Close Encounters of the Bollywood Kind

We were midway through our tartare when they walked in.

At the French restaurant in Worli we had chosen for dinner on a Saturday night, things immediately became tense.

For us, meals are mostly a casual affair, as they are for most Mumbaikars. We eat off plastic plates on weekdays and break out the wedding china when our parents come to visit. We love food, but not enough to endure nitrogen-laced pretension more than a few times a month. It’s what made this one time we’d made the exception all the more interesting.

It had been a while since I’d had the company of Bollywood celebrities as fellow diners.

Celebrity spotting is commonplace enough in Maximum City. There are even curated lists on food apps that tell you the best places to do it.

However, as fascinating as their lives seem, it’s sometimes just as entertaining (or even more) to watch how everyone else reacts when they enter a room.

Mumbaikars are often wont to give celebrities their space. Once at dinner, I stopped and admonished my Qatar-based brother for trying to take a picture of Malaika Arora as she enjoyed a casual meal with her son at Bastian. I’ve watched with trepidation as a friend paid effusive compliments to Shriya Saran at the bar at Bonobo.

We locals like to recount these incidents with an eye roll. We laugh at how flushed out-of-towners get. 

It’s not always amusing. At its worst, you could be asked to make place immediately, like I was once asked to accommodate Tusshar Kapoor and his friends at a rooftop bar. I should have been happy to leave my insipid meal midway on account of bad service, but I ended up channeling all my anger at Tusshar. It took me years to admit that it was unfair to do so. It might have also helped that I hadn’t watched him in anything for just as long.

Saturday night wasn’t as eventful, but the social mechanics at play were delightful to watch. We knew we were splurging for dinner – and now, we even had a show.

As the group entered our dining hall, everyone stiffened up as though cubes of ice had been dropped down the front of their shirts. Some stared unabashedly (present company included), trying to place the almost famous actors tagging behind a seasoned fashion designer.

The manager began to hover, giving what he believed were imperceptible nods to the waiter to empty another wine bottle during the next refill. Specials were offered, requests were made, and suddenly our food began to pale in comparison to their order – even though we had ordered the same small plate.

The table sized the rest of us up as much as we were them. Once no women of equal virtue or beauty were found, the former beauty queen flipped her hair and readied herself for a selfie marathon. The other actress at the table, basking in the glow of recent box office success, watched her with a polite (dare I say, smug) smile. The shy actor, whose debut was marred by controversy, kept his baseball cap on all night long, while a clutch of strong-jawed dudes, destined to play third wheel for at least a while, rounded up the table.

Also read: Sonam Kapoor and #EverydayPhenomenal: Should Celebrities Tone Down Their Extravagance?

Another celebrity was discovered enjoying a quiet meal in the corner with friends. Silently, but swiftly, the pecking order was established. The erstwhile inconspicuous star walked up to the cool kids, shaking hands, taking selfies, and perhaps wishing he had listened to better judgement and stayed home.

Alcohol and intrigue brought fans to the yard. Some hovered behind the invisible ‘Laxman Rekha’ drawn around the table, while others were brave enough to request a selfie. The fashion designer, arguably the table’s most famous celebrity, was gracious even when an emboldened fan went on to tell him that his best work was from many moons ago.

I wondered where he went when he just wanted to enjoy his soup.

And then, as suddenly as they came, the party vanished. The rest of us sunk into a deathly lull. Warm soups went cold. Even my dining partner, a confessed celebrity noob, wondered aloud about when they would be coming back. Other fans slunk away, crestfallen and wishing they had made contact.

The attention returned to the food (thankfully, excellent), but hands still reached for phones to tell mothers and friends about the night we just had. Social currency was to be gained from telling colleagues on Monday that we were now dining at places to see and be seen.

Maybe we Mumbaikars aren’t so different from out-of-towners who openly fawned over Bollywood celebrities. We just have different ways of making the most of it.

Alisha Coelho is a writer, content strategist and a lifelong ambassador for red lipstick.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty