Actor Lisa Ray vividly recalls that night in 1991, when her mother was battling for her life in a Canadian hospital — after the family met with a serious car accident — when she got a phone call from India, enquiring if she would be interested in acting in Hindi films, including one opposite Sunny Deol. Already a recognised face in the modelling industry by then, Ray took some time to decide. After attending to her mother who was paralysed and wheelchair ridden after the accident, Ray headed to Mumbai to pursue a career in Bollywood.
The actor shared the memory at the launch of her debut book Close to the Bone (Rs 599; HarperCollins India) at Canada House in Delhi last week. The cancer survivor who battled the illness twice, called herself an “accidental actor”. “That’s because I experienced overnight, all of these things that we as a society define as success — money, fame, opportunity, reputation and so on — literally in a snap. At the same time, I was experiencing the deepest depths that you can experience in terms of trauma and emotion. I was broken. So it made me question: look, on one hand, I have got everything that is supposed to make me happy, yet why am I feeling like this? In a strange way, life had set me up to start questioning those notions of what does it take to make you happy and complete. What does it take to make you feel purposeful and alive in life, because all of this stuff, which I had gotten out from being at the right place at the right time, was not working for me and was not making me happy,” says she.
Born in Toronto to a Polish mother and an Indian Bengali father, 47-year-old Ray recalls being born with a rebellious streak. “I didn’t have the necessary vision of particularly achieving goals in my professional life, but to simply gather experiences,” says the actor who has been seen in films such as Bollywood/Hollywood and Water.
In the book, Ray she shares numerous moments from her life — from being diagnosed with the rare blood cancer multiple myeloma to fighting anorexia, and her journey in Bollywood.
At the event, the actor revealed how she decided to go public with her cancer diagnosis at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009, when she was 40 pounds overweight due to the life-saving steroids she had to take to save her life. Around the same time, she also began sharing her experiences on the blog The Yellow Diaries. “I never wanted to be in front of the camera. But I have a career today because of the camera. I always felt that as a woman I was objectified and women are more scrutinised than men are in front of the camera. I always hated the red carpet. I had a breakthrough moment at the festival. I decided to bring my two worlds together — my private and secret life, and my public life, and use that as an opportunity to speak about something that was meaningful to me. That broke the spell of worrying about my appearance and what other people thought.”
Months later, she posed with a bald head on the cover of an Indian magazine. She says, “I believe in myself. What I have to offer is much more than my looks, I do not identify myself as an actress. When I am sitting at home and reading, I don’t think of myself that way. That is other people’s perceptions. As far as I am concerned, I am Lisa. When I am not working, I don’t wear make-up, I don’t comb my hair, I am interested in art and in backpacking across India.”
She ended the discussion by pointing at a lotus tattoo on her leg, inspired by a shlok that she learnt on the sets of Deepa Mehta’s Oscar-nominated film Water, where she played a widow, Kalyani — Padma patram ivam bhasa. Ray says, “Live your life like the lotus flower. We have this magical ability to rise above the murky waters and inhabit this world and all of its myriad kind of experiences — good or bad, dark or light — and still blossom above all of them.”