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Actor, seeker, writer, dreamer: In conversation with Lisa Ray

Monday, 1 September 2014 - 12:30pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna
Lisa Ray shares her thoughts on work, life and being a nomad
  • Photo credit: Joy Dutta

Could you share the philosophy that you live and work by? Has it changed over the years?
I have always tried to live by the great EE Cummings' quotation:"To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting."And more recently, I am embracing TS Eliot's philosophy: "We must be still, and still moving".It sounds like a Zen koan, but makes complete sense and is the antidote to this super-fast paced world we live in. It speaks to me of clarity, which comes from a meditation practice and living a more awakened life—where you choose your actions more deliberately, as opposed to getting caught up in the rat race. Post my cancer journey, this makes a lot of sense to me. I am still ambitious and want to achieve things, but my concept of success has changed. Now, I need to only be part of projects that make sense to me. More importantly, life is so much more than just work. I lead a very full life now. Releasing myself from my belief systems and conditioning has been a huge part of my growth.I don't believe there are bad people in the world—there are confused, uneducated and conditioned people. If only people would question more and unthinkingly believe less.

What is happiness to you?
Now. This moment. Allowing all petty worries to drop away and not thinking of the past or future. However, I'd say 'peace' is more important than 'happiness', which is a passing emotion.

How would you define beauty?
Beauty is defined through the effect it has on me. It may make me want to stop, gaze, sketch, touch, photograph, absorb, or increase my pulse... I believe strongly in Confucius' observation, "Everything has beauty but not everyone sees it".

What is your idea of home (seeing as how you live and work in so many places)?
People define home. I'm a nomad, so I'm comfortable almost anywhere. I carry my concept of home on my back like a turtle. These days, my husband defines home, as do my close friends.

How much do you think your parentage and where you grew up have to do with who you are today?
These have had a huge impact on me. I was a 'multiracial' offspring, long before this was a more common occurrence. I struggled with identity issues growing up in Canada, yet felt incredibly at home in India. My mixed Bengali and Polish heritage enriched my life. I can speak Polish, I used to go to church with my grandmother and relished Polish sausages and thick peasant bread. I also celebrated Durga Puja, listened to my father's more esoteric explanations of Hinduism and looked forward to jhinga maach every Sunday.

Being of mixed blood broadens your world view, which is imperative in today's world. Most of the world's problems today arise out of a ghettoised identity: I am of this religion or community, so I am not that and therefore you are different and threatening... You simply can't nurture this point of view when you are of mixed ethnicities. I am proud of who I am today—I call myself a 'limited edition'. I have a unique, global point of view and yet, I don't feel the need to wear my identity like a badge.

What have been your biggest challenges? Could you share with us your highest highs and your lowest lows?
Some of my biggest challenges have been in struggling with my identity and voice. I had to travel very far from myself in order to journey back. I am an introvert; I am reflective and intense, but the career I fell into has demanded the opposite of me. Cancer has been a huge challenge, but it also allowed me to stop and let all the petty insecurities and anxieties drop away. After facing my mortality, I have very few fears and I don't take myself that seriously. I feel liberated, but I still have to fight to maintain my individuality on a daily basis. Society is a machine, which doesn't respect people who want to live life on their own terms. I strongly believe you can envision and create the life you want as opposed to just jumping into one of the prescribed careers and lifestyles. However, this takes a lot of guts. Life has been magnificent; it has given me so much. I feel like I've already experienced five lifetimes. My main goal as a child was to be a collector of experiences and that's exactly what I've done.

What's your take on independence with regard to women? If you had to share one piece of advice with Indian women, what would it be?
Ultimately in life, your first responsibility is to yourself. I cannot give blanket advice to Indian women. It doesn't feel right.

What would you say are the three most important things one needs to bounce back from a disease like this? Did blogging prove particularly therapeutic? What about the Ray of Hope sari collection? Were these just ways to distract yourself or were they signposts on your road to healing? What role do you think friends and family play in the healing process? Any advice for those who would like to help, but don't know how to?
All these activities have played a very strong role in my healing, along with meditation, yoga and nutrition. I am loathe to give advice on what to do if diagnosed, because everyone is completely different and my path will not necessarily be yours. However, I can share that my life has actually changed for the better post cancer. And I'm here today—thriving. Cancer doesn't have to mean the end of the road.

Given the toll that cancer takes on your body, mind and soul and the fact that the entertainment industry is particularly body conscious, do you plan on attaining a specific shape or look to fit in?
Being fit and healthy is my primary goal. I will not sacrifice my health on any level. Having said that, I'm immersing myself in pilates with Samir in Khar and toning up. Of course, my body has been through a lot; I will be gentle and respectful of it. I am not any lesser for having a different body shape than in my 20s. But getting in kick-ass shape is also part of health and wellness. I have never fit in and the industry, fortunately, in going through an era of embracing actors who don't try to fit in. I'm very content and proud of myself today. I've been told I look better than ever before; this might have something to do with my inner attitude.

Is performing important to you? Why? Does your on-screen and off-screen persona differ?
Hugely! I'm a trained actor, I love being on stage as that's the purest art form when it comes to performance. I love immersing myself in a project, researching and working with like-minded people. However, I'm not an entertainer. I'm a performer and I prefer disappearing into a role, putting in my all and going home at the end of day. I love telling stories.I'm an introvert, but I'm also very goofy with my friends. I'm a business woman; I co-own a yoga studio and have been a real estate investor for many years now. I love reading. I have travelled incognito across India; everywhere from Dharamsala to Rishikesh to Kerala in a simple kurta. I'm a seeker. I don't think that's the public's perception of me, but that's fine.

There's also a huge disparity between my persona abroad and in India. In Canada I'm know only as a serious actress and philanthropist. In India, people still remember my modelling days; this is great as it left a bit impact, but I have accomplished and evolved so much since then. I hope to bridge this disparity.

Do you think Indian cinema has changed considerably since the last time you worked in the industry? What sort of roles are you anticipating? What are you looking forward to and what are you dreading?
Of course, it's changed considerably. There is a considerable output of interesting, non-mainstream stories being told on film in India today. I simply want to collaborate and be a part of telling some of these stories.

What can you tell us about the book you're working on? Is this something you hope will help others or is it something you just need to do for yourself? Or both?
Can't reveal too much at this point. It's a personal narrative.

Can you tell us more about your plans to start a cancer research centre in India? How will it be different from the existing centres in our country?
It's too premature to speak about this in detail, but I've been collaborating with a gentleman called Shiladitya Sengupta. His dream is to attract research talent back to India, create the resources for research and make breakthroughs happen right here. It can be done, if we get the right support. The one thing I find shocking in India is that the concept of philanthropy is nowhere near as well developed as it is in the west, even though there's a lot of money here now.

What's your dream project?
To play Amrita Sher-Gil or Amrita Pritam or Noor Inayat Khan in a film, developed by myself and a team of like-minded mad hatters, eventually bring to light the story of a half-Polish, half-Bengali girl with a nomadic spirit, whose life changes during a family trip to Mumbai. I think it would make an interesting story.




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