Fiction: Number 21

Rana Preet Gill

Rana Preet Gill

Ek do teen… ek do teen… Suhana was gyrating her hips in perfect sync with the girl in front of her. She seemed to be a new entrant; young, confident, wanted to be seen and noticed by the dance master, as they called her dance guru, who did not pay special attention to anyone. They were viewed in entirety, in numbers, rather as an individual participant. She did not even remember when was the last time she was called by her name. For her she was no. 21, a number designated to her amidst hundreds of other dancers who were initially enrolled but later on sent back because of the lack of requirement. She had been doing background dancing for the past many years and now in her thirties she was a little lax, unenthusiastic and only doing a part that fetched her a little money and afternoon meals. As she stood in the queue for food the young girl stood behind her. She was smacking the empty thali to the beat of a popular Bollywood song rummaging around with her excited eyes, looking for something to engage her attention and someone to talk to while unable to contain herself standing in the line doing nothing after the abrupt ending of one rigorous dance schedule.

“When will the next one begin?” She asks enthusiastically making Suhana flinch and uncomfortable while all she wanted was to gather some peace and quiet around her. Suhana ignored her query, which she found disrespectful, aided without any salutation, directed at her as if she was not having any importance in the grand scheme of things.

“Why does the heroine have to be so nakhrili?” She barged again into her thoughts like an unwanted entrant into a locality that does not allow any trespassers but is unable to let the world know because of fear of seclusion. Suhana pursed her lips and kept on looking forward as if connecting some invisible dots while the girl behind her tapped her foot impatiently, unable to stand still at one point of time.

Suhana was cursing her, all the while in her mind, keeping her lips shut tightly, a little worried, that she might end up being nasty to her when she knew that these young girls carry a world inside them. The world that makes them think that someday they can replace the heroines and become the star of this industry. She laughs at their audacity because she knew that after working for many years they too would be confounded by this dream and it will get lost like countless other dreams which did not materialize because of lack of action. But in this case even if they do their part nicely they would not be able to achieve anything substantial, this thought has always comforted Suhana, made her smile, that at least she was not alone who mourned the death of her dreams.

“What is your name, tai?” the girl asked her gently. Finally, mellowed by the respect intoned to her, Suhana had no reason but to thaw a little bit to this new entrant but only enough that she should not superimpose her rest time with her questions. This was one thing that Suhana hated the most. Questions! Every time a new girl arrives on the set she is full of questions, hundreds of them which they want be answered. As if all the time they spent outside the sets was only to mould their questions so that they can be answered by someone as unassuming as Suhana. She looked at the queue that was moving at snail’s pace which infuriated her a little because she wanted to get rid of the new girl who kept on getting chattier despite her unwillingness to talk.

“Tayi, Bolo na, naam kya hai?” She again poked her, inviting her to speak as if words are utmost important for speech. As if there could be no connection between them if they are unable to put it into the conformity of few syllables. But unable to hold onto this confusion of them being into any kind of secret sisterhood Suhana decided to blurt out in a rather gruff voice.

“Suhana!” Despite her attempt to appear mean and vicious the voice that came out of her was gentle and somber.

“Do you know it is the name of Shahrukh khan’s daughter who is studying in Amerika? But she will come back home to become a star.”

“Hmmm…”

“What hmmm... Tayi, look at the similarity. You, Suhana are Shahrukh’s daughter.” She laughed a little and closed her eyes and moved her body a little, swaying gently like a breeze, creating ripples of discontent in Suhana as she observed her, engorged with ripe desires of stardom.

The girl was still dreaming about Shahrukh or the daughter but soon she was jolted by a rude shake as the person behind her nudged her to move a little forward. She opened her eyes and shuffled her feet forwards muttering profanities at the one behind her.

“Arre, don’t push nah!” she spoke in an imploring manner, smiling a little, drawing awkward glances from Suhana who observed her through the corner of her eye.

The line finally moved along and Suhana dropped some sambhar in her plate, took the oily pooris and moved in haste to get away from the girl. She searched for a secluded spot so that the girl should be given a signal that Suhana does not want to engage with her. Her eagerness to talk made the veteran uncomfortable while she only wanted to be left alone with no talk of the industry lest the stars. The mild mannered Suhana wanted to dance and blank out everything else from her mind except the fact that she would be paid a little sum for her labor at the end of the day. And this made the dancing worthwhile.

No sooner had she put the first spoonful of sambhar in her mouth trying to cut the hot, oily poori into small sections with her hands she heard the familiar voice again.
“Suhana tayi, can I sit with you?” And without waiting for her reply she nudged the girl sitting next to Suhana who was done with her food and gladly vacated her place making her way towards the washing carrying her now empty plate. Suhana, who had divided her poori into small sections started with her ritual of draining every little piece with the sambhar without giving any importance to the girl now.

“Tayi, you did not ask my name?” She jabbered again munching on her food without any ritual, looking everywhere but not at her plate while next to her Suhana was observing the oil that was dripping from the poori and flowing towards one corner of steel plate.

“Kareena!! Karishma ki sister aur Saif ki wife!!” She smiled shyly as if just being the name sake of a famous actress made her a cog in the web of relationships that entailed their allegiance to her as well. Suhana laughed at her audacity, all the while in her mind, tried not to titter. And now Kareena had closed her eyes as Suhana observed the contours of her face with more clarity. The flaking foundation was falling off like cheap bits everywhere. Instead of giving a uniform texture to her face it had caked on to it and now unable to hold its forte was making her look funny. Suhana touched her face consciously wondering if her face looked pasty as well.

While Kareena seemed to be lost in some kind of silent chanting, Suhana closely observed her lips which were smudged with a dark purple color that spilled out of the corners making her look a little vampish. Suhana wondered if the make-up artist on purpose had done this to make her, the extras look less beautiful than the heroine who no doubt would be having her own make-up artiste using superior quality products on her. Suddenly Suhana saw her own image through the eyes of the girl who was sitting next to her which made her feel very dirty about herself. As she got up to wash her face, Kareena got hold of her dress and smiled indulgently.

“Tai, be friends with me. I do not know anyone here.”

Later at night when Suhana was alone in the aloofness of her one room chawl she smiled at the child like innocence of this girl who made a feverish attempt to get close to her on the first day. A handful of dancers appear on a regular basis and most of them only worked part time. And once their desire for quick money is satiated they move to more fulfilling jobs and do not care to come back to the studios. But Suhana was not like that. Though in her thirties she was a veteran who had never missed a date with a studio. She was a regular of the agency which supplied dancers to different film studios on demand. Over the years she has gyrated her hips with many famous actresses and been privy to their stereotypical habits.

Like one time in Mehboob studio, the actress who was at top of her game at that time, would not let the dance director have her way. She would dance but only to her steps which were rather clumsy and not in sync with the beat. Despite the repeated entreaties of the dance guru who was a known face in the industry the actress had her way. At the end, all the misplaced anger of the dance guru was directed at the extras for whom he chose the most difficult steps. At the end of the day Suhana had her feet aching while the actress was as fresh as dew and walked like a gazelle in front of them as if making fun of their rehearsals and eventual performance that rocked the song and made it a hit. The actress got all the credit despite the fact that she did the least of all things.

Suhana sighed! The industry is not fair. She would have to go soon. With everyday young and energetic girls are flocking the offices to make a quick buck. Her days were numbered. She closed her eyes only to see the smiling image of Kareena flocking her mind. That night she dreamt about her dancing all the way to glory. She saw her standing next to the real life star Kareena Kapoor as she introduces her to her husband Saif and her sister Karishma. Why she even let her hold her son Taimur for a little while! And while all this is happening on stage the entire Bollywood fraternity is raising a toast to Kareena, the dancer, the extra.



Suhana was pleased with herself the next morning and reminisced her dream in all its visual glory. She memorized each and every detail with exact precision to narrate the same to Kareena. She even imagined her surprised reaction to such a bashful dream. She imagined her saying, “Tai, this feels so nice. I can feel the thrill and excitement. It makes me feel that I am not Kareena, the extra but Kareena, the actress, the star of the real world.”

While in the auto making her way towards the office she wondered what if Kareena did not like the way she imagined things. What if she did not like being hailed as Kareena, the extra with Kareena, the star. Suhana hesitated! The girl has starry dreams. What if she wants to be Kareena, the star herself. She would get deeply hurt and resigned being visualized as a lesser known human being standing next to a star. Suhana decided to tweak her dream a bit.

Why cannot I make her Kareena, the star in my dream? She would feel nice. By some weird stroke of fate, the real star meets with a fatal accident and when Saif comes to know about an extra, Kareena he decides to make her part of her life and mother to her child. But then what will happen to the real star, what will she do if not with her husband and child and loved ones. This will be so gross. Killing someone in my dreams who is the heartthrob of a million people. And who knows Kareen Kapoor is the girl with the golden heart!! Who knows she might be a very nice and loving person in real life behind that veil of make up? This is so mean to her and to all the people who love her. I cannot let a star die, not even in my dreams!!!

Suhana decided to drop the idea of the dream and construct a one where she does not have to kill people in order to make someone feel good. She met Kareena on the sets who started blabbering. “Tai, did you know I had a dream. You were the daughter of the star, Shahrukh Khan. His real daughter goes missing and he adopts you. You do not go to Amerika to study but you come to Bollywood and you become a star.”

“What happens to the real Suhana? I hope she is alive.” Suhana asks hesitantly.

“How do I know? It was only a dream, Tai?”

“I mean, you should not kill people in your dreams. It is not good.”

Kareena looked at Suhana reproachfully as they were called by the dance director for the rehearsal. Kareena did not talk to Suhana much that day and took her pav bhaji to other end of the room from where she was being watched with an unspoken plea by her Tai. No words exchanged, they finished their shot and parted that day wordlessly.

Later in the night Suhana was filled with guilt as she kicked herself for being so terse with the girl who had dreamt such a beautiful dream for her.

After all she only said the girl was missing. And missing does not tantamount to imagining people dying. It only means that they are not present precisely at that particular moment. Otherwise, they are very much alive.

That night Suhana dreamt that Kareena, the extra is spotted by Kareena, the star on the sets of an upcoming movie. The star spots the extra for her superb dancing skills and takes her home to meet her husband and son. And the first look at the extra, strikes something and the husband gets infatuated with the extra and decides to divorce his wife. The industry is shocked by this infantile gesture of the star husband but they have accepted this meteoric rise of the extra and the star, Kareena herself has given blessings to this marriage and accepted the second wife.

While moving towards her work place in the auto, Suhana was highly pleased with the caricature of her dream. She smiled in anticipation at the joy it would bring to Kareena when she would know that she actually gets married to the star hubby. Being married to a star husband has more perks than being the daughter of one.

And I did not even attempt to make the aggrieved disappear. And don’t they say, All well that ends well. At the end of the day my dream is doing justice to everyone.

But that day when she did not see Kareena waving at her, anxiously at the front of the studios, she got a little perturbed. The dance director filled the spot in front of Suhana by asking someone else to move from back to the front.

“Nah ma’am, a girl is there on this spot.”

“Where is she? I cannot see her. “She scoffed, glaring at Suhana and gesturing for the other girl to take the spot.

Called from the last row to the front the girl who was petite in frame contemplated it as a giant lap to her fortune as if being in the front row would bring a windfall in her fortunes making her enter the door that had been drawn close to her for quite some time. Suhana looked a little defeated and could not copy the dance moves properly. The girl in front was doing all in the right way but her mere sighting made Suhana brim up with unnecessary angst.

“She is doing all the moves wrong.” She shouted while the dance director was doing her usual ek..do..ek..do..moves. The lady in red who was supporting a cap did not take this insubordination lightly and took out a clipboard and pen as she asked Suhana to speak up her number and her agency. All the girls looked at her in mutual resentment as if acknowledging and hailing the decision of dance guru as right. They were all equals and Suhana had no reason to get perturbed and superimpose her superiority, not even on a newcomer. The girl in question pursed her lips and murmured some words of discomfort to the girl who was standing next to her, accepting her approval and looking at Suhana as if mocking her for her promptness and directness in engaging with the dance guru who was known not to like the extras for any specific reason.

That day Suhana ate her lunch all alone in a corner with no one inundating her with questions making her aware of the need of someone to talk to for companionship. Listening to Kareena was indeed a joy as her gibberish flayed a comfort net around Suhana making her survive the onslaught of her questions. The few days that she had been with her had given her a warmth of words. Though she had been irritated initially by her continuous chatter, lately she had enjoyed every interaction with her. Today as she sat desolate she felt herself falling into a vacuum without that web of words to support her. The next day was the harbinger of bad news for her. She was reprimanded by the boy who was the in charge of her engagements.

“No. 21, you have been complained by the dance guru for your insubordination and this is not acceptable. Dance nahi karne ka kya!”

She nodded her head and lifted her finger, feeling a little soporific, defeated and demoralized by all the accusations that were being hurled at her. As she was being ushered in the bus for her ride to the studio she looked at the boy who must have been at least ten years younger than her but who chastised her with the panache of an adult. She had never seen him before donning the role with such candor. He was only the shy, young lad of the authoritative father and now in his absence he was the one doing all the needful, managing the job adroitly without any prior experience. How easy it is for him despite the inexperience of a job that was bequeathed to him by the sake of a relation? She grumbled and rued for her mother was only a domestic servant. And she had often taken her to mansions making her sit on the steps while she cleaned and rubbed the shining marbles which gleamed at all times of the day and rubbing them more was only taking their shine away and doing nothing good to them. Even then Suhana saw her mother cleaning them making the little girl suppress her disappointment at such passion and zeal devoted by her mother to one task that did not require an exaggerated, a task that was accomplished despite her misplaced zeal.

Suhana wondered that if she had to don the mantle of her mother’s work life it would have been tough. Working in someone’s house was never her calling and even though her mother would have liked her to work in an office and dreamt of her daughter living in mansions and occupy the biggest of them in Mumbai, Suhana had plans for herself. She had always wanted to act and though she desisted singing and dancing she ended up becoming an extra at the insistence of a boy who assured her that this was her ticket to Bollywood. She would only later come to know that he was given a commission for bringing young girls to agencies who later on directed them to different dance studios as per requirements. Though there was no written contract yet she decided to stick to the same profession for the past ten years. It had been enough for her to support on a day to day basis. Her mother long left for heavenly abode, the boy, a lover left her with little but memories of few stolen kisses and empty promises and a job at the studio. But life was good she contemplated though she had become a loner, not expecting any one to elicit interest in her, making herself dwell in the surroundings and happy just being a number, a figment in their imagination.

Her mind again ricocheted at the thought of Kareena. She wondered if she would come today. She wondered how long the shooting would go on. For once the requirement at Mehboob studio ends and the songs are all done they would be proffered towards the next destination. And she would lose her connection with her forever. She should have taken a phone number or an address at least.

As she alighted from the bus her eyes searched inquisitively but she could not sense the familiar presence of the cherubic young girl who took pride in being the namesake of the famous actress. The rehearsals were painful and stretched out like a long day for Suhana who detested the presence of the same girl who had been made to occupy Kareena’s place. The dance guru interrupted the rehearsal many times and pointed out Suhana, calling her names, mocking her for her clumsiness, letting other girls giggle and take pleasure. Today was the last day of rehearsals for the final dance that was going to be shot tomorrow with the lead actress. As Suhana went for lunch with the usual and staid affair of greasy pao and tasteless bhaji her eyes shone with excitement when she heard them discuss Kareena.

“Do you know where she lives? Do you know her number? Please tell me.” Suhana implored.

The girls laughed at such eccentric questions. They nudged each other and giggled.
“Aa gayi ek aur Kareena ki diwani. She is coming tomorrow. Didn’t you know that she is the one who is dancing with us? You can take her phone number yourself.”

“Oh!!” Suhana was a little disappointed at the mention of the film actress. Even the thought of seeing the famed actress in person and dancing in her close proximity did not excite her. Though she had worked with many of her ilk in the past, she had never seen her from a close proximity nor worked with her. Though it might have created ripples in ordinary situation for she heard that the actress often gets into a conversation with the talented extras and once or twice was instrumental in getting them a good role in movies as well. But not today, not at this time when Suhana only wanted to see Kareena, the extra and not Kareena, the star. She wondered if her friend was the one dancing in the first row she might had been able to strike a conversation with the star and might have amused her with the knowledge that they share the same name. And she might have nodded and laughed and joked about the same and later on recommended her name, her name in actuality for a small part in the movie. And who knows that could have become the turning part in life of Kareena, the extra. But then it was all a possibility only if the girl in question turns up but there was no sign or her presence.


After lunch and the recommended break time when the rehearsals ensued there was fresh enthusiasm amongst the girls. The breaking news of Kareena, the star being part of that song had added a zing to their steps.

Suhana stood in the second line when the actress who was as fair as the albatross, she had once seen in a book spreading its huge wings, mesmerized everyone with her one sighting. She was not mean to the girls but then she was not keen to have a chat with them either. Whoever had spread the message that Kareena loved to interact with the extras and often had a chat with them needed to see the disappointment writ large on the faces of the girls now. The ones who were in the first row had tried their best to say hi, hello, namaste to her and some of them even flaunted their connections with other actresses and directors but they were met with a severe rebuff from the dance guru for interrupting the performance. She sent the girl at the back who was constantly trying to touch Kareena by flailing her arms in all directions. The actress neither smiled nor encouraged them. She did not even smirk or rebuke them. She just did not see them at all! She was unable to realize that there were hundreds of them who had been perfecting the dance moves for the past one week. Perhaps to her or any other actress they were only a giant faceless blob that gyrated and moved in unison. They were extras and to identify each of them would have been an effort going beyond the extra.

After the dance schedule was wrapped up there was nothing more to do for the girls. There work at the Mehboob studio was over. They would be sent back to their respective agencies and the payments would only be made through the people who recruited them. The girls sat listless on the floor, tired and devoid of any energy. There were eager conversations among them. An exchange of phone numbers as some of them had become very friendly within the short span of time. Suhana missed Kareena more than ever when she saw them engaged in animated talks about their loved ones, about their lives that were far from perfect, about their dreams that were yet to achieve any semblance of success. Their passions consumed their lives, kept the hearth burning in their homes and the dance alive in their steps.


That night Suhana saw Kareena, the extra vividly in her dreams. She saw her sauntering towards the crowd of dancers, her head crooked at one angle looking affectionately at them as if they were the only ones that mattered to her. And her dress, the color of multi colored feathers of a peacock was drawing oohs and aahs from the girls who had gathered in large numbers around her now. Some of them were gently tugging at her arms now to be granted an audience while the others looked dazed by the way she made them special, a kindness reflected in her eyes and gratitude in her mannerism. And as she turns her attention towards Suhana, they all turn their necks acknowledging the presence of Suhana, the extra, the veteran. They are kneeling in front of her, even the dance guru has folded her hands in benediction as Kareena leads her away from them. And when once Suhana, looks back at them to wave a final goodbye they are no more than a giant blob of faceless masses, without names, only numbers. 

1 comment :

  1. beautiful story! you have a way of telling stories. kudos

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