Parvathamma hurried down the lane as fast as she could manage while keeping an eye out for slush-filled potholes. She was dressed in her best silk sari and she had to be careful not to get it dirty. Already, there was that stain on the side that she would have to remember to be careful to hide with the pallu. It was her damned daughter-in-law who was responsible for the stain; she had borrowed the sari for a puja, then spilled pickle over it during the meal that followed. By the time madam had traipsed home, the stain was indelible. Parvathamma was sure she had done it on purpose.
“All dressed up early in the morning, Parvathamma. Where to?”
It was Kamla, that nosy neighbour of hers. She and some others were waiting with their pots and buckets for the arrival of the water tanker.
“The usual, ma.” Parvathamma kept walking. “Shooting. I can’t stop to talk, I’m very late.”
Kamala made some comment that she couldn’t hear, but the spurt of giggles that followed were loud and clear. Parvathamma pretended not to notice and walked on.
She reached the bus-stop and looked at her watch. Her bus would arrive in a few minutes. She looked about for a place to sit. The backrest of the stone seats had been clumsily plastered with election posters. Couldn’t those overzealous party workers spare even a bus-stop seat! As it were, the printed pictures of political leaders jostled for every inch of wall space in the city.
The whole city was decked up like a bride and indeed, the atmosphere was of a raucous wedding party. Streamers of paper flags had been strung across the lanes, in the colours of one or the other of the two main political parties in the ring for the upcoming assembly elections. Hoardings and banners adorned street corners. Loudspeakers engaged in high-decibel verbal duels from dawn to dusk. In her own colony, the opposition loudspeaker bemoaned the state of affairs from outside the local kirana store and promised to bring change. Meanwhile, the ruling party had cornered the more strategic location. Their loudspeaker, atop a palm tree right next to the water collection point, extolled the virtues of their able leaders to the captive audience who waited every morning for the tankers.
Parvathamma ran a critical hand over the seat to ensure there wasn’t any extraneous glue from the posters before she sat herself down gingerly; the last thing she wanted was to be a walking advertisement for some political party.
She was ten minutes late when she arrived at the address she had been given. She squinted at the signboard on the first floor. Ramamurthy Studios. Yes, this was the place. She made one last adjustment to the string of jasmine she had pinned in her sparse, greying hair and climbed the stairs.
There were already six or seven people waiting in the small outer room; men, women and a couple of children. Chintamani saw her and heaved a sigh of relief. But before he could comment, a man came to the door and gestured for them to come into the crowded studio.
The set was ready. Parvathamma took in the couple of rundown huts and the small paan shop. A camera stood ready on a tripod dolly, another was mounted on a jib crane, around which a group of people stood, immersed in discussion.
One of the men turned as the group entered. “Are they all here, Chintamani?”
“The casting director,” Parvathamma explained to the woman next to her in an authoritative whisper.
“You took your time.” The short man with an evidently shorter temper strode over to examine the group. His eyes rested on Parvathamma and he clicked his tongue in irritation. “Didn’t I tell you to have them come dressed for the shoot, Chinatamani?”
Chintamani made a gesture of helplessness.
“Well, fine, there are some clothes in the changing rooms. Vidya!” One of the girls making last-minute adjustments to the set came over. “See to this woman, please. And make it fast.”
The girl took Parvathamma by hand and led her away. The changing room was no bigger than a closet and had stuff strewn all around. The girl rummaged in through some clothes and pulled out a green cotton sari.
“Here, you can wear this,” she said, glancing at Parvathamma. “Your blouse will do. Just change the sari.”
Parvathamma stared in dismay at the crumpled, shabby garment. “This one?”
But the girl had already stepped out and was conversing with someone in English in the hallway outside.
“One of the little boys needs to change, too,” the man was saying.
The girl groaned. “What’s the matter with him now?”
“Ask Murthy. Doesn’t look desperate enough, I guess.”
Chuckling to themselves, they walked away and Parvathamma closed the door to change.
The shoot had already begun by the time she returned. A family of three – a man, a woman and a boy – were on the set and the casting director, who was apparently the director as well, was shouting instructions. One of the crew came over and gestured her over to a corner.
“You’re next,” he said. “You have to raise your hand in the air, like this…” he held up a clenched fist, “and say angrily ‘How many more years will we live like this?’ Say it with anger and emotion. Got it?”
“Just that one line?”
He gave her a look and walked off.
A couple of hours later, the shoot was done. They waited in the outer room for Chintamani. At long last, he came out and handed each of them their payment.
“This is too little,” Parvathamma said, eyeing the seven hundred-rupee notes in her hand.
“How much were you expecting?” he snapped back. “It was a five-minute shot, not a three-hour feature film.”
Parvathamma walked out into the afternoon heat, sweat beading her forehead. She had missed the 12:15 pm bus. Now it would be a long wait for the next one. All for one line! And that Chintamani, who did he think he was! He lived in the same colony; she had known him since he was a snot-faced toddler, roaming about in his underwear. And now, look how he spoke!
She turned to see Chintamani calling her from an autorickshaw.
“I’m going back to the colony only, aunty. Come on I’ll take you home.”
He looked slightly shamefaced. And he should. She went to the rickshaw and got in as he slid over to the other end. The rickshaw started.
“Aiyo, aunty, how many times do I have to tell you not to come to these shoots dressed to the teeth?” he began, jokingly.
Parvathamma was not amused.
“Oh, come on, aunty, you and I go back a long time. But I can’t be friendly in front of the others, no? Or they’ll all be sitting on my head, asking for more pay. I also have to make a living, no?” He tore open a packet of ompudi and held it to her. “Here, have some.” She relented with a smile and dipped in. Encouraged, he continued, “It’s been quite a while since you last gave me any of your homemade murukku.”
“I haven’t made any since last Deepavali,” she said, letting out a dramatic sigh. “What to do, I don’t get any help, you know. My daughter-in-law would rather jump in a well than do some extra work in the kitchen.”
Chintamani grinned and looked away. The loud, public quarrels that Parvathamma and her daughter-in-law had were a regular source of entertainment in the colony.
“By the way, what was this shoot for?” Parvathamma asked.
Chintamani shrugged. “How do I know, aunty? It’s not as though these guys sit down with me and discuss the script. They just tell me how many people they need, and my job is to find them. Probably some promotional video for some NGO or something.”
Parvathamma sniffed. “One line, and that also will be lost on some CD that no one will see.” She paused, and then turned to him. “Yen, pa, Chintamani, I have asked so many times. Why don’t you try me for some role in a movie or something?” She held out her hands, thumbs and forefingers framing an invisible screen.“Being seen on the big screen, now that would be something!”
Chintamani laughed. “Aunty, do you know what kind of contacts you need to appear in movies? A hundred people will line up even for a one-second waiter’s role.”
“What about some television advertisement, then?”
“Ads are to sell stuff, aunty. Washing powder, cooking oil, shampoo. They only take stylish folks, those English-speaking types. Not people like you and me.”
“Why? People like you and me don’t buy cooking oil and washing powder, or what?”
“The point in advertising is not one is, but what one wants to be. Aspiration, aunty, aspiration. That is the key to selling things.”
Parvathamma snorted and turned away.
Chintamani smiled. “Why are you worried, aunty? Everybody in the colony already knows you’re an A-one actor.”
Hah! They knew alright. And she knew how they laughed at her pretensions. “In what exactly do you act, Parvathamma?” they taunted her. “Why do we never get to see your acting?” Behind her back, they probably said worse. To hell with them! They hated her guts, the whole lot of them. When her husband abandoned her, perhaps they would have liked her to beat her chest and bemoan her fate, then slink back to her village in shame. She had done nothing of the kind. If anything, she had been glad to be rid of that old bastard. After he left, she actually felt more energised, more motivated to work harder now that there was no one to drink away her hard-earned money at the nearest liquor shop. Apart from her regular job as a housemaid, she had tried her hand at other things – tailoring, selling homemade snacks – anything that came her way, and had single-handedly seen her son through school and a vocational training course. Now, Prabhu had a good job in the automobile factory, and she had the luxury to do only the work she really liked.
Her first acting assignment had come purely by chance a couple of years ago, when Chintamani, on the lookout for someone to act in a short documentary, had asked if she was interested. As always, she had not hesitated to try something new. And she had discovered she enjoyed it. She was not nervous or awkward in front of the camera like some of the others. No, she held her head high and spoke with confidence. More assignments tricked in. Yes, they were all bit parts. But, she loved those minutes, however few, when the camera was focused on her. Those few minutes in the spotlight made her feel important, like the whole world was watching her. Even if it really wasn’t –
“Aunty, here’s your lane.” Chintamani broke into her thoughts. He tapped the driver’s shoulder to stop.
“Thanks, pa. Think of me if something else comes up.”
“I will. And you think of me when you make murukku.” The auto started down the main road to his house two lanes down.
As Parvathamma made her way down the lane to her home, she saw a small crowd gathered outside the tea-stall. Somebody was standing atop a rickety plastic chair and addressing the gathering.
They didn’t even need a stage these days. Give any donkey a mike and he will launch into a speech.
“…is not what democracy is about,” the young man was saying. “They offer free TV sets and mixer-grinders and iron boxes, but where is the regular supply of electricity to use them? What is the use of fancy gadgets when you still have to stand in line every day for water from tankers? They are all here wooing you today. Once the elections are over, they will vanish faster than the roads after the monsoon.”
Not a politician, Parvathamma decided. Some activist type. She paused to listen.
“Let us uphold the spirit of democracy. Let us make an informed choice based on what these people are doing for the country, not what kind of freebies they promise to dole out. Even now, money is openly being distributed before the elections. This time, let us reject all their so-called ‘gifts’. Let us show them our votes are not for sale. That we are not for sale—“
“What are you saying, man?” one man stood up, belligerently. “Are you saying we are selling ourselves?”
Another man rose to calm him down. “Who says our vote is for sale? Look, brother, we take with the right hand and we take with the left hand, but we vote with our brains. Got it?”
Laughter rippled through the gathering.
“Yes, these politicians loot us all the time. So what if we loot them at election time?”
The young man stood precariously on the wobbly chair, looking flustered. Parvathamma smiled to herself and moved on. Poor fellow! He reminded her of Prabhu, when he was younger. He had been like that, too, full of ideas of how the world should be, until life – and marriage – had beaten the idealism out of him.
“Ah! Look who arrives! The Maharani of the silver screen.” Vasanthi was sitting on the floor, grinding rice and urad in the mixer-grinder. “So, which movie did you star in today? When is the grand release? Will you invite us for the premiere night?”
Parvathamma ignored her daughter-in-law and went into the other room to change.
“So, like I was saying, here was this leader handing out pamphlets and I was wondering why people were queueing up for them,” Vasanthi was saying, enthusiastically.
When Parvathamma and her son Prabhu sat down to eat, she stood at the gas stove, making dosas on a flat tawa and dishing them out fresh onto their plates. The door of their two-room house stood ajar and people passing by in the lane outside occasionally shouted a greeting that Prabhu returned.
“I was about to leave, when luckily Sharada stopped me,” Vasanthi continued. “And guess what the setting was? You show the pamphlet at the kirana store, and you can get groceries worth five hundred rupees!” She looked around at them, her face shining.
“It’s so they won’t get caught on camera bribing people,” Prabhu said.
“Yes. Clever, no?”
Prabhu sighed. “You know, what that man was saying at the tea-stall yesterday? It does make sense. There is something called self-respect, after all—“
“What do you mean!” Vasanthi whirled around, insulted. “We are not stealing anything. Nor are we begging. If people come of their own volition to give us things, what’s wrong in taking them?”
“The last thing I want in this house is another drama queen, you hear,” she said, waving the spatula at Prabhu. “As it is, your mother seems to think she’s some kind of heroine, even with one foot already in the grave.”
“Watch it, woman,” Parvathamma said. She was not going to be bullied like her son. “I earn good money for what I do. And it’s certainly better than standing in line for dole-outs.”
“If taking freebies is so very difficult for you both to swallow, maybe you shouldn’t be eating these dosas either,” she said. “The batter was made using the free mixie.” She looked at them, challenge in her eyes.
Prabhu put his head down and ate. Parvathamma opened her mouth, then thought better of it, and followed suit.
Parvathamma was shelling peas later a few evenings later when her cellphone rang. It was Chintamani.
“There’s a shoot tomorrow, aunty” he said. “Early in the morning, but I’ll arrange transport. Can you make it?”
“Yes, of course,” she said.
“Mind you, this one is in a paddy field in the outskirts of town. It’ll be muddy. No silk saris. Don’t say later that I didn’t warn you.”
“Okay, okay, I heard you,” Parvathamma said. She looked over at her daughter-in-law triumphantly. She had been still smarting over Vasanthi’s slight and this was the perfect way to assuage her wounded ego. “I’ll be there, ready for the shoot.”
Vasanthi scowled, muttering to herself in a tone that was meant to be audible, “If they can take that old crone, why not me, I ask. What’s wrong with my looks?”
“Maybe you don’t look dis-pi-rate enough,” Parvathamma stated, mimicking the manner of the studio folks.
As voting day approached, the frenzy of election campaigning reached a fever pitch. Candidates ran full-page ads in newspapers, bristling with photos of the top brass of their respective parties. Phones buzzed and vibrated with bulk SMSes jostling for the favour of voters. Slogans rode the airwaves like battleships.
Two weeks before the election, the two rival parties released the last installment of their respective ad campaigns. The first ad, run by the ruling party, extolled the progress and development made in the state. The other, run by the opposition party, lambasted its lack. In the tough competition for slots, the two ads ran back to back on primetime television, and so it was that viewers couldn’t help but notice both featured the same woman.
In the first ad, she stood in a lush paddy field, smiling and saying, “We are fortunate to live in this rich paradise.”
In the second, she stood before a rundown shanty, and raising her fist, demanded angrily, “How long can we live like this?”
It did not take long for social media to explode in mirth. By the next day, #TwoFacedPolitics was trending. It was too good a story for the mainstream media to ignore. After all, something was needed to break the monotony of the dusty election rallies, long interviews and vituperative debates that constituted standard pre-election coverage.
Thus it was that Parvathamma opened her door, the next day, to a bevy of microphones and video-cameras.
“How do you feel—?”
“Were you making a political statement?”
“Are you thinking of joining politics?”
“What are your thoughts—?”
Parvathamma glanced at the neighbours who were coming out of their houses, looking at all the OB vans that clogged the lane. They looked suitably awed. Even Vasanthi hung back, intimidated.
A wave of pride washed over Parvathamma as she straightened her back and, with practiced ease, stepped before the cameras. For once, the world was indeed watching.