Aaah…PR Agents. Seemingly indispensable for celebrities in this, the age of incessant Twitter and Facebook updates, sensationalist 24-hour News Channels and strange men with long-range lenses camped outside your multi-crore apartment complex. It can also quite easily be a blessing in disguise, particularly with over-zealous PR Agencies promoting budding new talent. Just ask Tena Desae. Unable to conjure up a fresh new angle, Desae’s PR began touting her as “the next Frieda Pinto”, a comparison, whilst apt, mortified the star of the upcoming cross-over film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. To be fair, the PR agency can’t really be blamed given the parallels. Both girls dabbled in modelling and minor film roles before starring alongside British Indian actor Dev Patel in crossover films by top British directors.
Much as Pinto went on to enjoy global success with Slumdog Millionaire, Desae’s PR Agencies will be hoping their client will see similar success with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Directed by John Madden – the man behind such classics as Shakespeare in Love and Proof – the film features some of the biggest names in British cinema; from Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith to the irresistible Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson. The title refers to a former hotel in colourful Rajasthan touted as a luxurious and exotic retreat where a group of British OAP’s retire in search of a life of leisure only to find the place in a state of utter dilapidation. Patel plays the enterprising manager of the hotel who dreams of “creating a home for the elderly so wonderful that they will simply refuse to die!” Helping him along in his quest is the delectable Tena Desae.
Born to a Gujarati family, Desae was raised in Bangalore. A Business Graduate, Desae first came to Mumbai in 2007, appearing in Channel V’s model talent show Get Gorgeous. Despite failing to win the show she was noticed by advertisers, landing a slew of TV commercial spots. She also appears in this year’s coveted Kingfisher Calendar. Her first foray into Bollywood was in the psychological thriller ‘Yeh Faasley’ opposite Anupam Kher in 2011.
Desae spoke exclusively to The UKAsian from Mumbai about her new film and dreams of working for – of all places – Deutsche Bank.
Tena, what do you make of these comparisons with Frieda Pinto?
I don’t think I like being compared to Frieda or anyone else for that matter. We have our own career paths and our own destinies. I think what she’s done is really great and her work profile is brilliant but it would be best if no one compared us.
I heard the audition process for the film was really tough; tell me how that was for you?
I got the chance to audition easily enough because the casting director of the film knew me and got in touch to see if I was interested. The audition process itself was quite lengthy and really strict. After first meeting with the casting director I met John Madden himself where he just gave me a scene to perform. Then a few days later he called me back for an audition of all of the scenes in the film which was a bit crazy. Getting all the lines right and summoning up the energy for all the scenes was draining but I was really excited and got through. Yeh Faasley was not available for the director to see so they only saw the TV spots I had appeared in and they wanted to go through everything that I had done! I really, really wanted the role and I went the distance.
What was it like working with all these legendary actors…?
It was simply a blessing. You grow up in India and every girl dreams of appearing in a Bollywood film but you never imagine getting the opportunity to share the screen with James Bond’s boss or Professor Minerva McGonagall from Hogwarts or Davy Jones from the Pirates movies. And I’m a huge fan of all of those movies! It was surreal at times but an absolute honour. All of them were so accommodating and the fact that they warmed to India so much was amazing.
At this early stage in your career you have worked in a Bollywood as well as a Hollywood film. How do they compare?
Well the one film that I have done in Bollywood was a small, low budget affair and then The Marigold Hotel had all the trappings of a big Hollywood production so I can’t really compare the two yet other than to say that there is something spookily efficient about the Hollywood machine. The production values and the planning is just incredible but then if you’ve got the budget, that’s not an issue I suppose.
You and Dev Patel have barely made it to the red carpet to promote the movie but there are already rumours linking you with him. What was the chemistry like with Dev?
Well it’s certainly news to me that we are an item, although it is an interesting development!! I am kind of preparing myself for the link-up stories. And anyway, who wants a squeaky clean image anyway? I’d love it! I’m going to play it the other way round and fuel the rumours. It’ll be fun and anyway, who wants to be diplomatic? It’s so boring.
Seriously though Dev is incredibly easy to get along with and has bundles of energy and is also extremely funny. It’s terrifically easy to work with him. Whilst rehearsing we would gauge how the other person wanted to do a particular scene and act it out and improvise so we became very receptive to each other’s ideas. There’s a kissing scene in the film which I was nervous about because I had obviously not done a scene like that before but he was very reassuring and just completely put me at ease. A thorough professional.
Tell me a little about your character in the film.
I play a strong, independent girl who works in a call centre. Sunaina is a girl who represents the new India; a girl with her own mind, her own ambitions and aspirations but who also holds on to the very best traditions of India. She stands by Sunny and supports him with his ambitions but does her own thing as well. It’s a great part and I think it’s John Madden’s great complement to Indian women; the ones who go out and work and aren’t afraid to form their own destinies but also take care of their families and are able to balance everything in life.
Is it true that you auditioned for Slumdog Millionaire?
I certainly did audition for it but it wasn’t to be in that instance. I have a soft corner for it and I suppose I am one of the relatively few people who don’t get why it was seen so negatively in India; I mean they were narrating the story of a boy from the slums of Mumbai so they had to show the slums as authentically as possible. But I loved the message of hope and the spirit of the film.
Would you have been a financier had you not got into modelling and acting?
I always knew I wanted to be an actor because films always stirred my emotions but I knew I had to weigh in the fact that it’s a notoriously unpredictable business. So I made sure I got myself an education.
So you’re finances will always be in order!
I love accounting, economics, taxation and investments! I will work in a bank for sure. Even if I’m in show business for 40 years I’ll go work at a bank in the 41st. I’ve always wanted to work for Deutsche Bank. When I was in the 7th standard in school I would walk by the Deutsche Bank building in Bangalore and dream about working there one day. I once even walked in and asked someone how I could get a job there and he told me that I should get a degree in finance and come back.
Tell me about your upbringing. Born and raised in Bangalore to a Gujarati family. Have you had difficulty with Hindi in Bollywood?
I can read and write Hindi but never had conversations. I’m okay with scripts but I’m not great at sentence construction. Everyone speaks in English in Bangalore unless you’re talking to the vegetable vendor or the tuk tuk driver. My grandfather was from Gujarat but settled in Bangalore. My dad was actually in the film industry before I was born, production and distribution of films. When I was born he gave up films and went into import and export instead, working alongside my mother. My sister and I would tag along with mom and dad on business and travel around a lot. My sister’s a fashion designer from NIFT and lives with me in Mumbai; she’s my icon and we’re really close.
Finally, does the spelling of your name have anything to with Numerology?
Well, my mom believed in numerology. They consulted a number of people and changed my name. I’ve been incredibly blessed professionally and I suppose my mother’s belief in numerology has something to do with it. I think the spelling is pretty cool although I’m sure a lot of people will initially do a double take!
– Interviewed by Poonam Joshi