How a cancer diagnosis inspired actress Lisa Ray to rewrite her life
In her memoir Close To The Bone, Ray describes her rise to Bollywood stardom and growing up in a biracial home
When Lisa Ray was in high school in Etobicoke, Ont., she was shy, introverted, and "trying to figure out the most appropriate profession where I could have the least possible human contact."
She came from an academic family, and expected she would follow suit by studying law or literature at University of Toronto. Her life, it seemed, was perfectly plotted.
But Ray graduated a year early — "as every good immigrant daughter does," she quips — and convinced her parents that she should take a gap year with them in Mumbai (st the time it was still Bombay). That year, in turn, changed the trajectory of her entire life.
"It's a city of dreams, and a city of potential, and it actually drew out potential in me that I never even realized I had," says Ray, who, in the years that followed, went on to become a supermodel and acclaimed actress.
"I had never anticipated being in front of a camera. I never wanted to. But somebody spotted me at a party said, 'Hey, you should model,'" she says.
"It was literally one of those kinds of moments that you read about that used to happen in America in the '50s: being spotted by someone smoking a cigar and saying, 'Hey, kid, you'd do good in the movies.' It was the Bombay version of that."
Close to the Bone
That serendipitous moment is among the formative experiences that Ray catalogues in her powerful memoir Close to the Bone, which is being released in Canada this week.
In the book she describes growing up a biracial child of an Indian man and a Polish woman, her rise to Bollywood stardom, her life on movie sets, her battle with eating disorders and her experience of becoming a mother of twins through surrogacy.
She also describes what it was like growing up a biracial child in the '70s and '80s, and overcoming sexist stereotypes early in her career.
"I wasn't completely accepted in India. I wasn't completely accepted even in Canada. In those days, people used to ask me the big Canadian question: 'What are you?' They were trying to define me. Are you Italian? Are you Greek?" remembers Ray.
"I hadn't yet stepped into my power. And there I was, basically being labelled and objectified by an industry that was paying me to put on all these masks, to assume these different identities, but all of them were as this kind of fantasy for men's desires," she says.
"At that time, I started out posing on the cover of a magazine in a red swimsuit, Baywatch style. And that definitely wasn't me."
In the early 2000s, director Deepa Mehta cast Ray in the Indian Canadian comedy Bollywood/Hollywood, which proved to be another life-changing experience.
"Deepa came and plucked me from Mumbai, when my existential conflict was getting really, really dark. And she saw something in me," remembers Ray, who says Mehta has a sixth sense when it comes to choosing actors and drawing what she needs out of them.
"I was always a seeker. There was a spiritual seeking life to me that nobody wanted to acknowledge or allow to flourish," she says. "And Deepa saw that in me."
That role inspired Ray to move to London, where she studied theatre, then starred in Mehta's acclaimed film Water, which explores the lives of widows at an ashram in 1938 in Varanasi, India.
'Cancer forced me to slow down'
But in 2009, Ray was cast in a real-life role she didn't see coming: cancer patient. That year she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an often fatal form of cancer that she chronicled in a blog called The Yellow Diaries.
Even before the diagnosis, Ray knew she needed to slow down, and was spending weeks meditating in Dharamshala between leading roles in films.
"I was trying to reconcile the two sides of myself. Cancer forced me to slow down. And I don't wish it on anyone else, but it actually forced me to be much more mindful," she says.
"I was slowly healing, but it was a much more permanent, cohesive healing, and I was dealing with my own mortality. Let's face it, that is the biggest wake-up call that you can ever get."
Ray received a stem cell transplant, and credits the procedure with saving her life. She went on to raise funds for the first research chair for multiple myeloma at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, and donated part of the proceeds of her film, Cooking with Stella, to a Los Angeles-based institute for myeloma research.
She has also appeared in several PSAs about stem cell technology and myeloma, and in 2012 was named ambassador for Pantene Beautiful Lengths, a campaign that encourages people to grow and donate their hair so it can be made into wigs for women with cancer.
The same year she partnered with Indian designer Satya Paul to create a line of sarees that were auctioned to raise funds for cancer research.
I never anticipated that being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which is essentially considered a fatal disease, would give me a new lease on life. That's the irony.- Lisa Ray
Now Ray is enjoying life with her husband and her twin daughters, which they had through surrogacy, and has a novel and a collection of poems in the works.
"Everything has been much more mindful. I never anticipated that being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which is essentially considered a fatal disease, would give me a new lease on life. That's the irony," says Ray, who also credits Canadian doctors and researchers for saving her life.
"But serendipity, again, has played this very, very strong hand in my life. And with it, I've reaped a lot of gifts."
Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Produced by Vanessa Greco.