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Updated: December 10, 2012 19:54 IST

Rebellious snowleopardini

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We built the industry Where models became actors, Lisa says. Photo: Murali Kumar. K
The Hindu We built the industry Where models became actors, Lisa says. Photo: Murali Kumar. K

Fighter, winner. Actor, model, role model. There are many ways to look at the stunning Lisa Ray. She tells she’s happy being who she is, and refuses to be labelled by a place

It takes guts to talk about your past, relationships that are gone by but have left a mark, a cancer that’s addling your existence, of how your body has changed, to put up pictures of your shaven head — to show the world a side of you it hasn’t seen. More so if you are from the world of glamour — an actor, a model constantly in the limelight — and a stunner who’s been rated one of the most beautiful women in the world.

But that’s Lisa Ray.

She took the bull by its horns and fought head on in full public glare. In 2009, at the Toronto International Film Festival, Lisa Ray announced she was diagnosed with cancer (Multiple Myeloma). Hers is a story many women have followed since, specially on her blog, The Yellow Diaries. “The red carpet is all about being perfect. My announcement there was about rebellion…to be there when I wasn’t feeling like the ideal,” says Lisa on her decision to go public with her diagnosis, and that too at such an event. “It was because it provided such a striking contrast to me at that time — my physicality was so changed, but I kept thinking, ‘Have I changed as a person?’. It was also my way of deconstructing the business (of the glamour industry) for myself.”

As Rado’s brand ambassador, Lisa Ray was recently in Bangalore to launch the Rado DiaStar Anniversary Edition, a limited edition watch to mark the 50 anniversary of the Swiss watchmaker’s first scratch-resistant watch. Stunning as ever in a tomato-red fitted dress with lace highlights, and looking a bit exhausted maybe; but she’s still a headturner at 40. Just two months old in her marriage to Jason Dehni, how are marriage and Mr. Dehni treating her, one is compelled to ask. “So far so good…He’s been treating me rather well because he knows otherwise there are a lot of Indians out there who are going to catch him,” she laughs, her characteristic humour that she treats everything in her life with, shining through. Only when you see her website do you realise that her full name is Lisa Rani Ray. “Yes, Rani’s my middle name and one rarely uses one’s middle name…but yes, my father calls me Lisa Rani, (director) Deepa Mehta called me Lisa Rani on the sets of Water without knowing it was my full name. I realised that in my new phase of life, this name is quite befitting.”

Lisa has always considered herself a cross-cultural phenomenon, being born and raised in Canada by an Indian-Bengali father and a Polish mother. But both India and Canada have left no stone unturned in claiming Lisa as their own. “Hmmmm…it’s interesting…I don’t know how I feel about that. But I did struggle with identity politics while growing up. I identify with India and when I travel abroad I identify myself as Indian, and I love explaining Indian culture to others. However, I feel you don’t have to be labelled by a place. Today, almost every one is a global entity. I’m comfortable with who I am, is all I can say.”

“Accidental actress. Covert Social Activist. Snowleopardini.” That’s the phraseology she uses to describe herself on her website. The first refers to her being “discovered” by a modelling agent when she was 16 and holidaying in India with her parents — a magazine cover in a swimsuit and an ad campaign later, India flooded her with offers — she did some Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, and Tamil films. But she was pretty choosy and did some films here, some in Canada, but mostly stuck to small international arthouse productions.

The second phrase refers to her second lease of life, where through her phase of being treated for cancer and post that, she’s been raising awareness and funds on the subject with every commercial promotion campaign she takes — a shampoo ad also persuades women to donate hair to make real-hair wigs for cancer patients. And the third, more evocative and exotic phrase? “Oh that’s just a name,” she says dismissively. “People give each other names! Someone gave me that name,” she says before there’s a hint of mistiness in her eyes and then a broad smile to signal she’s not talking about that anymore.

Lisa was part of the modelling and acting scene in India in the 90s. In the 1996 video of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali’s “Afreen Afreen” Lisa was the smouldering mirage in the desert sands that made her an enduring household image. Sixteen years after that iconic video, Lisa admits that feels like a different life altogether. But modestly, and logically, she breaks it down: “But you know, I started my career much before that, when I was 16, and lasting so long in this profession by itself is an achievement, when everything is reduced to a “trend” these days. But you must also remember that in the 90s we weren’t that inundated with content, so images from that time are still fresh in our memory.”

Did Bollywood at that time expect her to play dumb but glamorous heroine? “Yes and no…the 90s was a very different time. It was a more intimate industry; now it’s more transactional in nature. People in the fashion industry that I worked with closely recognised me for being more than just a pretty face. We created the industry, you know, where models became actors…and I’m not saying it egotistically. There were no stylists, we didn’t have agents… we had to be creative on our own. But I just didn’t want to be slotted as a conventional heroine. I’m blessed to be embraced by India.”

On the cusp of 2013, Lisa has a lot going for her — in Canada she’s hosting Season Three of the popular TV series Top Chef. She’s working on her book; a memoir. She’s partnering with Indian design house, Satya Paul, to present an exclusive line of cocktail saris inspired by her wedding trousseau. “And I have a husband to run back home to now,” she signs off.

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