“My first modelling assignment?” asks Aarna Chaudhary. “It was with Bollywood celebrity Preity Zinta.” The little girl pauses for a moment not so much to remember the details of the shoot but to make herself more comfortable in the single-seater swing that stands in one corner of the living room. “Ooh, it was so much fun shooting with her. She is sooo lovely,” says the eight-year-old, her broad smile never once leaving her face as she relives the moment.

Bubbling with energy, she excuses herself for a moment to race to her room and bring back a laminated picture of a print ad in which she featured for the very first time with the Bollywood celeb.

That first shoot was during the peak of the pandemic in 2020. Aarna has since worked with a bevy of A-listers, including American actor and former rapper John Cena, Bollywood actors Ranveer Singh, Piyush Mishra and Taher Sabbir; cricketers M S Dhoni and Chris Gayle; Lebanese singer Myriam Faris, Tunisian crooner Amani Swiss, not to mention Bollywood singers Guru Randhawa, Tony Kakkar… The list goes on. Most recently she starred with Dubai-based Indian tennis ace Sania Mirza for beGalileo, an early learning platform.

“But my first modelling shoot is very special. I have so many stories to tell you about it,” says the lithe little girl, hopping back on to the sofa and folding her legs in an almost yoga-like position.

We are in her parents Vijay and Ashu’s modest apartment in Jumeirah Village Circle, and Aarna can barely contain herself, excited to share incidents of her model moments. And she surely has several.

Aarna says she enjoys travelling to different countries for her shoots
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A student of Dubai’s JSS Private School in Al Safa, she has already featured as a model or actor in some 73 advertisements. Her extensive portfolio boasts several major brands and entities including Hershey’s, Aster Hospital, Dubai Aquarium, Sharjah TV, Abu Dhabi TV, Byju’s learning app, Saudi Arabian telecommunications services company Mobily, Fena, a detergent brand, Yippee noodles... “My greatest achievement, though, was being chosen to be part of a promotional video for Expo 2020 Dubai,” she says, her eyes crinkling with excitement. “That video was watched by millions of people and even shared by our leaders.”

Aarna’s mother Ashu proudly shows me screenshots of the video posts that went viral during the recently concluded Expo 2020. “It was truly a proud moment for her and us to be part of such a major event in Dubai,” says Ashu.

Taking baby steps

Aarna’s first modelling venture for a detergent brand came about after she was spotted by a casting director while the little girl was performing a dance at an event on Flag Island, in Sharjah. That was in 2019.

“Aarna has a passion for dance so we had enrolled her into a dance school and this was a program the school had organised,” says Ashu.

After the event, a woman came over and after introducing herself as a casting director asked if Aarna would be interested to be a child model. “We asked Aarna who immediately agreed, and the director took my contact number.”

A couple of months later Ashu received a call from the casting director inviting Aarna to audition for a TV commercial. From around 100 girls who had turned up for the first round of auditions, 50 were shortlisted for the second round, before the list was whittled down to 15 in the third round. “The last round involved four girls from which Aarna was selected to star with Preity for a commercial and a series of print ads,” says Ashu.

Aarna waits for her mother to finish so she can pick up the thread. “Actually, there is another story behind my first ad. A few days before my shoot was to happen, I fractured my foot while practising gymnastics,” says the little model, brushing back her long hair, animatedly recalling the incident.

An X-ray revealed that it was a hairline fracture and the foot was put in a cast. However, luckily for her, on the day of the shoot, the cast was removed and Aarna could participate in the shoot as scheduled.

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“In the ad you will see that I have bent my leg as though I am dancing. The ad team told me to do that so my hurt foot would not be visible in the pictures,” says the girl, giggling.

Was it easy to face the camera the first time for a shoot with a star?

“Oh, it was so very nice to work with Preity,” says Aarna. “She told me not to get stressed and to just be my usual self. ‘We’ll just take a few pictures and have some fun’, she said. It was great to shoot with her.”

Post the first ad, Aarna quickly began getting noticed: “The TV commercial with Preity and Aarna was shown many times during the telecast of IPL matches,” says Vijay, a lover of cricket. “Several of our family and friends from here and from India called to say that they had seen her in the commercial.”

Following the advice of some well-wishers, Aarna’s parents registered her with a few modelling agencies in the UAE and offers soon began trickling in.

The second ad Aarna did was for Dubai RTA before she was chosen to star in commercials and ads for Etisalat, Aster Hospital, Yippee noodles, Dubai Tourism, Abu Dhabi Tourism and Saudi Arabia Tourism, among others.

In just over a year of her entry into the field of modelling, the school kid was starring with A-listers; her ads appearing on TV and in print, and she smiling down from billboards across the city.

Dad Vijay hopes Aarna’s experience as a child model can help open better opportunities in the future
Stefan Lindeque

Do her friends treat her differently now that her face is familiar across the country?

“Yes, I do get a lot of attention from my friends,” she says with a smile. “They tell their friends about me and I have a large circle of friends now. My friends do ask me about how it was to meet the stars, about acting in commercials, etc. I tell them it’s a lot of fun.”

Aarna also admits that it’s “great fun” to see her pictures on ads on the sides of Dubai taxis and on billboards on Shaikh Zayed road. “Yesterday, when I went to Carrefour, I was so happy to see a Hershey’s advertisement that has me in it. On the way to school, I often see a huge billboard of Aster hospitals in which I am one of the models. It makes me very happy to see it.”

Chance to see the world

Another thing that also makes the little girl happy is getting to travel to different countries for shoots. “I went to Georgia recently for an ad shoot,” she gushes, before jumping off the sofa and scampering to her room to fetch a little trinket to show us that she purchased while on the trip. “I got to tour parts of the country after the shoot.

“I’ve also travelled to Saudi Arabia for a Saudi Tourism shoot. That too was great fun. I saw so many places.”

Usually both her parents accompany her on travels overseas but if Vijay is too busy (he works for a metal trading company in Dubai), Ashu, who works for a real estate firm, goes along with Aarna. “Travel abroad is nice because we are treated very well,” says Ashu. “Some brands pay a travel expense over and above her fee.”

Of course, ad shoots are not all fun and games. Aarna is expected to learn her portion of the script well for a commercial prior to the shoot. “They do give us the script in advance so she practices it for a couple of days at home and is prepared when going for the shoot,” says Ashu.

Which shoot was the toughest? I ask the little one.

Aarna thinks for a moment then says, “really none. The Dubai Tourism shoot was probably the lengthiest. We [a bunch of kids] shot for 11 consecutive days. But I also got to spend so much time at the Dubai Mall, Mall of the Emirates, Palm Jumeirah, Atlantis and several other attractions.”

How was it to be sharing screen space with stars? “Ranveer Singh was very friendly,” she says. Then she strikes a mock thinking pose, resting her index finger next to her chin before adding: “actually all the stars were very friendly and nice”.

“Ranveer is so energetic,” she gushes. “Although he had a body double, Ranveer did all the stunt scenes without the double while shooting in Dubai. He would play with us in the park when there was a break in the shoot and splash water on us when in the swimming pool. We had a lot of fun. This was a shoot for Yas Island.”

Did he give you tips on modelling, etc? I ask. “One piece of advice he gave me was to never be proud. ‘Always stay normal and grounded, and you will succeed in life’, he told me,” she says.

She is also excited when talking about the shoot with John Cena. “In the commercial, did you see the girl standing next to him and covering her mouth with surprise when Cena is jumping from a helicopter? That’s me,” says the girl, who has also won awards including one on International Women’s Day for her achievements in the field of arts.

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Aarna hops out of her swing again, this time to show me a picture she took with MS Dhoni. “This was when we did an ad for Yippee noodles. My father really wanted to meet M S Dhoni, but the Covid protocol was very strict so he could not,” says the kid, giggling while throwing her arms around her dad’s neck.

Chris Gayle was another cricketer she enjoyed shooting with. “It was for a music video,” she says. “He was so cool on the sets, and a lot of fun.”

Balancing academics well

With the little girl being so busy almost all through the year, I ask her how she juggles her academics with her passion – modelling.

“The school is very cooperative when she needs to take a few days off for shoots,” says Ashu. That’s perhaps because she does well academically, too. “Aarna has bagged her school’s Genius Award thrice and Versatile Kid award twice,” says her mother.

Aarna quickly chips in: “On days that I take off, my friends are very kind and send me the day’s school work by Whatsapp or e-mail. I can then complete the work when I return home after the shoot and am ready for school the next day.” 

The girl is also grateful to her teachers for supporting her passion. “They encourage me by saying that I do my school work and all these extra curricular activities well.”

A majority of ads that she has done portray her as an Arab kid. “Some casting directors have said she has an Arab kid’s features when viewed from certain angles. She has done perhaps just four or five shoots where she acts as an Indian kid,” says Vijay.  

When it comes to remuneration, Vijay says some brands pay well. “The Expo team paid her very well and also took care of all the team members excellently,” he says. In a few instances, though, the fee is quite low. “But we don’t mind because she can garner more experience and perhaps they will pave way for better opportunities.”

Is there any star she is looking forward to working with? “When we did the shoot for Byju’s app, I thought I would meet Shah Rukh Khan. But that did not happen. I’d like to work with him. And Salman Khan,” she says, with a grin.

As we prepare to leave, I ask Aarna what her dream career is. She brushes back her hair and thinks for a moment: “I want to be a model scientist,” she says.

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