When Meher Mistry walks in for a chat at a cosy café in Mumbai’s Bandra area, great vintage hairdo and pashmina stole in place, it is hard not to be reminded of the captivating Belle, the Disney heroine in the Indian staging of Beauty And The Beastshe played with such verisimilitude. To think the acting bug only bit her around six years back, when she was a stagehand waiting in the wings to make pre-show announcements (the only time her voice was heard), mopping and cleaning after the arc lights dimmed. This was at the B Street Theatre in Sacramento, California, where her uncle runs internship programmes for young actors to help them earn an Equity card—membership to an actors’ union, worth its weight in gold for anyone hoping to make it in show business.
In the wee hours, Mistry had the intimate theatre all to herself, looking out wistfully at the empty stalls from the stage to indulge the occasional delusion of grandeur. Later, she assisted through frenetic eight-week runs at eight shows a week of whatever marquee production was in vogue. It was a rigorous, year-long apprenticeship. “I was the weird kid who always thought she would be a teacher,” she says. “Yet this space created a real sense of belonging and peace.”
In 2009, injected with the adrenalin of live performance, Mistry returned to India. A Parsi girl who grew up in Dadar, she hadn’t watched any Indian plays, and was also insulated from the bustling local Marathi theatre scene. The universe of the Indian stage seemed nebulous and distant. Industry names like Quasar Padamsee and Shernaz Patel, extraordinarily approachable to newbies, told her to “watch as much as you can”. Well-regarded plays like Chaos Theory and Hamlet—The Crown Prince, made her optimistic about where she would find her niche.
“Hindi not being my strong suit, would I be restricted to only English theatre?” she pondered. She soon landed her first gig as a nun in Raell Padamsee’s Sound Of Music where she met the formidable soprano Marianne D’Cruz (cast as the Mother Abbess). D’Cruz was Mistry’s vocal coach when she became an understudy for the coveted part of Maria Von Trapp. The high point for Mistry was when she performed as Maria at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai for a single show, when leading lady Delna Mody wasn’t available. Mistry received a lot of attention for her vocals, “It was two hours of my life I’ll never forget.” Later, back in her habit as a nun, she wondered whether she would step into the shoes of a prima donna ever again.
Being one of two Parsi actors cast as Britishers in Sunil Shanbag’s Stories In A Song (the other being Jim Sarbh, who played recording pioneer Fred Gaisberg) was a symptom of the kind of typecasting she was growing to expect. Casting coordinators would contact her to act in television commercials with an upper-middle-class slant. Her peaches-and-cream complexion gave her a distinct advantage in the colour-conscious world of Indian advertising, even if her body shape saw her relegated to matronly parts (she is 27 years old).
In 2014, Mistry came full circle when she was called back to the B Street Theatre to act in an adaptation of the epic Persian poem, Conference Of The Birds, as an exotic Bird of Paradise. “All the birds were actors of different ethnicities, although most of them were of American stock. Ironically, once again, perhaps my exotic look aided in my casting.”
Auditions for Disney’s Broadway production for India, Beauty And The Beast, began last year. “I made it to one of the last auditions, and I botched up my monologue by forgetting my lines,” she laughs. Yet it was her strong rendition of the challenging ballad, On My Own from Les Misérables, that ostensibly brought her into the reckoning, although it took the producers two months of intense auditions to confirm her as Belle. “I (knew) I wanted it and I could do it, despite it being such a huge show.”
The quintessential Disney princess has evolved over the years, becoming feistier, more independent, much less acquiescing of the social mores that dictate our expectations of women. What has lingered though, almost anachronistically, are the unbelievable hourglass frames of the leading ladies, right from Belle and Ariel in The Little Mermaid, to Snow White, Cinderella and Pocahontas. When making the transition from animated celluloid to stage, the proverbial strings on a princess’ corset are, arguably, loosened somewhat to simply let an actor breathe, but she is still expected to remain an exemplar of feminine grace and lissomness. Mistry submitted to an intense exercise regime in order to play Belle to such hazy specifications, and the transformation has certainly been staggering. A movie star like Parineeti Chopra, who has reinvented herself as an aerobic goddess, has openly admitted to the inordinate self-loathing she felt during her “chubbier” phase, even if, as a rare actress with a “real body” and talent to boot, she was already a role model to many.
Conversely and refreshingly, Mistry has always been comfortable with her body: “Yes, I was plump, but it never really mattered to me. I never had body issues.” Her sangfroid was accommodated in an alternative theatre culture in which talent trumped one’s cosmetic virtues. For her, the physical change that Beauty And The Beast brought about has served a utilitarian purpose. “If you look at the sprawling sets and the amount of running and dancing I do from one end to the other, it requires a lot of energy. This was truly physical theatre. I’m thankful the team pushed me into becoming fitter. I did lose a lot of weight, but so did the men,” she says.
In a milieu populated with larger-than-life characters based on tried and tested fairy-tale archetypes, Belle was the only “real person” in the musical, Mistry feels. “She needed to be just like any other girl—identifiable and genuine.”
Mistry kept her own voice with its sing-song intonations, working hard to give it character, bounce and range. The manner in which she could carry a multi-crore stage extravaganza on her shoulders has done wonders for her confidence. Indeed, there are show-stopping production numbers, fabulous sets and great performances all around, but Mistry is a revelation. Her performance is certainly flawed, especially in the more despondent moments at her disposal, but at its crests, she draws us in with soaring vocals of world-class calibre as far as show tunes go.
In retrospect, the one line she sang as a nun in The Sound Of Music, “She waltzes on the way to Mass and whistles on the stairs,” now seems like an ode for Belle, with Mistry finally having learnt to hold a moonbeam in her hand.
Beauty And The Beast will have another run in Mumbai in April, but the dates have not been finalized.