guest-edited by Jennine Capó Crucet
By the time Neeli met Hassan he was a nobody. His last successful film was almost a decade ago and even that hadn’t gone beyond two weeks at the box office. He didn’t get invited to the annual award functions, wasn’t part of any film associations, and had slowly slipped through the cracks, well on his way to invisibility.
Neeli had been trying for over a year to break into the industry that now favored films made for a younger, more accepting generation. The aging, balding, over-weight so called superstars still keen on playing heroes found themselves with poorly written scripts and stunt scenes that wouldn’t convince a two-year old. Neeli found herself moving from audition to audition with no call backs or even the slightest hint of interest. The new age heroines were educated from well-to-do families mostly chancing upon an opportunity having been spotted by a director at RQH star studded function or the other. Neeli’s parents had been extras on sets, her mother an aspiring dancer and her father, occasionally performing stunts as a dupe for a particularly well-built actor. They had met on multiple sets and eventually lived together and registered their union by the time Neeli was well on her way in her mother’s stomach.
“If you could find a mentor, that is your best bet in the current times,” said A.J.
A.J was one of the few friends she had made. He was from a rich family settled in the middle-east. His parents sent him a generous sum every month from the dusty bowels of glittery Dubai, convinced that their son was the next super-star. Occasionally he would lend her some money or take her out to a lavish dinner if the mood so struck him. If he asked her afterward whether she would like to stay over at his sprawling flat overlooking the harbor, she mostly said yes. She lived in a hostel where roaches and other inmates roamed with abandon; the matron had rules but they ceased to exist past seven in the evening when she herself left on clandestine outings.
There was never any pressure or a question between her and A.J about what it all meant and Neeli never said no to any of his casual offers. Pride was for those who could afford it.
“Where would I even find a mentor?” she asked now. A.J slowed his Ford to the side of the road. A tender coconut seller looked up from his cart and held up a green coconut eagerly as they stepped out. A.J snapped his fingers and signaled for two as the man hurried to behead the coconuts.
“There is one Hassan Bai who lives close by somewhere here. He isn’t very influential anymore, but perhaps he might be able to introduce you to someone.”
A.J suggested that he show her Hassan’s house; it was on his way home anyway.
He pointed at a red brick house on the main road near Lotus club but detached from traffic by a small unkempt lawn.
“Ayesha Manzil,” Neeli read out loud.
“Once this was the place to be!” said A.J. “So many films in the eighties were shot in this house. My Vappa brought me here once when I was small and we waited near those gates. Hassan had one of the first Benz cars Kochi ever saw.”
“You think you could introduce me?” Neeli asked.
“I think he would be happy to see anyone,” said A.J. “Probably eager to chat about his days of glory. You know the types.”
Neeli knew the types. A.J scrolled on his shiny Blackberry and came up with both a phone number and an email address to which she promptly sent an email that night asking if they could meet. From A.J ’s descriptions and her own conjectures she had pictured an old bore who would eagerly write back, but with no response forthcoming in more than a week, she wrote again. After a few more days in which she had been sent by her agency to disappointing day jobs where she had to stand adorned in the traditional Kerala sari and fake gold jewelry, garlanding foreigners -- always with a smile --- who arrived to tour the backwaters, she found herself unfastening the rusty metal lock of Ayesha Manzil’s gate.
The house had the weary look of someone long neglected. Rain and wind had abused its walls. Wasps had nested in the crooked, broken bits of the red tiled roof. And on its verandah with the rain-drenched red oxide floors sat Hassan in his planter’s chair, legs splayed onto both sides, his lungi covering all parts that needed hiding. Neeli had looked him up but no recent photograph had captured his slow decay. He lifted his head with its disheveled mane of hair and fell back again. The sudden ring on her phone proved to be their conversation starter.
“Take it, why don’t you?” he said.
Neeli muttered to her father on the phone and hung up even as he was speaking.
“I am Neeli,” she said. “I emailed you a few times. Maybe you haven’t seen them yet.”
“No, no, I saw,” he said. “I didn’t reply.”
“I see,” she said, even though she didn’t.
“No point bothering me. I have nothing for you. Don’t waste your time.”
Neeli leant against the pillar, the stone smooth and wet against her back. It was a hot afternoon despite the previous night’s downpour but in Hassan’s compound Athi and Arayals rooted deep into the soft mud stood brave and ready to fight back. Next to the verandah a mango tree trembled and in its wake a few blossoms shuddered to the ground. A small cluster of Jasmine bushes, pert and alert with tiny buds, would-be flowers leaned forward eagerly as though willing to be plucked. If she reached down, she could get a handful of them.
“Do you live alone?” she asked Hassan.
No one had yet materialized from the inner voids of the dark house. There was no smell of cooking even though it was lunch hour. There were no footfalls or sudden interruptions.
He sighed and made as though to get up, modestly flapping his lungi together. “I will give you a few numbers, maybe some of them are on some sets. You could mention my name, I don’t know how far that will get you, but still, I suppose no harm could come of it.”
Hassan seemed unsure on his feet; he fumbled in the clutter around his chair, seemingly for his spectacles.
“On your head,” Neeli said. He smiled then and the glint of small, sharp teeth was surprising in a man with such long, weary limbs and a somber face.
“Do you need help around the house?” she asked quickly before she could think on it. “If you let me stay for free, I can take care of you and the house and in return you could teach me a few things you know. Only in your spare time; I won’t be in your way.”
“I only have spare time,” he said evenly.
After a brief interrogation about her parents, their age and occupation, her age and so on, he sat down again. In her fear that he would reconsider, she hurried on, “If you need to go to the hospital or something I can accompany you, buy your medicines, pay your bills. Shall I come by Saturday, then, yes?”
No one at roach house asked any questions and with the matron unavailable to return her meager deposit, she left without any goodbyes or promises, just the way she had arrived.
Hassan hadn’t done anything to welcome her. He sat in front of an old television set that belted out some new song that Neeli hadn’t yet heard, scooping out oily curry with a piece of chapatti.
“I have left you some food in the kitchen, go bring it. There is a good movie at 9 o clock that we can watch!” He seemed nervous but eager.
The kitchen was cobweb territory. Spiders hustled in mute anger at her arrival as she used both hands and feet to destroy their homes. She took her plate out into the T.V room and sat in one of the many woven bamboo chairs. The windows were all thrown open with unwashed, dusty curtains on them; sepia tinted photographs crowded on multiple walls. Hassan, noticed her looking around, said, “ The past and the dead are all on the walls.”
She smiled at his tendency to be grandiose.
“Just to give you a better understanding,” she began, “ I have taken voice modulation classes, dancing lessons, acting lessons. I just can’t seem to find someone who will cast me.”
He seemed amused when she described the voice modulation lessons.
“What? Everyone does it now,” Neeli said defensively. “ Things are changing.”
“That is for sure,” he said. “Maybe I can do something for you, you have this innocence, real or illusionary but it could work.”
Someone coughed from near the door and they looked up. A woman huddled near the threshold peeking in, her eyes darting from Neeli to Hassan.
“Ah, come in, Janu,” he said. “Janu buys the food. She also makes the bed and cleans up sometimes.”
She smiled and rushed past them into the house.
Neeli walked into the kitchen to wash her plate determined not to explain anything to the woman. As she scrubbed out the dish, she side eyed Janu to see if she was watching, but Janu stood looking at a pot of water, waiting for it to boil. In her fist, a small handful of Tulsi leaves.
Janu turned around when Neeli placed the plate on the rack and flashed a disarming smile. Perhaps her lack of curiosity propelled Neeli, who said, “I am just here to learn about acting. He has so much connections.”
Janu nodded and slipped a few leaves into the boiling water.
“Saar often gets sick, Tulsi leaves in his coffee calms the lungs a little,” she said.
She poured the black concoction into a tumbler and added some sugar and placed a small plate atop it.
“Your sir’s family?” Neeli asked.
“Saar’s wife left, remarried long ago. After Saar’s, you know, his situation, she decided not to stay. Everyone was on her side. Even the Imam said she deserved some happiness too. She now lives in Qatar with four children and husband.” Janu untied the knot at the end of her sari pallu and counted a few notes.
“What situation?” Neeli asked. A.J hadn’t mentioned anything and she didn’t recall any scandal in Hassan’s name.
“Saar gave me fifty rupees, here is twenty back after food and evening tea,”Janu said and placed a few notes on the counter.
“What situation?” Neeli asked again. “And don’t give me any money, I am not responsible for anything.”
“Saar’s operation,” she said in a matter-of-fact way. “I will come tomorrow and tell you. If I stay and chat I will miss the bus.”
Hassan had fallen asleep in front of the T.V. She watched his body croak and shiver with each deep intake of breath. Neeli sat and stretched her legs. There were three missed calls from her parents mobile number. She dialed back and waited as the ring tone screamed merrily.
When her father picked up, he was a belly of complaints. She waited till he subsided a little.
“Did you get the money?” he asked.
“From where?” she said. “I haven’t got any work in a while.”
You said that ad agency picked you for that magazine? We told Sashi we would pay him back this Friday. Or else he will take the bike away.”
His voice had taken on the same garish note as his ringtone.
"I can’t make any money by this Friday,” Neeli said.
“But you said those ad people will pay well,” he insisted.
“I am going now,” she said. “ I will call if there is something.”
“Your mummy really liked the bike, Neeli,” he said by way of a parting shot.
For the longest time she stayed awake with the lines from her recent auditions ringing in her head. She must have fallen asleep around the break of dawn because she awoke to Janu’s voice. Janu stood with a broom and a bucket from which arose the sharp scent of Dettol. Neeli stood up, her legs numb and slower to awaken.
“In your honor we thought of cleaning the house,” Hassan said.
She nodded and looked around for a clock.
“She isn’t easily impressed,” chuckled Hassan, and Janu giggled conspiratorially.
“Saar also made me buy some goat and vegetables,” she said. “Making a feast here after so long.”
Hassan rubbed his hands together. He wore the same clothes as yesterday.
“Aren’t we going anywhere today?” Neeli asked. “Meet some people?”
“We will, we will, soon,” he said. “First I must make some calls to the right people.”
The whole day and the next, she walked around with his words in her head. She avoided her father’s calls increasing in their frequency and deleted his texts without even reading them. She thought of them going to the church on Sundays on that shiny bike. In their small town at the foot of winding hills even a bike meant prestige. But if it was the bike today, it was something else tomorrow. And yet she wished she could keep the bike for them.
When another two days passed with Hassan showing no signs of movement from his armchair, she went up to him.
“Look, look at my first script,” he said. “ Created, Written, Directed, Hassan Sahib.”
He held up a sheaf of papers on which maggots had performed their own artwork.
“That’s wonderful,” she said, unable to resist the sarcasm. “Anything new? That I can work with?”
“I have been thinking,” he said, determined to ignore her barbs. “You know ‘Julie’, this movie? My masterpiece. I was thinking of remaking it.”
He looked slyly at her, convinced of her pleasure at his words.
Neeli carefully said, “Julie is such a great movie. Would people be interested in a remake?”
“Why not? Why not my dear girl? It has everything. Romance, action, even sex that meets todays standards.”
Neeli imagined herself as Julie; the young actress who had played her in the eighties had gone on to great fame. Julie had won awards. She didn’t care for that, not yet. For now she just wanted to be noticed. The next one-month Hassan spent hurrying from one phone call to another. At first Neeli could tell no one would agree to meet him but in a while he had rounded up a few interested producers.
“We shall show you off,” he said to her. “Let them just come here. Ayesha Manzil will be humming again.”
The two new financiers who came in the following days weren’t yet established but had a foothold in. They dressed casually and were friendly. They asked her if she had taken any classes and Neeli looked triumphantly at Hassan, who grinned.
Neeli left them for a while when silence descended on the group and no one seemed willing to be the first to speak. She went into the kitchen where Janu was washing up.
“Saar should hire me full time now that there is so much to do,” she said, a little peevish.
“Just let me get my movie, Janu,” Neeli said. “I will hire you full-time!”
Janu beamed and scrubbed with renewed vigor.
Hassan had left with them and by the time he returned it was late. She was already in bed, with the lights out and the phone in her hands, of two minds about letting her parents know the good news.
He came in so quietly, Neeli didn’t even hear him till he sat on the bed and the mattress succumbed to his weight.
“Hassan?” she sat up quickly, fumbling for the light switch.
He sat with his feet stretched out in her direction, soles dirty and worn.
“It didn’t happen? They won't cast me?” she asked.
“No, its not that,” he said. He rubbed his feet together and she wanted to remove herself from the bed, far from his unwashed feet and soggy beard and failed sighs.
“Don’t be dramatic,” she said. “What is it?”
For a minute he looked furious. Then he seemed to calm down.
“They don’t mind you,” he said, rather ungraciously. “But they won t have me.”
She understood immediately, but she needed a few minutes.
“They won t let you direct the remake? But that makes no sense. You would be the best person to do it.”
She could stroke an ego when it needed a good push.
“That is what I said,” he exclaimed. “I said, ‘Look here fellows, I know Julie inside out, like the palm of these hands’.”
He held up his two hands.
“Whom would they have instead?” she asked.
Hassan named someone at whose name Neeli felt her heart pound greedily like that of a child given a rare treat.
“How can I sell Julie to just someone, anyone?” he said. “I made her. I spend years. If I spend years on something, how can I just give it away?”
“But you would obviously be involved, no? In every step of its making. They would consult you. You would be the final word, I am sure. They wouldn’t keep you away entirely.”
“I have become too old,” he said. He ran a finger through his beard. A few stray hairs came willingly. He dropped them on the floor. “Too old to even remake my own movie.”
His voice had taken on a note of incredulity. He kept his eyes on her while he spoke as though she had in some way brought about his sudden aging. In a way they were both pleading with the other. Neeli couldn’t look away too.
They sat like that for a while. Janu came and stood near them.
“I am too old, Janu,” he said.
“Yes, Saar,” she agreed, gesturing to Neeli with her eyebrows.
He had gone back to his chair and Neeli hovered near the door every time his phone rang. She wanted to make him some kind of a promise, whatever it took to convince him when she noticed that sometimes he let the calls go unanswered. Finally she went up to him unable to maintain the code of silence they had stumbled into.
“What should I do?” she asked simply. She sat on an embroidered cushion on the floor near his thin legs.
She had asked hoping he wouldn’t ask for anything but when he said, “What would you do?” she was slightly taken aback.
What was she willing to do? Neeli closed her eyes when an image of being intimate with Hassan flashed in her imagination. He had never made her feel threatened. She didn’t mind him coming into her room when he so wished; it was his house after all. When he touched her it was in the most asexual way: often a pat on her shoulder, a palm on her hair. Sometimes he pinched her cheeks as one would a baby’s.
“Would you stay here? Till I died? I would give you this house. It’s all I have. And Julie, of course.” He said all of it without looking at her as though he feared the very expression on her face.
She felt chastened at her own trite imagination that seemed to thrive on clichés.
Feeling a sudden rush of affection at the simplicity of his thought and her own vileness, she said, “What if I got more films?”
Hassan leaned forward in his chair, his raspy breath so close to her face.
“Not if, you will get many films. Which is why I must ask you now. Not when you are famous. I wouldn’t be able to then and you wouldn’t even consider it.”
There was of course a question in her mind, a why, that rang true and clear. Why would he want her? No one had given her anything in her life. To ask for things had always been impossible for her. But to give; that she was well versed in. Now here he was offering her everything. She hurried to clasp his leathery hands in her own sweaty palms and gave them a tight squeeze.
The next morning when she came down he was waiting with two crisp sheets of paper.
“Sign here, and, let me see, here,” he said, hovering over her shoulder.
“You drew up papers?”
When she agreed earlier, it had seemed harmless and surely she was only gaining everything she possibly could. A free place to stay that would soon be hers, and to be the new star of ‘Julie’. But faced with the forbidding sheet, strict and formal with its block lettering, she wanted to pause, step back.
“I don’t know what could even be legal in this,” she said as she signed.
The next two months were spent memorizing lines, changing costumes, getting to know the crew. The film was operating on a small budget, and she hadn’t yet learned any star tantrums. She stood up when the director approached and couldn’t bring herself to even ask the spot boys to get her a cup of tea. Hassan often visited the sets and he frowned when he saw her fetch and carry, not just for herself, but others too.
“That is not star material, what you are doing there right now,” he said.
Under a propped umbrella, she often saw him observe, rubbing his hands together when he was happy with a take or frowning and shaking his head. Neeli soon got into the habit of looking in his direction after every take; exasperating as he was, she could trust him.
The second month the set was due to move to a hill station to shoot the scenes Julie spends alone after getting pregnant and being sent away. Hassan couldn’t travel, not with his collapsing lungs. He hadn’t seen it coming and paced the verandah halls constantly on the phone trying to convince the director the insensibility of it all. He himself hadn’t bothered with fancy hill stations. After all it was the story and acting that should matter. The director must have hung up on him. He then took to bothering Neeli as she packed.
“I will call you, O.K.? Nothing to worry,” he said.
“I am not worried, I am very excited! I have never been there.”
“No need to be too excited. Close your door every night; lock them and then check again to make sure all windows are locked.”
“Why? Are there wild animals nearby?” she joked, wanting to tease him.
“Worse,” he said. “Worse than the wild. A young girl like you, all alone. You are too innocent.” He came and stood behind her as she sat facing the mirror, combing out her wet hair. He placed his palms on her shoulder and they looked at each other. One weary, the other hopeful.
It became more than just bothersome. At first she picked up or returned his calls when she had a few minutes. He sounded annoyed that she was out late one day, then that she hadn’t texted back to his jumbled‘ Wt s happ nw?’
Nothing is happening, she said on the phone a few times till he accused her of withholding from him.
Then she began to enjoy his all too apparent misery. She didn’t call him late at night even when she had a whole day off. She went up the hills where no network could reach her with the spot boys and the other actress who played her mother. They sat around a blazing fire, drinking hot rum from plastic cups and she was delighted to be so far away from him and his neediness, from his thinly masked suggestive voice that implied how much of a hand he had in her moment of success.
How easy it was to detest someone; in a matter of hours, he had become someone to avoid. She had only a few days left on the set and soon it would be him and her circling each other in Ayesha Manzil. Even thinking about it gave her cause to gnash her teeth. By the time they reached back at camp, she was refreshed and ready and Hassan was waiting in the guesthouse canteen. She saw him from the window. He sat hunched over the table, a small steel tumbler in his hands into which he blew a few times, and then swallowed a small gulp.
He only looked up when she sat opposite him. He wore two layers of old sweaters he must have dug up from some rotting trunk.
She refused to speak and eventually he began, “Why did you go without informing me?”
“Was that there in your legal document?”
He shook his shaggy head a few times, as though making a grand point.
“At least to honor everything I have done for you, you could have simply sent me a text message. That’s all I asked.”
“It isn’t all you ask, you are always asking. I give you a little and you are soon climbing my shoulders, eating my ears.”
He cocked his head to a side and looked away. She could sense the wounded look even in his firmly closed eyes.
“There was no network, Hassan,” she said finally.
“You did pick up other calls, I know,” he said. “Just ignored mine.”
“I first dialed you from my phone, no pick up. So I went to a booth and dialed, and you said, hello this is Neeli.”
Everything, from the accusation to the way he imitated her voice, just him huddled there in front of her was unforgivable. Neeli stood up and he, immediately aware of his mistake, said, “I wanted to make sure you were fine."
But Hassan didn’t try approaching her, which even in her fury she noticed.
She had received an advance that would take care of any needs for maybe a month or two, if she lived frugally.
When ‘Julie’ came out there was a welcoming rush for the first few weeks. Everyone at the roach hostel where she had moved back, temporarily, who knew about Julie brought the paper to Neeli. The critics were kind to the director’s efforts to remake a classic, giving it a modern new-age tint and so on. As for her, her roommates paused: “Neeli, in her debut entrance fails to make use of the resources available at her disposal, the story, the music and the cast have all come together to try and make up for her pale performance.”
She expected Hassan to call any minute and then she remembered the old man she had first encountered who had chosen not to reply to her emails.
The advance money had been long used when her parents called asking if they had to find out from strangers that their only daughter was on her way to being a starlet.
Outside Ayesha Manzil, she paused hoping to see Janu at least. The gate was unlocked and Hassan was in his usual place. His feet were clean as though he had scrubbed it on some rock till they shone pink and raw.
Neeli sat on the half-balcony that ran around the verandah. The Jasmine bushes looked dewy, dripping with tiny droplets as though someone had just watered them. She looked around for Janu.
“Got any more offers?” he asked.
Neeli had received a few calls but the stories they narrated always had a hint of soft porn to them. A few scenes of running wet in the rain, terrible song sequences and some of them asked her to put on some weight.
“No,” she said. “I haven’t.”
“They just dropped off a cheque yesterday for ten lakhs. The movie is doing well.”
His tone betrayed nothing.
“That’s…nice,” she said. “I send my parents all my money.”
“Yes, I am rich now, richer than a few months ago. Of course, some of it belongs to you. I can take care of it for you. Invest it well. Make you richer, too. If you wish.”
She hadn’t expected that from him. She sat near his chair on her usual cushion. He still wouldn’t face her.
“Hassan,” she said, “mistakes were made.” She reached for his gnarly hand with the long uncut nails that he used to dig the wax out of his ears.
“By both of us,” he offered.
“Yes,” she said.
Inside she unpacked and roamed the rooms. Janu must have come early for there were little tiffin boxes filled with curries, vegetables, and pieces of fried fish. Neeli ate them all mixing everything into one container, remembering only toward the end that perhaps Hassan hadn’t yet eaten.
Never mind, she said to herself. He wouldn’t be upset.
She turned on a few lamps in the T.V room and walked around inspecting cupboards. Inside one was wads of thousand rupee notes, some of which she grabbed and shoved into her bra.
When her parents called, she said no, she didn’t have any money. To give, one must own first, she said to her father who must not have heard. She hung up as he passed the phone to her mother. Songs from ‘Julie’ played on the T.V , the tunes so familiar and yet so remote as though from some other life. She sat humming along, flipping through the channels as the crumpled notes shoved between her breasts slowly curled at the edges from her sweat.
Shaaru Menon is a fiction writer from Kochi, who lives in Chicago, and completed her MFA from Boston University.