Sylvester Stallone, Cindy Crawford, Ricky Martin and Penelope Cruz were some of the guests. Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas were the hosts. At a gala charity dinner in the Hollywood couple’s Beverly Hills home, the celebrity stage was set and the stars were shining bright. But the centre of attention was a group of 15 girls from Calcutta.
The girls from the Kalitala home of the city-based NGO Sabera Foundation, beyond Thakurpukur, travelled first class to Los Angeles to a red-carpet welcome, stayed a week at the Banderas-Griffith villa, performed for an elite audience and returned home, laden with gifts and memories. The purpose of the dinner on October 10 was to raise funds for Sabera and release its maiden album, a combination of well-known and amateur voices.
“It was wonderful,” the girls chorus, wide-eyed with wonder, excitedly chattering all at once. Payal, 10, the self-appointed spokesperson for the group, tries to put their words in order. “We were welcomed with a lot of gifts,” she says. “Melanie aunty was there, her daughters Stella and Dakota were there, and a lot of other people. They gave us things at the airport, and then when we went to her house, there were more presents, with our names on them.”
They claim that they were “not in the least nervous” during the performance of the Hindi welcome dance or the Bihu item, before the congregation of 400. “We didn’t make a single mistake,” says Seema. There were minor mishaps, like when nine-year-old Sangeeta put a combination of Vaseline and lipstick on her chapped lips and they ended up swollen. She was adequately compensated, however, when “Antonio uncle” took her on his lap at the piano, guided her fingers over the keys, and sang for her.
They sat with the guests at their tables, eating singara with them and chatting. “Everyone kept asking us if we were having fun and enjoying ourselves,” says Piyali. Melanie Griffith and her sister Tracy sang with them, on stage, and Ricky Martin performed Living la vida loca, with Melanie and model Esther Canadas, another supporter of Sabera, as chorus dancers. “But the best part was when Antonio uncle sang (John Lennon’s) Imagine with us standing behind him, and everybody watching started crying,” says Priyanka.
Staying at Melanie aunty’s house was special. “It’s very big, and very beautiful. There are flowers everywhere,” says Monti. “Our rooms were very nice. Every night, Melanie aunty would put us to bed, kiss us good night and then put on a film on the huge TV. Then, when we were asleep, she would come in and switch it off,” Sonali reminisces. What they enjoyed most was playing with her two daughters, Stella, 6, and Dakota, 13. “We even swam in their pool with them,” says Javeda. Stella and five-year-old Saeda were inseparable. “They played together, ate together and although normally Saeda doesn’t talk much, she would chat all day long with Stella,” the girls explain. “Once, the two of them were sitting on a small stool together and eating pizza and they both fell off.”
A high point was the visit to Disneyland. Toy trains and roller-coasters, Mickey Mouse and Cinderella, they loved every minute of it. A lasting recollection of the trip is one of every thing being big — “even the people are so big, that they can’t sit on normal chairs” — and clean — “if there is bhaat lying on the roads, you feel like eating it”. Of travelling first-class on a British Airways flight (sponsored by BA), where “you could make the seat into a bed, the airhostesses talked very sweetly, and we watched Spiderman and Aankhen on a small TV”, of buses with “nice seats and TVs where we watched cartoons”, and funny clothes, “like one American lady who was wearing something like a towel”. In fact, Ricky Martin, Esther Canadas, Cindy Crawford and others auctioned their clothes to raise money.
But their most cherished memory is one of having been the centre of everyone’s attention and affection.