The other side of Bollywood

Gene Gualdi with her book Bollywood Blonde

Gene Gualdi with her book Bollywood Blonde

When I received an invitation to interview Gené Gualdi, I ignored it. I’m not a Bollywood fan and bar a few names that appear in the news in relation to IPL cricket or mafia-related murder charges, I know very little about the personalities that belong to that world. Like Hollywood personalities, I find them too plastic and pretentious.

But a coaxing publicist convinced me to meet Gualdi when she launched Bollywood Blonde in Durban, and in a moment of weakness I acquiesced.
Of course, this meant I had to read Bollywood Blonde and come up with intelligent questions about it.

Imagine my surprise when I found myself enjoying it. The writer’s dry humour and light touch had me hooked from the first page.

Gualdi was a 24-year-old photographer desperate to get into the film industry. While working on a Bollywood advert being filmed in Cape Town, she met The Producer, a well-known high-profile Bollywood bigwig, who invited her to India to work for him for six months.

The deal was she would pay for her ticket to India and The Producer would take care of the rest.

Despite a nagging subconscious and a trepidation at entering the unknown, the fine arts graduate threw caution to the wind and, a mere two weeks after that chance meeting, she found herself on a flight to Mumbai in September 2003.

To say India is a culture shock for the uninitiated is to put it mildly. I remember my first trip to India with my mom in 2000 and when I read Gualdi’s account of landing at Mumbai airport I could relate as if it was me in that book.

My mom often refused to leave our hotel room on that trip – she just could not bear the smells, noise and crowds that assaulted her senses as soon as she put a toe out of the pristine, air-conditioned hotels we stayed in.

India is a mass of cultural, religious, moral and social contradictions, as Gualdi would learn as soon as she landed.

Nothing prepares you for it. No one warns you that if you are seen as the “other”, it will impact on everything you do or say in that country.

As a white woman in a “brown” and essentially conservative society, Gualdi was definitely the “other”. She was known as The Producer’s firangi girlfriend – exotic and enticing, but definitely not one of “them”. This would be her making as well as her nemesis throughout her stay in India.
A job that started as a six-month stint turned into a six-year life-altering journey for Gualdi. She was “in love” with her benefactor and convinced him to “keep her”.

In those years, Gualdi experienced India in ways very few outsiders have. She lived among the who’s who of Bollywood, worked with India’s most famous stars, and was mistress to a big time film producer.

But she also lived under the complete control of her benefactor, who determined everything she did – what she wore, how she looked, where she went, what she ate and more.

While never earning a salary, she was also short of nothing. From the best food to designer clothes and expensive perfumes and flying business class around the world, The Producer provided every material thing she needed. Seduced by the extravagance and unique position she found herself in, Gualdi was prepared not to sweat the small stuff as she amassed an incredible CV and worked with some of the best in the industry.

That she so fiercely chased her dream to work in the film industry without regard to the personal and emotional sacrifices she was making, fascinated me. How could a talented, intelligent extrovert allow herself to live like that for six years?

“Stockholm Syndrome,” she says simply. “I fell in love with The Producer – or at least I thought I fell in love with him.”

Gualdi is candid about how India got under her skin: “It felt like an arranged marriage,” she says.

I’m not sure I agree with the analogy entirely – most people understand what an arranged marriage is before entering into one. Many have no choice in entering an arranged marriage – centuries of tradition are at play, and revolting against it could have dire consequences.

In Gualdi’s case, she went to India knowing deep down that her professional career would only take off if she made the personal sacrifice and became The Producer’s mistress. She was prepared to do this.

Many would say whatever came her way thereafter is in fact what she set herself up for. It may not be as simple as that. There is no doubt that being young and ambitious can make a person reckless.

What Gualdi has achieved though, is offer up a true account of the Bollywood scene – the glitz and glamour as well as the sordid excesses.

Unlike Hollywood, Bollywood remains a glitzy dream world – especially in South Africa. Very little is said or known about its strong mafia links, its soul-destroying work ethic, its slavish devotion to beauty and glamour, and how incestuous it is.

Bollywood Blonde gives us an honest and no-holds-barred account of this side of Bollywood. Needless to say, this book has not gone down well among the Bollywood glitterati.

Despite receiving death threats and being warned never to set foot in India again by some of our heroes of Bollywood, Gualdi went ahead and published her book – testament to her strong will.

She has changed the names in the book to protect herself and many of the photographs in the book have been cropped in order to keep the real characters’ identities secret. But I am pretty sure, people who know a bit about Bollywood will know who she is writing about – even I was on the mark about two characters.

Gualdi’s aim in writing this book is to eventually have a film made. “I was in such a unique position,” she says. “The story just begs to be made into a movie.”

Again we see her determination to make a name for herself in film.
A word of caution to anyone who is taken in by the Bollywood fantasy – don’t read this book. It will burst your bubble and you will direct your anger towards the wrong person – the woman who is known as the Bollywood Blonde.

Bollywood Blonde is published Melinda Ferguson Books

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About Meneesha

Online and books editor by day, mum even while I sleep, individual all the time. I live in the beautiful city of Durban - the unpolished gem in South Africa. If I didn't have a family, I'd be that crazy cat lady your mum probably warned you not to feed! Blogging is where I share, vent, rant, laugh and generally be myself. Join the ride!

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