Actress Judith Döker Mumbai as adventure

Judith Döker in Mumbai
Judith Döker in Mumbai | Photo: © Claudia Richter

The actress Judith Döker had always wanted to travel the world. But it took a low point in her personal life to prompt her to leave for Mumbai for an indefinite period. Bollywood, India’s dream factory, could not offer her a successful career – but she found much more.

On a cold day in January, as Judith Döker walks into the loud and crowded yet extremely hip cafe in the Belgian Quarter in Cologne, she drags a suitcase behind her. Only in the literal sense, because she has obviously rid herself of the load in two years of India. The 38-year-old actress travelled from Berlin, where she now lives again. She comes from a place not far from Cologne and her newly published book on her time in India has brought her some appointments in her old hometown – private and public channels have invited her to talk about it.
Döker, petite, light eyes, dark hair, now wearing a winter coat instead of a sari, orders ginger tea and cake. Before going to India she was a regular on German television. She is known primarily for the programme Weibsbilder, a comedy show where she and two other actors would give an exaggerated portrayal of daily life and show how absurd reality can be.
But all of a sudden she lost her job and all the other job options that seemed to open up after that disappeared before they could take concrete shape: ‘I had the feeling, this is not the way it should be.’ To add to this, she was unhappily in love. A situation in which one wants to take to one’s heels. And that’s what she did.

India as coincidence

It was a call from her insurance agent that prompted her to take the decision. He did not want to sell her a new policy but gave her a tip – try your luck in Bollywood. He had heard from an acquaintance that Bollywood was looking for actors from the West. Even if this soon turned out to be a fallacy – western artists are usually given only bit-part roles – the decision to go to India had been taken. And suddenly the options were there. The German television company ZDF sent Döker along with a camera man for three weeks to India. Although the project did not eventually develop into a film, Döker was hooked. She travelled to India a second time at her own expense and spent two months living with a Muslim woman and her three children – they shared a room.

An unusual experience for the German woman, but one that she had consciously sought – Judith Döker did not want to live with rich people but wanted a simple life to get to know Mumbai in all its facets. Her roommate Salma would go to the mosque at night. She told her German guest: ‘God has sent you.’ When Döker’s father died suddenly, Salma consoled her, rubbed her down with oil from the mosque. Salma’s 17-year-old daughter who saw Döker crying for her father was bewildered. She thought that people in the West were indifferent to their parents as they did not live with them, unlike most Indians.

The journey as the destination

To start with, Döker did not plan to do much in Mumbai – and that’s what made her trip so enjoyable. When she was lost, she was helped by strangers. Towards the end of this period, she got to know Nakul, also an actor. They became a couple.

Döker’s book about her time in India is titled: Judith goes to Bollywood. Wie ich in Indien den großen Erfolg suchte und die Liebe fand (Judith goes to Bollywood. How I went to India in search of success and found love).

As for Bollywood, Döker travelled to India aware that her prospects were dim. There are few roles for actors from the West and acting in India is completely different from acting in Germany. This became clear to her during the casting for a Bollywood film when they were looking for a western woman. Acting here is much more ‘elaborate’, with many gestures, rather exaggerated when looked at with German eyes. So she acted more elaborately – yet the filmmakers wanted still more. They were finally satisfied with Döker’s performance but decided in favour of the visual stereotype – a blonde actress.

Although Judith Döker is back in Germany, her partner remained in India. The two actors are officially no longer together but they Skype virtually every day. For her, he is one of the most important persons: ‘We wish the best for each other,’ says Döker. ‘I learned so much through him and gained such a positive view of life.’ But in the end, she was no longer happy in India. The relationship to Nakul’s mother was complicated, she did not accept the new woman in her son’s life. In the beginning, the couple lived together with the widow who, as Döker says, was crass, and she means: in her treatment of Döker. When the two finally moved out, they were never allowed to forget that they had left the mother on her own.

Wide discrepancy between rich and poor

And there were other things that also made life in India difficult for Döker. She was often unable to comprehend how some people can treat others. It felt bad that the domestic help had to sleep on the ground between cars. ‘People are treated in a way that is not done here. You don’t greet domestic staff. I always greeted them but some just didn’t understand that I had addressed them.’ The discrepancy between rich and poor is extremely wide.

And yet it is important for Döker to emphasise that India has another side, a positive and carefree one. That life here feels easier even though it is more difficult and more uncomfortable. It was right to go there. Just as it was right to come back now.

In Berlin, she would like to pursue her own projects, together with a friend. What exactly, is still a secret. And she has not yet written off acting, why should she? For there is one thing that she has learned in India: opportunities always come your way. And the book tour that goes via Cologne is only the start.