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London in 3 Acts

Actor Tota Roy Choudhury pens an account of his three-day break in the British capital

By Tota Roy Choudhury

  • Published 7.09.19, 7:41 PM
  • Updated 7.09.19, 7:41 PM
Mummies on display at The British Museum
Mummies on display at The British Museum Sourced by the author

‘Purpose of visit?’, the lady (wo)manning the immigration booth at Heathrow asked sternly. For an inexplicable reason the nursery rhyme “Pussycat, pussycat where have you been; I have been to London to visit the Queen” flashed across my mind and a smile played about my lips. Which, after a combined journeying and waiting time of almost 20 hours, made my face look sufficiently demented for the lady to visibly flinch. I quickly straightened up and croaked, “Shooting.” My voice sounded ominous now and the lady was alarmed. “I am an actor,” I stressed on the last word which apparently was enough to explain my quirkiness to her and she waved me in, with alacrity.

I was in London to shoot for Ribhu Dasgupta’s film, an official adaptation of the bestselling psychological thriller novel The Girl On The Train by the British author Paula Hawkins. Ribhu is a quiet and reticent director with an incisive mind and a clear vision. I had worked with him earlier in his film TE3N, which was also my first Hindi film. He was gracious enough to personally call me and offer me the role (in his new film) and casually mentioned that I may have about three days off. I knew exactly where I would be, on those three days!

The bust of Ramses II
The bust of Ramses II Sourced by the author

Act 1: The British Museum

Situated at Bloomsbury, the intellectual and literary hub of London, The British Museum is among the largest and most comprehensive museums of the world. It also houses the world’s largest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside Cairo. Now, ever since I had read River God by Wilbur Smith, I have had a huge interest in ancient Egypt. So, my first stop was the Department of Egypt and Sudan. And boy, was I stunned by the sheer vastness of its assortment! Mummies and artefacts dating back to 3400 BC are displayed. From the Gebelein Man (c. 3400 BC) to the bust of Ramses II (c. 1270 BC), it’s all there. Going through the assemblage I was instantly transported to that era and lost track of time before a pang of hunger brought me back to the present. It was my stomach telling me, ‘Hey history-nut, if you want me to keep up with your enthusiasm you need to ply me with sugar.’ I checked my watch and was astounded to find that three hours had flown by!

Making my way to the Great Court which is the heart of the Museum and houses a restaurant, a cafe and a pizzeria, I went for the second and settled down with a thick slice of cream carrot cake and a large cup of flat white coffee; diet be damned! Looking around I pretty much saw the world. People from all over the globe were there. In fact, I was sharing a table with a Chilean globetrotter, a Spanish history professor and a serious-looking Korean who only smiled a bit when I mentioned PSY, of Gangnam Style fame. With a heady sugar rush, I now ventured towards the Indian exhibits and was thrilled to find Rabindranath Tagore’s painting, Satyajit Ray’s watercolour illustration of a credit frame from his film Kanchenjungha and Tipu Sultan’s sword. If you are there, don’t miss out on the guy at the entrance selling freshly caramelised nuts. For two quids a pack, you will taste heaven while walking down Great Russell Street.

The Stamford Bridge (Chelsea) Stadium
The Stamford Bridge (Chelsea) Stadium Sourced by the author

Act 2: The Stamford Bridge (Chelsea) Stadium

Honest confession: I am more of a footballer in my heart than an actor. Had I not faced a career-ending hamstring injury I would probably have represented one of the two big clubs of Calcutta (even if I say so myself). And, for long, I have been a fan of the English Premier League. Some of my favourite players like Drogba, Lampard, David Luiz, Hazard and, now, Willian have all made their bones in Chelsea FC. So, I was looking forward to visiting their home ground, Stamford Bridge. Situated at the posh Fulham Road, it’s a compact stadium seating 40,000.

The museum in the complex alone is worth the price of admission. From trophies won, jerseys and boots worn, balls played with, it’s a slice of footballing history. We were heralded in and given the tour by a second generation Bengali girl (who else?! We Bongs and football...), who was an ex-footballer from the Chelsea academy. From the press centre to the medical units and the dressing rooms, we got a glimpse of what actually happens behind the scenes. While at the ‘away’ dressing room I spotted my all-time favourite player Ronaldinho’s jersey and also Cristiano Ronaldo’s, beside a full-length mirror. “Because he likes to check himself out before a match,” my guide explained, a tad mischievous.

The pitch was a brand new one made before their campaign began for the English Premier League. Just 48 hours prior to their inaugural EPL match against Leicester City I actually got to stand in the manager’s box and click a picture where Frank Lampard would be standing and instructing the boys!!! The feeling, sadly, can’t be described and can only be felt by a football aficionado. Long story short, it was a dream come true and, after the tour, I could be seen dribbling an imaginary ball for the rest of the way towards South Kensington, much to the dismay of the passers-by.

A performance of Peter Gynt at the Royal National Theatre
A performance of Peter Gynt at the Royal National Theatre Sourced by the author

Act 3: Royal National Theatre

It was a picture-postcard Saturday morning. Happy and beautiful people were out in full force. As I was walking down Waterloo Bridge I spotted a familiar-looking gentleman ambling down in the opposite direction. I looked carefully and nearly fell into the Thames. That man was John Malkovich! I screamed, “Sir John” (no, he hasn’t been knighted but what could I call him, Malkoda?). He looked at me with those disconcerting eyes and said “Hello there” and walked off. I stood there transfixed, paraphrasing Hamlet — to ask or not to ask (for a selfie). I decided not to, since he was probably enjoying a walk before his matinee at the Garrick Theatre and wouldn’t want to be disturbed.

Commonly known as the National Theatre, the Royal National Theatre is a shrine to the performing artistes. From Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren to Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins, Daniel Day-Lewis, some of the greatest actors of all time have graced the hallowed floorboards of the NT. Every step I took was measured and my eyes constantly swept in all directions so that I didn’t miss out on anything. I inhaled deeply and the combined odour of freshly-brewed coffee and new books, the most potent aroma in the world, hit my olfactory nerve and I was instantly in its spell.

NT has four separate auditoria within its complex with a combined capacity of 2,600-plus seats. The bookshop in NT has the largest collection of books on the performing arts that I have ever seen, and I have been to some of the biggest stores, such as Kinokuniya in Singapore and Waterstones at Piccadilly. You simply can’t not buy a book from there if you love the performing arts.

I had been there to catch a matinee of Peter Gynt, an exuberant reinvention of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Good thing that I had pre-booked my ticket online since barring a few seats in the dress circle, the auditorium was full. Many in the audience were in jackets and sipping wine while enjoying the play, making me feel woefully underdressed. A young James McArdle as the protagonist — in top form that afternoon — held us enthralled. He made us laugh, cry, ponder, question our values and pretty much sit transfixed for over three hours with his scintillating performance. I realised that I am witnessing the craft of a superstar of tomorrow.

After buying a few books and then lazily browsing through them while sipping a freshly-brewed latte, I came out and took a long stroll along The Queen’s Walk. The cafes and restaurants were brimming with the weekend crowd, which made me realise that no solid food has passed down my gullet in the last five hours!

The freshly-fried chips and batter-fried fillet of fish was art
The freshly-fried chips and batter-fried fillet of fish was art Sourced by the author

I walked into a pub serving early dinner. While pondering over the menu behind the counter, the lady of the house (who looked a lot like Olivia Colman, she of Broadchurch fame, Best Actress Oscar awardee, British national treasure) walked up to me and said, “Where from, luv?”

“Calcutta, India.”

“Ah, the city of joy!” Clearly she had read her Dominique Lapierre. “Like us you all love fish, don’t you?”

I nodded in assent and she said, “Leave it to me,” and showed me to a table.

I looked around and had a feeling that many of the patrons were regulars and from the acting fraternity. How? Well, it takes one to know one, innit? Except the guy of Middle Eastern origin, at the adjacent table, in shorts and shades (taking the adage, ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’, a tad too literally), who like me was a tourist.

“Ta-daa!” the lady said cheerfully as she set down a wooden tray in front of me.

On it was placed a wire basket containing freshly-fried chips and a sizeable golden-brown batter-covered fillet of fish! I had the same expression that I had when I first saw the Mona Lisa at The Louvre. Reverentially, I cut a small piece of fish and put it into my mouth. There was an explosion of flavours. Crunchy outside with soft fresh fish inside and the right amount of salt and vinegar sprinkled on it, it was not food but art! I shut my eyes with gastronomic pleasure.

When I opened them, I found four pairs of eyes staring at me from across the table. Before I could say anything one of them shouted, “I’ll have one of that as well”, towards the counter.

Summing up my three acts, I realised that I have fallen deeply in love with London. A city which celebrates football, fish (and chips), films, fashion, music, literature, theatre, has one of the most integrated societies in the world, is fastidious about conserving its heritage, where trains and buses run like clockwork and its people are usually disciplined and polite — is worth emulating, admired and loved. So while catching my return flight I emphatically promised to no one in particular, but dramatically nevertheless, mimicking the Terminator — I will be back!