The Duplicate

Lights. Camera. Action! Excitement tingles down your spine every time you hear these words. You sigh wistfully. If only. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Even as a child, you harboured dreams of becoming an actress. As a teenager, your friends nicknamed you ‘Saajanpur’s Sanjana’, after the Bollywood star Sanjana Sanghvi. They celebrated you for your resemblance to her, your dancing skills, and your flawless dialogue delivery.  Did all of that get into your head? What were you thinking when you ran away from Saajanpur? You, Chaya, wanted to become the next Sanjana.  A starstruck nineteen-year-old, trying to make a name for herself in the big, bad cityYour greatest asset, your resemblance, becomes your biggest liability. Who wants a duplicate when they can have the original? And that too a duplicate with no connections or wealthy family. You don’t stand a chance. You recollect stories of those who arrived here before you. They remained hungry and slept on benches in pursuit of their dreams. Some of them did conquer the odds. But what of those who merged with the dust on the pavement and faded into oblivion? Nameless. Unsung. Unknown. That could very well be your story. Audition after audition, walking in and out of offices. Rejected over and over again, till you are numb, and rejection doesn’t sting anymore. Sometimes a glimmer of hope flickers but is rapidly extinguished by a clandestine request to meet at a pay-by-the-hour hotel. You turn these trysts down because you do not wish to trade your dignity for a dream; no dream is worth it. Food and lodging cost a bomb here. Odd jobs get you by. A local gym employs you as a trainer. You were always fit; the fastest in your class. You remember holding the winner’s cup, ribbons undone, skirt dirty, but face beaming, in what seems to be another lifetime.   Your gym boasts of neither sophisticated equipment nor scented showers. Rather, it’s a cosy space with weights and machines. At the entrance is a flashy banner of a bodybuilder flaunting his bulging biceps. The place is frequented by middle-aged ladies who gossip while standing on treadmills, switching them on, occasionally. This grants you time to follow up on auditions.  Over the years, you start accepting your destiny. You will always be Chaya, a shadow, just like your name. Sanjana’s shadow, to be precise. Once, lady luck does smile on you, albeit briefly.   Your agent tells you he has landed you the role of a lifetime. You pay him a fat commission. He informs you that you are to be Sanjana’s body double. She doesn’t perform stunts by herself, and her regular body double is sick. Sanjana is your idol; you agree without hesitation. On the day of the shoot, you get a glimpse of HER. She is of your height and build. You look like sisters, with shoulder-length wavy hair, angular chins, and heart-shaped faces. Except that fate has reserved the silver spoon for her, and for you, only a measly plastic one.  You do the scene. It involves jumping off a building, with a safety-harness of course. The shoot proceeds without a hitch. You hope Sanjana walks up to you and heaps praise. Might she put in a word with the director? Your hopes are dashed. She dons her fancy sunglasses and heads to her vanity van, ignoring you. Seven people on this earth resemble each other. If the others are as snobbish as she is, you are better off not knowing them.  You don’t let this affect you. Not today. You are jubilant. You have had three seconds of screentime.  When the movie releases, they don’t mention you in the credits. Yet, you watch it four times, for that one scene. One time, you mention this to the person seated next to you. He smirks patronizingly, not believing you. In that visual, your face isn’t visible. It’s been blurred. But you know it is you. All of you. Only YOU. The movie bombs.  You wait, hoping for another chance. Sadly, there aren’t many action roles written for actresses, and you don’t get to reprise this role, either as an original or as a duplicate. *** Thirty. That’s your age now. Still waiting for a break. Stuck like a rat in a drain. You can’t go back to Saajanpur. You have brought disgrace to your family. If only you had agreed to get married at nineteen like your sister, you would have had three children by now. You would be wiping their snot, yelling at them, and cooking rotis over a brick stove. But would you have been happy with that humdrum existence?  You know the answer. That’s what keeps you going in your third decade, even when they tell you that an actress’s shelf-life in the film industry is limited. That weekend you have an assignment. You have to pose as a Sanjana look-alike, at an exhibition. Shoppers will queue up and click pictures with you. This will help you pay the rent for the month. It also gives a sneak preview of what fame looks like. But like you, even that fame is fake. A pot-bellied middle-aged man gets too close. He smells of sweat and debauchery; you try not to gag. He puts his hand on your waist and tickles it, winking. Forcing a smile for the camera, you swat his hand away. Later, you complain to the event manager. He tells you to enjoy the attention and mutters that you have too much attitude for a duplicate. You want to storm out. But the thought of your landlord’s menacing face keeps your feet rooted until the event concludes.  *** Your agent calls to inform you that Sanjana’s assistant wants to meet you in person. You let out a shaky breath. What could she want? Sanjana doesn’t have any major release in the pipeline. Her last three releases have bombed and if rumour mills are to be believed, she is secretly dating a much-married director, Ravish Ahuja. The same man whose next project, a 500-crore mythological VFX extravaganza on Draupadi, is being commissioned. The grapevine thinks that he is most likely to cast Sanjana in the titular role.  Your heart skips a beat. An epic would need several actors. No! You mustn’t get ahead of yourself. The address provided is of an outdoor shoot location. You reach there and are directed to Sanjana’s vanity van. Pinching yourself to make sure you aren’t dreaming, you knock on the door hesitantly. It swings open, and Sanjana’s assistant, a scrawny woman with a hawk-like face, greets you. “Chaya? Come in!” You walk into the van, admiring the opulence compacted into this small, air-conditioned space. It houses a make-up room, a restroom, a settee, and a snack bar. Seated regally on the settee, is Sanjana. She is four years senior to you, but her make-up conceals any signs of aging. She looks as stunning as ever.  As she stands up to welcome you, you catch a whiff of her perfume; rich notes of lavender. You use a cheaper version, but the fragrance barely lasts an hour. “Myself, Chaya,” you say shyly. “The Prado to my Prada! I’m so glad you could make it, Chavi!” Sanjana gushes. You correct her; your name is Chaya. She waves her hand dismissivelyWhatever.  You could be anyone. It doesn’t matter. You don’t matter. “Rayna will brief you. We have a job for you.” Turns out, it isn’t an acting job. It’s more of an impersonation. Sanjana is planning a holiday with a special someone.  It doesn’t take much to guess who that someone is. Ravish, husband of another woman.  The press will have a field day if they catch even a whiff of this escapade, so she wishes to create a diversion. That’s where you come in. She wants you, her doppelganger, to be photographed in the public eye, while she frolics with her beau in a secret getaway. Rayna emphasizes that discretion is critical. You will be picked up by Sanjana’s driver. Make-up will transform you. You are to grant the public fleeting glimpses, to give them the impression that Sanjana is very much in the city. They warn you that you’re finished if you spill the beans. As if anyone would believe a nobody like you. The remuneration they offer is sizeable. For Sanjana, it’s probably loose change. You muster your courage and appeal to her. You’ll do the job, no questions asked, but could she help you out with a role? She looks amused and says she’ll try. That is good enough for you. If the right opportunity comes your way, you’ll dazzle.   She makes you sign some non-disclosure agreement. You have no qualms about signing.  When you have nothing to lose, you have nothing to fear. After two days, you get the first text. You proceed to a crowded market, where Rayna is waiting. She gives you a designer jacket to wear. Lightly touches up your face. Replaces your cheap shades with rose-tinted Bulgari ones. Cautions you to be careful as they have to be returned. You can’t afford to replace them. Adjusting the Jimmy Choo silk scarf, you shift uneasily. Sanjana’s sleek Audi arrives. The minute you get in, you are in character. This is your moment. You step out a couple of times and are immediately surrounded by people asking for selfies. You insist on keeping your shades on. A beggar asks for money. You reach for your handbag, and then remember it’s not with you. In its place is a fancy Chanel crocodile skin wallet; also, empty. The driver comes to your rescue and hands a crisp note, that you gift the beggar. You are ‘the poor man’s Sanjana,’ but you ace the role.  Once the act is complete, you change in the car. The driver dumps you unceremoniously like a sack of potatoes, some distance away from your place. But you couldn’t care less.  You are getting to live HER life. Paradise on a platter. The next morning you eagerly scroll. There it is.  Sanjana Sanghvi spotted up and about in the city.’  You’ve been rated an 8.5 on the celebrity weekly fashion meter. Your act of kindness to the beggar made it to the lifestyle section. No one has caught your deception. You are delighted! Your gig goes on for two more days, and you carry on with aplomb. You can do this forever. This is a mirage; one you’ve fallen in love with. Alas! All good things must end. Sanjana is back in town. Your assignment is over, and your account gets credited.  You text Rayna, reminding her of Sanjana’s promise to recommend you. Your text is read (two blue ticks) but not replied to. You send her a follow-up text. It is not delivered (single grey tick).  Has she blocked you?                                                                 *** You beg Sanjana’s burly security guard for an audience with her. He kicks you out, yet you refuse to give up. You try again and again. One day, you get your chance. On your way back from the gym, you see her at a shoot. It is break time. She is in her van, and the guard has gone to take a leak. You hear voices from within. Emboldened, you knock, then push open the unlocked door. Hawkface Rayna is nowhere to be seen. In her place, there is a man. Director Ravish Ahuja. He and Sanjana are arguing. “Sanju, I can’t leave Minal. I still care for her. Besides, her father will be furious.” “What about us? Was it just a fling?” Sanjana shrieks. Uh-oh!  You wish you could disappear into thin air. Too late! They spot you and are horrified. “Who the hell are you?” Ravish bellows. You apologize and try to exit hastily. “A bloody body double. Works at a gym and wants to act,” Sanjana snorts. Your worth summed up so crudely. Something ripples through your chest, akin to anger. But before you can react, you are interrupted. Another knock and a forced entry. A woman in a yellow saree with an understated elegance enters. Her eyes are tearing, and her face is ashen like she could crumble any moment. “Minal! Sweetheart, what are you doing here?” Ravish stammers.  Oh. The wife! This should be interesting. “I…. I came to visit you on location. They told me to find you here,” her eyes are accusatory as she stares at Sanjana. Ravish sweats visibly. He stares at your gym clothes, then brightens. “Baby, this girl is a personal trainer, recommended by Sanjana. I wanted to engage her for your strength training at our home gym. Surprise!” What just happened? Minal smiles through her tears. She hugs Ravish. Her naivete makes you feel sick. You notice Sanjana’s eyes cold with fury, while Ravish’s are pleading.  The job will pay well and offer you the potential to network. You accept, knowing that you have to tread carefully. Sanjana is not one to be messed with. Her face says that much. *** How have two months sped by? You may not have landed an acting gig, but the personal training is going great. You pay the rent on time, and even buy collagen face masks; the ones the beautician insists are from Korea.  You also make a new friend, Minal.  She is nervous, scared of her own shadow, and is attending therapy. You bond with her and make her do exercises, slowly increasing the reps. You lift weights together. She begins to trust you, and gradually opens up. You learn that she had a miscarriage two years ago. The anxiety started then.  Ravish doesn’t cope well with his trophy wife falling apart. She wonders if he would have married her were she not the daughter of an affluent producer. You lie because you feel sorry for her. You teach her boxing and ask her to vent out her frustration on the punching bag. She starts hesitantly, almost afraid to hurt the bag, then steadily builds momentum. Landing punch after punch, she screams.  For her dead baby. For her dead marriage. For the deadness within. She collapses on the mat and cries.  Pain. Liberation. Catharsis. She thanks you later. You feel protective of her, and you wonder if you should divulge Ravish’s affair to her. In hindsight, you convince yourself that she isn’t oblivious to the murmurs and is staying in this marriage by choice.  You keep mum. *** Imagine your surprise when you get a text from Rayna. She has unblocked you. Aha!  You’ve been asked to make yet another appearance to cover for Sanjana. You wonder what mischief she is up to this time. You are tempted to decline, but the seduction of vicarious fame is too strong. Should you let Minal know? Perhaps, not. At the end of the day, you are a nobody, a dispensable duplicate.  You reluctantly accept Rayna’s offer, letting Minal know that you can’t come that day. The driver takes you to your destination; a well-known college, where a student protest is being organized. You are here to express solidarity with the students. It is a blink-and-miss appearance but will increase Sanjana’s social standing.  In the car, you wrestle with guilt. By playing accomplice to Sanjana’s dalliances, are you betraying Minal? The car reaches the college gates. You are informed that the protests have turned violent and it’s not safe; you have to turn around. The driver offers to drop you back, but you decline. Instead, you catch an auto to Minal’s house. You have to tell her.  It may shatter her, but ultimately it will make her stronger. When you make it to the entrance of Minal’s home, the guard scratches his head. “Miss Chaya, I just let you in thirty minutes ago.” What? How? You insist that it must be a mistake. He points to your name in the visitor’s book. You squint at the squiggly writing. It reads more like Chavi, not Chaya. There is only one person who calls you that. Was Sanjana here? Your heart thunders inside your chest. You call Minal, but she doesn’t answer. You beg the guard to let you in. He allows you, as he is confused too. You race into the state-of-the-art gym on the second floor. The sight that greets you freezes your blood. Minal is unconscious on the floor. Hovering over her, with a 20-kilo dumbbell is Sanjana, ready to smash her skull.  Sanjana is in gym wear, dressed like me. Why? You lunge forward, years of training finally put to use. You crash to the ground and wrestle, pushing the dumbbell away. You punch Sanjana in the face with unparalleled fury. The guard binds her. The distant siren of the ambulance brings you relief. Once Minal is carried out on a stretcher and the Police arrest a screaming Sanjana, you sigh with relief. Realization dawns on you. In a role reversal, Sanjana has played your part. Your alibis would have established that she was at the college, while you were with Minal. Alibis based on appearance and attire that would be vouched for by Sanjana’s employees and eyewitnesses.  Who knows what you’d be charged withAccident? Jealousy? Premeditated murder? Sanjana would walk away scot-free, after murdering Minal, and you’d be framed. You’d rot in prison, while she’d be the angel consoling a widowed Ravish, cementing her place as wife number two, and the lead of Draupadi.  Thank God, they didn’t let you into that college. That day, it wasn’t just Minal who was saved. *** Things aren’t looking good for Sanjana. It is a case of attempted murder. Ravish does a 180-degree, accusing her of pursuing him relentlessly. He vehemently denies any involvement, claiming he was away shooting at a foreign locale. Ravish’s desire to end the affair and the likelihood of not bagging the coveted role must have unhinged Sanjana. You doubt if he has any role to play in this dastardly act. Ravish is a cheater, not a murderer. Only Sanjana possesses that degree of ruthlessness. Minal recovers from her concussion and narrates her story to the Police.  “Sanjana arrived at my home uninvited, in gym wear, resembling my trainer, Chaya. It looked odd to me, but she said it was for a prank, and we would make a cute reel together. She added that she wanted us to be friends and asked me to show her around the house. Inside the gym, she pointed at something. When I bent to take a look, she hit my head with a bar. I blacked out.” The Police are convinced that Sanjana committed the crime out of jealousy. Ravish plays the devoted husband, fussing over Minal.  You can see she wants to believe this new version of her husband. She wants the reset button. She wants her happily ever after. Who doesn’t? Sanjana’s father swoops in. He claims she suffers from mental illness, in exchange for a reduced sentence. One thing is clear. Sanjana’s career is over.   At Saajanpur, your family used to breed bees. Each colony could have only one Queen. Introducing a new Queen into the hive was disastrous; she would be killed by the worker bees instantly. Entry could occur only when the old Queen was out of the picture.  This is your chance to enter the hive. The duplicate can thrive only when the original exits. No one knows that better than you. *** You arrange for a meeting with Ravish. You remind him that his wife trusts you, and one word from you is enough for her to end the marriage. This would lead to his producer father-in-law pulling the plug on the funding for Draupadi. Divorce, unemployment, bankruptcy, ostracization, in that order, versus offering you the lead role in return for your silence. You add that he must honour his wedding vows. If he ever cheats on Minal, you will not keep quiet. You hope he has learned his lesson and will no longer stray. Ravish has no other option but to forge a truce with you. Between passion and money, nine times out of ten, money wins.  The next day, newspapers scream that a newcomer, an outsider, has been given the titular role in the upcoming Draupadi. They hail this development.  *** It’s been a month already and things are moving at breakneck speed. You change your hair, growing it long and adding highlights. You pierce your nose. A little bit of make-up, a touch here, a touch there, and the resemblance to Sanjana, the fallen star, ends. This is a new YOU. The forms of ‘you’ evolve. From the informal Hindi ‘Tu’, they become the formal ‘Aap’. Somewhere between these two versions, you SURVIVED, you EVOLVED, you GREW. You are going to be launched, not as Chaya, but as ‘Roshni’, meaning light, a name you pick for yourself. This is your time to shine. And shine you do, leaving the shadows behind.  Lights. Camera. Action!   Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!