The year was 1996. For the life of me, I can’t recall whether it was summer or winter. I remember wearing my black suit. Which is not of much help as a clue because one had to wear a suit at any formal do, no matter the weather. But if I had to stake my life on it, I would bet that it was in one of the summer months because I do not remember wearing an overcoat. Winters in Milan tend to get quite cold, and an overcoat is usually a must in the evenings. Unless one has already put on an ‘inner blanket’, if you know what I mean. But then I clearly recall that it was around 7 or 8 in the evening – too early to have put on any ‘inner blanket’, at least not thick enough to go out without an overcoat! Anyway, the exact month or season is not the important thing or what I want to share here.
It was the European premiere of the film ‘Kundun’ – the Dalai Lama’s story from his childhood in Tibet till the time he was forced into exile and had to flee to India. I was there with my friend CP, courtesy a special invite from another friend Karma, one of the top Tibetan activists in Italy and Europe along with her Italian husband. My being in the Indian Consulate also obviously helped.
It was the first, and last, premiere that I have ever attended. As we walked the red carpet into the theatre, I saw Karma waving at us from near the entrance. As we were ushered into the first row of the VIP seats in the theatre, she told us that we would be sitting among the stars. It was the first time I have ever been watched by so many blue Italian eyes, or any eyes for that matter, as we made our way to the front and took our seats. That must have been the most disappointed pairs of blue Italian eyes in Italy that evening, but it made us feel like stars walking the red carpet at the Oscars – if only for a few seconds. As we sat down, two seats remained empty on our left while on our right and behind, the seats were being filled by what I suppose were the crème de la crème of Milan society. It was a surreal and dream-like experience for someone from a small town in a godforsaken corner of India. Sitting in those unaccustomed but obviously privileged seats, I felt a tinge of embarrassment and a sense that everyone was staring at my back, thinking they should be in my seat. Such is the human ego that I adjusted my seat, straightened my back and tried my best to sit like a star, crossing my legs in an imperious manner. Reflecting on that night later, I have a feeling that I must have made a pathetic figure. But I had the satisfaction of feeling like a star, if only for a few moments. I did not recognize a single person from the few surreptitious sidelong glances that I managed to make around my seat. But they were obviously the beautiful people of Milan. We must have been an eyesore in such company.
Suddenly there was a commotion as the ushers escorted two black-clad men in, one a dignified looking man with white hair and the other a handsome young man who looked like a model. Apart from their being seated right next to CP, there was no way we could ignore their presence because the moment they were seated, the flashbulbs started popping like crazy and everyone turned to stare. For a few minutes, we became unwitting participants in a media circus as the paparazzi bombarded the man in black with questions in Italian while the flashbulbs continued popping. It was only then I realized that the man was Giorgio Armani himself, making his presence felt and doing his bit for the Tibetan cause. Clad in his trademark black shirt and with his white hair, he presented a picture of confidence and quite dignity as he shot off a string of answers to the paparazzi questions. His confidence and poise was admirable as his replies elicited a round of applause and sometimes laughter from the paparazzi themselves as well as those near enough to listen in. The ushers soon ushered the paparazzi out, as the show began.
The film began soon enough and we sat in the darkness of the theatre, always aware that we were sitting right next to a person many consider a legend in the fashion world. We never spoke though, as we sat together watching a film that was as far removed from where we were as anything could be. Even CP, one of my more polite and talkative friends, sat unusually silent right next to the man himself, overawed by his unexpected situation. While the peculiar sense of being in a totally different and surreal surrounding remained, I gradually found myself absorbed by the drama unfolding on the screen of how the Dalai Lama was forced to flee his beloved Tibet.
The film ended soon and we left without exchanging a single word with the great Armani and we returned to our humdrum existence. But I still occasionally recall the night I sat next to Giorgio Armani as an equal, at least as far as seats go. We never spoke and, maybe, we lost a golden opportunity that night. But I like to think that even Giorgio himself might have thought about starting a conversation with us, if only for a moment. He himself might still occasionally recall that night, thinking he had missed an opportunity to strike up a conversation, which could have led to something. Who knows.