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Lisa Ray Makes Her Splash in Water

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

Lisa Ray in Water.

Lisa Ray in Water.



by Brad Balfour 

What’s it like to be proclaimed the most beautiful woman in a country of nearly a billion? Ask actress Lisa Ray, who was considered the symbol of beauty for India in recent years. But as Ray will tell you, that was really inconsequential when it comes to her real goals as an actress and personality – one who has pursued serious ideas and education and is interested in making films with such artistic and serious directors as Deepa Mehta.

As the doomed lead in Water, Mehta’s latest film, Ray gets to play a trouble and nuanced character – and make the kind of film that she has always wanted to make. So despite a start in a few Bollywood productions, Ray now has emerged as a new face and promising actress, on the path she has always sought after, having straddled the multi-cultural paths that her mixed ancestry of Canadian, Polish and Indian has suggested.

Were you surprised that you were cast for this film?

Totally [laughs].

You had worked with [Water director] Deepa Mehta previously on a very different project. 

I should say that I was surprised, right? [laughs] No, but nonetheless, it was a surprise that she was reviving Water. I had no foreknowledge of that. So it was a pleasant surprise. I still remember that because I was in London and in drama school at the time when she sent me the script. She said in her very Deepa Mehta way, “Oh, I’m just going to send you across the script, just take a look and tell me what you think.” So I read the script and about two pages in I realized that it was Water and found it immensely intriguing. It was so compelling one of the most lyrical things I’ve ever read. So I very much wanted to be a part of it.

Lyrical, that’s a good word for it.

Thank you. You can use it.

What was the most challenging part of this role in making Water?

Everything was, initially, a bit daunting I have to admit. Again, because it’s a character that is so far out of my personal realm of experience, there were certain things like body language that I had to study and work on. I was unfamiliar with widows, and it’s a period piece, and when I actually got down to thinking about it, there was a whole list of things [I was curious about].

Once I started my research, and my preparation, and landed up in Sri Lanka for about two weeks of rehearsals, it just happened all very organically. I relaxed into it, and have supreme confidence in Deepa’s ability. And I knew that she would work really hard to bring the best out of me. And at the same time also I felt a great sense of responsibility, that she had endowed me with this great privilege. So, it was a meeting of two, meeting at the halfway point.

Lisa Ray in Water.

Lisa Ray in Water.

What was it that transformed Lisa Ray, who now lives in New York City and grew up in Canada, into a widow in Varanasi? The transformation is so amazing; you’re almost unrecognizable.

Well first I tried to leave my mind behind [laughs]. It sounds strange but as an actor it’s a strange process. I’ve realized that it’s more valuable than analyzing a role too much. You have to let go and work from your gut. Or from your heart, in this case probably more from your heart. As I said with all the preparation, it’s such a strange alchemy; you can’t predict what’s going to happen and how you’re going to get to that place. You just sort of try and do as much as you can to prepare yourself. And then let it all go.

Part of it, of course was Deepa – a large part of it. My co-actors were a great support system. It was such an ensemble piece. [Actress] Seema Biswas was amazing. She really assisted me a lot with a lot of the nuances, interacting with the kid Chuyia, with Sarala, was amazing. Because my character is meant to have this child like quality, and certainly spending time with a child was very helpful. And I tried to be in character as much as possible during the entire shoot, that was, that was important. I wore my sari on and off the set [laughs] and I’d go for long walks by the ocean. I’d listen to the music, A.R. Rahman’s music of the film, which is so evocative, and anything that helped me. There are photographs that Viyani took of me on the set that I’ve seen, with me plugged into my Walkman, just listening, sitting there in between shots or in between takes, listening to the music that I found helpful.

In preparing for the role, was there a lot of research? Did you learn a lot about Hinduism? Did you do a lot of rehearsal or back-story with the other actors?

I did literally everything that I could. I tried to be as prepared as possible. Which is easier said than done, because as I mentioned I was in drama school at the same time, in a full time course. So I was doing a lot of research, I read a book that Deepa gave me, which was very insightful if you want to yourself read more about widows of India. It’s called Perpetual Mourning. It’s by Joan Alter Chen, who studied the widows of India very extensively. It’s an excellent study. It’s a little ironic because Deepa gave to me like just after Christmas and in it she wrote, “I’m very sorry to give to you something called ‘Perpetual Mourning’ [laughs] during Christmas.” But it was all in the right spirit, so I read that, and that was very helpful. I used to listen to my lines, my dialogue, recorded because my Hindi was not perfect. I do speak the language but my diction is obviously not perfect so I listened to my lines every morning on the bus as I was going to drama school, and every evening when I’d come home from drama school.

I’d come home and put on a sheet and tie it like a sari just to get used to that. I attended a workshop in India, with a very fine theater director, Neela Munsing, and she sent me to live in a village. I sort of became the village’s personal servant, everyone’s servant, because I was trying to do everything. I was doing what they call ‘charu bocha’–cleaning and sweeping.

Everything is completely different, and has a cultural context. Finally of course the rehearsal process was really essential, working one on one with Deepa, as well as with the other actors. It was really such a passion project. It was such a dream project for me to be a part of that at some point, you have to trust and let go. That’s a very strange part of acting, you can only prepare up to a point, and then a lot of it is about just relaxing. And as I said, I knew I was in good hands, so I was able to do that with confidence.

Lisa Ray in Water.

Lisa Ray in Water.

What was the drama school like that you were in back in England, and did you finish the course when you came back from Water?

I did. It’s called ALRA, the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts. Everyone’s heard of RADA and LAMDA, but it’s relatively new one of those accredited drama schools. And the best thing about it is that it’s housed in a former lunatic asylum. Which is so appropriate [laughs]. There’s a bunch of loony actors showing up every day.

How long did you live in India? Was there an unbroken period of time?

A long time. Well, not completely unbroken, but almost eight years.

Really? After college?

I didn’t go to college. That was right after high school.

And you went for what reason?

It’s a completely weird story. I was on vacation; I’d just finished high school. Because I graduated a year early, the deal I made with my father was that I wanted to travel for a year, so I did my big European vacation in the summer and in the fall we went as a family to India. We spent some time in Bombay, and someone there saw me, and said do you want to model? And I said, “Yeah, okay, why not? [laughs]” It really wasn’t something like that I wanted to do. I wouldn’t have thought of doing it otherwise. So that was a trigger and that was my main motivation in modeling– the opportunity to live in India.

And your acting in Indian films, the Kasoor role, came after that?

That came after that. I got a lot of offers to act in India right off the bat when I started working as a model because I became this – it’s really funny but – this overnight sensation as a model. It’s a very strange celebrity circuit in India. It was very strange and a little bit unhealthy in my opinion.

Even weirder than here?

Even weirder than here if possible.

That’s hard to believe.

Hard to believe. [Laughs]

Why didn’t you do anymore Indian films? Was there the possibility of more Bollywood films after that?

Yeah but it was a conscious decision not to.

Why is that?

I never grew up watching Bollywood films. I have nothing against Bollywood. It’s lovely; it’s camp. But it’s a very different form of expression, so once I decided that I wanted to act, and took it seriously, and decided that it’s my calling, obviously I wanted to pursue the cinema that I believe in, or that I’ve grown up watching. So that necessitated a move back. In stages I came back through London, that’s, that’s when I went to drama school.

So what do you think of as cinema? What films have you seen?

I grew up watching Fellini and Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray, and Goddard… My father’s a huge cinemaphile.

That’s not what most teenagers look at.

You’re right. I was completely twisted and weird [laughs]. That’s why I feel Water is a dream project, that’s why I qualify it that way for myself because I find it falls in that fine tradition of that type of cinema. Cinema that goes that extra mile.

Lisa Ray in Water.

Lisa Ray in Water.

Did you have problems with Bollywood? You were fantastic as a lawyer in Kasoor.

I can do the dance and song; it comes naturally because it’s in your blood; you grow up addicted.

And you did some of that in Deepa Mehta’s Bollywood/Hollywood.

I did that. As I said, I am just sort of as a performer obviously but Hindi’s not my first language. So ideally you want to express yourself in your first language. But it’s also a style of acting. Bollywood doesn’t put a high premium on fine performances. They’re more interested in what we call stars, or the personality of the actor. People go to watch that particular personality on screen as opposed to seeing that personality become different things – or to lose oneself in a role. So that’s why it wasn’t as interesting to me.

Although it’s changing.

I believe there’s a really encouraging trend.

Your Water co-star John Abraham rarely does those clean-cut hero roles in Bollywood. They’re more negative…

He’s been making very interesting choices. Now there are choices, which is great. But I didn’t want to be in limbo. I thought I have to take a decision. It was difficult to commute between India and North America. It’s a pretty mean commute. I decided that I had to be committed to what I wanted to pursue. So that means living and working out here.

Now having made that decision do you find yourself making the decision to be more Hollywood, or more New York and independent oriented…?

Do I have to decide? I don’t have to decide.

No, but it’s interesting that then you have a new set of issues that, in a way, a new set of decisions to make.

Aw, I’m just an actor; I’ll take what I can get [laughs].

But now you’re getting the offers to do important, valuable independent films; are you getting called in to do Hollywood stuff because of your look–what do you see happening?

I don’t know. To be honest, my journey has just started out here. So certainly I’m optimistic and full of anticipation, and have seen that again, I’ve taken rather unconventional choices in my life and as an actor. Sometimes you feel you’re put in a position where you can’t say no. And I’ve said no more often than not. But I feel that that’s a power you can exercise. Because by refusing certain things, people come to understand that this is what you want to do by implication. So I’m hoping that sometimes it’s through your actions that people will come to understand that this is what you want to do. That’s what I’m here to do. Let’s see what happens.

Copyright ©2006  All rights reserved. Posted: June 29, 2006.

Photo Credits:#1 © 2006.  Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved.#2 © 2006.  Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved.#3 © 2006.  Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved.#4 © 2006.  Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved.


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