There was a long silence after the director finished the narration of the script. The actor leaned back in his Eames chair and stared at the ceiling.
“I don’t think I can do this.”
The director sighed softly. He began his pitch about how this would push the actor out of his comfort zone, how it was time to show audiences he was an “actor” and not just a star. He delicately dangled the Oscar carrot.
Krishna Dev, born Krishnamurthy Devaraya, known as Krish to his fans, rocked gently and considered. His dark good looks and a muscular physique inherited from the Punjabi side of his family had catapulted him to action movie stardom in an industry that had barely begun to accept desis as second leads. His first film, an Amritraj-backed B-grade international heist caper, had been made at a budget of $33 million (with most of the budget going on the action choreography) and had ended up grossing ten times that. When his second one, a Transporter rip-off, made 500 million worldwide, Hollywood sat up and took notice. With the aging out of Stallone, Cruise, and even Stratham, a temporary vacuum had been created in the straight-up action movie genre, and Krish’s looks were ambiguous enough to be accepted by mainstream American audiences. Scripts flowed into his Hollywood Hills home, newly purchased on the expectations of the upcoming ensemble superhero movie where Krish played Brahma, a three-headed god with the ability to see the past, present, and future of any particular moment in time.
Now Ricardo Bellini himself was sitting in front of him pitching his next movie, an allegory where the principal character was a serial killer who slow-tortured his victims to death. The killings were supposed to represent the environmental destruction wrought by humans, though some critics suggested that Bellini’s oeuvre was just violence porn disguised as art.
Bellini’s commercial success in Italy had not endeared him to the intelligentsia but there was no arguing with the many awards his last movie, a harrowing look at one day in the life of a Holocaust victim, had received.
“You know I am a vegetarian, right?” Krish’s plaint broke into Bellini’s speech about the advantages of working with him. “I mean, shooting people and all is okay, but I don’t think I am going to be comfortable with slicing and dicing, you know.” In private, Krish tended to lapse into his Indian accent. Bellini made a mental note to keep the accent; he knew it would be a hard sell to Krish, who had spent tens of thousands of dollars on voice coaches, but it would be so intriguing to have a serial killer with an exotic accent. It was almost as good as an Italian one.
Bellini shook off Krish’s concerns with a sweeping wave of his hand. He hastily grabbed the elephant figurine his movement had dislodged and put it back on the coffee table.
“It’s all fake stuff. Once you see how it is really done, you are going to be fine with it. Just think of the growth you’ll experience as an actor.”
Krish still looked uneasy. Finally he said, “Let me ask Meena. I’ll get back to you.”
“Sure, sure. I know you will see that this is the right next move for you.”
That night Krish showed the script to his wife. Meena Durga was the daughter of an Indian diplomat and a drop-dead gorgeous former model, but Krish had married her because he had quickly sensed that she would be his guide to a world he had only seen on television before a talent scout picked him up from a Mumbai audition. He respected her for her astuteness and uncanny sense of the pulse of public opinion and feared her for her sharp tongue. She read books that were incomprehensible to him, could speak French and German, and had an artistic sensibility that bemused him. It was she who had chosen every piece of contemporary art that hung on the walls of their home and made it into a showpiece that got a feature spread in Sunset. Krish’s only contribution was a rather garish homemade Tanjore painting that was a gift from his parents. He was pretty docile about Meena’s control over their life, but no amount of cajoling or threatening by her could persuade him to hang the painting somewhere more discreet. She finally managed to get it moved to their bedroom and was forced to avert her gaze every time she woke up.
Meena read Bellini’s script quickly, getting more and more excited as she got to the end.
“Of course you must do this, Krish,” she turned to him. “Clichéd as it sounds, this could be the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“But Meena,” he protested, “You know how squeamish I am.”
She slapped him on the shoulder affectionately. She did know and thought he was being a big baby. Even a paper cut could turn him green. But the script was fabulous and in her mind she was already on the red carpet in a Masaba gown, talking to journalists about comparisons with Javier Bardem …her thoughts halted abruptly. What if Krish couldn’t deliver? He had to, he absolutely had to.
Shooting for Destruction was scheduled to begin in six months. Bellini was still doing some post-publicity for his Holocaust film, which was going to be out on DVD soon. Meena met with him privately soon after the contract was signed.
“I think it would be a good idea to do some preparatory training with Krish,” she began carefully. “He does tend to get uncomfortable at the sight of blood.” She avoided any mention of her doubts about Krish’s acting abilities. If Bellini was as good as they claimed, he would fix that.
Her suggestion was accepted and proved to be smart. On the very first day of training, Krish ran puking from the mock operating room that had been set up to demonstrate the anatomically correct props used for the cutting scenes. Luckily there were just a handful of people in the room, including the visual effects director and a couple of interns. They were all sworn to secrecy. They were not happy, because it had taken them nearly half a day to set up the kill room, but Bellini convinced them it would do no good to the actor’s he-man reputation to be known as the guy who threw up at the sight of blood.
When Meena heard about the incident from a shame-faced Krish, she swung into action. She cleared out the furniture from one of the bedrooms and created her own kill room. She made fake blood using maple syrup and food coloring which attracted a swarm of bees till she perfected it by adding a peppermint repellant. Every morning Krish practiced cutting into the cadaver prop with a rigged scalpel that had a pouch of blood cleverly hidden on one side. Once Meena had shown Krish how the blood was made, he was less queasy, though it took a couple of weeks for him to get into the spirit of the exercise.
After a month, Meena felt confident sending Krish back for training. This time the results were better. The technicians demonstrated the many ways his character would be killing his victims in the movie and Krish gamely went along. When the director pointed out that some of the scenes required him to eat some of the victims’ softer body parts, he balked till he was shown how the production unit’s chef would be molding the liver and kidneys from a gelatinous fondant.
Eventually the visual effects director gave the green light to Bellini for shooting to begin.
After some introductory scenes showing the killer’s dysfunctional childhood, it was Krish’s turn on the sets. His first scene required him to stalk a young girl in a sparsely populated suburban neighborhood and abduct her after a long silent chase.
“I want menace, not purpose,” yelled Bellini, after Krish had emoted a determined, SWAT-team intensity for the 30th take. “You have to want to hurt her. You have to look forward to the torture and kill.”
“I’m trying,” said Krish through gritted teeth. He was used to being treated like a star, and this was the first movie in which he could feel waves of contempt coming off the crew. Try as he would he could not understand why anyone would want to hurt a beautiful girl like Lydia, who played the unfortunate first victim. To help with his motivation, he imagined her as some sort of traitorous enemy of the state, who he was required to eliminate. Apparently this was not working.
“Fuck this.” Bellini threw up his hands in surrender. “Let’s shoot from the girl’s POV.”
Krish sat on the side for the rest of the shoot in silence. At home he would not meet Meena’s eyes. She found out why from Bellini the next day.
That night Meena dismissed their Indian cook and served a steak to Krish, medium rare.
He wrinkled his nose. “What is this?”
“Where is Santoshji?”
Meena looked at him levelly. “Do you want to be an actor or do you want to be a laughing stock?”
Krish looked at the pink slab in front of him. He poked it gingerly with the steak knife.
“If I cut it will it drip blood?” he asked, half-jokingly.
“That’s rare. This is medium rare.”
“I can’t eat this, Meena. Don’t make me do this. What will Appa say if he finds out?”
Meena just stared at him till he cut off a minute piece and put it in his mouth. He chewed and chewed and chewed and finally swallowed it with a glass of water.
“Enough?” he asked hopefully.
Meena stroked his hair. “Just do it baba, so many millions of people eat meat; it shouldn’t be such a big deal. Your character does so much worse stuff. How will you ever get it right if you run away every time you have to do something yucky?”
Gradually she made him get over his revulsion to meat, serving him Carpaccio with onions and garam masala and moving on to sashimi. When he watched a live lobster being thrown into a vat of boiling water a week later, he barely flinched.
Meena then arranged for a hunting session with one of her embassy contacts. Krish did surprisingly well, using some of the skills learned in his previous action movies to impress his host. He felt sad for the deer he had brought down, but helped with the gutting and cleaning without incident. He ate the resulting dinner with gusto.
He went back to the sets feeling hopeful. Unfortunately, his new-found taste for veal and venison did not translate to better acting. Bellini got increasingly frustrated. Murmurs about Destruction’s casting troubles began to circulate in TMZ and HuffPo.
“I think I should just quit,” said a dispirited Krish after being yelled at by Bellini for the thousandth time.
Meena closed her eyes. The humiliation that would ensue if Krish bailed on Destruction was not something she wanted to face. In desperation she reached out to dominatrices in Los Angeles, asking for S&M enthusiasts who would be willing to let Krish experiment on them.
Krish was horrified. “What are you asking me to do, Meena?” he wailed. “Shh, shh,” she soothed him. “It’s just to get you comfortable with the role, dear. You won’t be unfaithful to me.”
Krish and Meena waited outside the Dolby Theater for their turn with the ABCTV host on the red carpet. Meena was resplendent in a silver Reem Accra gown that made her olive skin glow. She clutched Krish’s arm happily, turning this way and that to demonstrate her classic profile as photographers clicked away at the striking couple. Krish looked distracted.
“Honey, look, there’s Angelina Jolie,” whispered Meena.
They reached Brooke James, who was interviewing the actors before they stepped in the theater.
“Krish and Meena, how lovely to see you guys.”
“Thanks, Brooke,” said Meena.
“So Krish, how does it feel to be the first Indian American nominated for a best actor Oscar?”
Krish looked at Brooke and smiled slowly. He held her gaze till she took a step back, unnerved.
“Well, we’ve been seeing these reports of women being abducted and killed in horrifying ways that mirror the scenes from Destruction. Are you concerned that your movie is inspiring these copycat murders?”
“Are you implying that Krish is responsible for the actions of some sicko?” Meena glared at Brooke, but her attention had already moved on to the next celebrity. Meena hurriedly propelled Krish inside.
As the host Ryan Seacrest handed the mike to the guest presenter for the Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, faint sirens could be heard outside the theater.
“And the Oscar goes to…”
Television audiences were treated to the sight of three burly policemen in full armor escorting the winner from the theater. People around the world gasped and listened to the Miranda warning as LAPD arrested Krishna Dev for the rape and murder of seven women in the county of Los Angeles. Seacrest ran on to the stage to try and salvage the situation. “Is this a case of life imitating art imitating life?” he said as Krish walked out between the policemen, head held high, betraying none of the emotion that had won him the Oscar. “I knew it,” said one of the losing nominees triumphantly. “The damn film was a documentary.”
Vidya Pradhan is a freelance writer and a published author of children’s books. She is currently working on a script for a television show for kids.This is her first story for adults. She was the editor of India Currents from June 2009 to February 2012.
The judges were Indu Sundaresan and A.X. Ahmad.
Indu Sundaresan: Blood and Guts placed first for two main reasons—the sheer audacity of the writer in tackling a somewhat unrealistic subject, and, the ability to pull it off. This is a superbly written story about the demons lurking under our everyday skins; scratch lightly and they emerge.
A.X. Ahmad: The writer takes a chance and constructs a tightly-plotted thriller with a surprising plot twist. I liked being immersed in Krish’s alternative world, and the pacing and writing were stellar. This story pushes the boundaries of writing in a creative way!
Indu Sundaresan was born and brought up in India and came to the United States for graduate school. She’s the author of five novels and a collection of short stories. The Twentieth Wife (book #1 of the Taj trilogy) won the Washington State Book Award. Her latest novel, The Mountain of Light, is based on the Kohinoor diamond and its last Indian owners. More at:www.indusundaresan.com
A.X. Ahmad is the author of The Caretaker, the first in a trilogy featuring ex-Indian Army Captain Ranjit Singh. His second book, The Last Taxi Ride, will be published in June 2014. A former international architect, he lives in Washington, D.C. and teaches writing. www.axahmad.com