I couldn’t resist taking an umbrella along.
I mean, how often do you get to have a drink with a Nargis, anyway? It’s a name we don’t run into much, despite our legendary screen goddess. The girl sitting across from me, one film old, didn’t particularly dig the name as a kid — “I grew up with a lot of Spanish people around, and they would call me Nalgas, which means ass-cheeks” — but loved it later. “Nobody else had my name. And when I was modelling I would never use my last name. Ever.” She pronounces that name Fac’ry (like ‘factory’, without a T) and then, for my benefit, says it the way Shah Rukh Khan would approve of — Fakhhri — with much epiglottal grace. It’s clear she frequently switches accents depending on her audience, and even clearer that she has to: this girl is all about travelling. And about talking.
“If you want to win me over,” she says, talking about how she doesn’t have a type, “all you gotta say is I wanna see the Great Wall of China, or climb the mountains of Machu-Picchu. He could be four feet tall with a limp, a little midget with a bike and I’ll be like ‘weally?’” The mock-swoon is dramatic but heartfelt. “It’s that big, the travel thing. I know someone who doesn’t have a passport, and I could punch that person in the face.”
Propelled by a globetrotting mother (currently in the Bahamas) who handed her a backpack at 15 and said the world is safe enough, Nargis has whimsically traipsed across continents without a plan. She’s gone randomly from Australia to Greece to Singapore, and doesn’t see it stopping. “If I ever give birth to babies I will strap them on my back like an African, and I’ll trek through the jungles of wherever, and I hope whoever my partner in crime is will feel the same way, and they’ll be strapping on the other one.” She then proceeds to do an impromptu fertility dance ‘blessing’ me with ten children. Ahem. But at least she promises to babysit. “I’ll be in New Zealand or Australia and have an organic little farm or some bullshit like that. You come visit anytime. I’ll take care of your kids.”
Hindi cinema, by that measure, is just another adventure. “Imagine someone from China came up to you and said ‘Oh my god, we love the way you look, we want you to be the male lead in our big Chinese movie. You have two months to learn Chinese. And to act.’ You never acted, you don’t know Chinese. Can you imagine doing that? With no family, no friends around. I’m insane for saying ‘Yes,’ but that I’ve established since I was very little, that I’m a bit loopy.” Worst-case scenario? She’d do badly, backpack around India and maybe “learn some Ayurveda.”
Growing up in Queens, New York, she remembers her Pakistani father watching Hindi movies but she was never really into films. “Here you’re growing up on the dance moves, you’re doing Chikni Chameli at three! We went to some Kids Day thing and I was watching these young kids dance to item numbers and they’re actually lipsyncing and I’m shocked at how intense it is.” Part of saying yes to Imtiaz Ali and his 2011 film Rockstar was not knowing better.
“It was only when we started doing promotions that I realised how famous Ranbir was. People were crying and ripping his clothes off and throwing stuff at him,” she laughs, “And I’m like, ‘Is U2 here?!’” It’s hard to imagine anything preparing one for the facemelting front-page glare of the Bollywood spotlight, and Nargis bemoans the fact that one single film has left her unable to take buses and trains in India. “As wonderful as it is, it’s sad. I didn’t ask for this. I’m grateful that it came to me, but I’m still weighing it: how awesome is it, really?”
“I couldn’t say no to the idea of India, I’m not a scaredy-cat,” she says of the challenge and warming up to showbiz. “And after you start, you think ‘can I get better at this? What else can I do? What else can I play? What can come my way?’ Also, there’s nothing else that’s calling me at the moment. So maybe, someday, something else will intrigue me far more than this and I’ll be like ‘Okay, I gotta go, bye.’”
“You give your best and you know some people will like it, some won’t. If you like it, I’m happy and if you didn’t, I’m sorry for ya,” she laughs. “But I’ll try harder next time.” She’s already shot that next film, Shoojit Sircar’s Madras Cafe, and admits it was easier. “The biggest reason is that now I know what’s up. Now I have a notch on my belt.”
What she also has is three different salads, her fork oscillating expertly between them like a virtuoso xylophonist. In one of them she finds a tiny bug. “This salad’s so good that if you weren’t here, I could just have eaten this guy up like a pepper,” she laments as the plate’s sent back. A masochistic repeat-offender, she’s been awfully sick on much street food but gone back for seconds. “It’s like when you’re in a terrible relationship, you’re depressed and suicidal and all your friends hate the guy, but after you break up and some time passes, you forget the trauma and remember only the happy stuff. So it took me a few more times to finally learn my lesson.”
Yeah, the girl can eat. She’s done alligator, frogs, snails and chocolate-covered ants. And she’s game for more. “I wonder what dog and cat taste like. I said that on a shoot and this woman squealed but then lamb or chicken, anything we eat is adorable, right? My friend had a pot-bellied pig as a pet,” she says, her eyes glazing over. “I love pork. It’s the best. I’m salivating right now, by the way.” I ask if she could date a vegetarian, and she says she’d turn vegetarian if he were good enough. “I was vegetarian for six months, and it was the healthiest time of my life.” Ah, but was she travelling? “No,” she confesses. “Six months later I went to Germany and they have all that wonderful meat, the bratwursts and weinerschnitzels, and the vegetarianism stopped when I landed. Okay, that might not work.”
“I demand a lot from my partner because I do so much, and I expect it back.” The problem lies in making time. “In this business I don’t know how you can be in a relationship. You don’t even have the time to get to know someone. So I don’t know what I’ll do, and that could actually be a reason to leave the business.” She scoffs at the idea of dating someone in the movies. “No! I want someone normal. Someone who has a normal fucking job, who goes to sleep at 9 o’clock at night and likes to go trekking and likes to cook.”
She didn’t always crash at nine, this girl who’d jet to Barcelona to party all night but is now almost ridiculously low-key in Bombay. “It’s because of what happened in the beginning,” she explains. “I remember I went out to Olive one night and didn’t even have one drink, and they wrote in the paper that I was partying like a wild animal. And people were staring at me, like I was a monkey. It’s awkward! You’re standing there and thinking ‘why the fuck are people looking at me?’”
Thus, Nargis stays in and reads (mostly about “human behaviour and spirituality”) and watches documentaries and YouTube clips and TED Talks. Oh, and Hindi movies. She hasn’t watched her namesake in any romances yet (which means my Shri 420-themed brolly bit fizzled, alas) but has cried many a tissue box over her in Mother India. Kahaani’s the first film she ever watched twice, and English Vinglish made her weep buckets. “I wake up in the morning with a bed full of booger-tissues. And I’m such a sap, I cry when I see a cute kid or puppy. So yeah, those movies, they got me.“
Provided you don’t go someplace with exorbitant arugula, she’s a cheap date and, buzzed on a single glass of rosé, goes on about her fear of roaches, nude beaches in Europe and how she doesn’t want to ever be really fat. “But I will,” the salad-destroyer moans. “I’ll be fat when I’m old!” I tell her it’s fine, because fat folks are jolly. “Oh yeah, they are,” she grins, instantly reassured, peace brokered with inevitability. “And they want to feed everybody else. Awesome.”
I can’t help thinking she sounds like a pitch for a hit reality show. She agrees, thrilled. “Just get a Go-Pro and stick it on my head! And get me to travel and talk to people.” She insists she should be the interviewer, and, to prove she can ask personal questions, starts quizzing me about, um, fetish preferences. I order another martini. This is one tough rookie.
First published GQ, April 2013