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Home sweet home
A film is currently being filmed on the outskirts of Nicosia. ZOE CHRISTODOULIDES visits the set to meet those working on it, including a Bollywood starlet
It’s a typically hot and sticky sunny day in a typically Cypriot house accommodating a typically Cypriot family. And amid all that is yet another stunningly typical feature: the foreign maid who comes from some foreign Asian land where people have darker skin and speak a little ‘funny’. The premise is a familiar one, but the storyline has been fabricated into a humorous plot for the big screen in a film that’s now being shot just a stone’s throw from the ancient ruins of Ayios Sozomenos.
Going by the name of Home Sweet Home, the curiously alluring and beautiful foreign maid has travelled all the way from Bollywood glory in India to leave her mark on the local film industry as she brings to life an almost unbearably poignant cliché. Concurrently, a whole host of other well known actors from Greece and Cyprus, including Costas Demetriou and Carmen Roungeri, have also been called upon to work magic with their acting talents.
Entering the house, one would think it’s been around for years. There’s the random old fashioned flower pots clustered round the main entrance, the bowls overflowing with fruit scattered around the kitchen, and the kitsch knick knacks and memorabilia forming a rather unsightly cluster along the aged brown bedroom units. All part of the rather carefully put together set that was erected in a mere two months, it has recently come to life with the sound of chatter, laughter, groans, moans and just about everything and anything in between. Having walked onto the set in the third week of shooting, the hustle and bustle in the house and its adjacent garden seems to sit in stark contrast to the peacefulness of the surrounding natural environment.
“The screenplay talks about a man who just got sick of everything and wants to live alone in solitude,” explains production manager Stelios Constantinou. That would explain the rather remote location. But the protagonist - played by Demetriou - certainly doesn’t seem have to found the peace of mind he was seeking as wild family shenanigans take centre stage. “All the family have descended upon him and seriously disturb the peace.” The intricacies of the plot when it comes to the dysfunctional family are even more bizarre than one would expect.
It all begins when the UK discovers large oil deposits in the area of the old mines in Cyprus. The British government calls a meeting and decides to handle the matter diplomatically, with the aim of getting their mitts on the oil. Their strategy is to officially apologise for their colonial policies of the past, while withdrawing from the British sovereign military bases on the island. In exchange they would like to be given the deserted and useless area of the old mines, which they intend to reform and transform into an ecological park. The Cyprus government discusses the matter with some reservations because it simply doesn’t trust the ‘English’.
A big part of the old mines area belongs to the male protagonist and his sole aim is that of transforming the field into a quiet heavenly orchard. But soon enough, the outbreak of a big economic crisis leads the two sons of the family into total bankruptcy, forcing them to move back to their parents’ house. The little house is suddenly playing host to eleven people and a great number of comical problems are brought on by the sudden cohabitation.
And where does the domestic worker fit into all this? “Ah, she comes along with one of the sons but her role in the movie is much bigger than that of a cleaner,” points out Stelios. As the plot unravels, many hilarious scenarios ensue as just about everyone falls for the “sweet but sexy” housemaid. So it’s the age old cliché of a foreign domestic worker who unwittingly wins over the hearts of helpless men? “Yes of course. These are typical Cypriots. One son was very rich but went bankrupt and his foreign cleaner is one of the only things he has left. He also comes to the house with his adopted African baby.” That would explain the young child that is soon spotted kicking his football around the compound. Commenting on the superficiality of modern day society, the film boasts heavy satirical undertones.
As the plot unravels, the Cypriot government representatives ask the protagonist to concede the house to the state. But he stubbornly refuses, no matter how tempting their offers may be. Meanwhile, British authorities find out that the ownership of the place is not absolutely clarified and try to offer Hasan (a Turkish Cypriot who previously owned the land) a large amount of money if he is willing to sell the house to a couple of English agents. Hasan, his son, and the English couple end up camping out in the yard, demanding the house to be handed over. The whole place seems to be under siege, while all parties involved face increasingly bizarre and hilarious scenarios.
Under the stamp of by Avra Productions and partly funded by the Education Ministry, this is one of the biggest productions we’ve seen on the island to date, filmed in both English and Greek, and directed by Kyriakos Tofarides. Set to be released by Christmas this year, it is hoped that it will hit an international market. After all, the up and coming Bollywood star will surely add to the appeal. The domestic worker who according to Stelios has “the power of making things good with her charms, sits quietly tapping away on her Mac, seemingly wanting to distance herself a little from the madness on set. After all, shooting started at 5.45am and the 24-year-old actress has been far from her hometown of Mumbai for a good few weeks.
While she has starred in 18 films in India so far, this one marks her debut on the international scene. But what’s perhaps the most interesting of all is the frenzy she recently caused in the media after a recent interview in DNA India mentioning just how ‘fit’ she has found Cypriot men.
Neetu Chandra looks up at me with her almond shaped eyes holding both a fiery femininity and rather uncanny child like spirit. She suddenly breaks into a wide smile, her stunningly white teeth calling out for attention. “Oh yes! The men here have such beautiful faces. They are tanned, almost like the Indians, but with softer features. And they also have great bodies, they really seem to look after themselves. What else would a girl want?” While most Cypriot men aren’t usually famed for their stunning good looks, Neetu seems to put their allure down to the fact that they’ve had to take part in military service. “I find their army background really attractive,” she proclaims. But her admiration for Cypriot beauty isn’t just limited to the male gender. “I also find the women here really pretty. When I sit by the beach and watch them coming out of the sea they looked a bit like mermaids. They have nice figures and always seem to carry themselves very well. I think it’s very important to hold yourself well and respect your body. It’s the first thing that’s been given to you by god.”
Dressed in a traditional Indian fashion for her part, Neetu also wears a bindi and sports a gold nose ring. Bare faced and beautiful, her eyes twinkle, outlined by little more than a faint line of charcoal pencil and a few lashings of mascara. What’s her beauty secret? “I drink a lot of water - about five litres a day - and always make sure I remove my make up at night. I also eat lots of fruit and vegetables. It’s not about overnight miracles but sticking to what suits you.”
A world away from the glamorous and rather sensual pictures posted of the actress online - many of which include her posing in skimpy bikinis for male magazines - Neetu seems to be more than comfortable in the role of domestic worker. Undoubtedly rather different to her screen roles so far, she seems to be intent on sending out a social message to people back home who become housemaids. “I would never have played this role if I didn’t like the script,” she explains. “In the film I say ‘I’m from India’ with a lot of pride and wanted to send out the message to all people working away from home to be proud of their roots. It doesn’t make you big or small to be a domestic worker. You are who you are, despite your job.”
Guess that’s easy to say when you’re a beautiful actress who can also boast a modelling career to boot. Now playing the “domestic help who becomes the dream girl who is always smiling,” it all seems to come easily to her. I wonder how she was chosen for the role? Turns out she was approached by a well known Indian director who informed her about the film. She was then selected to take part in a series of Skype interviews along with a few other candidates. “The director liked me, I liked the script, we spoke on Skype and we got on the ball. That was that really.”
Humble and laid back, Neetu certainly isn’t the diva I expected to meet after viewing her promo shots. And it soon becomes obvious that a big part of her longs for her home. “I really really miss my mum,” she lets on, then going on to explain that she lost her dad to cancer last year. But she doesn’t really dwell on her family back in India, but rather, starts to talk about the new family here on set. While she’s been spending her nights at the Sun Hall Hotel in Larnaca, days on set begin bright and early as endless hours are passed with the cast and crew. “I have breakfast, lunch and my evening meal with everyone here. It’s easy to feel close to everyone whereas Bollywood sets are usually huge and you just don’t get that feel.”
But have all the hours on set left her with any time to explore the island? Turns out that she’s had the chance to see a number of hot spots, particularly enamoured by the Larnaca salt lake and beaches in Protaras. At this point she moves closer to her laptop and excitedly points towards a few seaside shots. The actress then admits to never having swam in the sea before, but having recently dared to take the plunge during her visit here. But it’s not just the sea that has made a big impression on her, as she claims to be totally impressed by the warmth of the local people and their hospitality. “I also thought Nicosia was beautiful with so much cultural heritage kept intact,” she enthuses. “But it was also really upsetting. We visited the Ledra Street checkpoint and I felt really sad.” Suddenly, our conversation is put on pause as Neetu is called upon for another shoot, running off to become the alluring and innocent domestic worker once again.
A while later she appears to have changed persona yet again, housemaid outfit hung away neatly for the night, nose ring and bindi removed, her long hair held back off her face in a fashionable, bright headband. Now, she could be just your average girl. But as she flicks back her long glossy mane and smiles in that dazzling fashion, the Bollywood starlet shines through yet again.