Elli AvrRam: Dancing into the light

Actress Elli AvrRam traces a decade in Bollywood in a freewheeling chat about dreams, destiny, and dancing to appease her soul

elli avrram lead Picture: Danny Murray; Creative director: Prabh Uppal; Hair and make-up: Priscilla Khiangte; Wardrobe: The Source

If ever there was a book that shouldn’t be judged by its cover, it would be hers. Beyond Elli AvrRam’s glittering dance costumes and smoking-hot shimmying, there is depth and tranquillity — a staggering stillness and simplicity that takes me quite by surprise. What was intended as an hour-long interview turns into a freewheeling three-hour deep dive into not just this life, but past lives too.

Of Swedish-Greek origin, Elli is anything but your typical Bollywood heroine. In innumerable interviews prior to this one, she has spoken of her deep love for India — a childhood dream that she embraced aged five, and spent her early years working towards. “I discovered India and Bollywood as a child. I was around five years old when I first got introduced to Bollywood on Swedish television. They were showing snippets from songs, where the actresses were twirling in these glittery lehengas and I was like, “Wow! What is this?!” That is when my parents told me that this is called Bollywood and it is the film industry in a country called India. Since then, it has been a dream for me. Every time I saw anything associated with India — even seeing a Sikh in the street — I got very excited.” It wasn’t common at the time, so the fact that her godparents went to Goa for their honeymoon, compounds her connection with the country. “My father’s brother and his wife are both very much in love with India. Growing up, I was extremely close to them. They are my godparents; they baptised me. Their house was always decorated in an Indo-Western fusion style… they used to play sitar and Sufi music in their home. I remember the aroma of agarbattis from way back then,” Elli recalls.

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Reminiscing, Elli shares another poignant memory. “I was about eight years old when we attended an Oriental festival in Stockholm, where one of the stalls had a face painter. She asked me: ‘What would you want me to paint you as?’ All the other girls wanted butterflies and I said, ‘I want to be an Indian princess.’ She did this amazing painting on my face and I didn’t allow my mum to wash it off for seven days! I was so careful even when I used to sleep; I would not move around, because I didn’t want to spoil it. On the seventh day, I remember going to the beach, and my mum was like, ‘Elli, my darling, we really need to remove this now.’ And I remember with such clarity how I dipped my head in the water and washed my face.”

From binge-watching The Kumars at No. 42, to being mesmerised by Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas, Elli has a plethora of memories that cement her fascination with India, before she had ever set foot here. Still, I am incredulous that these fleeting connections formed a bond so deep, that coming to India was akin to a religious calling for Elli. “There must be more — something deeper,” I insist, and from this a confession stems. “I have always believed my connection with India comes from another lifetime,” says the diminutive dancer. “I had a very strong experience in Rajasthan, when I visited one of their palaces. I was with my friends and I noticed a room cordoned off at one end and felt drawn to it. No one was allowed inside, so I stood near the door and I could literally see myself wearing an anarkali and dancing in this beautiful blue room. I felt so happy; at a soul level. It was such an intense moment. There were other tourists and guides outside, so I asked one of them what that room was and he said that was where the courtesans used to come and dance. That was incredible for me! Dance, for me, is a very soulful thing. I felt the same way when I heard about devadasis… it gave me goosebumps! I also have a very strong connection to Tamil Nadu. When I went to Chennai, I felt that if I have been Indian in a past life, I have been a Tamilian for sure. In the olden days, being a devadasi was a spiritual thing. Devadasis were only devoted to God. It was all about them dancing to the higher divine. Which again speaks to what I feel when I dance. I have been told that I have been Indian in many past lives and I believe that. This is why I see India with so much love.”

Tracing her journey over the last decade, you’d be hard-pressed not to believe there’s a mystical angle to it all. It was Valentine’s Day in 2012 when Elli first landed in Mumbai. Within a year of being here, she had already bagged the lead role in a Bollywood film, been featured on Bigg Boss, and become a household name. “I believe in angels,” she confesses, “and I have met many along the way. My first roommate pushed for me to be included in a photoshoot for a sari brand. I wouldn’t have landed that job without her. I was such a Swedish girl back then (laughs), that I came to the shoot half-an-hour in advance. I was waiting outside the studio, it was raining, and my hair was dripping wet by the time the photographer, Jitu Savlani, arrived. He was kind enough to start the shoot with my looks and he got so impressed with the way I was posing, that he did more looks with me than with any of the other models. I told him I had come to India to act and he promised to recommend me if the opportunity arose. Three months later — we hadn’t spoken at all during that time — he called me and said he had given my number to Saurabh Varma, the director for Mickey Virus. That is how I signed my first film.”

It wasn’t long after, that Bigg Boss came Elli’s way. Incredibly, the casting agents for the blockbuster reality show contacted her via Facebook. “At the time, they always wanted one outsider, a foreigner, in the Bigg Boss house. I don’t think that is a concept anymore, but that was how it used to be. The trailer of Mickey Virus had just released, and I got a message via FB, asking if I would be interested in featuring on the show. I didn’t even know what Bigg Boss was, and I didn’t give it a second thought. By chance, I was chilling with my director’s wife that day, so I happened to mention it to her. She got so excited! She insisted I share my manager’s number and that is how this whole thing happened.”

elli avrram pink Picture: Nikhil Shenoy; Styling: Arun R; Make-up: Ankita Manwani; Hair: Radhika Patel; Photographer's assistant: Sagar Patil; Studio: Outtasync Production and Studio

It was during the filming of Bigg Boss that Elli encountered another angel: Salman Khan. “I remember seeing him as I entered the Bigg Boss house. He was standing with a toothpick in his mouth (smiles) and he asked me who I was. Salman and his family have protected me ever since. They are the only ones in this industry who always open their arms to outsiders. This is why Salman is known as a person with a big heart. He just wants to make sure that everyone knows that they are not alone here. If you ever go to Galaxy, there are always at least 10 people there. It is always an open house. They have this incredible generosity. So many Bigg Boss contestants get invited to Salman’s parties — to Ganpati or Eid or his birthday party… he doesn’t have to do that. He can just do his job as a host and then say, ‘God bless you guys, now go and do whatever you want to do.’ But he takes people under his wing. His entire family does that. They have been very kind to me.”

Her friendship with Salman is the only subject on which Elli appears a tad guarded. From being romantically linked with the megastar, to having been gifted a car and a house by him, several stories have been published with impunity in the media. “This is something that really frustrates me and I sometimes regret not reacting and clarifying these things, but it is difficult to balance my gratitude for the man and his family, with my irritation about these rumours. I do not want to diminish what they have done for me, but I do want to say that I have no godfather in this industry. When people say that someone has gifted you a car and someone has gifted you a house, it is the equivalent of saying that I have achieved nothing on my own. I am a girl with a lot of pride. Even all the things that I have received from my own father, I have given him that much and more in return. Because that is how I am. I need to be able to look at myself in the mirror and know that I have achieved everything on my own. I want to be an example to girls out there who have dreams. I want them to know that if you work hard, if you are talented, if you are sincere towards your work, success will come your way. I don’t want anyone to think that they need a godfather to make it. I am grateful for the protection I get from the people who care about me, but I don’t owe my career to anyone. No calls were made to cast me in a film. Everything I have done is on my own steam.”

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There is no denying Elli’s commitment to her craft, or her passion to be projected fairly. She asks for nothing more than she has earned. She speaks with gratitude for the dreams she has already fulfilled, as she lists future aspirations. Between laughter and tears, we go back and forth in time and come away touched, like Elli says, “at a soul level.” 

Elli AvrRam on the move

LIVING THE DREAM: It’s hard to pick my biggest high. One is definitely that I have worked with Aamir Khan and it will be on film forever.

EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONS: Acting with Amitabh Bachchan in Goodbye was incredible! Doing lines with a legend… it was beyond my wildest dreams.

ACTING CHOPS: The role of Madhuri in Naane Varuven really showcases the actress in me. I was so excited about this film, because I have been a Dhanush fan ever since I saw Raanjhanaa.

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DANCER FOR LIFE: My mother was belly dancing in the play of Scheherazade when she was pregnant with me. So, I have been dancing since before I was born! When I dance, I just disconnect from the world. It is a very soulful thing for me.

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BEING TYPECAST: “I think a lot of people assume that because you are an actress, you will be all about the posh life, the Gucci and the glamour — and that’s not me at all. I am a very simple girl. Sure, I love my flashy things, but I love the humble life a lot and that goes back to my childhood”

FAMILY TIES: “Whenever my father would come home from work, I would always run and jump on him and hug him. Till date, we do that. Me and my mum, we are such cuddlers”

ALONE IN A MEGACITY: “For many years, I used to feel very alone, coming home to an empty house. Just white walls. Now, I look forward to coming home to my cats”

Cat's Got Her Tongue

ELLI on the loves of her life

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SO, YOU’RE A CAT PARENT?

Yes, and I never intended to be. I’ve always been a dog girl. I have never connected to cats. I was always like I cannot understand cats, and I cannot understand cat people. That’s who I was. Now my cats are my life! I have cat allergies and I literally suffer everyday, but it’s worth it. 

BOTH CHARLES AND EDWARD ARE RESCUE CATS?

Yes. Charles walked into my vanity van while I was shooting for Malang and didn’t leave. Edward followed a few years later — I adopted him from a girl in Juhu, who had found him crying in the street.

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CHARLES, YOU’VE SAID, HAS BEEN LIKE AN ANGEL TO YOU… 

Charles walked into my life three days before my brother collapsed for the first time and we discovered he had a brain tumour. Charles saw me through it. He became a complete, pure, supportive angel, at the hardest time. My brother has a very deep connection with Charles too — he became like a healer for my brother. It is ironic because, when I first saw Charles, I wanted to name him Konstantin, which is my brother’s name. But then I thought that two Konstantins in my life might cause a fair bit of confusion, so I named him Charles. Konstantin is Charles’ middle name.

SO, ARE CHARLES AND EDWARD NAMED AFTER THE BAND?

I’d never thought of that! I love Would I Lie To You? (by Charles & Eddie) but I chose these names because I thought ‘Charles’ was very royal. Then ‘Edward’ because a sibling for Charles needed a name that was equally regal. Edward, of course, is nothing like Charles. One is a gentleman and the other is full of mischief. That’s why I chose ‘Ozzy’ as a middle name for Edward.

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COVER STORY NOTES

A  giant scratching post for cats takes pride of place in Elli AvrRam’s living room. I’d hazard  the cat play area is larger than Elli’s dining table. A white piano is followed by two comfortable sofas and, beyond a compact terrace, a wide expanse of green beckons. Elli insists she’s a “simple girl,” and her tasteful Mumbai home is simple too. Warm and inviting, but modest. 

The actress known for her glittering costumes is absent. The soft-spoken, diminutive girl who sits across from me in a pale blue chikankari kurta is someone else altogether. Over the course of a freewheeling, three-hour conversation, we go beyond the superficial — into soul territory. There’s no talk at all of fame, favourite clothing brands or luxurious indulgences. This all-heart Elli travels from laughter to tears as she shares stories of her childhood, her deep love for India, and an assortment of heartbreaks.

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You will read all about Elli’s incredible tale in our cover feature this month, but there is so much more to this Swedish-Greek goddess than I could recount for you in under 2,000 words. As we explore her story together, I remark that she has been incredibly fortunate to have signed a film (and featured on Bigg Boss) within a year of landing in India. Having interviewed so many actors who have travelled from afar (none as far as Elli, of course) to seize stardom in the city of dreams, I suggest she may have sidestepped some of the usual struggles. Pennilessness and the dreaded casting couch have been largely evaded.

I realise quickly that Elli’s challenges have been different, but equally difficult. “Being away from my family has been the hardest thing in the world. I was in India — just starting my work on Mickey Virus — when my grandfather passed away. The day of his funeral was my first day of filming. I didn’t even know what was happening back home. They didn’t tell me anything until after it was all over. Getting to act in a Bollywood film was my biggest dream, but it cost me the opportunity to say goodbye to my grandfather,” says Elli softly, between tears. “I have never been more devastated. To have missed that moment will hurt forever.”

Brought up as a “Christian orthodox girl,” Elli believes in angels. She counts Salman Khan amongst them, but her late grandfather tops her list: “I feel like I have always had people in my life who have been protective about me. I truly believe that my grandfather has been the biggest angel. During his last conversation with me, he blessed me. He was in a state where he could not even talk, but when he saw me on FaceTime, he found the strength to speak so clearly. Both my parents were stunned, because he hadn’t been able to talk for weeks.”

With a decade in Bollywood under her sequin-studded belt, Elli AvrRam is no longer an outsider. She is an acclaimed dancer and actress. A paradox of softness and strength. An angel to her rescue cats. And, as each year passes, she continues to be blessed.

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