For actor, model and host Lisa Ray, 16 was a seminal year — and a bittersweet one.
That was the year she became an overnight modelling sensation in India.
But it was also the year she escaped a serious car accident — one that would confine her mother to a wheelchair — with only minor injuries.
The accident in her parents’ Honda Civic (she was a passenger) turned her life upside down in an instant.
“It just completely shifted my whole world,” recalls the glamorous half-Indian, half-Polish Toronto-born star.
“I guess you could say my life’s path changed. You’d think that I’d have some sort of hang-up or neurosis around cars but I think, at that age, you’re pretty resilient — I have no other real explanation for it — and life went on.”
While her mother recovered in Toronto, Ray returned to India with a chaperon. Only months earlier, she had starred in an ad campaign for a textile company. The image of Ray wrapped in a towel took off.
“It was really this very strange juxtaposition between personal pain and sudden overwhelming professional success happening at exactly the same time,” says the Bollywood/Hollywood star.
“I ended up in India and I kind of think that it was as a direct result of the accident — I probably would never have ended up there.”
“My parents sent me away … they could see the fire in me and they knew I always had a very strong connection with India,” she says. “I loved the country, and I really started my entire modelling career because it gave me an opportunity to live in India.”
Within a year of working as a model, Ray had enough money to walk into a Bombay Maruti dealership and buy her first car: a Maruti 800.
In the early 90s, Ray says automobile choices were still limited in India. Imports were slapped with heavy duties and therefore out of reach to all but the ultra rich. The Maruti, a collaboration between an Indian manufacturer and Suzuki, provided a reliable, economical ride.
“The Maruti kind of hearkens to the beginning of the Indian middle class, and I guess you could say the economic revolution, because finally there were these zippy little cars that people could afford,” Ray says. The 800 quickly became known as “the people’s car.”
India is now second only to China in the rate of automobile ownership, with Maruti Suzuki holding the largest slice of the passenger-car market and Tata Motors dominating commercial vehicle sales.
Ray thinks she paid between $15,000 and $20,000 for her humble ride. But it came with a twist: the common practice was to hire a driver.
“You literally hand over the keys,” Ray explains. “My driver — his name was Milind — was responsible for pretty much everything to do with the car; so it was a turn-key solution in every sense of the word. I loved it! I went into complete shock when I had to leave India.”
A combination personal assistant and chauffeur, Milind would ferry Ray to meetings, modelling shoots, film studios and evenings out.
“It was like a mobile office for me. That’s where I would make my calls, catch up on stuff or just rest between shoots and meetings. You spend so much time on the road.”
Because of her public profile in India (she also hosted a popular TV entertainment news program), Ray was encouraged by friends to trade up to a luxury import.
Instead, she chose a better Maruti. She doesn’t recall the make, but does sing the praises of a later purchase: a Maruti Boleno, a Honda Accord-like family sedan.
“That was the last one I had and it was a super-comfortable car. I don’t know if they still make them but they were superb!”
Ray says she was never obsessed with cars.
“There were so many other things that captured my attention, I didn’t put a huge emphasis on it,” she says, although conceding that her current ride, a Range Rover, is a happy mix of comfort, luxury and practicality.
With every automobile manufacturer now wooing the Indian market, Ray says car ownership is more important than ever: “They’re a huge status symbol.”
Having served as a brand ambassador for Audi in her adopted country, Ray says the marque is favoured by young Bollywood celebrities, while the old guard still chooses more flamboyant rides like Rolls Royce.
Ray is relishing her current gig as co-host of with chef Mark McEwan.
Just four years ago, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer. She underwent gruelling treatments and is now in full remission.
She says she’s reached another stage of her life — one she’s thoroughly enjoying.