Read an excerpt from The Queen: Inspired by a true story of an actress' political rise
In her book titled 'The Queen', Anita Sivakumaran tells the story of Kalai Arasi — a brilliant student from an impoverished family, who is forced to take up acting in films and has a phenomenal journey to become the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. And as the book's cover says, it is inspired by a true story.
Editor's note: In her book titled 'The Queen', Anita Sivakumaran tells the story of Kalai Arasi — a brilliant student from an impoverished family, who is forced to take up acting in films. She attracts the attention of the reigning superstar, PKB, who becomes her lover and mentor before he leaves films to enter politics. Years later, when he coaxes Kalai to campaign for him, she meets with spectacular success. PKB wins a third term by a landslide but within days he dies. In the brutal battle for power that follows, Kalai prevails. She seizes the throne to become chief minister of Tamil Nadu.
The Queen follows the ascent of a 16-year-old girl to superstardom, and her transformation thereafter into a formidable politician. It tells a scintillating story of power, its triumphs and its perversions, and marks the debut of an audacious new voice.
And as the blurb on the cover declares, it is inspired by a true story. Whose story? We'll leave you to guess.
Kalai lay on the revolving bed singing a romantic song, fantasising about PKB. To keep it all family friendly, the lyrics only held bare insinuations of sex. She danced around the room, pursing her lips, batting her eyelids and hugging herself. And at certain points in the song, when the voice of the playback singer hit a high note that led to a violin crescendo, she clutched an overstuffed pillow and writhed on the bed. They shot several variations on the theme, in different parts of the room. She leaned and breathed heavily on the armchair, piano, sofa, wallpaper. Then they prepared to shoot the parts of the song in which PKB himself appeared, as though in her fevered imagination.
Contact between them was minimal. First he stood by the door, smiling and watching as she twirled about the room singing and gasping. Then, as she lay on the bed and revolved with her eyes closed, he stood bending over her, admiring her expressions of ecstasy. She then twirled around him and, as she came near him, he tried to grab her, but always she slipped away, blushing and laughing.
Finally, towards the end of the song, he succeeded in grabbing her. He bent her over his arm as she sang, gazing into his eyes. She felt a kind of vertigo. He allowed her to straighten and, as she continued singing with her eyes locked with his, he picked her up. Kalai felt the strength of his arms as he carried her to the revolving bed and laid her on it. He lay next to her, ran his hand up and down her arms as though she were a bolt of silk. She felt herself drawn to him. It seemed natural to be singing this song of insinuation. It didn’t seem silly at all, this extreme yet chaste eroticism. Of course, it was supposed to be her character’s fantasy. They would never behave like this in real life. But she was the actress living out a fantasy for the viewing public. Even though it was in her dream that PKB was breathing upon her face and holding her so close she could see the whites of his eyes, and none of it was supposed to be real, yet it was all real, and she was physically experiencing it. Her heart ran away from her body. Her breath threatened to desert her. Then, with his head to the camera, hiding her face, he bent closer, and moved his neck as if he was kissing her. On this shot the lights were dimmed.
PKB’s lips hovered a centimetre from hers. Like a child helplessly reaching for the moon that hung from the bars of a window, her lips reached his. His red lipstick blended into her red lipstick for one long second. Then the lights came back on and the director shouted, ‘Cut.’
She saw PKB leave the set without a word to anyone. An assistant thrust a giant pillow into her hands as she lay in the same position, dishevelled, frustrated, and extremely self-conscious. But nobody had noticed anything. The crew ran around setting up for the next shot. The director instructed the cameraman. Only her gofer stood next to her chair, smiling at her in a knowing way. She blinked at him, wondering. Then the first AD called, ‘Standby.’
The lights darkened. As they began to brighten once more, Kalai writhed on the bed with the giant cushion, and the final few seconds of music played. She opened her eyes, noticed that she was holding a pillow and not PKB. She blushed and smiled, then buried her face in the pillow’s fat comfort to the jangle of the final notes of an electric guitar.
In a hut by the beach, under a swaying coconut tree, the prince, in the guise of a fisherman, spoke in stage whispers with his lieutenant, also in disguise. Holding sticks, they drew lines on the sand floor. They were planning an insurrection against the usurpers of the throne.
‘It is a dangerous mission,’ said the lieutenant.
‘We will, in all probability, die,’ said the prince.
‘It is worthwhile to die defending our motherland,’ said the lieutenant.
‘Bravo,’ said the prince. He praised the lieutenant’s patriotism and declared to the camera that if he could also give his life for the motherland he would die with a smile on his face. For who knew what was in store?
They looked at each other with grim, fatalistic faces. The queen, who had been listening at the door, in the guise of a fisherwoman, rushed in. She fell to her knees sobbing in front of the prince.
‘Do not embark on such a dangerous mission, I beg you.’
Kalai clutched PKB’s legs.
‘How could I stand by,’ said PKB, ‘and watch my people suffer tyranny under an evil usurper?’
He held Kalai by the shoulders, drew her up. Tears streamed down both their faces.
‘I have to do this,’ he said.
The lieutenant stood to one side, face averted to give them privacy. Th e director had instructed him that when Kalai appeared he was to keep an expression like mustard seeds were spluttering in his face, like they spluttered in hot oil. He had to express his dislike for the queen without using words.
‘My army is yours,’ said Kalai. ‘Take my experienced generals and go to war from my side of the border. Victory, then, is yours. As you know, my army is unparalleled in strength.’
At that, PKB released her shoulders and declared, ‘I do not need a foreigner’s army. I have millions of the poor whose hearts I have captured.’
Then, instead of continuing the speech to the camera, he pursed his lips.
‘Cut,’ yelled the director. ‘What is it, PKB sir?’
‘I don’t like this line. It doesn’t sound right.’
‘But we need the line to advance the plot. Shall I send for the scriptwriter? We can shoot tomorrow.’
‘No need. We’ll work it out ourselves. It’s only this one line. How else can I say it?’
Everyone stood around blankly. Kalai was still on the floor, kneeling, glycerine tears wetting her cheeks. She got up and went to her chair, which had HEROINE stuck to its back. From there, she watched them discuss the troubling line of dialogue.
‘We’ve got to put in the bit about patriotism and not needing a foreigner’s army when the people are enough to fight an evil tyrant,’ said the director. ‘Or the story cannot advance.’
He seemed ever so slightly petulant. Kalai wondered how much of the story was actually his idea. She also wondered if he would direct another movie for PKB.
She could not read PKB’s expressions. His thoughts were well hidden behind that pancake make-up covering his wrinkles. Not that she remembered if he even had wrinkles. His appearance in her flat was now a blank to her. She remembered the force of his presence, but none of his features. Now it felt queer to be wondering what he looked like without the make-up and the wig. Did he wonder about her too?
PKB was saying, ‘How could one put it without sounding rude? I can’t call my own beloved a foreigner. Can we not be more elegant?’
He had glanced her way when he said ‘my own beloved’. Kalai felt the full force of his eyes.
The director said, ‘We cannot be too subtle with the dialogue or the people won’t understand it. Bear in mind your audience base is mostly illiterate peasants. We’ve got to keep it simple, keep it black and white.’ He paused, then added in a different tone of voice, ‘It’s what Mr Mani emphasised.’
Mr Mani was PKB’s publicist. Kalai had not known what a publicist was until she met him. He would suddenly appear, go over the script, lock heads with the writer. He would give the impression of nibbling, like a rat, at the ear of the director, whose face would grow cloudy and eyebrows twist till he left. She still wasn’t clear exactly what Mr Mani did. Even Anju was baffled by the man. He was foreign-educated, dressed in jeans, sneered a lot, drank like a fish, smoked like a chimney. Whispers among the crew suggested he was secretly teaching PKB English. Her gofer had said waspishly, ‘What else could he usefully do?’
PKB was frowning, the director was frowning and behind them, having contributed not a single word to the conversation so far, the lieutenant, nevertheless, was frowning.
The solution was so simple, so obvious, that Kalai laughed, a sound like the clapboard. She jumped up from her chair and ran to them.
‘Mr PKB,’ she said, ‘there is a perfect compromise.’
‘Oh, not now, Miss Kalai,’ grumbled the director.
Kalai felt her smile stiffen.
‘Tell me, Miss Arasi,’ said PKB. ‘What should we do?’
‘You see,’ she said, now only half-heartedly, ‘you don’t have to change that line even a little bit. Just have your lieutenant say it.’
PKB beamed. He patted her shoulder.
So the lieutenant said it, and it was as though he was speaking on behalf of the million peasants. PKB remained the prince with much superior sensibilities, who could never be so rude to a woman, especially his beloved. He shushed and reprimanded the lieutenant for his rudeness to the queen. But the pertinent thing was said. The plot was advanced.
The next day they began shooting a sad song where the prince and the queen said goodbye to each other. Goodbye, till we meet again, goodbye. They held each other’s cheeks, gazed into each other’s eyes, and Kalai could barely mouth the words, what with her fingers itching to pull away his wig, wipe away his make-up, unmask the juggernaut.
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