Lisa Ray talks about her life in Dubai, battling cancer, and her new art startup
Lisa Ray talks about her life in Dubai, battling cancer, and her new art startup Image Credit: AhmedRamzan/GulfNews

Indian actress, author, and cancer warrior Lisa Ray, who moved to Dubai with her twin daughters and Lebanese husband last year, stands tall among pop culture multi-hyphenates and is oddly fixated on the word ‘serendipitous’.

"Serendipity has always been the signature of my life," said Lisa Ray in an exclusive interview with Gulf News.

We are at her neighborhood café at the Arabian Ranches in Dubai, and the proud logophile recalls how she became a start-up founder for a curator-led arts NFT called ‘The UpsideSpace’ through a sheer happy accident (more on that later).

"I have no other way of describing a lot of events in my life other than circumstantial and serendipitous. Good fortune befalls you when you least expect it, and fate or destiny molds the direction of my life. Landing up in India at 16, and Mumbai – Bombay back in the day – a city that made me, broke me, and remade me many times over. And my strongest emotional connection to date, before the UAE, has been India," said Ray, adding that Dubai has her heart.

"Moving to Dubai was one of the easiest transitions in my life, and we have moved around quite a bit. My twins are four and they have lived in four countries already. But Dubai is now our base camp," said Ray.

She finds Dubai inclusive and safe from "intrusive stares".

"If you go to Kite Beach in Dubai today, you will see a variety of beachwear. You can choose to be covered up and modest, or you can wear a [swimsuit]. There’s no judgment either way, and no intrusive stares either," she added.

The self-described nomad, who believes she had no fixed address until she reached the UAE last January, is half-Polish and half-Bengali. She lived in Canada for the first sixteen years of her life before moving to Mumbai, Bollywood’s epicenter, to pursue her acting and modeling ambitions. For a long time, she was called the ‘Afreen Afreen’ girl after she appeared in the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s iconic music video, a tag that she has outgrown since.

She topped it off with her brilliant turn in director Deepa Mehta’s Oscar-nominated film ‘Water’ as a widow and, more recently, in the glossy women-led series ‘Four More Shots Please!’ and reality show ‘Top Chef Canada.’ But the 50-year-old multitasker claims she doesn’t have it all figured out in life or career.

Apparently, a casual chat with her friend Ayesha Khan during COVID about their mutual love for the arts led to becoming a start-up founder.

"I don’t even attempt to put it out there that 'I have it all together.' But I have now added start-up founder to my resume... I am finally able to actualize my passion for the arts and for supporting the arts," said Ray. Think of Ray’s new start-up project, UpSide Space, as a Netflix for the arts, where artists from Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East can sell art through an online marketplace, eliminating traditional middlemen like finding an art gallery to showcase their art.

"Starting your own business is very demanding and a grind... There aren’t a lot of female founders in that art-centric space. Think of our space as a playground for artists. We are a community. We are all about democratizing art and making sure that everybody has equal access to artistic expressions... Nobody is going to tell our stories but us. We are responsible for elevating our profile and telling our own stories," said Ray.

Lisa Ray
Actress Lisa Ray in an interview with Gulf News at a cafe in Dubai. We talk life in Dubai, her battle with cancer, and how she is a misfit in Bollywood

How cancer liberated Ray: 

The last sentence rings particularly true for Ray, who was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma in June 2009. It’s a rare form of cancer of the white blood cells, which produce antibodies. And during this challenging time, she wrote a book titled ‘Close to the Bone’ — a stirring account of living life on her own terms and becoming cancer-free.

"Being diagnosed with a serious cancer, multiple myeloma, in 2009 actually addressed whatever inner obstacles or hesitations I might have had about embracing new careers and projects. When you have to deal with mortality, that’s it. Everything else fades into insignificance... In a strange way, cancer liberated me,"said Ray.

But she isn’t fearless, she concedes. Her strength lies in acknowledging that crippling fear and powering through it.

"Writing a book is something that I always wanted to... When you are faced with your own mortality, the idea of embracing whatever you have in this life comes into very sharp focus... I wrote a book because of my cancer diagnosis. Writing is all I wanted to pursue, and it took me about 30 years to get there, so you can do it too," said Ray with a laugh.

Actress Lisa Ray in Dubai
Actress Lisa Ray in Dubai Image Credit: Instagram/LisaRay

She’s a high-functioning introvert married to a businessman husband who loves a good party. At first, when they landed in this bustling metropolis, they stayed in an apartment in Dubai Marina before embracing suburban bliss at a spacious villa in Arabian Ranches.

"My husband is Lebanese, and he’s very, very social. I am actually an introvert. Believe it or not, I need my quiet time to recharge my batteries... There was too much energy earlier before moving into this villa community. I love talking to the birds, and that’s so me," said Ray.

Almost on cue, she stops to listen to the birds chirping at this outdoor café, remarking on how glorious and sunny the morning is. While her husband and she might have contrasting personalities, Ray claims it was her husband who convinced her to take the plunge as a start-up founder.

"I am like a kite, and he holds my strings. He grounds me... I was scared about this business idea because I am not a tech-driven person. But he reminded me that if I consider myself creative, then I have to be open-minded, adaptable, and embrace new ideas... So, my very logical husband opened my mind and eyes. Remember, you don’t have to be an expert in anything to start your own business," said Ray. While she wasn’t an expert in art, she began collecting art at 16 and believes art is the biggest cultural soft power and a dazzling conversation starter.

My kids are four and have lived in four countries. But this is it. Dubai is our base camp from now on

- Lisa Ray, whose passport is filled with visa stamps from around the world. She has lived in Hong Kong, Singapore, London, Milan, Moscow, and Mumbai.

While she found solace in art and books, Ray wasn’t a natural celebrity who embraced the constant scrutiny. She believes that the entertainment industry and the modeling world that peddles impossible beauty and body standards weren’t a good fit for her.

"I felt like a misfit, and that’s why I even wrote ‘Close to the Bone.’ I never fit into the entertainment world in India back then. At least now, it’s taking a very different direction... I feel honored that at my very advanced age, when I had stepped back from acting, I got this wonderful opportunity to be a part of ‘Four More Shots Please!’,"said Ray.

Lisa Ray in the web series 'Four More Shots Please!' in which plays a popular actress with secrets to shield
Lisa Ray in the web series 'Four More Shots Please!' in which plays a popular actress with secrets to shield Image Credit: Amazon Prime Video

Her mantra for tackling life is painfully simple. Listening to her inner voice is a good start.

"I learned it the hard way when I was diagnosed with cancer, that if you cut yourself off from your inner world, your body needs, and you stop listening to that little voice, you will bear the consequences, and they will often be very harsh,"warned Ray.

And she learned the hard way that ‘hustling’ isn’t always a good thing.

"I am not a hustler, and it’s such a toxic term. We live in an age of distraction, and I am just very mindful of aligning my internal journey with my external one. To begin that process, you have to understand who you are. Even if you don’t have time to go off on a retreat for six months, you need to find stillness. We are encouraged to hustle as a society, and I don’t believe in that ... Remember enjoy the process and journey in life."