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Move over freIda pinto, TENA DESAE is here!

Who Tena? well, the model with two small bolly films on her cv who has bagged a big — make that huge — holly film

Till the other day, Tena Desae was a model with close to 100 commercials and a ho-hum Bollywood career. Now, the leggy stunner from Bangalore is acting in a Hollywood film helmed by Shakespeare in Love maker John Madden and co-starring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Dev Patel. t2 caught up with Tena — “my mum believes in numerology”, she laughs!

How did The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel happen? Oh, it was the usual grind of auditions. I happened to know the casting director and she called me for the first round. I did a couple of scenes and was shortlisted and had to meet John Madden. He made me do three or four scenes, out of which one or two were impromptu. I was called back a few days later and made to do more scenes! It was a long process, but eventually it paid off when I was told that I was being cast as one of the principal characters.

What was your reaction when you were told that you would be sharing screen space with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith? I went ballistic when I got the role because by that time, I had come to know who were the names that had already been signed on. This has been the chance of a lifetime for me… something that I can’t even say I had ever remotely dreamt of. Being in India, you only think of Bollywood. Hollywood is a distant dream for most, more so for a newcomer like me. I am a James Bond and Harry Potter fan… Slumdog (Millionaire) was a huge deal and so was Shakespeare in Love. To be in the same frame as the people who were involved in these films was super-exciting for me. I went completely crazy!

Were you nervous while filming? When I met all these people on set, I went numb. I would have all these great conversations about cinema with Judi Dench and Bill Nighy and John Madden and I would be like, ‘Oh my God! This is happening for real’. But it is to their credit that they made me feel so comfortable. That’s the nice thing about these people — they never impose themselves on you, no matter how big they may be. I would talk to them like I would talk to any new person. Considering it was such a huge Hollywood production where I had to share screen space with stalwarts, I went in very, very nervous. But when you see your director cracking jokes, it tends to make the atmosphere so easy.

What is your role? I play Sunaina who is one of the principal characters in the ensemble cast. I haven’t been given permission to talk about the film yet, but I can tell you that I play Dev Patel’s love interest. I am trying to deal with friction from Dev’s mother who is opposed to our marriage. I develop a relationship with Dame Judi’s character who helps us in our problems. That’s all I am allowed to say at this point.

Not many know that you have also done two Bollywood films… I didn’t really want to go to acting school. So when Yeh Faasley (in which Tena played a daughter grappling with her father’s past) came along, I looked at it as a training ground for me… a great experience to learn all about acting given that I was being cast with Anupam Kher. The fact that the film was female-oriented and I had a strong character worked for me. To be honest, I never gave a thought as to how both Yeh Faasley and Sahi Dhandhe Galat Bande would do commercially because I looked at both of them predominantly as learning experiences. My experience has only been in ads. After a point, I wanted to do a little more than just advertise a product and smile at the camera. And these two films offered me that. And in Sahi Dhandhe, my character got to kidnap the chief minister’s son which I thought was incredibly quirky and fun!

But wouldn’t you have ideally liked to debut with a big banner and opposite a big star? That would have been ideal, but I am glad with the kind of entry I have made because I am now slowly getting exposed to the industry and how it works. And anyway, everything in the films is a gamble. You never know what will work and what won’t. More often than not, a good performance always matters more. I will hopefully do the bigger banners, but I have yet to figure whether I should align with a good script or look for banners that guarantee a big release.

How did a girl studying accounts and taxation get into the world of modelling and films? It’s like a 51-49 thing for me. While a career in acting and modelling has been my lifelong dream, I also enjoy accounting and taxation! No matter what you do, it’s always necessary to have a solid education in place and I wanted to study something that I genuinely enjoy. That’s my backing… that’s my confidence that God forbid, if anything goes wrong one day, I have an alternative career to fall back on.

You are also one of the highlights of the 2012 Kingfisher Calendar that completes 10 years… It is the first time I am shooting a calendar like this. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of the atmosphere and the pace. So, I went in a little anxious, but I was pleasantly surprised by how easy the shoot was. It felt like we were actually on holiday and were doing some work in between! Everyone was cracking jokes and having a great time. I am glad that I came in when the calendar is celebrating its 10th anniversary and that makes it a little more special than other years.

How are you planning to use this big Holly experience in terms of a career there? I am planning to get an agent in Hollywood. I will be present for the premiere of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in the UK in February and try and meet people in the business. Right now, I am a little unsure as to how I plan to go about this, but I know that being a part of a huge film like this will definitely open doors for me.

What about Bollywood? Bollywood is priority because my sensibilities are Indian. I am hoping to meet some Bolly producers soon and something should materialise. And then of course is the whole plan to leverage my experience with this Hollywood film and look for roles there. I am hoping to have the best of both worlds!