What is it about our culture today that makes us unable to admit that we are who we are?
by Soni Razdan
An actor at the BEEB (slang for BBC) was chatting with me while I was on one of my walk-on-part episodes. “If you have gotten a place at Guildhall”, he said, “on no account must you give it up. Write to all the charities you can find to get a grant. Do anything, part time jobs, anything, but do not give up that place.”
A chap after my own heart! That was all the advice I ever needed. I found the names of some three hundred organizations that gave grants and so on to deserving candidates. After writing to about fifty and getting, not surprisingly, negative replies, I gave that up. Why would anyone want to fund my selfish dream of being an actress anyway? After all I wasn’t exactly going to save any lives.
So, one step at a time. I worked as an auxiliary nurse in the local hospital during my holidays, because the pay was great! My job was to do things like empty bedpans and clean the toilets and the floors, a lot of floors! I did it all with a smile on my face, because each floor I cleaned took me closer to my drama school. I made friends with the patients in the geriatric ward where I was stationed. I remember one woman lying there. She was beautiful. White with black hair, and always had her makeup done. I still remember the colour of her lipstick – a lovely deep pink. She wasn’t very old either I would imagine. Perhaps not even fifty. But she couldn’t move much because she was suffering from muscular sclerosis. She would lie there with an expression on her face that I, to this day, cannot forget. It was both accepting of her fate and saddened by it at the same time.
One day I went to work and she wasn’t there. That made me cry. She had passed away the previous night.
Well, I managed to make enough money for my first term fees – probably 300 pounds. I can’t remember too clearly now.
I also managed to secure a room at the Indian Students Hostel on Guilford Street near Russell Square. But I had no funds to pay for that – twelve pounds a week, including dinner and breakfast. Even for those days, that was a cheap deal. Or, for my food and transport and daily expenses. What to do now?
A very good friend of mine offered to drive down with me to London and help me look for a weekend job as an auxiliary nurse so that would then pay for my week’s rent and food. We did that then. We slept in his car while we did so.
I remember it was a weekend. We drove around from hospital to hospital. No one wanted an auxiliary nurse for the weekend. Dispirited and disheartened, and completely at a loss for what to do, we were parked outside a hospital in Knightsbridge or somewhere in that area. It was Sunday evening and the streets were empty and depressing as they usually are on a Sunday evening in London. We were debating whether or not to bother going in. Having nothing to lose, we decided that this would be the last one we tried. And one would have to find some other kind of job. That’s all!
Well… After meeting with the head matron, she hired me on the spot, starting next Saturday. And voila! Just like that I was in business again.
Let me tell you, the Indian Students Hostel was no picnic. I entered the bowls of the earth if that was possible. A crumbling edifice crawling with rats the size of cats. I kid you not! The interior was shabby and dismal. The furniture belonged to another era and should have been burned for firewood. But it was a haven for many Indian Students in those days including myself. And we all became such good friends that thankfully we are all still in touch today. One of the inmates was Kaushik Basu, who is the current Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank among other things. Alka, his wife, was also living there whilst studying. And many more such eminent personalities that managed to survive the hostel.
We had many a memorable evening watching TV together. All birthdays were celebrated with us cooking our fave ghar ka khana dishes in a kitchen that was the size of a broom cupboard and looked even worse. But we had the most amazing fun and were bonded in a home away from home. The only part I could not handle really was the rats that scraped and gnawed away through my walls at night, keeping me awake. My skin would crawl and I would lie awake listening to the sounds of them dancing around in my room. And the next day I would be at the local hardware shop buying putty to block up the holes that they came through. It was an endless losing battle, I have to say.
So I started at my drama school, the hostel and the hospital all at the same time.
Drama school was terribly exciting, full of young hopefuls like me who had big dreams and stars in their eyes. It was also full of incredible talent, and that was what made it really special. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is an institution by itself and in those days was in a lovely little lane off the embankment in the Blackfriars area, in a huge old stone building whose very walls made one think of a London long gone, but yet present in so many of the wonderful buildings that they have preserved so well. I couldn’t say the same for my hostel unfortunately. That came to its rightful end too, and I escaped within an inch of my life, but more about that later!
The first weekend of my hospital duty arrived. I had just finished serving the patients their afternoon tea, when my eyes fell upon the Daily Mail. In it was a photograph of the lovely Olivia Hussey, the star of a recently made film Romeo and Juliet, directed by the maverick Franco Zeffirelli. The small piece stated that she was slated to play Mary in Franco’s production of Jesus of Nazareth, which was going to be shooting soon. Hmm, lucky girl, I thought, and carried on dutifully with my teacups and biscuit operations.
It was the following Wednesday, though I do not remember the date. Nor the year even. It was my third day at Guildhall. We students had assembled in the theatre in the school for some announcements or some prize giving, the details now have been erased from memory. When all that was over, suddenly I froze because the student on the stage was making an announcement.
“Will first year student Soni Razdan please go to the office immediately,” he boomed. “There awaits some news that might make her a star of stage and screen.” Or something to that effect!
I nearly fell off my chair. What on earth was going on? Anyway, I rushed to the office with nervous anticipation. They were waiting for me.
They told me that Franco Zeffirelli wanted to see me. He was at such and such address, and I was to go there immediately. And they were even happy to let me go out of the school, a rule that was absolutely not to be broken. My God! How did Zefferelli even know I existed? And why on earth did he want to see me of all people? (to be continued)
Born to Kashmiri Pandit father and British-German mother, Soni Razdan is an actor who has worked in notable films like Saransh, Raazi, No Fathers in Kashmir, Daddy and Page 3.