My first experience in Los Angeles wasn’t the most enriched one. I was promoting Slumdog Millionaire in 2009, and I was plucked out of obscurity and thrust into this big, glamorous world. All I saw was one press junket after the other. The first time I got off that plane, I didn’t think L.A. was my city, but I’m amazed how much it has grown on me. Two things helped: First, I found my yoga teacher. It was refreshing to see someone else who embraced my culture—yoga being very Indian—and see it practiced so widely in Los Angeles. The second thing was nature, which I miss greatly in Bombay. Once I was introduced to the beautiful hikes in the Palisades and Malibu, my perspective really started changing.
When I was prepping for my new film, Desert Dancer, I decided to go on a strict diet, but I said I would give myself one cheat day. One of my best friends and I drove an hour and a half down to Little India in Artesia and ate every possible cheat food that one might get in Bombay. I was blown away by the way every bite of pani puri and bhel puri—Indian street food—took me back to my childhood.
In L.A. there are three quaint, sweet restaurants that I love. One is an Ethiopian restaurant called Meals by Genet. Genet is like my mom in Los Angeles—she and two helpers cook all of the meals. At the end, Genet comes out and greets everyone. The love she puts in her food—I can taste every bit of it. Then there’s Jitlada, which everyone knows. Jazz, who’s the co-owner, is my other mother. And finally there’s this simple but lovely south Indian restaurant in Culver City called Mayura. Padmini, the owner, is my third mama. So you see, I’ve found family members in L.A., since my real family lives in Mumbai.
A lot of girls growing up in India do not realize the beauty of their beautiful tan skin tone. Skin-lightening products are a big seller in the Indian cosmetics industry. On one of my trips to Los Angeles, someone walked up to me and said, “You have the most beautiful caramel-chocolate skin.” In L.A. everyone is sunbathing or going to tanning shops; I wish the 1.2 billion people in India could have a little peek into this culture and appreciate what they have.
Slumdog Millionaire was like a first love. None of what happened was expected; the next thing I know, I’m walking down the red carpet at the Oscars in my John Galliano dress. The ceremony was so beautiful. To feel the energy in that room—it was like being touched by God. I still have a small suitcase full of memorabilia from the ceremonies. I stole my name card from the Directors Guild of America Awards, and I took one of the Slumdog Millionaire tags that were on the table at the Governors Ball. I was so dedicated to remembering all the people I met that when they gave me their card, I would write where I met them and in what context on the back. My agent turned to me and said, “Good luck keeping up with that.”