There’s something about Queen. Not only in its box office numbers in second weekend/week where it has gone ahead of the new releases, but the way it has connected personally. That’s a rarity. No wonder the love letters are still pouring in. Because writing is liberating.
The latest one is by Shazia Iqbal. Read on.
I have never written about my personal experiences before. Why put a piece of your life on display for the world to witness. I don’t blog or write publicly either, except for few sporadic/instinctive rants on Twitter. It is Vikas Bahl’s Queen that compelled me to write. I think cinema moves us the most when the character rings a chord with something in our lives, some moments or words, what we do, how we react; basically a validation that we are all capable of being heroes in a story, at least in our own. Queen did that to me. It’s not just the story or the moments or the people or the girl herself, but it’s the soul of the film that touched me. It was like I was seeing a chapter of my life played out on screen.
Rani is a middle class Rajouri girl, who is fundamentally a part of a society where being married to a good ‘London return’ guy is a matter of great pride for most girls and their families. I have grown up in far-‐flung suburbs of Bombay where I too have felt a similar mentality floating around me. And though my family would love to have a ‘Yashraj’ type wedding ceremony, for me, marriage has never been a priority over my career.
Queen and I are different in many ways and yet we are the same person. We are different in the way we speak, the way we dress, the way we react to attention, to decisions, to people (and I definitely know what Joint massagers are) yet we are the same person in the way we love, the way we trust, the way we hurt and the way we evolved after a traumatic heartbreak to be the person we are. It is our vulnerability that connects us.
I too have always been a quintessential ‘good girl’. Have always listened to everybody, mostly did what my parents asked of me and have taken decisions that I feel were morally correct. Though I have grown up as a ‘Bombay girl’, I am not from the strata of society that inculcates the habits or lives a lifestyle that would make me a ‘chic’. I was the so-‐called ‘behenji’ type with no vices. A non-‐ smoking, non-‐drinking, non-‐clubbing, vegetarian girl from an ideal middle class Muslim family with conservative ideas about love, sex and everything in between. Aur haan, kabhi school exams mein cheating bhi nahi ki! So, like Rani, I too thought I was Guptaji…
At the point of heartbreak, Rani’s, mine and a lot of other people’s (not just girls’) stories go in the same direction. We are all badly broken, with a low self esteem, no confidence, feeling awkward and humiliated. We question our decisions, our lives and ask ourselves the most obvious question -‐ ‘Why was I not worthy of the love?’ And, of course, there are enough people who make you feel like that, feel more sorry for you than you yourself do. And you don’t want to be around people who you know, so running away makes the most sense. I feel Rani went for her honeymoon alone because of all this and more.
A couple of years ago I left for Paris feeling something similar. I was left broken by a man who was supposedly ‘above my status’, just like Vijay, he was basking in the glory of the success of his first film and me, an unknown Art director with a couple of films to my name, wasn’t his type to even start with. This was the same guy who chased me persistently until I fell for his charms. To be fair I have done well in my world where my work has put me on a certain platform, but this guy was in a place where he would rather be with an actress or a model than be with an unknown entity. After being dumped, I felt small, insignificant. I was no more important enough to be invited for his birthday that had some known industry people as guests. That night I decided to leave the city, run away to a place where I could get lost in the crowd. I looked for summer courses around Europe that I could afford in my limited means.
I applied for an acting course in Paris and a direction course in London. No, I have never had a hidden acting keeda, it was just an escape route. Why Paris? No idea. I had been to London earlier, for work, and that left Paris as the next city that fascinated me. I wasn’t much of a traveler and travelling on my own was never even an option. So I wonder if what made Rani travel alone for her honeymoon is also what pushed me to travel on my own-‐ impulsion mixed with bouts of courage. I think some people have the tendency to gather immense courage and strength from life-‐altering moments like heartbreaks. You are engulfed in a certain madness that wants to constantly punch every fear right in the face. Also, maybe it’s the feeling that you have already lost everything, so what the fuck. You might have a loving family and caring friends but the constant humiliation pushes you out of the cocoon and makes you do something that surprises you along with most others.
As for Rani and for me, the escape lay in travelling alone. If there is ever a way of finding yourself and of finding answers about the bigger questions in life, it can be discovered by being in an unknown place all by yourself. But it’s not easy. You have to conquer a lot of unknown fears to finally find the freedom; the freedom that always was yours and resided within you, only that you didn’t know it and hadn’t found it. Queen made me realize how I too slowly let all my fears out one by one.
The first 2 days in Paris were a nightmare. Right at the arrival, I got cheated by the cab guy for 60 euros, got lost at the metros and couldn’t find my college. I didn’t even know what part of Paris I was lost in and I was scared of talking to people as the language sounded to me like a bunch of babies slurping and licking my ears. When I ordered a veg. salad in a restaurant, I got an ensemble of different meats on my plate, the ‘vegetarian-and-hungry‐for-a-day’ me was about to break down when I got a message on my phone from the network of a bill of Rs. 32,000/-‐ for a day. It was only 3 months ago that I’d got a smart phone and I didn’t know I had to switch off my 3G!
So in full view of a lot of people, I broke down in a restaurant. Before the waitress could figure out, I left money on the table and ran out crying. And I kept running and crying till I stopped near a bunch of students hanging out in a corner around Sacre coeur. This guy came towards me and in his broken English asked if I was okay. They took my map and directed me to my college. They smiled at me like I was a stupid girl from a third world country who didn’t know how to read a map. Well it was in French, Duh!
I was scared, of everything. Just like Rani, I felt somebody was out there to get me. I was scared of losing my bag and held it as tightly as Rani did, everywhere I went, even while using the loo in the flight. I was scared of crossing the road, almost killed myself, till I figured out the ‘wait’ button. I felt constantly uneasy by couples lost in PDA. I would look around for at least one person who was single, but somebody would turn up and hold them or kiss them. I was miserable in the first few days in Paris and was roaming around moping about lost love.
The first time I visited Eiffel, it made me feel Lonely. I didn’t climb up ‘cause unlike others I didn’t have a hand to hold. I ran away from it and decided to not come back to it. I got a local number next day and called my ‘ex’ to show that I was doing just fine without him. He said ‘Oh! Yea you are in Paris? Right. How is the weather? I am sure this will do you good. I will save your number’. I’d read somewhere, ‘The smartest thing is to know when you are being stupid. That’s when you stop being stupid’. That was a wakeup call for me.
In the coming four weeks of my acting school, I met some amazing people and was surprised by the cultural differences in our lives. They didn’t talk to their Parents 5 times in a day like I did, and yet shared a better friendship with their families. They were open about their relationships, sex, drinking and were living life just like Vijay Lakshmi did, and though like Rani I couldn’t relate to most of it, I let in bits of it in my life and even that was liberating.
I told my sorry story to two of my classmates on the graduation day and they didn’t sympathize with me. I didn’t want any. They took me to their room to get dressed for the evening. While they were adjusting their Bras and pantyhose I shyly looked away. But I was tired of being awkward and turning away from this new world. That night I had 5 tequila shots at the graduation party. It was the first time I had alcohol. I wore a dress with a ‘deep neck’ and stood up on a table and danced like a freak. I realized I am standing in a corner looking at myself, wasted, dancing on a table holding a ceiling lamp and telling an Italian classmate I wanted to run away to Italy with him, even though I didn’t like him much. I was somebody else that night. I looked so happy, I felt like I was born again and starting afresh. Somewhere in the middle of the night, my ex called and after tense moments of silence said he missed me. I was walking with my friends so I told him I’ll talk to him once I am back in Bombay. He sounded low but somehow at that point it didn’t matter to me. That was my time and I was not going to let him ruin it. I feel that’s the reason Rani leaves Vijay and heads for the rock show. It’s when you realize that you have to be your own priority no matter where life puts you.
For a month in Paris, before that night, I had been meeting several other ‘me’s, which were earlier hidden or suppressed inside, that were coming out in bits, mostly while acting. I was trying to find myself in the quiet long walks in rains, in silences on hill tops, by observing people in the market, in the silent by-‐lanes but I never let myself out of the prison that I had created around me. That night I fought all of myself and killed the mopy melancholic me.
Paris is like Bombay at night. Another city. That’s when you fall in love with it in a way that the romance never ends. I don’t even regret saying some weird things to strangers that night. Of course I wished it didn’t end up with me sleeping in the same room as two friends who made out for most of the night. I woke up early morning and walked out hung-‐over, again not knowing what part of the city I was lost in. But by now it wasn’t so scary and my ‘Merci beaucoup’ and ’ S’il vous plait’s were helping me maneuver my way around. As I walked the deserted streets early on the Sunday morning, the previous night had changed something within. And I was beaming ear to ear with a smile stuck on face. And just like Rani, I went back to the Eiffel with a friend and fell in love with it. These friends are the bonuses I took back from the trip.
Next two weeks I went backpacking by myself around Barcelona, Rome, Amsterdam and parts of Paris that I hadn’t yet seen before heading to London, completely broke. But those two weeks were the best ever. As far as men are concerned, there were many moments, special memories, more like 15-‐minute short stories that felt like eternity. For most European men I was a Spanish or Italian dame, even German or American till they went ‘Oh you are a pretty Indian girl’. When you grow up in a society where being ogled, touched, groped are not alien concepts but part of routine, you are somewhere physically repressed and most people are aggressive predators unless proven otherwise. That’s why I kept my distance from the opposite sex initially. I tried to disconnect by ‘I have a boyfriend back home’, or by receiving fake calls ‘I miss you too baby’ to unbelievably stupid ‘My guy is just on the way to pick me up’. I know how Rani must’ve felt being alone in the room with a guy ‘cause every guy is interested in physically conquering you even if he seems undistracted by your presence. But no, most European men are not interested in nailing every foreigner they meet, that’s the psychotic male version of men. I found men in Europe very courteous, couth and importantly not chauvinistic (all except the Italian policemen). Well, they reminded me of Delhi Police.
Hmmm, anyway… May be I mostly met the good ones. Those 3 male friends of Rani reminded me of the Spanish guy at Hard Rock in Barcelona who sat next to me at the bar throughout the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, after a couple of guys had already done their bit to take me home. I don’t know his name, I didn’t ask. He didn’t ask for mine and just said I’ll be his ‘beautiful Olympics memory’. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again. I don’t know if I’ll see the German Bartender who made me free Virgin Mohitos at a bar in Rembrandtplein in Amsterdam, or the young Spanish manager who gave me a discount on my ship tour around Amsterdam central or the animation student in Paris who knew more about Ladakh than me and told me I would make a great wife or this French guy who I went out with, who didn’t speak English. We spoke in monosyllabic, broken English and French with a lot of silences. Those awkward silences still make me smile. I didn’t share anything romantic with them, don’t know their names, am already forgetting their faces and in all probability will never meet them again. But we were all building memories that would make fascinating stories for a lifetime. And I think, somewhere, they too must be writing and telling these stories, the way I am.
After the backpacking trip, it’s not like I am not scared and vulnerable anymore but in those moments of not being perfect, I found myself beautiful and strong again. And most importantly it gave me the freedom I was seeking. A freedom from suppression, regression, and society’s norms of love, relationships and marriage. A freedom to be myself, amidst all the expectations of being the perfect girl that I no longer wanted to be. I just wanted to be me. I have had many friends (most of whom are married with kids) tell me that they wish they could have my life.
Like Rani, I also said ‘Thank you’ to the guy, who was the reason I left a comfortable job and everything behind and went to Europe for 5 months. Thank you for pushing me to travel alone. Thank you for Paris and the lone long walks in the night. Thank you for Barcelona and its mystical dark by lanes. Thank you for the ruins at Rome and the Italian food. Thank you for Amsterdam, the place I wish to live a chunk of my life. Thank you for super fun ‘Red light area and sex toys shop’ walk with the cute guide, Julian, for the 1 Euro 5 minute strip show at personal booth, for the French poetry I receive in my mail every month, for the Spanish roadside guitarist, for the train journey from Amsterdam to Paris, Thank you!!!! This trip evolved me and made me the free spirited person I am today. It made me restless and kicked me out of my comfort zone. It made me want to tell my own stories. As for him, he insisted that I meet him on his birthday last year and I refused. He is a nice guy who is probably confused and trying to find himself but I was done with that chapter of my life.
Heartbreaks are painful, but funny junctures in life. They make you feel as if it’s the end of the world every damn time it happens. The Vijays in our lives are catalysts for making us meet ourselves, helping us become a person we’d love to be. They deserve a hug and a genuine ‘thank you’. They let the ‘Rani’ in you become the Queen of your own story.
P.s. Thank You Vikas Bahl, Kangana and Team
(Shazia Iqbal is an Art Director, and has worked in films and advertising since last eight years. She designed Dum Maaro Dum and many other films. Her script was selected for NFDC’s Director’s Lab)