Lisa D'Costa
“Is she a model?” Lisa D’Costa with a fan.

All the world has a prurient, voyeuristic fascination with celebrity. In America, the process is so well-advanced that fame is self-reflexive and self-fulfilling. People like Paris Hilton, though lacking any talent or meaningful social value, are considered “famous for being famous.”

But India far outstrips even the American love of the famous. Americans thrill when chance allows them to brush-up against celebrities; Indians crave such opportunities. No event in India should take place without the “felicities” of a celebrity. And if the famous can’t make an appearance, the demi-famous will have to do.

Time and again, people asked us, “Who will be the Chief Guest at the Friends Without Borders World’s Largest Love Letter event in Bombay?” We would always say that the children were our Chief Guests, that the event was for them, and that it was their day in the limelight. We did not want some blinged-out actor, self-important businessman, or vote-seeking politician to distract attention from them. This response invariably invoked polite, slightly sad smiles that meant, “You poor, foolish Americans are too stupid to know that an event is not an event without a Chief Guest.”

Eventually, we wised up. We did need a celebrity; but not to legitimize our event. A celebrity would attract the media attention our project required to ensure that it received nationwide attention. Unfortunately, it is not easy for a group of outsiders to find a celebrity guest, especially with time running down.

With four days until the event, we fixed our sights on getting a Bollywood film star to attend. A contact of John’s had given him the mobile telephone numbers of a handful of actors and agents of actors. Could we simply telephone them, briefly explain our kick-ass project, and get them excited enough for a meeting with us? If we could meet with them for even five minutes, we were confident that we could sell them on the idea.

The idea of making cold calls seemed like a longshot. So we came up with a plan that was equally improbably, but at least had an element of mystery and fun about it. Instead of calling, we sent each movie star and agent an SMS text message that went something like this: “Ms. Rai: There is a private invitation to a very special Friends Without Borders event waiting for you at http://www.friendswithoutborders.org/ash.html.” A separate, personalized letter awaited each SMS recipient, apologizing for the clandestine tradecraft, but explaining that it was done out of respect for their time and their privacy. The Friends Without Borders project was explained and the invitation to participate was extended. It was an idea so crazy, it might just have worked.

Except that it didn’t.

Time was ticking down. With two days to go, we switched to Plan B. John hit up the major talent agencies, each of whom loved our project and agreed to try to find out who was in town, available, and willing to participate. I knocked on the door of Magna Publishing Company Limited, the folks who bring you such distinguished monthlies as Stardust and Society. I may not know any Bollywood stars, but these folks clearly had a symbiotic relationship with them. My challenge at Magna was to get past the receptionist-cum-bouncer. She was tough as nails – until I ran a copy of our PSA for her on my laptop. “Swear you will not tell anyone that I gave you these names or sent you upstairs,” she demanded as she scribbled names, mobile phone numbers, and office locations for me on the back of a telephone message slip.

Sadly, despite some truly heroic efforts of both the agents and the publisher and editors of Magna, we arrived at the day of our event utterly starless. In fact, even the big-name pop band, Aasma, who had agreed to play our gig, backed out the night before over a misunderstanding about the quality of the sound system. Even the jugglers and clowns arranged by the corporate communications director of Mahindra & Mahindra failed to appear.

It didn’t matter. The kids had a blast.

And, as it turned out, there were celebrities on hand. Little did we know, they were us.

Kids mobbed Yoo-Mi and John, asking for autographs. They were most curious about our friend Lisa D’Costa, a gorgeous, glamorous, self-confident woman who wore hip-hugging jeans, a midriff-exposing singlet, and a cool pair of shades. “Is she a model?” all the kids wanted to know. “No,” we said, “she’s a filmmaker who will someday be a big director.” “Wow! We should get her autograph too,” came the reply. “Do you think she would talk to us?”

If you stand in from of television cameras and do a few 30 second interviews, kids pretty much figure that you are someone, even if they are not quite sure who that might be. That was my path to the autograph circuit. Kids came by the hundreds with pen and paper in hand, politely asking for my signature. Most times I’d beg-off, telling the kids that they were the real stars of this show, and saying that I wanted their signatures – on the World’s Largest Love Letter. Generally they would give up after a bit, and turn their attention back to the event.

Trying in vain to explain who is, and who is not famous…”

The girls of Apeejay School were particularly persistent autograph hunters, refusing to take NO for an answer. “Why do you want my signature?” I’d ask them. “Because you are famous,” they’d say in unison. “If I’m so famous, do you know my name?” The girls looked stunned. “I can’t possibly be famous if you don’t know my name,” I continued. Just then, a small boy standing at the periphery of the group began to scream, “Mark Jacobs! Your name is Mark Jacobs! You are famous!” A dozen hands immediately thrust pen and paper in my direction, and I was suddenly powerless to refuse them.

The irony of all the attention given to the faux-famous last Sunday is that we actually had an accomplished actor in our midst. Naseer, a wonderful guy who plays a relatively significant role on the Hindi soap opera, Kyuki, had agreed to be our MC for the day and was buzzing around the kids all morning, microphone in hand, leading the celebrations. Perhaps he was too busy with his official duties. Maybe the kids don’t watch soap operas or didn’t recognize Naseer out-of-context. But I never saw a single child approach him for his autograph.

Fame is funny like that.


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