grounds, where 99 per cent of the students are Muslim — a much-needed (even if minor) subversion of the Israel-Palestine crisis. I’ve actually seen people’s faces soften at these places and it makes me happy to be able to make even the tiniest bit of difference.”
The enterprising multitasker is part of India’s steadily growing gig economy which enables professionals to take up short-term contracts — allowing them to work on various projects simultaneously instead of relying on a full-time job, and also supplement their incomes. The ‘agile workforce’, as it is also called, is fast attracting and creating employment opportunities for both the young and old alike — it enables the former to monetise their passions and allows the latter to escape the clutches of retirement. For Sinha Roy, the gig economy saved her from the throes of a career that she had no desire to follow through with. “I began working for a digital marketing agency in 2010, which is when social media burst on to the scene. Initially, I was lured in with clients like TedX and the now-defunct Škoda Prize, which used to be the Indian version of the Turner Prize. But that soon changed; I then had to create content for fairness creams — which I am vehemently against — and write about religious companies that sell prayers to people living abroad. How could I wax eloquent about things that went entirely against my belief system? I think that was part of the reason I began having bouts of anxiety and depression; I didn’t know what I was doing with my life and how it was all going to pan out. No Footprints happened at a time when I had hit rock bottom. I was initially apprehensive about the profile because I saw guides as the people who accosted you at Gateway of India, but the kind of work I do with international tourists gives me real purpose. It also allows me to put my French degree to good use; I speak the language so well now that I have gotten opportunities to travel to France and conduct tours there. This overall positivity has also influenced my job as a content creator; I now only write about things I wholeheartedly endorse; I recently wrote about the political movement surrounding #MeToo and how it affected the people around me. It really made me feel like I was making a difference.”
As someone who takes it upon herself to feed every stray feline she comes across, I’m both intrigued and impressed by the fact that Sinha Roy lives with seven that she has rescued herself. I ask her to shed some light on her commitment to rescues, but she brushes me off before I have even strung the question together. “Honestly, I don’t count rescuing animals as a job. It’s just my way of reducing the amount of hate in the world, and I believe these small acts of kindness really go a long way. The idea was to foster the animals until they got adopted, but they just ended up staying because nobody came forward to take them home. I don’t think most of my friends even know I work with animal welfare groups because I’m very private about it; I’ll only gather funds from close friends or get in touch with NGOs directly.”
Just listening to her recount a regular day in her life makes me embarrassed by the lack of meaningful activity in mine, and I wonder how my jaded body would react if I tried to subject it to her routine. Attempting to dissuade me from subjecting myself to that line of thought, she says, “Since I joined No Footprints last year, I’ve been waking up at 3 in the morning and leaving at 4 to make sure I reach work by 5 because these tours start early. Between waking up and leaving for work, I also have to feed my animals and spend some time with them as well as meditate, for my own peace of mind. My day also depends on the kind of tours I have —some days I get done with a tour at 8 a.m. and have the rest of the day free; most days, though, I reach home by 8 p.m. and try to be in bed by 9 p.m. so that I can wake up at 4 a.m. again the next day. It is peak tourist season right now, so I am unable to take up any content management projects. I will hopefully resume that once I have more time on my hands, which usually happens around March or April. The animal rescuing is ingrained into the very fabric of my being, so that really happens on auto-pilot. I won’t deny that these are hectic hours, and I don’t have much of a social life because of it, but I can’t really complain because I feel like this is my true calling. Plus, if I really want to go out or party the day before, the type of job I have allows me the flexibility of taking the next day off.”
Sinha Roy really has a way of drawing you in with her words — probably an occupational boon that allows her to use this gift of the gab to her advantage. It’s also perhaps why I haven’t realised that we have arrived at the venue where I am to meet my other companion for the rest of the day. But it doesn’t take me long to locate her; after all, I have watched her take on the role of a woman in a toxic relationship countless times as I played the video for Prateek Kuhad’s song Cold/Mess (2018) on a loop. When Zoya Hussain says, ‘I don’t like tarts; just the idea of them’, it beautifully sets the context for the six-minute music video which captures the life-cycle of a relationship as it progresses from bliss to agony; sentiments that many people have had to grapple with as is evident from the heartfelt comments left on YouTube. In fact, fans were so smitten by the effortless performances of both Hussain and Jim Sarbh, who played her partner, that it prompted Kuhad to finally create a video for his 2015 song Into The Night using uncut, unedited footage from a sequence that was originally intended for Cold/Mess. And while the newly-released video is nothing other than the two protagonists taking turns to sit at the kitchen table, my eyes were once again drawn to the mysterious woman who emoted with such seasoned finesse in spite of being a newcomer. It’s purely coincidental then, that I now have the chance to learn more about her, right on the heels of having watched Kuhad perform live for the first time during the Supermoon Winter Tour.
Hussain studied Humanities and Business for her college degree, but that, she clarifies, was to acquire a certain type of knowledge she thought was necessary to have. It was acting that was always on her radar. “It was not ‘on’ my radar,” Hussain corrects me. “It was my entire radar. I knew I wanted to act from a very young age. Even if not Bollywood, theatre was definitely something I wanted to pursue. But it’s very difficult to find your footing if you’re not a star kid, more so, if you’re a ‘regular’ person who doesn’t live in Mumbai. You have to route it through theatre contacts who will tell you about a casting director’s auditions, and all of this takes time and energy. As a star kid, you can look however you want and people will say you are bubbly and relatable. God help you if you aren’t because then every physical flaw is picked at and commented on, so much so that you get desensitised to your own appearance. Initially, I was told, and by a woman no less, that my lips were very dark and that with this kind of complexion, I would only be cast in indie films. It was very demotivating at times.” But as much of a letdown as these scathing comments may have been, Hussain soldiered on and went on to star in promising projects like Teen Aur Adha (2018), which was showcased at the London Indian Film Festival earlier this year, the Anurag Kashyap-directed Mukkabaaz (2017) and the Saif Ali Khan-starrer Laal Kaptaan (2019). “Mukkabaaz opened up a lot of doors for me. Before that, I was auditioning and meeting people, but I couldn’t see immediate results. It was because of Mukkabaaz that I got Teen Aur Adha and Laal Kaptaan without even auditioning for them. I also turned down some films that had big names attached to them, but I felt it was important to do that at this stage of my career because I don’t want to be an actor that is easily replaceable and has no identity. I don’t have a great PR machinery, and I’m not a very social person, so I can’t really put myself out there like other actors do. I’d rather let my work do the talking.”
I am now tasked with introducing the two women to each other — an assignment that could go awry because they are like chalk and cheese from whatever I’ve managed to pick up on so far. The former is effervescent and loquacious; the latter is demure and reticent. But thanks, in part, to Sinha Roy’s training as a cultural guide, she instantly assumes the responsibility of putting Hussain at ease. It also helps, as I later find out, that they share the same political opinions and environmental concerns and have a surprising number of friends in common. “Oh, they are all from the theatre industry,” Sinha Roy laughs. “My Bengali roots allow me to come across as cerebral, even if I’m not!” It turns out that I also share a few things in common with them as the three of us head to the next location — a pet shelter in Bandra — as we discuss the unusually warm weather this winter, the almost-theatrical current political climate in Maharashtra and, on a lighter note, our love of furry friends.
Amidst the eager canines and languorous felines at YODA (Youth Organisation in Defence of Animals), the two women get down to chatting about their professions, and like me, the 29-year-old actor is greatly impressed by how much the freelancer manages to accomplish in a day. “I would constantly be stressed if my life had to be like Pooja’s,” she admits. “I need to know what’s going to happen in my life, or at least what’s going to happen in the near future. If I’m watching a movie, I like to know how it’s going to end — I’ll enjoy it just as much even if I know exactly what’s going to happen in the last scene. I’m sure this says a lot about my personality. Being in the film industry has really made me reorient myself and accept not knowing what the future holds. I’ve been shooting continuously for three years, so I haven’t had much time to delve inwards, but the last couple of months have been slower and I’ve finally been able to spend some quality me-time. When a particular schedule wraps up, I just vegetate on the couch for two full days after which I binge-watch shows that don’t require me to exercise my brain. Then, I’ll actually start watching series that I’ve been meaning to catch up on. I’ll go out, meet friends, attempt to be a part of stimulating conversations, watch an ungodly number of movies and plays — I’ll basically do anything that will make me feel moved, whether it’s ecstatic, tragic or confusing. As an actor, I think it’s important to be affected by things, because the way you emote on camera or on stage depends on the way you process and react to real-life situations. So, during my time off, I just allow my senses to be assaulted. That being said, I can’t sit idle for too long because there is an element of uncertainty to my job, which means I don’t know where my next paycheck is going come from. I am spending a lot more than I am saving because there are few things you require to function smoothly in this kind of world. A PR manager, a car, a driver, a hair and make-up stylist, a dermatologist, a gym trainer…these never even featured on my list of priorities earlier. Sometimes, I could literally be told that I am travelling in the morning one night before. So there is a fair bit of spontaneity there too, although it is quite anxiety-provoking. But I don’t get too worked up, because I know this is what I want to do. Then again, actors come with a shelf life, so you always have to have an alternative plan. In a way, aren’t all our lives a little bit in limbo?”
Sinha Roy pipes in, “Be that as it may, I would never go back to a desk job. My friends and family are constantly telling me how great the gig economy is for me because I haven’t complained about my job in a really long time. I don’t have to go to an office, and I don’t have a boss, which is great for me because I have a problem with authority. I also don’t have to deal with workplace politics which is perhaps why I’m always 15 minutes early to work. I get to pick exactly what I want to do — my days, timings and the writing projects I take up. I know it doesn’t seem like I have a choice, but I choose to be at work at 5 a.m. because it will help me network and build connections for the future. Like the time I worked at a bookstore in Bangalore and got a date out of it,” she laughs. Hussain looks at her incredulously. “You worked at a bookstore too? Is there anything you haven’t done?!” The master career juggler smiles mischievously, and I tap out of the conversation, fully aware of the turn it’s about to take.