THE DREAMER by Rajeev Balasubramanyam
Extract from Chapter 1
I was always the anti-star, the supporting-villain, but I was beginning to be known. I had a small apartment in L.A., with less furniture than my London flat, but when I accepted a West End role for a six week run, Helen told me I was making a mistake. But I had a reason, I could sense it, and the reason was Vanessa, right on cue. She was a costume designer then, and the first time we kissed we both knew. It felt like going home, although – and this didn’t occur to us at the time – neither of us had very good memories of home.
After Vanessa and I were married I made The King and became a household face, if not a name. After a few years, I stopped feeling paranoid; the Kingwas not a nice man; the king, of course, was the villain. The hero was Russell Crowe.
We were only screen together for one scene. Clad in my underwear, I stood in the desert and he blew my brains out in balletic slow-mo. It was the only scene he and I were together for, and it was the only time you saw my face, and even that was a controversial decision.
For the rest of the film I was in shadow or the camera would lock onto my shoes, or one of my many guns arranged beside fountain pens and telephones. And then there was my voice. I’ve played Arabs before, can get away with whole sentences in Arabic, but this took months to perfect. In the absence of my face, my voice had to speak for my whole character.
I succeeded, but it hurt. It always hurts.
Then after The King’s release I became a figure of revilement for many Asians. It vilified Muslims, they said, and I was an opportunist and traitor. For me it was a purely internal process, but the internal isn’t visible. Furthermore, they didn’t know about the following, deleted, scene.
Crowe stares down at my dying body and I morph till almost Christlike. He looks into the past and we see my old life. A family man; my family are killed; I wander in despair till I find faith and plastic explosives. Crowe’s face… a single tear.
This probably wouldn’t have satisfied them anyway, but what none of them will ever believe is that I didn’t even know the whole story until I saw the final cut. I hadn’t read the script, and I didn’t care. Actors don’t need to read the script, Ray said. It’s the character that counts, and if the character isn’t in you – if you can’t find him – you can’t do it.
Finding anything has always been hard for me. My father died when I was nine, and before then everything is hazy. When my mother died whole sections of my memory were extracted, as if by a surgeon. Others endured, fresh as newborns, but going back is always painful. At first I would pretend, and Ray and the others never guessed, but after a time the parts became too interesting, too irresistible, for pretence. So I became a method actor, giving my soul to villains who possessed me. And The King was one.
Vanessa noticed. When I returned from the desert she told me my face looked different. She could see him in my eyes. Ray would say he’d been there for years, but I’d dragged him into the light.
If I could have had a respite it might have been different, but in all my years I don’t think I played one character you could even describe as likeable, let alone good.
But what did I care? Suddenly I was famous, in a manner of speaking, and I had money, a lot it. I won a BAFTA and there were whispers about an OSCAR which never materialised; I met Spike Lee, could always get a table at The Ivy, and was invited to the Superbowl but didn’t go.
I suppose it was around that time people began to suspect I had a drink problem. Previously I’d been a flamboyant figure, given to gentle witty debauchery after the curtain has fallen. But now I was drunk all the time, and became significantly less witty and more unpredictable. People like Oliver Reed, eventually, will be applauded for such behaviour, but folk like me will always be viewed as animals, poked between bars while we’re sick in a corner.
The only person who ever said anything was Ray, and with characteristic directness. ‘You’re an alcoholic, Shashi. You’ll be impotent soon.’ After that, we saw less of each other, drifted apart. It’s become a habit for me to ignore his calls now, though I do this to most people. My only friends were Khal and Ameena, though even that wasn’t simple.
A few weeks after I won my BAFTA, Action Corps Theatre staged a play called The Chimp, which ran for three nights and never drew an audience greater than thirty. It was a one man show, starring and written by Khaled Wahid. Though it showed at the Bush Theatre it didn’t have the aura of a professional production: it was a skit, for an in-crowd.
The protagonist was a boxer -the title being a twist on The Champ – who emerges from obscurity to become the featherweight champion of the world. As his success increases he comes increasingly to resemble a primate until, in the last act, he has fur growing from his shoulders and walks on all fours with boxing gloves strapped to his hands and feet. In Act I he uses a barely intelligible northern dialect, but by the end he speaks the Queen’s English in a mansion in Hampstead and with a beautiful blonde wife, whom we never see her. I sat at the back each night, slipping out just before the end.
A few months later, for the first time, Khal came to me for help, which I was happy to give. He was struggling, had two children now, and I told him he could have mycredit card if he liked, but Khal wanted Helen. He wanted to work.
Helen said yes, probably as a favour to me – the market wouldn’t easily support another Asian male in his thirties – and I was grateful, never suspecting this could affect me.As far as I was concerned I was the equal of heaven, but it’s at times like this when we begin our descent, so gradual we don’t even notice at first.
Khal began to work, to really work, entering the commercial so late he was bound to suffer. And Khal wasn’t proud, not anymore; he even did adverts. Helen never sent us up for the same roles, which must have been deliberate, and for years we lived separate lives, seeing each other with increasing rarity.
And then I was sent a script for was a two-part television drama called Back, Sac and Crack, about two brothers who run a massage parlour as a money laundering front, but then fall for the same woman. It was quite humorous, descending into an almost operatic finale in which they fire machine guns at each other across the salon. I accepted the lead as the slightly younger brother, and then Helen rang: Khal’s the other brother, she said.
She sounded anxious, but after the initial embarrassment, everything worked out beautifully. It was so easy working with Khal, and more to the point, so fun, which was a word I never associated with work. From the minute shooting began we were always in each others’ rooms, gossiping and bitching. Khal told me how much he hated the commercial world, and how he worried he wasn’t good enough. I was worried I’d drag him down to my level, but Khal said he didn’t care; he had two children now.
The truth is that, as an actor, Khal was only passable, but he made up for his weaknesses by being self-disciplined and organised, the opposite to me who was always late and usually drunk. Ray would have called me a prima donna,, but I didn’t care; I was Tony Shah and Tony Shah was a prick, we all knew that. Except for Khal. Khal didn’t know Tony, not until yesterday anyway. Yesterday. There isn’t that much to tell…
It was raining outside and we had about half an hour before the gunfight scene and we were in Khal’s room. The set was rather elaborate, but by now both of us were bored with the whole thing. We’d enjoyed working together, but the film was shit and the fact that we were together meant we couldn’t lie to ourselves. It didn’t matter; Khal needed money and I was too drunk to care.
I remember laughing then realising his face was wet and thinking the rain had leaked inside, but then he started to cry out loud.
Ameena’s left me.
I thought this meant she’d died, so I started crying too, or was about to:
I slept with someone else.
Idiot, I said, but only because I thought he was joking.
We sat together until we were called, which came as a surprise. I’d forgotten where we were. I don’t remember much about makeup.
There must have been twenty, thirty people on set. I had to throw open the door, run inside, punch Khal on the nose, then watch as he crawled across the floor after his machine gun. I remember the sound guy making some joke about a brewery, which could have been directed at me, and then we were shooting. I was so distracted I wasn’t even in character.
I pushed open the door, walked inside, punched Khal hard in the stomach then hammered the top of his head with the side of my fist. When I started kicking our eyes met and he looked… I didn’t care.
I can’t remember what I did after that, but it probably involved alcohol.