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He would often compare her with the young actresses and then quote the trolls who would post nasty remarks on her Instagram, calling her Aunty and Buddhi, if even one of her hairs was out of place.
She looked at the off-white salwar kameez placed on her bed. Some incoherent voices could be heard from the living room. The whole team was here on a Tuesday morning – the makeup person, stylist, PR team and all for what, she laughed.
As she sat at the dressing table, Anjali rushed in. “Shall we begin? You will have to reach there by 10 am at least. That is when there will be maximum photographers. So, by afternoon, your photos should be viral on the internet and tomorrow, on the front pages of newspapers. This should be good publicity for ‘Deal!”
Does this woman ever get tired, wondered Aastha. She looked at her secretary of two years, and asked, “Do we need to do all these? I find it traumatising.”
“Of course, you do! The funeral look is here to stay. The dead has gone away, but we need to stay here. We got to do what we have to. I am calling them.”
As Anjali rushed out, came in Vini with her vanity bag. She took a look at Aastha’s face and screamed, “Your dark circles are getting more prominent. The number of lines on your face is more than on a notebook page. You should try Botox at least now.”
Aastha smiled, “I am 36. My skin will also be 36 by now, na?”
Vini smirked and started her job. Cleanser, toner, foundation, concealers for every part of the face! As she took out the eye-liner, Aastha protested. “This is enough. I am going to attend a prayer meeting for God’s sake, not a wedding.”
Vini would have none of it. “Will the photographers and style watchers ignore your dark circles and lines just because you were there to say prayers for a dead person? Tomorrow, there will be hundreds of ‘Aastha without makeup’ memes online. It will just take a day to ruin your reputation. Remember your brand endorsement deals? All will be gone before you know. You will then have to endorse toilet cleaners or washing powders?” Her sarcastic tone had done its job.
Aastha gazed outside. Sun rays were beginning to enter hesitatingly through the large French Windows. The soft curtains tried their best to stop the rays, but they slipped in. The rays are audacious and harsh. People get angry at them but they go on unmoved, unheeding. How do they manage?
Here, I am unable to even convince a woman who lives off me. She gets a couple of lakhs a month while I, the numero uno Bollywood Diva, get paid crores for a few minutes of a television appearance. Yet, I feel trivial.
Were things always like these? Aastha couldn’t get an answer.
Each day has become a struggle. Anirudh has ensured there was no peace at home. And outside, the moment you step out, there is a battery of photographers clicking away. Any misstep and you will be almost finished. It was getting tiring. One had to be camera-ready all the time, be it while going to visit your mother or a funeral. So, better be ready with every concealer to hide age or wear big, dark glasses.
The next day, the PR team got what they wanted. Aastha’s ‘gorgeous’ pictures were all over online and offline. The unfortunate deceased got a line or two. Every article had scores of photographs of stars and their ‘funeral’ look. Vanity, thy name is media, sighed Aastha.
Today, she decided to stay at home. There were a couple of fittings and a meeting with a director, but she called sick. Anirudh hasn’t yet returned from his gym. He must have again gone off with those crooks. Multiple emotions clouded Aastha’s face. She was disappointed, sad, and angry. She had prevented herself from questioning him, but she wanted an answer.
He hadn’t worked for the last three months. The few offers he received were rejected as he was not the lead in them.
I need to talk to him, Aastha bit her lips. Anirudh has changed a lot over the last two years. His stardom was waning, and he wasn’t ready to adapt to changes. It was months they had any joyful moments together. Aastha wondered if there was any love left.
Aastha’s mother has still not approved Anirudh. Though a star, he was known as the playboy of the industry. He had an easy charm, and that was enough to make Aastha fall in love. Or was it? There was no time to think much. She was 34. Her biological clock was ticking. She wanted to be a mother.
Soon, she realised Anirudh did not want children. He already had two from his previous marriage. What baffled Aastha was his reason. “You are at the peak of your career. Brands are queuing up to sign you. If you get pregnant now, you will lose at least a year and a half. Who knows if you would return to your shape ever? Make use of your good fortune.”
What an irony? Her mother did not want her to get married ‘so soon’ for the same reason. Aastha smiled sarcastically, but her beautiful grey eyes also swelled up.
Aastha knew just within a few months into the marriage that Anirudh wasn’t the prince she had dreamt of. Yet, the thought of ending the marriage terrified her. The world outside wasn’t very rosy. A single woman, be, she, a star earning crores or a maid earning a few hundreds, is a ‘chance’ and vultures would soon swoop her up.
Today, somehow, she wasn’t thinking of the future. Anirudh has crossed all the limits. A few answers she sought and deserved. Aastha was fed up with the mountain of questions in her mind. And one question refused to die ‘Why?’
It was noon when Anirudh walked in. His clothes reeked of a strong odour, a cross between alcohol, perfume and cigarette.
“So, you have started drinking even during the day now? Do you have any idea what would happen if any photographer caught you in this state? Anyway, stories are floating about us. Why add fuel to the fire?” She was seething with anger.
The servants peeked from the kitchen and balcony but went off to their work. The house helps at the homes of rich and famous are trained to look away. No matter what happens, they will remain quiet, now and ever after. That is also one of their job requirements and for what they are paid.
Anirudh slumped on the sofa and stared at her. She knew that gaze, a mix of sarcasm and hatred. Her anger had no effect on him. He always had an arsenal for her outbursts. Her age! “You are getting old and cynical,” he would retort. He would often compare her with the young actresses and then quote the trolls who would post nasty remarks on her Instagram, calling her Aunty and Buddhi, if even one of her hairs was out of place.
Every time he resorted to this demeaning behaviour, Aastha would crumble. Her heart would break into thousands of pieces. She would retreat to her shell. You can give back to online trolls, you can even block them, but what about the troll who lives with you and sleeps with you? There isn’t any blocking system for real people.
This time, Aastha was prepared. She unheeded his nasty comments.
“Who is this socialite Anirudh? “ She screamed.
Aastha saw his face cringe, but the sarcasm was intact.
“A young friend,” his lips curled for a crooked smile.
“So, the Silver Star column was true? You have started an affair as well now as if the drinking and drug experimentation was not enough.” Aastha shivered. She wanted to lift the corner sculpture and hit him on his head. Such idiots did not deserve to live.
“Why are you so angry? It happens. You are no saint either. What about the three boyfriends you had? You are also working with two of them.” He snarled.
“At least I am not sleeping around. I am only working with them.”
“Everybody knows what happens in outdoor shoots.” Anirudh showed no guilt.
The phone rang. Aastha took a deep breath and picked up the phone. It was the horrible PR manager. She wanted Aastha to run errands in the evening. It is a perfect photo opportunity, she exclaimed. “Next week, your trailer of ‘Deal’ would be releasing. This photo would be a deal-breaker for it,’” she chuckled, as if very proud with her choice of words.
Aastha did not say anything. She was too numb. Then came the next gibe, “Please ensure you wear your red lipstick and concealers. Carry your sunglasses. Wear your halter neck and jeans. The backless one? It was delivered to you a couple of days back. Photographers love backless and skin showing dresses.”
Aastha in the first place wasn’t keen to have a PR team. It was Anirudh’s idea. Everyone had one now. These people were pushovers and would do anything in the name of work. They often shamed her for her age but indirectly unlike Anirudh.
It is easy to condemn and put others down. It allows you to be in control of your power. When the other person falls and crawls on the ground, you can be the daunting one. Who wouldn’t want such a posture?
Disconnecting the phone, Aastha turned to Anirudh. “Go and stay with your dad for a few days. I need some time for myself.” Her face never looked so determined before.
Anirudh chuckled, “Are you thinking of a divorce? Remember, you will be soon hitting the big 4-oh. You may not even have films then. I will be fine. Any 20-somethings would love to be with me. I am a star!” He spread his hands and declared.
“No, you are no more one!” Aastha’s voice was low, but it had a new-found strength. The crawling person had risen, and her hood was full in form. “Now you are nothing but a blood-sucking leech. You are doomed!” She stormed into her bedroom and closed the door with a loud thud.
The phone rang again. It was that bloody woman again! “I am not giving in to gimmicks anymore!” Aastha screamed into the phone.
“Do you hear that? Now, you will not dictate to me. Is that a deal?”
She heard a feeble voice on the other side, “Yes, Madam.”
Aastha threw the phone on the bed.
She sat on the Yoga mat, took a deep breath and closed her eyes. For a few minutes, every nasty comment she had heard and every idiot she encountered in her life began to swirl around her eyes. It took a while to push them away. As the images disappeared, so did the burden on her heart.
When she opened her eyes, the sun rays had quietly entered her room through the window glass and covered her. Wow! It was the time for a selfie. She got up and picked up her phone. As she sat embraced by the sunshine, she captured a beautiful selfie. Her skin was glowing through the dark circles and lines.
Aastha posted the image on Instagram. She did not need filters anymore. She felt a sigh of relief. Sometimes, it is more relaxing and soothing to be yourself. A film actress is more than her makeup. She is the artist and not a canvas.
These cosmetics were definitely war paints once. War paints helped you to disappear and at the same time, gave you the garb of a warrior. They enabled you to strike when no one was looking. They helped kill enemies. Not unlike today, when they make you visible when all you want is to hide. Cosmetics of today, when thrust upon you, kill you in many ways. Wish those war paints returned, Aastha hoped.
Everything was clearer now that concealers and makeup did not cloud her vision.
Editor’s note: This story was shortlisted for the October 2019 Muse of the Month contest, from among a large number of entries.
Image source: a still from the movie Talaash
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Rajlakshmi Kurup is a freelance writer. When she is not writing, she is day dreaming
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