I'm not sure what my parents had been thinking, but they had teed me up for only this one particular school, which was where most of their colleagues' children (ergo my erstwhile friends) attended. This school was, apparently, a good one. Eighty-eight other sets of parents had thrown their progeny into the mix. The application of some unknown criterion determined that only eleven of us would be allowed to write the entrance test, which was to be conducted over two (or was it three?) days. Perhaps I hadn't known the numbers - more probably I hadn't understood them fully - but I recall feeling none of the consternation that I am sure my parents were feeling. (Or, that I feel when I look back at that situation today.)
Anyway, I went and wrote those tests as best I could. I even made friends with this other kid who was writing them -- he was "merely" trying to move to this school from one that was, I suppose, "worse". We must have chatted before and after the tests. Our conversation must have been that of ten-year-olds. I have no memory of this. What I do remember was the day the results came out. Eleven sets of frantic parents, and eleven dragged-about children, crammed into a tiny office room. From the fog above my head, news percolated down to me that I had made the cut. I turned to look for this new friend of mine, to share my news and check for his. I remember my mother dragging sharply on my hand - a thing she never ever did - and making me stick close to her while she battled her way into the inner office. Inside, we learned that only one person had been accepted. (We also learned that I had scored 6/10 on the Hindi section of the test; a harbinger of a constancy to come).
Swept up in this whirlwind of new school, new system, new friends, old friends, I forgot all about my friend left outside - physically as well as metaphorically.
Five years passed. The 10th standard board exams came. My expectations were high but I fouled up bigtime, returning an aggregate of 76%. Returning to school that summer, we saw two new kids in our section. One of them annoyed us (the in-group) on the first day, with the way he seemed to nod with every sentence the teacher said. He redeemed himself somewhat on the football field (we were a proudly footballing section, with nine members of the school team on our side). But he was strangely quiet - maybe just shy - so we didn't really pay that much attention to him until one day, a few days on, when, waiting in a bus queue, he came up to me and said, "Aren't you from Australia?"
I missed a couple of takes there, while my mind raced to figure out who this guy was. Then he made the connection for me - he was the kid at my sixth-standard admission test. It was a strange kind of come-uppance, since he was back at the school that had rejected him, having scored 12% more on the board exams than the guy they had taken. The ultimate retort.
I do think it was funny how quickly we became friends after that. From typical eleventh-grade IIT-aspirant activities such as skipping class to work out numerical physics problems, to co-writing and co-directing a smash "play" called "How Newton Discovered His Laws" (such a hit that we were asked to re-stage the play in front of the junior high-schoolers -- who hadn't learned any physics and hence hadn't a clue what was going on) we pretty much spent the two years of high school together. Our concerns were the same -- entrance exams, football, music, receding hairlines. His classic prayer from back then: "God, take all my hair, take every blade if need be, but please do it *after* I'm married." Together, we discovered that the combination of Anoop and Clinic Plus worked.
Then came the 12th standard board exams. Picking up my game a smidgen, I managed to scrape together an aggregate across physics, chemistry, and mathematics that was just enough for my target college. His score? One mark less. His response, instead of walking into any of the other "prestigious" campus colleges that neighbored mine, he chose to go to the one next door to his house, sparing himself the killing commute. He turned to theater.
I don't quite recall how we stayed in touch during those college years. It must have been over the phone. We met a couple of times, once when he brought his college troup over to ours, for a staging or contest of sorts. But I realised then that physics, or even other conventional paths, were no longer for him. Plan B had kicked in.
He joined the film institute in Pune. A year into my MBA, I passed through that city during my summer internships. I visited and stayed with him in his university dorm -- five people lumped together in a large, dark room, overloaded clotheslines straddling the airspace, compensating for the lack of cupboards. I met his girlfriend, relieved to see his hairline was still holding. We drank sugarcane juice together. He introduced me to French cinema; I remained mystified.
A year later we both graduated and found ourselves in the cesspit known as Mumbai. I experienced the corporate wage slave life for the first time. The first six months were a nightmare, sharing an unfurnished flat with three other such captives, two hour commutes each way every day. Then I found an apartment of my own in a decidedly better part of town. And somehow I got back in touch with him again.
I met him for dinner at a run-down eatery near a local train station. The only advantage of the place was its price. He too had graduated from film school, and had a job at an ad film makers. These are the guys who actually make the commercials. His job was that of a gofer, running to the general store to buy pans for a washing powder shoot. His salary made me gasp. It was pocket money, survival on that amount was inconceivable, at least to me. I insisted he move in with me.
We stayed together for a year. I watched, amazed, as his career shot upwards. The gofer got a job writing scripts for a popular TV horror show, and then for the Indian version of Jay Leno. (Not much difference there conceptually, we would joke.) The apartment would be littered with the gossip mags we subscribed to, to fuel his fire, and sheets and sheets of paper in his heavy, angular writing -- throwaway lines from his funnies. I picked up all sorts of insights into the world of the glitterati: X actress looks like a cow onscreen but is a stunner in real life, Y VJ cannot read Hindi, her lines are all transcribed in English. By the end of the year he was employed by SRK, then India's leading movie star, driving around with him in his imported Mitsubishi SUV, borrowing my Yardbirds CD to convince The Man to use a tune in his latest flick.
He moved out when I got married, and then I moved to the USA. Email and then instant messenger enabled us to stay connected. I learned of his being promoted to "props and pass director" for an SRK magnum. A props director is in charge of the props used in the film -- he orders the gofers to get what he wants. A pass director is in charge of the people who pass behind the main actors and actresses frontstage. He tells them when to walk and how. We laughed at his self-effacing descriptions, and commiserated with his laments about the crucial climactic scene of the movie, where he was in charge of co-ordinating forty thousand angry middle-aged extras in a stampede, in forty-plus degrees Celsius.
The film wasn't a huge hit, but it did well enough. And he got noticed by the folks who matter, and signed on to write a screenplay himself. The result, his flexible reinterpretation of the life of a king of yore, was panned by those who felt the film took liberties with proud Indian heritage. It was also panned by those who felt it was too intellectual and the leading lady didn't show enough skin. Standing up and applauding his name in an emptying Long Island theater was a wonderful , wonderful moment for me.
I met him last August, in Mumbai. He isn't married yet but his hairline is holding. He was rushing to audition a leading lady for a new film. His film. He had been signed to be director. Auditions for leading roles in Bollywood seem to be an interesting affair. The director identifies the superstars he wants in his film (alternately, they are identified for him by the producer), and sends the script over for perusal. He then follows up, and garners an appointment. Then, he goes and visits, copy of script in hand, and acts out the entire script for the actor / actress. If he's lucky, he gets a catch.
Over the course of the next year, we got intermittent updates about the progress of his film. The person he had auditioned that day had indeed signed on. Shooting happened. Then edits. A long silent phase, during which one day he popped up on messenger and asked me if I have some spare time. He sent over a couple of files, frames from some random cartoon. We had a semi-surreal conversation for about half an hour about these frames, what they meant, how I reacted to them, and so on. He thanked me for understanding, and helping him develop his style. I, of course, remained mystified.
Last week again we chatted. His film was finally there. The soundtrack was to be released in a few hours. His fingers were crossed. I said I hoped to hear it blaring from every autorikshaw when next I visit India. He agreed that the autowallahs were his primary target. Time would tell.
The next day, I heard that the soundtrack was a surprise entrant at number 7 on the charts.
My buddy's come a long long way. The entry on IMDB is the first of a long list, I hope. Autowallahs of the world, take note. I am so proud.