The Girl Behind the Kaala Chashma

Invisibles

The Girl Behind the Kaala Chashma

T

he room is swarming with them, lithe bodies twisting to a synth tune. The walls are covered with mirrors and the dancers seem to be performing for themselves, eyes locked with their own images. The room is blazing with tubelights and as the bass drops, “Tenu Kaala Chashma, Tenu Kalaa, Kalaa…” they vine down to the ground and put on their sunglasses.

The tallest among them is Robyn Toollady. In the video, the dancers are kitted out in what can only be called try-hard kitsch: turbans, dhotis, red lipstick, and dark sunglasses. But on the day of the rehearsals, like everybody else in the room, she is dressed in dark joggers and white sneakers. Her black tee is knotted at the waist and her pin-straight hair sways in unison with her waist, as she matches steps with the thirty other dancers in the room. As the sound of the Punjabi hipshaker dies down, the twang of Scouse takes over. Most of the thirty dancers here are white and British.

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They are an animated lot as they gather in bunches, going over the steps and braiding each other’s hair. Robyn is introduced as a veteran of the scene, but I do not remember her from anything. Then I realise, Robyn is just one of the faceless white women that populate Bollywood songs. But she is always the tallest one.

***

Robyn hated Mumbai when she first set foot in a Bollywood studio as an 18-year-old.

Outside the hot studio, the city too was baking under the heat of a merciless May sun but the dancers, all of them white, young and blonde, stood shivering nervously beneath the shimmering chandeliers, waiting for their hero, Akshay Kumar. The movie was Khambhakt Ishq and the song was another, albeit lesser, hit, “Om Mangalam Mangalam”.

The assistant director looked Robyn up and down with a dubious look. “Wouldn’t she tower over Akshay,” he asked his juniors, as he inspected the line-up before the stars arrived for the shoot. She was promptly moved to the back of the lot and a garland of plastic flowers was thrust into her hands. With that, Robyn had made her Bollywood debut.

With the clang of the clapboard, she stepped forward. The instructions were clear, the horde was to chase the hero, gyrate against him, lustily pull him to their heaving bosoms, and tear his clothes off. He, meanwhile, was to push away the firang seductresses, kick them as they pawed at his pants, and express complete disgust at their overtures. If Robyn found this inexplicable and offensive, she kept her mouth shut.

The day she was matching steps with another UK import, Katrina Kaif, she did not know the name of the film. Other questions about her work too are met with a shrug.

Her next change was a little white dress paired with high heels and a veil. The music started playing again; she once again threw herself at the hero and was shoved away. The strangeness of the scene, the oppressive heat of the set… all got to her. By the end of the ten-hour shoot, she was in tears and ready to quit.

***

It was 2009 and Robyn had just finished school and had started training as a dancer at an institute in Liverpool. She was looking for a job and applied to every opening posted by her agency. The only one she heard back from was a production house in Mumbai. It seemed like the farthest place on the earth for this girl from northern England.

And Robyn and Mumbai did not take well to each other. The “Om Mangalam” set was only the first of the many terrible days and sleepless nights that followed. She hated the clothes she was made to wear, the roving eye on the streets, the foreign language, the noise, the hordes of people. She would have given anything to go home but she’d signed a three-month contract, so she stayed.

Now, seven years later, the tears are paying off. Foreign dancers get paid up to ₹15,000 per day at a film shoot and dancing at events brings in more money. After sharing a flat with six other girls during her early days, Robyn has a place of her own in the same building which is home to Priyanka Chopra. She spends anywhere between six to nine months in Mumbai, saving up for the months of leisure far away from the mayhem. Her relationship with the city she now calls home is a purely contractual one.

“When I am not working, I prefer watching football. And I still don’t understand much Hindi so watching a movie without subtitles is actually not an option. I really like the music though,” she says, bobbing her head to the strains of “Kaala Chashma”.

KalaChashmaInsta

When the song “Kaala Chashma” became a ubiquitous presence in the auralscape around me, cars, clubs, office, I decided to make another attempt to spot her. But I failed.

Courtesy: Robyn Toollady/Instagram

The white woman has been a popular Bollywood trope for decades now. From the iconic Fearless Nadia, who whipped errant men into submission in the ’30s, they have simply became repositories of the male gaze, a role played by Helen, the cabaret queen, in some 700 films. And today, every Bollywood film, including B-list endeavours, has a cast of white dancers, a mass of faceless women whose primary role is to writhe in bikinis and smile seductively for the cameras while doing so.

Robyn too has done it all. The day she was matching steps with another UK import, Katrina Kaif, she did not know the name of the film. Other questions about her work too are met with a shrug.

Robyn’s agent gets her the job and all she does is follow instructions. I steal a glance at the agent, also a constant chaperone to her and the other dancers. He is a big man, hawk-eyed and brusque. I didn’t expect a back-up dancer to have her own bouncer-like agent, but here he was throwing us impatient glares.

Suddenly, unable to take it anymore, he interrupts the conversation and lets loose a volley of questions in broken English. The word “non-disclosure agreement” is thrown at Robyn who shrinks back in trepidation. Apologising for cutting the meeting short, she rushes outside to where a car is waiting to whisk her to the airport, so she may fly to Hyderabad where she will dance at a show. The agent throws me a dirty look as he disappears behind her.

That was the last I saw of Robyn.

When the song “Kaala Chashma” became a ubiquitous presence in the auralscape around me, cars, clubs, office, I decided to make another attempt to spot her.

But, I failed. Robyn is there somewhere; her Instagram account is proof. But she is unrecognisable from the fifty-odd dancers gyrating behind Katrina. She is invisible as usual.

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