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Lata's extra innings

Geetanjali Krishna | February 09, 2009

As a teen, I read a murder mystery in which the murderer takes full advantage of the fact that nobody really ever pays attention to chambermaids. So she dresses up as one, coolly walks past this gent to enter his bedroom, and stabs his sleeping wife in the heart. Later, when the murder was discovered, he insisted that nobody had been to his bedroom. I've always considered it fitting that he paid for his lack of interest in the serving classes by being accused of the murder (until of course Miss Marple came along, but that's another story). But this happens to the best of us: The domestic help is often viewed as someone who sweeps, swabs, washes and cooks � rarely as person with a point of view and maybe, even an interesting life.

That's why you could have knocked my friend Mahima down with a feather when she heard why Lata, her cook, needed the following day off. Mahima asked why it was so important, thinking no doubt of her soon-to-be untended kitchen front. "I often take on small roles in movies and ad films whenever I get a chance," said Lata airily, "tomorrow we have to shoot a song-and-dance routine which will take the whole day to complete!"

Her cook � an actress? Mahima was stunned. "So which movies have you acted in," she asked. "Quite a few," replied the cook, "one of my neighbours takes on contracts to supply people for bit-roles in films. So, whenever he has to supply actors for a film being shot in Delhi [Images], he asks all of us if we can spare the time to become extras!" The moonlighting suited her well, said Lata: "We get paid about Rs 150 a day, plus lunch and transport too!". This, was more than the thousand bucks a month she earned as a cook, she added.

What made it even more worthwhile, was that it brought about a pleasant change in her normally dreary routine, she said. "Maybe you've never noticed," said she tartly, "but I come to your house at eight in the morning. To be able to leave the house that early, I have to wake up before dawn, cook, clean and wash and send my children to school. So once in a while, when I get a chance to dance or play the fool in a movie, it comes as a breath of fresh air!"

By now, Mahima was seeing facets of her cook she hadn't known existed in the three years of their professional association. And she wanted to know more. "So do you get a thrill out of seeing yourself on screen?" she asked, "and which movie have you enjoyed working in the most?" But Lata did not remember the names of any movies she'd acted in: "The last one I was in had lots of foreigners dancing in a Holi scene," she said, "it was released last year, but they'd covered our faces with so much paint, I couldn't even recognise myself on screen!" Many times, Lata said, when she came off the sets after a hard day, she didn't even know whether the movie was in Hindi or in a regional language. "We don't get speaking roles," she explained, "filmmakers use people like us to make up for crowds in crowded scenes, but sometimes I too dream of being a proper actress, not just an extra."

She stopped short then, "I'll cook tomorrow's meal today�will you let me take an off then?" Mahima smiled: "I've always wanted to act - get me a role too, and you'll get the week off!!"


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