Category Archives: Interview

Nimrat Kaur: The Actress of 2013

My big Irrfan Khan moment came when I reached the cafe a half-hour late and saw Nimrat Kaur sitting by herself, waiting.

I did spy her from a distance, but unlike Khan’s character Saajan Fernandez in The Lunchbox, I strode right up to the actress who, unlike her own character in that film, sat with an iPad, “doing some serious Facebooking.” For those eager to draw more reel parallels between this piece and the most critically-acclaimed Indian film in decades, I must confess that she hadn’t been downing endless glasses of water. Ah well.

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Kaur, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last few weeks, is the leading lady of Ritesh Batra’s debut film, The Lunchbox, a film every critic in the country hailed unanimously as the right pick to send for the Oscars — and thus, naturally, the one film the government of India decided not to send. But Oscar-Schmoscar, for The Lunchbox has given us much: an exceptional performance from leading man Khan as well as stellar debuts from Batra and his actress, who delivers the kind of performance one should rightfully be thrilled by.

There are precious few actresses to get excited about in Hindi cinema. Most of them are mannequins who learn excruciatingly slowly on the job, after which critics and audiences, numbed by repetition, begin to mistake confidence (and, sometimes, stark make-up) for talent. The last time we got this thrilled about a new heroine was when Chitrangda Singh dazzled us in Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi in 2003, and the intervening decade has made us acutely aware of her limited talents. Kaur — who spends most of the film acting by herself, with only a neighbour’s voice for company — appears a lot more promising. An actress worth rooting for, then.

She’s as taken aback as we are about the way the film has connected to people. “Once Ritesh and I were coming back from an interview, and he was saying it’s unnerving sometimes how much adulation [there is], he was like, ‘we were just doing our jobs,’” says Kaur, trying to put mega-hype into perspective. “Actually that’s all it is. Its not a flawless film, its not the best film that’s ever been made. It is a film. It has been made to the best of all of our abilities, with the right intention, and it has taken us as close to the requirements as possible at that time and place. That’s it.” She stops herself for a second and wonders if that’s enough. “But really, yaar, that’s it.”

“The great sense I get is that people are very proud of this film. Not just the people who worked in it, and I hope I don’t sound conceited when I say this, but there is a lot of warmth and pride among people watching the film, who are so happy that the film has been made. And all credit to Ritesh for writing such a film and pulling it off in such a way just to make the film that he wanted to make. And it’s his first, man.”

Kaur is — just to set the record straight, o interested menfolk — nothing like the Ila she plays in The Lunchbox. She’s a smart girl with a sharp tongue and very bright eyes, and a part of her that Batra might have missed out on putting in the film is her gigantic laugh. She throws out breathless rat-a-tat peals, inevitably infectious and childlike, laughs that are almost always triggered off by what she finds preposterous. And show-business provides that in spades.

nimrat2“In this country, we go a lot by how people look,” she says, speaking about perception and advertising, for instance. “And that is meant to decide your personality. Like I used to sometimes sit and talk to agency people, and ask “how do you decide that this girl is Dove or this girl is ICICI?” It’s interesting, because I’ve auditioned for all of these and there’s a category that I’ve never, ever been able to crack. And I know it’s not me, so what is the issue? So then they’ll come up with stuff like, ‘please don’t quote us on this but, you know, see, a girl with a round face and round eyes looks ‘friendly.’” Her peals are waiter-distractingly loud. “A girl with North Indian features — which means a long face and a long nose and small eyes, or whatever — she looks a little bit distant, haha. She’s like ‘Housewife,’ but not ‘Girlfriend.’ What is all this? I don’t understand it, but it’s damn entertaining.”

That stereotyping manifest itself in Kaur’s head when she met Ritesh Batra the first time, with him eager to offer her the role without an audition. “When I met Ritesh, I was like, ‘is he sure? Because I’m not simple, I’m distant!’” Her volume soars just for the laughs, enough to make neighbouring coffee-drinkers gape, and settles down as quickly. “I better not say all of this, better keep my mouth shut. Can we just sign this somewhere so he can’t go back on his word?” There was no fear of the latter because Batra, who had seen Kaur in a small role in a still-unreleased film called Peddlers and as a lead in a theatre production called Baghdad Wedding, was more than impressed. “It was a very demanding, tricky role,” Ritesh explains, about the stage-part, “and she gave it so much. I knew she could do a lot with the film.”

For a very acclaimed theatre performer — co-actor Anshuman Jha calls Nimrat “an actress who can do anything” and one of the best he’s seen in his 13-year career on stage — Kaur’s beginnings came with Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi, with Dil and Beta. “It’s strange when you recognise, while growing up, that you’re not really into the hero; you’re more into the women,” she smiles. “You want to be them. I thought Madhuri and Sridevi were goddesses, because they could do anything!” Kaur wasn’t a shy kid, she enjoyed performing, and while she was significantly academically inclined, on some level she knew she’d chuck it all up for the greasepaint soon as she could.

An Army kid who lived all over the place, she did her Bachelors in Commerce from Delhi’s Shri Ram College Of Commerce — but only because it was the shortest course available to her. “It was a 3 year course. There was the Society of Planning and Architecture for 5 years, the Delhi College of Engineering for 4 years, and Shri Ram for 3. Those are the entrances you give, na. So that choice was made on the basis to get here fast,” she says of her Bombay move 9 years ago. It was a move that took her towards modelling and a couple of music videos, but also one that ignited a fierce passion for the stage.

“I love the medium so much,” she gushes. “It’s never been a stepping stone. It started out as a means of learning something or understanding stuff better, but then it became a way of life. Before I knew it, it was my sense of belonging and it has had such a deep impact on my life. How I carry myself. Why I’m able to understand some things better, in life or for work.”

I ask if she has a preference between acting for the screen or the stage, whether one is harder or one is more rewarding. “What if you write a column for a travel magazine, or you write one for a newspaper?  You’re writing, but you just have to understand the dynamics of the space. Or it’s like swimming. Are you swimming in the ocean, or a pool or a Jacuzzi? It’s that. Your challenges are very different. You have to reach out to many people, your devices are different, the tools are different, but the heart of the matter remains the same. Because you will catch on to a lie, whether on stage or on camera, you will catch a lie.

“On stage you are a lot more responsible. A lot more depends on you, because once the bell goes on then until the end, it’s just you. No one really controls your performances. There is nothing to hide behind. You’re there in all physicality. You know, a lot of people say you have to be spontaneous; I don’t think its that. I think you have to really be responsible and alive. There is no time to die. You have to be there. It is a discipline, a superb discipline,” she says, already geared up for her next play but taking time to figure out her next cinematic project. “You may be playing the same part, but on the 86th day there will be a dead audience, no reaction, that’ll change who you are, change the part you are playing. So the mortality of that exchange is within those two hours, within those 400 people. That’s that. That is what they will take back, that is what they will remember at the end of the day. But on film, your luxury of being immortal is far greater. There is much more sophistication in crafting. “

It’s this sophistication she appreciates in the films she likes, like Lootera which she watched thrice — “I loved it, there was something very languid and easy about that film.” — and could have gone for again had it not left theatres. I ask her about Shuddh Desi Romance which released a couple of days ago, and about how refreshing it is to see mainstream Hindi cinema with female characters who take charge. “Yeah, because life is like that, no?,” she asks, with a big smile. “”No, really, you go to any classic household, the man seemingly earns for the family, but the decisions are mostly taken by the women, you know? They really are the co-drivers, they navigate all the decisions. I don’t think that women are that sad and nonexistent in terms of decision-making. From the smallest things to the biggest things. Women quietly have their way with everything.“

She’s going to a taping of a reality show called Comedy Circus tomorrow to promote her film, and while she’s amused by all the promotional hoopla — “I even went to Lakme Fashion Week, imagine!” — she’s more than gratified that it’s making her family take notice. “My mum saw it in Delhi and Irrfan was there as well, so it was a big deal, and I think she’s taken me seriously for the first time. Because so far she’s told me often enough that “hobby ho gayi teri, get a real job, study more, do something else.” My Naani keeps telling me that I should become a newsreader. But now they understand. Otherwise they’ve had no answers for what I do. ‘Ladki yahan plays karti hai.’ ‘Play kya hota hai?’ People don’t even know what acting is!”

nimrat3The biggest trump-card in her hand, she gloats, is Irrfan Khan, claiming she offhandedly drops an “Irrfan ke saith” into her conversation to impress the family. “He’s such a big star. Internationally, my God! In France I saw the reactions and I thought, man, this guy is big, we don’t realise it.  My Mamaji saw it in Toronto, and he got a picture clicked with Irrfan, and now his friends are showing it off.”

Soon, the family will invariably be boasting about their girl, not her leading man. Over at the next table, Karisma Kapoor and Malaika Arora keep constantly turning in Nimrat’s direction, curious and eager, as if sniffing out the shift in spotlight — even if it’s a very different kind of spotlight. They can’t quite place her (even though they can’t stop staring) when we’re talking, before the release of The Lunchbox, but by the time you’re reading this, she’ll have become more relevant than they’ve ever been. With one film.

“I want to keep my life interesting,” Kaur says about future decisions. “I want to surprise myself, more than anything else. And it’s a lot of failings that have got me here, you know, I haven’t always made the right choices; I’ve tried a lot of stuff. I know that now things change, because everything becomes public. Your decisions become public, and your failings become public. That’s the basic difference after you become visible, with a film out there. I don’t want to take on that pressure. ‘Don’t try to be something you’re not,’ they say. I say, ‘I don’t know what I am.’ I’ve never known who I am. And thank God for that.”

~

First published Man’s World, October 2013

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Sonam Kapoor, all shook up

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“Do you think Elvis is dead?”

Posed with dreamy yet dolorous vagueness, the question comes out of nowhere on the heels of a rather impassioned conversation about books. But then Sonam Kapoor is about nothing if not the non sequitur.

Sonam turned 28 a week ago, and she says it was “hysterical.” “It was me and five girlfriends in Paris and we were at a Rihanna concert,” she starts off, giddily uncorked. “And we felt like kids again because it was such a pre-teen crowd! And we were drinking cheap beer, cheap champagne… like being young and broke again. And with that music — these really commercial, hip songs — it was like being in a nightclub with 80,000 people.” And thus they got trashed and woke up and had lots of fancy French things doused in chocolate “cause the best hangover cure is lots and lots of sugar, of course” and hauled themselves off to a vintage haute couture exhibition.

If this all sounds too girly — and it does — then cut her some slack. Kapoor’s worked relentlessly on back to back movies for a while now, and this year she’s been taking quick little time-outs to travel with close friends and family. “This year, I’ve managed New York, Paris and London already, and have Turkey, Hong Kong and Kerala lined up.” And does travelling bring anonymity? “Oh yeah, of course. I mean obviously there are Indians everywhere, but I think when I’m abroad I can be just another pretty girl walking down the street.”

Kapoor, I should mention, is a good buddy, and ours is a peculiar friendship: not least because she constantly shuns what I’m wearing, almost as if avenging the way my reviews claw at her films. Yet we get along merrily, despite me sticking to retro rockband tee-shirts and her making movies like Thank You. It is, after all, only fun to jibe with someone who revels in the sparring, and Sonam can laugh at herself really loudly. She’s an odd bird, this one, flighty and clever and ambitious while known, at the moment, mostly for her plumage.

Time-off hasn’t been insane, she insists. “I’m not a talkative drunk, I’m just a happy dance-y person. And I don’t really do stupid things. I mean I wish I could give you an unmentionable story, but you know my idea of a really, really good time is to just read a fucking book.”

Now this I can vouch for (not so much the un-stupid things bit, ahem). Kapoor reads more than most people I know, myself included. When she was but a tot who couldn’t pronounce “Chanel,” her mother would read to her and not finish the stories, leaving them on her bedside table. “And because I’m this freak with an overactive imagination, I’d try and finish them in my head. But I also ended up teaching myself to read just so I’d get to know what happened next.”

So she flew through “The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Panchatantra” before middle school. Sonam continues to read everything in range, chastising me for not having read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl despite her having recommended it a year ago; lamenting how a dead iPad battery on a flight led her to the new Dan Brown, which she calls “so bad it’s traumatising,”; and committing possible heresy by suggesting that when it comes to Game Of Thrones, the HBO show might actually be better than George RR Martin’s formidable novels.

“I’m going to act till the day I die,” Sonam says. “Not that I’ll be grasping for lead roles or anything, but I’d like to keep honing my craft, and to earn the lines on my face.” Say what? She explains, speaking of how important aging gracefully is to her, and every line on her face should be something she earns. So what, then, of now? “Haha, yeah, right now I’m completely line-free. But I’ll get there.”

This Diwali, she’ll have spent six years as a Hindi film actress. “In that time I’ve done 8 films, which is not too many. And I think I’ve grown up. I’ve learned from every film, no matter the result or the outcome. Who says only the good stuff has to be a milestone?”

Some of her filmography admittedly reads better on paper. Top-tier directors have made catastrophic duds starring Sonam, but, undeterred, she’s constantly conjuring up off-kilter projects. Significantly quirky milestones lie around the corner: Raanjhanaa is a film she’s given a lot to and is visibly proud of; she has a small but vital role in Rakeysh Mehra’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag; she’s stepping into Rekha’s shoes for a whacked-out take on Khubsoorat; and she’s just shot a romcom with Ayushmann Khurana.

And then there’s that ‘style icon’ cloak she wraps nonchalantly around herself. Line-free she may still be, but I wager she’s earning her stripes all right.

Part of the reason Sonam is currently even more ebullient than usual, I feel, is that she’s finally enjoying being single. She’s dated three men since I’ve known her (men she accuses me of being judgemental about and insists I include that in this piece) but she’s unstrung now and loving it. “It’s amazing. It makes me feel more free and more focussed, and I prefer being by myself. Honestly, every time I’ve become single in the last five years, I’ve never had the time to process it. And you know I’m weird when I’m in a relationship: my priorities change and the relationship becomes most important. So, last year, I realised I needed to focus on me, prioritise myself, fix me first. Before wanting to be part of a pair.”

Part of this self-repair has to do with an innate compulsion toward flawed men she can nourish. “It’s true. I have this thing, I like to save people, to take care of them. So the pattern is that I date these guys before they make it big,” she explains, with much mock-seriousness, “and then they become successful and whoops, there goes my project!”

Her superstar father is, understandably, less flattering about said ‘projects’. “My dad says I get strays home,” she admits, through peals of laughter.

(Two out of the three exes hardly ever read books, by the way. My “judgemental” side feels enormously vindicated.)

These days, thankfully, she’s looking for “more sorted” blokes, and, unlike the ones gone by, now she’d like those who have nothing to do with the movies. “The film industry is too small, it’s a mad place where everyone knows everyone. It’s sort of like a glass snow-dome, its own world. It’s too self-contained. And I think right now there are different worlds I need to discover.”

“I wanna date a lot of people,” Sonam sighs, before correcting herself. “Actually, I wanna go on a lot of dates.” Do queue up in an orderly fashion, yes, lads?

 

~

First published GQ magazine, August 2013

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Nargis Fakhri: The World Is Not Enough

I couldn’t resist taking an umbrella along.

I mean, how often do you get to have a drink with a Nargis, anyway? It’s a name we don’t run into much, despite our legendary screen goddess. The girl sitting across from me, one film old, didn’t particularly dig the name as a kid — “I grew up with a lot of Spanish people around, and they would call me Nalgas, which means ass-cheeks” — but loved it later. “Nobody else had my name. And when I was modelling I would never use my last name. Ever.” She pronounces that name Fac’ry (like ‘factory’, without a T) and then, for my benefit, says it the way Shah Rukh Khan would approve of — Fakhhri — with much epiglottal grace. It’s clear she frequently switches accents depending on her audience, and even clearer that she has to: this girl is all about travelling. And about talking.

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“If you want to win me over,” she says, talking about how she doesn’t have a type, “all you gotta say is I wanna see the Great Wall of China, or climb the mountains of Machu-Picchu. He could be four feet tall with a limp, a little midget with a bike and I’ll be like ‘weally?’” The mock-swoon is dramatic but heartfelt. “It’s that big, the travel thing. I know someone who doesn’t have a passport, and I could punch that person in the face.”

Propelled by a globetrotting mother (currently in the Bahamas) who handed her a backpack at 15 and said the world is safe enough, Nargis has whimsically traipsed across continents without a plan. She’s gone randomly from Australia to Greece to Singapore, and doesn’t see it stopping. “If I ever give birth to babies I will strap them on my back like an African, and I’ll trek through the jungles of wherever, and I hope whoever my partner in crime is will feel the same way, and they’ll be strapping on the other one.” She then proceeds to do an impromptu fertility dance ‘blessing’ me with ten children. Ahem. But at least she promises to babysit. “I’ll be in New Zealand or Australia and have an organic little farm or some bullshit like that. You come visit anytime. I’ll take care of your kids.”

Hindi cinema, by that measure, is just another adventure. “Imagine someone from China came up to you and said ‘Oh my god, we love the way you look, we want you to be the male lead in our big Chinese movie. You have two months to learn Chinese. And to act.’ You never acted, you don’t know Chinese. Can you imagine doing that? With no family, no friends around. I’m insane for saying ‘Yes,’ but that I’ve established since I was very little, that I’m a bit loopy.” Worst-case scenario? She’d do badly, backpack around India and maybe “learn some Ayurveda.”

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Growing up in Queens, New York, she remembers her Pakistani father watching Hindi movies but she was never really into films. “Here you’re growing up on the dance moves, you’re doing Chikni Chameli at three! We went to some Kids Day thing and I was watching these young kids dance to item numbers and they’re actually lipsyncing and I’m shocked at how intense it is.” Part of saying yes to Imtiaz Ali and his 2011 film Rockstar was not knowing better.

“It was only when we started doing promotions that I realised how famous Ranbir was. People were crying and ripping his clothes off and throwing stuff at him,” she laughs, “And I’m like, ‘Is U2 here?!’” It’s hard to imagine anything preparing one for the facemelting front-page glare of the Bollywood spotlight, and Nargis bemoans the fact that one single film has left her unable to take buses and trains in India. “As wonderful as it is, it’s sad. I didn’t ask for this. I’m grateful that it came to me, but I’m still weighing it: how awesome is it, really?”

“I couldn’t say no to the idea of India, I’m not a scaredy-cat,” she says of the challenge and warming up to showbiz. “And after you start, you think ‘can I get better at this? What else can I do? What else can I play? What can come my way?’ Also, there’s nothing else that’s calling me at the moment. So maybe, someday, something else will intrigue me far more than this and I’ll be like ‘Okay, I gotta go, bye.’”

“You give your best and you know some people will like it, some won’t. If you like it, I’m happy and if you didn’t, I’m sorry for ya,” she laughs. “But I’ll try harder next time.” She’s already shot that next film, Shoojit Sircar’s Madras Cafe, and admits it was easier. “The biggest reason is that now I know what’s up. Now I have a notch on my belt.”

 What she also has is three different salads, her fork oscillating expertly between them like a virtuoso xylophonist. In one of them she finds a tiny bug. “This salad’s so good that if you weren’t here, I could just have eaten this guy up like a pepper,” she laments as the plate’s sent back. A masochistic repeat-offender, she’s been awfully sick on much street food but gone back for seconds. “It’s like when you’re in a terrible relationship, you’re depressed and suicidal and all your friends hate the guy, but after you break up and some time passes, you forget the trauma and remember only the happy stuff. So it took me a few more times to finally learn my lesson.”

Yeah, the girl can eat. She’s done alligator, frogs, snails and chocolate-covered ants. And she’s game for more. “I wonder what dog and cat taste like. I said that on a shoot and this woman squealed but then lamb or chicken, anything we eat is adorable, right? My friend had a pot-bellied pig as a pet,” she says, her eyes glazing over. “I love pork. It’s the best. I’m salivating right now, by the way.” I ask if she could date a vegetarian, and she says she’d turn vegetarian if he were good enough. “I was vegetarian for six months, and it was the healthiest time of my life.” Ah, but was she travelling? “No,” she confesses. “Six months later I went to Germany and they have all that wonderful meat, the bratwursts and weinerschnitzels, and the vegetarianism stopped when I landed. Okay, that might not work.”

“I demand a lot from my partner because I do so much, and I expect it back.” The problem lies in making time. “In this business I don’t know how you can be in a relationship. You don’t even have the time to get to know someone. So I don’t know what I’ll do, and that could actually be a reason to leave the business.” She scoffs at the idea of dating someone in the movies. “No! I want someone normal. Someone who has a normal fucking job, who goes to sleep at 9 o’clock at night and likes to go trekking and likes to cook.”

She didn’t always crash at nine, this girl who’d jet to Barcelona to party all night but is now almost ridiculously low-key in Bombay. “It’s because of what happened in the beginning,” she explains. “I remember I went out to Olive one night and didn’t even have one drink, and they wrote in the paper that I was partying like a wild animal. And people were staring at me, like I was a monkey. It’s awkward! You’re standing there and thinking ‘why the fuck are people looking at me?’”

Thus, Nargis stays in and reads (mostly about “human behaviour and spirituality”) and watches documentaries and YouTube clips and TED Talks. Oh, and Hindi movies. She hasn’t watched her namesake in any romances yet (which means my Shri 420-themed brolly bit fizzled, alas) but has cried many a tissue box over her in Mother India. Kahaani’s the first film she ever watched twice, and English Vinglish made her weep buckets. “I wake up in the morning with a bed full of booger-tissues. And I’m such a sap, I cry when I see a cute kid or puppy. So yeah, those movies, they got me.“

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Provided you don’t go someplace with exorbitant arugula, she’s a cheap date and, buzzed on a single glass of rosé, goes on about her fear of roaches, nude beaches in Europe and how she doesn’t want to ever be really fat. “But I will,” the salad-destroyer moans. “I’ll be fat when I’m old!” I tell her it’s fine, because fat folks are jolly. “Oh yeah, they are,” she grins, instantly reassured, peace brokered with inevitability. “And they want to feed everybody else. Awesome.”

I can’t help thinking she sounds like a pitch for a hit reality show. She agrees, thrilled. “Just get a Go-Pro and stick it on my head! And get me to travel and talk to people.” She insists she should be the interviewer, and, to prove she can ask personal questions, starts quizzing me about, um, fetish preferences. I order another martini. This is one tough rookie.

~

First published GQ, April 2013

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Fernando Alonso and the scarlet dream

I once made a Fernando Alonso voodoo doll.

Well, not an Alonso doll per se, but a few of us fanatically pissed Formula One supporters took a tiny F1 car, wrote Renault on it with a felt pen, and called it the Spaniard’s vehicle. Tacks were jammed into tyres, and a magnifying glass may or may not have been used to ignite its nose. Either way, we wanted nothing more than that perpetually whiny, arrogant and exasperatingly talented World Champion to crash out in Brazil, the final round of the 2006 season.

It was Michael Schumacher’s last race, and while the retiring German had handled an unfortunate, gruelling season with grace, Alonso was crying himself blue saying his own team was sabotaging his chances. It was the last straw after two years of watching a bizarrely quick brat of a champion constantly blame either his team or other drivers. In a team sport, with a team solidly behind him — later proven to even be illegally behind him, but more on that in a bit — he was enough of a jerk to compare himself to a lonely Tour De France cyclist, going uphill all by himself. It was nauseating, watching an obviously brilliant driver who happened also to be a whinging putz. Champ and chump all at once, he could win the title but couldn’t come close to earning our respect.

~

1In November 2012, Fernando Alonso and I rode up a New York elevator in silence. We smiled at each other, him because he had to, me because I really felt like. I felt, as a matter of fact, like reaching out and grabbing his hand and pumping it with the love and gratitude of a sworn Ferrari fan.

This was two days after the US Grand Prix, and, again, five days before the World Championship finale in Brazil. Again, it was Michael Schumacher’s last race. Again, Alonso was locked in battle with a flawless German racer. Again, I had my fingers crossed for the result.

Things had changed. Tacks were not involved.

Ever since he joined Ferrari in 2010, Alonso had turned into a different man: a team player, a good sport, a man candidly generous with praise and one who looked at (most) on-track mishaps with unflappable calm. Just when fans around the world had made up their minds to dislike him, he switched abruptly from Heel to Face. Dashed inconvenient, but there it was. In Ferrari gear, he was a Champion’s Champion (even without winning the title) an extraordinary warrior who made even mediocre cars shine. It was as if he’d decided the Darth Vader mask didn’t go well with scarlet overalls.

~

We were in Manhattan because Kaspersky Lab, the anti-virus software folk who now rent some inches of real estate on those aforementioned red overalls, were hosting a press event to highlight their links with Formula One. The Russian outfit’s charismatic CEO Eugene Kaspersky was on hand to break the ice with Fernando before handing him over to us, and this he did like a particularly personable pickaxe. Having started out collecting computer viruses when “other children collected postage stamps or butterflies,” the information security expert spoke of how he related to Ferrari as a team. “Like my company, Ferrari is like a group of friends, a gang that fights for success.” The gang is also the oldest team in Formula One, a company who started selling cars so that they have money to go racing, instead of the other way around. And all their hopes rest on 31-year-old Alonso’s shoulders.

2Alonso began go-karting at the same time that the late great Ayrton Senna — the legendary three-time world champion Alonso hopes to emulate — made his Formula One debut: which means the Spaniard was all of three years old. “I don’t remember anything,” Alonso admits, “but there are the videos and pictures at home, and also I have the drivers licence which says 1984, so it should be true. I only know that the first race was a 20-lap race in a straight circuit in a go-kart, and I think I did 3 or 4 [laps] and the winners did 20, so they had lapped me some 20 times.” Progress, however, was remarkably swift. “At 8, or maybe 7, I won the karting championship of my area, my region, and then competed in the Spanish championship, then the European championship… and when I was 14, I was World Champion in go-karts. So it was something that happened very quick.”

Success that rapid that early in life can be sufficiently heady, but Alonso’s family kept him grounded. “When you’re racing and you’re winning trophies at this young age, everyone is very friendly with you and everyone wants something from you, and you become like a toy to them; they try to use you all the time.” Alonso’s family — with his mother working in a perfume shop and his father in a mine — was quick to disabuse him of any growing notions of glamour. “Every time I went home, my father always told me that ‘you are racing now, but next year you will be studying or helping me repair homes or put in windows. I have a good friend that now puts elevators, so I think I can find a job for you in the future.’” The very idea of becoming a Formula One driver was too absurd, too unreal. “I honestly thought it sounded like a good opportunity; that I am driving right now but maybe next year I have no contract, and so maybe I’ll put elevators.”

But those hands just weren’t meant to install lifts. “After I won the World Championship, I started getting paid to race in go-karts and I said this is fantastic. I’m 14, doing what I like to do, and I receive some money. A dream come true. And when they offered me single-seaters I said ‘no way.’” Eventually Alonso hesitantly took the jump, and instantly won in single-seater racers. There was no looking back. “Yeah, I was the third youngest in history to make the debut in Formula One in 2001, at 19, and then youngest to win a race, youngest to get a podium, and youngest to win the World Championship in 2005. So, yeah, everything was coming very quickly and I enjoyed it.”

“My first car was a company car,” he says, smiling. “It was a Renault Megane when I was racing for the Renault team. And it was quite a big day because I was 18, and got my driver’s licence, and my only thought at that time was to go to school in that car. And the school is 400 metres from home! It was impossible to park, a big problem. But it was my dream to take my car to school. I was looking for a car that was nice, that was fast, but that was not the case and so I enjoyed it anyway.” A racer who leaves all the adrenaline on the track and ambles about when in a roadcar, Alonso took it so easy during his driving licence test that the teacher had to comment. “I passed the exam and it was all okay, but there was a small note from the teacher saying that I was too slow.”

It’s a complaint motorsport pundits could never consider with the Spaniard, a driver known for instinctively finding the sweet spot in weaker cars and driving them beyond their optimum. It’s a rare gift, and so adept is Alonso at disguising a car’s weaknesses that even his team engineers have complained in the past that his driving style doesn’t give them enough to work with; that he makes bad cars look deceptively good. And when given a genuinely good set of wheels — as Renault did in 2005 and 2006 — he took the fight to none other than Michael Schumacher and his wheezing Ferrari.

~

3Fernando Alonso hasn’t won since then. Primed to dominate the decade, he has looked on as Kimi Raikkonen (2007), Lewis Hamilton (2008), Jenson Button (2009) and Sebastian Vettel (all three years since) have marched away with the titles. In 2007, he joined McLaren for one season where he was trounced by Hamilton, then a rookie. The scowl on the Spaniard’s face was permanent and, it must be said, most amusing. In 2008, Renault boss Flavio Briatore wilfully engineered an accident to give Fernando an on-track advantage in Singapore, bringing about his first win of the season. An investigative committee later found Alonso innocent of the conspiracy, banning Briatore and others involved.

In 2010, Alonso moved to Ferrari, and now seems so vitally a part of the team that even his accent sounds spaghetti-flecked. He has also started to smile a winning smile. A lot. (On YouTube, there are videos of Vettel playfully doing impressions of other drivers. The popular Alonso clip, on the other hand, has him casually cracking open a walnut using his neck.) He seems to be relishing racing, more than ever.

I can’t help but ask him about the discernible change in his approach, the way he has gone from being a person who badmouthed his team whenever possible to a man who stands firmly behind his team, however big the gaffe. Is it because he’s happier at Ferrari or has he just matured as a driver? “I think it’s because they do a hundred percent. If I feel the team does 99% while I’m doing 100%, 365 days a year, I say it to everyone. It’s strange because a team should do 100% for their goal, and for winning, and some teams didn’t do this in the past, and the year after that I’d change the team. I have this [kind of] luck.”

6He clearly feels things are different now, and he speaks of his new team not just effusively but firmly enough as if declaring war on rival teams. “With Ferrari, this is a racing team. They do everything for racing. They love racing, they have always been in Formula One. We can win or lose, we can do better or worse, we can have the fastest car or not, but every single person in the team dedicates 24 hours a day to this team, and they love this team. Even when they see, passing in the street, one Ferrari GT, they feel like they did something. Maybe they just painted the mirror, maybe they painted something, but they feel like it is theirs. This is very different with Ferrari compared to any other team, so I love this team.”

Another reason Alonso loves Ferrari is because he has been handed the reigns to the stable, with teammate Felipe Massa clearly in a Number Two position. This suits Alonso, who hated his torrid McLaren year with Hamilton, a partner who’d fight him to the end. Alonso prefers and flourishes in the captain’s role, even though it may not suit Ferrari’s needs: a more competitive teammate than Massa (in current form) may have taken Ferrari to the Constructors Championship. In 2012, it may well have helped Alonso’s chances to have a partner nimbly holding back his rivals. But then everything last year was achieved against all odds.

When the 2012 season began, the Ferrari was one second off the pace. It started to improve, but very slowly. Alonso — as if a crummy car (and, resultantly, poor qualifying position) were immaterial — kept his foot down and decided to stay flawless. Midway through the season — a whimsical season that saw seven different winners in the first seven races, a season with no formbook — Fernando Alonso led the field by no less than 40 points.

“We’d like to have boring seasons where we know [what will happen in] the races,” he smiles. “That will be our dream season. But it is very difficult to get that. So this year we arrived at a circuit and didn’t know if we will be tenth or pole position on Saturday. It’s something we can  try to enjoy as drivers, and the engineers and teams don’t like it too much, because with the computers and simulations everything is ready and all settled, and when something is out of control they get a little bit distressed. But it’s a wonderful season, I think, because people enjoyed it from the outside. And hopefully we’ll enjoy it more next time.”

4It has indeed been a miraculous year for him, and even after his luck wore thin and Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull started looking characteristically good, Alonso continued bullishly to guarantee victory. In a field littered with increasingly young winners and prodigious prodigies, Alonso appears an alpha-male scrapping it out with boys. The Spaniard has a samurai tattooed on his back, and frequently, in a run up to last year’s finale, began referring to himself as both gladiator and samurai, assuring the world he would win, despite Vettel having usurped his lead.

He is clear, however, that this self-assurance has nothing to do with rage. (Which also means he doesn’t have a katana handy to slice Seb’s front-wing off if he gets too close at the second chicane. Pity. ) “It is not revenge, not at all,” he assures. “This is sport and sometimes everything goes good and sometimes not so good, and what’s important is to give it everything you’ve got. And we did that this year. And I think if we win, it will be some kind of justice. Not revenge, but I honestly feel we deserve it more, so 99% of the people watching, I think, will be happy.” That includes the drivers: a poll before the last race of the year showed nearly 90% of the pilots in the paddock agreeing on Alonso deserving the title more.

Alonso says the first world championship is the hardest, because it’s so hard to sleep when fighting for that first title. It gets easier, but — when a season is heading into its climax — not by much. As a multiple World Champion, how important is winning on a race-by-race basis? “Oh, it’s not that we enjoy winning,” he beams, bathed in confidence. “It’s that we hate losing.”

~

Five days later, he lost the 2012 World Championship to Sebastian Vettel. By three points. Vettel, six years younger, pipped him to the third world title, and will be gunning for a fourth. And that’s not all, by a long shot. Hamilton, Button and Raikkonen, all with blood on their fangs, are furiously circling the trophy now, each with a point to prove. There will be new regulations and engine changes, and more to get used to. As the F1 circus gets into gear again later this month, the Spaniard’s task is going to be anything but simple.

5

Then again, Fernando Alonso has never had anything to do with simple.

~

That November afternoon, Eugene Kaspersky gave the world’s press a tip, a tip to will Alonso to victory: “All of you please support Fernando by drinking to him. Don’t do it before, but just after the start of the race. Raise your glasses, drink to Fernando and it’ll help. We need you.” Raising an imaginary toast to himself, the driver laughingly nodded agreement.

In 2006, I had tacks. In 2012, I had tequila. Fernando Alonso defied wishes each time. Champions, clearly, carve their own fortune.

 

~

 

First published Man’s World magazine, March 2013

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Why Jenson Button has enough to smile at

button12012 was supposed to be a Jenson Button year.

No, the ridiculously fast Red Bull cars weren’t suddenly backing off. No, the McLaren hadn’t gotten away with photocopying Ferrari’s notes again. It’s just that this year was all about the tyre, and the whole field looked on the 32-year-old Englishman as being extraordinarily kind to his rubber, a master of preservative driving who would surely find a competitive advantage. Not so. Nothing has quite gone to plan, or to formbook, this season turning instead into a free-for-all, the first seven races — for the first time in F1 history — seeing seven different winners. Button, the first of those winners at the Australian Grand Prix, languishes now in sixth place far from title dreams.

But you can’t tell from looking at him.

Button flashes that wide grin, that cheeky toothy one that makes women around the world swoon, and starts talking about moustaches. He wants to grow one for November, to raise money for prostate cancer — for a movement called Movember— and is taken aback by my gargantuan Dali-meets-darwan mouch. “I wish I had one like that. It would be so impressive.” I ask him to try and he laughs his head off. “Me with a handlebar? Can you imagine? Big blond fluff on the upper lip?” It’s the 26th of October, and it’s true, both driver and aforementioned lip are running out of time. We’re sitting in a Delhi hotel the night before Qualifying for the Indian Grand Prix, and Jenson — who admits to a tattoo, quirkily enough, of a shirt-button somewhere on his body — is as relaxed as can be.

“In terms of the Driver’s Championship, it’s over, yes,” he admits, ever more realistic than teammate Lewis Hamilton who still points to mathematical chances. “But the Constructor’s Championship is a possibility — it’s tough but it’s a possibility.” That possibility at the time of writing this, hours after that very weekend’s race, with McLaren ten points behind Ferrari and over a hundred behind Red Bull, seems bleak. “For us, winning races is very, very special. For the team. The emotions, the adrenaline. And while a world championship is twenty races, in a Grand Prix you don’t know you’re going to win until that last lap. And that really means a lot. That’s some very good emotion you see on people’s faces within the team, and those moments really pull you a lot closer. So that’s what we’re hoping for, ending the season with style.”

button2Putting the team first isn’t new for Button. He talks about relishing back-to-back weekends as a racer, but immediately undercuts this enthusiasm with concern for his overworked engineers, and how he is fortunate enough to travel with family and girlfriend but the mechanics have to spend longer away from their families. Said girlfriend is the stunning Jessica Michibata, a half-Japanese half-Argentine model now engaged to Button, and — in the McLaren motorhome minutes before the Qualifying session — she shares a couch with Jenson’s father John, a rallycross driver in his day, now best known for wearing the Union Jack as a cloak to cheer his son at every race. She throws giant smiles all over the place, and they work wonders.

Jenson walks in, his heavily insulated racing suit undone above the waist, making him look like half a silver superhero.

He digs into a salad, smiles at the family who leaves him be, as key mechanics and engineers huddle around. In a nearby corner that seems somehow distant, Lewis Hamilton’s father sits and scowls into an orange Gatorade; Hamilton’s kid brother sits all the way across the room, staring at a screen. Lewis isn’t here yet but it’s hard not to assume that McLaren has indeed become Jenson’s team — quite the feat considering Lewis cut his teeth here and has been headline-grabbing top dog.

Even Jenson’s biggest fans thought he was taking too big a risk coming to Team Lewis after winning with Brawn GP in 2009, but Button held his own in 2010 and trounced Lewis in 2011. Now Hamilton’s the one moving to Button’s old team, now called Mercedes GP, even as the rest of the racing world is calling it a monumental blunder. Hamilton’s gone because of salary negotiations and because Mercedes will let him keep the trophies he wins for them, something McLaren doesn’t allow, though it remains to be seen how much Mercedes — who have won one race in the last three years —  can do for his trophy cabinet.

Button, on the other hand, was staunchly loyal to the Brawn team (formerly Honda) taking a massive pay-cut to allow that team to even come into existence, and striving with them for many years in the midfield before Ross Brawn pulled the 2009 season out of his hat with a conjuror’s flourish. Now, as Hamilton moves out and young Sergio Perez enters McLaren, Button will formally be team leader — a role he looks already to have naturally assumed. An engineer squeezes his shoulder, another cracks a gag. Laughter. Jenson stands, stretches and struts out, smiles remaining trained on his back. His rival’s corners stay quiet; McLaren may have said its goodbyes.

“As a kid, I loved racing,” he smiles. “I used to watch my father, and he used to race a VW Beetle and it was so loud! I remember it was really, really loud, and as a kid you’ve got very good, very sensitive hearing. I watched Formula One the whole time, and Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, those were the two guys I watched in the late 80s, and then my dad bought me a kart when I was eight. And it was just for fun, really, just to have fun on the weekends with my dad, and then somebody said ‘He’s quick, why don’t you race him?’ So I raced, and I won my first race.” He stops short, immediately, instinctively cautious against braggadocio. “And it wasn’t all a fairy tale, but it was a great start.” It certainly was, 11-year-old Jenson winning each of the 34 races in the British Cadet Karting Championship.

Looking back, he encircles 14 as the age when he knew this could be a career. “Before that I was asked the question — ‘Do you want to race in Formula One?’ ‘Yes, I would love to be a Formula One driver’  — but I didn’t understand what I was saying, you know? I was living in the moment, that’s what you do as a kid, but at 14, that’s when I realised this could be it, if I focus and work hard.”

Since his F1 debut in 2000, it’s been rough, and Jenson’s been impressively patient. He started with Williams, became the youngest driver to score a point, but was booted in favour of Juan Pablo Montoya. Benetton came next, where he had mixed results at the back of the field, and it was with BAR Honda, which dropped Jacques Villeneuve for Button, where he appeared to find his feet. The first step of the podium, however, remained elusive till 2006, after which the Honda became embarrassingly awful. It was in 2008 when team principal Ross Brawn decided on spending the year readying for the next, and after Honda pulled out in 2009, Brawn GP had their unlikely but miraculous season of perfection. Button won his first race in 2006; he was eighteenth in 2008; he was World Champion in 2009.

jensonandrajaAs mentioned, he is a perfect fit for McLaren, but this has been a season of tremendous uncertainty. A bit too uncertain, perhaps? “Uh, yeah. I think everyone was excited about having so many different winners, but I think it got to a point for the fans where it was very difficult for them to back drivers, and get excited about backing a driver for the championship. So yeah, I think after those 7 or 8 races, the normal resumed and you had the 3-4 top teams racing at the front, which I think people like, and there were so many good fights this year. There have been some really good races, and good overtaking moves and exciting results.”

Yet purists — and drivers themselves — have complained. That the overtaking has been artificially induced by whimsical tyre-wear, and that drivers have to play nursemaid to rubber more often than going as fast as cars, corners and cojones allow them. “I agree, it’s been tricky. And even with a very good car, if you can’t get the tires in their working range, you can’t exploit that great car. So it’s been tough in that respect, and it’s taken us a really long time to really understand the tires and get the best out of them. Today again,” he says of India, where he would qualify fourth on the grid, “it’s been difficult for us to get tyre temperature and to get the tyres working. So it’s hurt us, and we know what to do, but is that going to be enough for the weekend? I really don’t know.”

Not knowing is something that may well exasperate a driver so given to accuracy, to that smooth driving style spoken about so much. Isn’t this supposed to be his game? “Yeah, it is, if there’s high degradation with the tyres. It’s something that I’ve worked on a lot in my career, on looking after the tyres, and next year I think there’s going to even be high degradation, so it’s a good thing, I think, for my style.”

“The problem this year with the tyre is that it’s not the degradation that’s an issue, it’s getting the tyre into a working range. If the bulk of the tyre is not hot enough and the surface is too hot, the tyre doesn’t work; if the surface is too cold and the bulk [temperature] is too high, the tyre doesn’t work — it has to be perfect, and if it isn’t perfect, you don’t go fast. So it’s tricky, and sometimes you luck into it, and that’s why I think we’ve seen so many different winners this year.”

True, and there have been several races where last-minute tyre-changes have resulted in someone normally slower flying past frontrunners. That must be painful. “No, that’s part of the game. Either they’ve got lucky with the strategy, or they’ve done a very good job of understanding the strategy and the tyres. That’s part of racing,” he says, unflappable before frowning. “But actually never, never getting the tyres to work is frustrating and, you know, you work on so many different areas with the car and improve so many different things, but if you put the tyres on and they don’t work for you, you go nowhere. So that’s why it’s been tough for us.”

He sums up his season — one that began in fireworks but petered out with a whimper — succinctly, unemotionally. “We’ve had a bit of everything this year, yeah. And you can’t win them all,” he shrugs. “Only one team and one driver come out on top every season. It’s a very competitive sport, and we just learn from our mistakes and make sure they don’t happen again.”

This equanimity is at odds with F1 as we perceive it, the sport regularly rewarding aggression and even arrogance, the most meteoric drivers being the most talked about. Little wonder, then, that Button idolised Alain Prost, the fanatically precise French legend dubbed Le Professor. “I feel that Ayrton had more natural ability in terms of speed, and Prost worked harder at it, had to work harder at it. And he was a very clever guy, and that really added something for me, how he went about his racing. And that’s why I liked him. As a kid, I chose him over Ayrton because they were both so strong and I’m a competitive person, I had to have someone to cheer for.”

“But since then, I spent a lot of time watching his racing and also, he gave me an opportunity to drive one of his cars; my first test in a Formula One car was with him in a Prost car. And since then we’ve spent time together, we’ve done a couple of interviews together, for Tag Heuer, and he’s a great guy and, strangely, we’ve got quite a bit in common when we talk about racing, in the way we approach the sport.”

Prost, who won more titles than Ayrton Senna, while throwing far fewer tantrums. Yes, there is definitely a resemblance.

~

First published Man’s World magazine, November 2012

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The Salman Khan Interview

dabanng1You can tell a lot about a megastar by the way he throws his punch.

A Hindi film hero might routinely fell over seven with one blow, but each has their own approach. Aamir Khan, all bloodshot eyes and biceps rippling with the fury of thousands of killed wives to avenge, brings both physical intensity and a sense of inescapable irony to the picture. Shah Rukh Khan, his every sinew straining with gargantuan effort, bellows like a wounded animal as he metamorphoses from charming lover to crazied aggressor.

Salman Khan doesn’t bother breaking a sweat or even trying for realism as he buffets his opponents, effort be damned, smirk and quip steadily in place. The ubiquitous one-liner just underlines how one-sided the battle always is. Because Salman Khan is larger than life. And he believes it.

As do we, clearly. Earlier this year in Dabanng, Salman’s shirt tears itself off his enraged body, as if anger – and the need to show off his bare chest – are reason enough for him to suddenly turn into the Incredible Hulk. Coming at the film’s climax, the moment is dated and ludicrous beyond belief. Eternal romantic Shah Rukh would have been laughed out of theatres for trying to do the same. Aamir would have had to write a longish blog-post explaining how the scene was all a metaphor, or, somehow, Meta. Salman earned whistles, his film becoming one of the most successful in the history of Indian cinema.

In Mumbai’s Mehboob Studio, two days before that epic release, Khan sniffles his way past a ravenous pack of news-channel cameras. In no mood for niceties, he struts, chest out, upto a studio chair, parks himself on it, and turns to them. In a brutal show of strength and savvy, he preempts the questions they want to ask him, throwing out monosyllabic answers to each. “Aur kucch?” The reporters, used to standard-issue questionnaires, are flummoxed and bereft of fresh queries, and Khan is pleased as punch. He relaxes, blows his nose into a big kerchief, and swaggers out. All in less than five minutes.

He sneezes just as I walk up, clearly not in the mood but nevertheless resigned to a conversation. At this minute, eyes visibly watery, nose nearly crimson, Salman looks anything but invincible. He warily grunts through the first few questions until I ask, young man to forever-swaggering man, where on earth he meets women. “You can’t be serious,” he laughs, tired eyes instantly twinkling. Oh, but I am; he’s dated Somy Ali, Aishwarya Rai and Katrina Kaif. Is there a clandestine bar where the world’s most attractive women consistently turn up? “Ha, I wish. There isn’t a bar, dude. Otherwise we’d all go every night. I’ve… worked with them, I’ve known them. I have been fortunate with the kind of women I’ve… met. They’ve all been very nice. I’m sure you’re talking about the way they look and everything, but I mean the kind of people they are, their personalities. I’ve known them for the longest time. And as far as people, they’ve all been really beautiful.” He takes in a moment to smile. “And really loving, and really caring. Yeah, I’ve been lucky.”

Luck aside, Khan at 45 is the only single man among the industry’s megastars. “You’re single till the time you aren’t married, dude,” he interrupts instantly. I agree, wholeheartedly, but my question is how a man that powerful can gauge genuine romantic interest. Isn’t every girl awestruck? “It depends, you know,” he says, thoughtful. “The ones who’re awestruck… Nahin, yaar. Doesn’t work. Just doesn’t work,” he shakes his head.

And yet his cinema is all about invoking that very kind of awe. Is being larger than life a conscious effort? “No, it just happens. You work with good technicians. And more than that, audiences want to see things larger than life, so they make it happen.” This is clearly a position Salman enjoys, and feels he has earned. “When I started working in movies, I could never have played that character. Maine Pyaar Kiya and all, the only role I could have played was a romantic hero,” he says with a slight sneer. “From that, to come to this stage has been a long journey.” He speaks of his action-figure persona as an evolution, saying that while both romance and emotion are vital, the fights might just be the hardest part to pull off.

Even as an actor, he rates it the hardest, most challenging part. “Action is challenging for anybody. To jump, or take a punch, do all kinds of stuff, cable-work… That is more scary, because with every shot you feel something could go wrong. And you still do it. And so far, touchwood, everything has been all good. So action is the most difficult thing to do.” And in terms of performances, I ask, in terms of actual acting? Khan grins and winks. “That? It’s all good.”

Increasingly lauded for his utter lack of pretension, Khan is considered a star who often phones in his performances, barely even attempting to act. “If a film requires hard work, you work hard, yaar,” he shrugs. “If a film doesn’t require any hard work, why should you do it? If a director says ‘okay’ to a shot, okay! If he says ‘one more,’ one more!” Unlike his peers, he refuses to use terms like ‘method acting,’ to spend a shooting schedule in the skin of a character, or, sometimes, to even stop playing himself. He’s Salman Khan, and once in a while — if a director is valiant enough, or a script stirring enough, he’ll stand and deliver — but the rest of the time, it is, as he said, “all good.”

Or, at the very least, good enough for him.

~

salman2Legend — and relatively credible word — has it that Salman Khan was utterly shattered when Shah Rukh Khan finagled Will Smith from Sallu’s guest-list, only to throw a party for the Hollywood A-lister at his own bungalow. Salman cut a melancholy picture at his own Smith-less party, while Smith reportedly looked somewhat bored at SRK’s party, where Salman wasn’t invited.

Undeterred, Salman turned up in a motorbike, yanked Will unceremoniously, casually and instantly from the party, and before anyone could react, took him to his own. If fellow guests are to be trusted, Smith got wonderfully jiggy at the new venue.

It isn’t a very hard story to believe, Khan’s off-screen persona being that of an old-school superstar, the picture of defiance, the ultimate rebel without a cause. Depending on who you believe, he thrashes actors in bars and sends over expensive watches in morning-after apology. He is also quite the philanthropist, and judging from how he got all of Bollywood’s A-list heroines to shake their collective caboose for his Being Human charity earlier this year, he’s doing quite the bang-up job. There are whispers about his constantly roving eye, and an almost mob-like entourage which gets him ‘anything’ he points to. And then there are those who vow he’s the most honourable man in the industry.

The myth, then, is as self-contradictory as the man. The role Khan seems to fill, in fact, is that of the man-child, who thrives on indulgence, indulgence we now have to spare, being so frequently cynical the rest of the time.

“How well do you think the media knows me, or any of my closest people?,” Salman snorts, instantly sneezing hard. Battling a cold valiantly, he takes turns blowing into a formerly-white kerchief and wrapping it tightly around his knuckles, as if preparing for a street-fight. Occasionally, when thinking hard, he absently bites into it, tugging it with its teeth as if insight can be sucked out of cotton. When emphatic, he punches the air in front of his face, a phlegmatic pugilist jabbing at invisible, omnipresent opponents. “Nothing ever bothers me. Nothing.”

He says every part of the public persona is inaccurate, but he can’t be bothered to go about telling people what to think. He laughs scornfully when the aggressive, ‘bad-boy’ image is brought up. “Please. If that was there… Listen, do you hear the questions they ask me? All the time? They ask me the kind of things my own father would never ask. I don’t care, and I don’t react. The day I start reacting to it…” He trails off in a dramatically threatening voice, before winking.

Naam, Don, Majboor, Sholay, Deewar, Zanjeer,” he rattles, with the unthinking ease of a man used to listing his favourites among his father’s screenplays. Son of Salim Khan, one-half of Bollywood’s most celebrated screenwriting pairs, Salman confesses a desire to direct. “I always wanted to direct. I really thought that I would, somewhere, make a… good… director,” he mumbles softly, before saying that he does make creative suggestions to directors he works with, but backs off because it is, eventually, their call.

“You don’t have cinema till the time you don’t have a story. You have a story to tell and you shoot the film with the worst technique, and that film will do well. And you have the best technique in the world, but the lousiest script, you can do anything you want to do but that film will not work.” So then do all the hits have strong stories? “There is something, dude,” he shrugs. “Something they like. The character, the script, something clicks, and they want to go see it. Why would they want to go see something they don’t like?”

He prides himself on his unerring script sense — “The ones that I thought will do well, so far, pretty much all of them have,” he says, saying that his thinking is that if he wants to see the film he’s making, everybody would want to see it — but that doesn’t reflect as well on his hit-loss record, with far more forgettable films showing up than actual hits. “Well yes, but the script is not usually made the way it was. They start improvising, they start changing, they get scared, yeh bhi daal do, woh bhi daal do…”

So what went wrong, then, with Veer, a film he wrote and produced earlier this year, a catastrophic failure? “First of all,” he insists, “Nothing went wrong with it at all, at the box office. But in my head, I felt a lot of things went wrong. I wanted to shoot for 18 more days.” I ask him why he didn’t, considering it was a pet project he was completely in control of, and Salman disarms me with the sort of answer no megastar could possibly dare to give.

“Dad didn’t let me,” he sighs, almost pouting. And then falls silent.

Moving on, I ask him about another bizarre Salman contradiction. “Painting?,” he grins. “Painting is a big jhol. I wanted to buy three paintings for my house. The artist charged me a lot of money, and they didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to turn out. So I thought, ‘let’s try.’ So I started painting, started getting good at it. I was fortunate to find my own style in the first five and a half, six months. Artists take the longest time to find their way to say what they want to say…”

salman1Salman’s paintings are sold at exhibitions with the money going into a charitable trust, and that’s clearly what fuels his fire. “So I’m getting better and better at it, and the money’s going to a good cause.” He isn’t under many delusions about why his paintings sell. “When somebody’s buying an artist’s work, two things are important: one is the amount of experience that he has, and two is a business plan: how long is he going to be there? After that, we’re going to make so much money because we’ve gotten his art, and after he’s dead, he obviously can’t paint anymore. So,” he pauses, briefly sounding alarmingly morbid, “they make money.”

“Here, how many paintings am I going to make anyway? I’m an actor. I paint when I find the time,” he says, explaining that it’s usually at night.

And how does he rate his own art, honestly? “If my name is not signed, it’s below average. Once my name comes down there, it’s outstanding work.” A smug grin accompanies the jab this time, the grin of a star who knows his worth. However unreal.

~

First published Rediff, December 29-30, 2010

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Wham, Bam, thank you Pam!

Pamela Anderson moves while she talks. And I don’t just mean inadvertently. Excessively animated, she mimes out everything she verbally describes — a cutesy trait when talking of her kids running amuck, and positively debilitating when speaking of dancing, or posing for a centerfold. Gulp.

The most pneumatic of icons spent a few days in the Bigg Boss house, and her takeaway seems largely to be cooking — “Veena [Malik] and Seema [Parihar] showed me how to cook. I made them start with the basics. ‘Show me how small you guys cut onions.’ And I learnt to make roti. Yeah, roti’s good” — and, well, dancing.

In what is clearly television genius, they made her Dhak Dhak, something Pam, now 43, demonstrates with aplomb as I cross my legs. “Songs here are really long,” she laughs, “but catchy. They stay in your head.” She breaks into a hilariously accented Munni Badnaam, a song she performed with Salman Khan, who she kept calling Simon.

She calls Indian women “sparkly and beautiful”, wonders if our street dogs are fed – “there are so many, but they don’t look skinny, really” — and is flummoxed by Hindi. “I didn’t know if they’re talking or rapping,” she giggles, admitting to nodding along cluelessly in the Bigg Boss house.

She bounces from topic to topic, from animal rights – “Leather in India is a huge problem. I narrated a documentary about that ten years ago, and nothing’s changed” – to Rob Marshall offering her the Broadway run of Chicago – “I’d love to be Roxie, but I can’t leave the kids alone for so long” – to how terrible she thinks she looked when she walked into Bigg Boss. “I couldn’t hold up my eyelashes. But hey, cleavage!” Wink.

Anderson’s on-screen work shows a massive propensity to spoof herself, to consistently play up and mock her bimbette persona. “You have to eventually try and use it to your advantage, right? Not that you’re trying to manipulate anything, but it gives me visibility and I try and balance that with the causes I support.”

“A lot of the work I do now is just to make room to highlight the issues that matter. And I think I’ve been able to create, I think, something meaningful out of a kinda meaningless career, really, you know?”

Meaningless? Hard to agree having been raised on those Baywatch opening credits. Before we had the Internet, we had Pamela Anderson. And despite the blatantly fake superheroine body and the exaggerated blonditude, I always saw Pam as possessing a certain warmth. Or maybe that’s what they mean by the word nostalgia.

Either way, when she leans forward, casually places her hand on my knee and confesses to a moustache fetish… well, she makes the 14-year-old inside me bloody ecstatic. And you know just what I mean.

~

Originally published in The Hindustan Times, November 21, 2010

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The Amitabh Bachchan interview

Forty years, and counting…

Ten years ago, Amitabh Bachchan was tired. The disgruntled superstar, after seeing his contemporaries over a three decade career wither away into alcoholism and obscurity, was watching himself fall into Hindi cinema’s inevitable age trap. He was too old to stay the leading man, yet that mammoth last name had spent far too much time as the headline to allow him to drift smoothly into the comfortable unshowiness of the character-actor niche.

The nineties were an exhausting decade for the actor. ABCL wasn’t the runaway success it was heralded to be, and while Bachchan found acclaim with Agneepath and Khuda Gawah early on, he took a five-year hiatus while the Khans made the industry their own. He returned in 1996, but the films that followed mark the most embarrassing, ignominous section of the actor’s oeuvre.

“Where are the stories?” Bachchan had asked screenwriter Kamlesh Pandey in a June 2000 profile in this magazine, this one that just turned ten. He opined that he had never felt more ready to take on challenging parts as an actor, but his frustration was evident. Our industry is fixated on youth, and senior actors, instead of being given the chance to blossom, find themselves invariably whittled down to weakly written character roles. Any possible malaise Bachchan, fresh after failures like Laal Badshah, Sooryavansham and Hindustan Ki Kasam, might then have felt would be well justified.

A month after the interview, there came Kaun Banega Crorepati. The word phenomenon might be bandied about loosely these days, but here it fits. KBC was a historic success, one that defied conventional wisdom and expanded the very boundaries of television in our country. Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of Bachchan, the man who emptied the streets of traffic come 9 pm.

Even as the country fell back into enchantment with its biggest cinematic icon, the actor within discovered a gamut of highly experimental roles. No boundary seemed sacred anymore as he went from being a maniac with a mad laugh to a jaded bank employee orchestrating a robbery by blind men. Gangster, cop, godfather, armyman, alcoholic, forgotten father, flamboyant father, item dancer, rapper, teenager, ponytailed chef, palace guard, theatrical ham, genie… Over the last ten years, Bachchan’s been them all — from ghost to God to Gabbar Singh — and even been brave enough to just play a dirty old man.

Outside of that, there have been far too many endorsements, and too much Bachchan all over the place. A stomach ailment is national news, as is his son’s wedding. The man has the energy to support causes and endorse states, go on long world tours, host gameshows and appear on ones he isn’t hosting. He promotes his films like he blogs, with the sometimes exasperating enthusiasm of a much younger, more reckless man. Heck, at 68, Amitabh Bachchan is the industry’s single most prolific actor, hungrily snapping up 6-7 releases a year when other actors are content with two.

There is criticism, of course. Is he trying too hard? Is he taking on films just because the roles are gimmicky enough to create a fuss? Is he acting bizarre for the heck of it? Is he exposing himself too much? Is Brand Bachchan becoming more important than the actor? Is he working too hard? Should he stop with that many ads?

It doesn’t matter.

Where are the stories, he had asked. He, himself the story. The industry, now in flux, is still changing and chopping itself, bending over backwards to accomodate this one man who refuses to be anything less than legendary. Forty years after he first began, Amitabh Bachchan is still raring to go. As for the stories he demanded, like another film about instant millionaires and that gameshow said, they are written.

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Ram Gopal Varma and his Al Qaeda

The most influential Hindi filmmaker of the 90s, Ram Gopal Varma isn’t what he used to be — or so say we, embittered critics unimpressed by pandering, and disgruntled audiences unimpressed by waferthin storylines and disastrous remakes. You can’t blame us, to be fair. Just a few years ago, Ramu lied about me on his blog, claiming that I rubbished Sarkar Raj because I was a wannabe director being dissed by producers.

He has since apologised for what he calls a clerical oversight — I have never, ever wanted to direct a movie — but the question is often brought to my notice by sensation-seeking readers. One asked me a week back what I thought of Mr Varma’s blog. “I love it, and I love the fact that Ramu doesn’t let accuracy stand in the way of a good soundbyte.”

It is a line that has positively regaled Varma, the director wishing he had included it in his latest film, Rann, calling it symptomatic of his entire career, so to speak. And while he might celebrate his own alacrity for untruth, it is a charge often levelled against his increasingly surfacial seeming cinema. The gimmicks, the background score, the calculated moments of shock and awe… emptier and emptier.

Yet it wasn’t always this way. Six years ago, when I first met Varma inside his intensely funky Factory office, his production house was churning out more films, at faster clip, than anyone else. Abject newcomers were handed debut projects, and a proud Varma called the movement his Al-Qaeda, something to tackle mainstream Bollywood and force their way in.

“It was obviously said in a certain context,” Ramu now laughs. “It was the so-called realistic films, like Satya, Ab Tak Chhappan, versus all the Switzerland-New Zealand kind of films, with good clothes and good-looking faces. So it was like we were creating a small group of films, as a resistance to the big commercial films.”

“But I’m not very sure I’ve been very faithful to that idea. Because by default, not knowingly — or sometimes knowingly — inspite of the concept or the idea being new, I don’t know if the attempt was completely serious, in a way.”

He also admits he perhaps started too many films without really thinking them through, but he did give directors a chance. “I think I’ve learnt a lot from the mistakes I’ve made, and hopefully I’ll correct them and make new mistakes now.”

Mistakes or not, his crack squad of cinematic terrorists include major names. A look at the posterboys of modern independent cinema shows RGV scowling from a lot of their resumes. Anurag Kashyap, Shimit Amin, Sriram Raghavan, Chandan Arora, E Niwas — a handful of highly-regarded, potentially industry-defining directors, each of whom started their careers with Varma. Dozens others have showed flashes of brilliance but aren’t quite top-rung just yet.

Ramu himself isn’t entirely impressed. He feels the boys have made a mark, but haven’t quite reached the lofty expectations in place when he kickstarted his movement. “I would say [the resistance's] success would be when it can be at par,” he grumbles. “When you look at Western cinema, European cinema, in terms of realism or interesting subject matter, we should be at par. I don’t think the cinema’s still reached there.”

He also feels, despite giving these people their first breaks, he couldn’t do enough for them. Considering Amin’s Ab Tak Chhappan the only complete triumph from his roster, he says he might have inadvertently shortchanged other directors by not giving them as good a subject and script. “I feel a director is as good as the subject matter,” he clarifies. “I mean I’m the same guy who directed Satya, and I’m the same guy who directed Daud. Who the hell am I?”

He admits the current new wave is making strides, but seems to credit the multiplex revolution — “which allows every kind of cinema to reach its audience” — more than the makers. “Some of them are making effective films, but they don’t startle me. In the way world cinema does, or some regional cinema, when I just get zapped. When I can’t believe a scene can be shot like that. I don’t see that here.”

Ramu singles out Tamil cinema for praise, gushing about how 2007 hit Paruthiveeran zapped him totally. He also applauds Vishal Bhardwaj, saying he scores very highly in terms of craft and originality, and, perhaps most importantly, “there is a point of view, there is a very definite personality [to his cinema].”

It seems inappropriate to label the men birthed in The Factory as Varma’s protégés, most of them leaving right after their first breaks, and can often be found armed with bitter stories about RGV. Yet the fact remains that he gave unlikely filmmakers life-changing opportunities, on a whim.

Vishram Sawant, for example, had designed the interiors of the Factory. And Varma gave him a gangster movie, D, to direct. “The more independent a person is in his way of thinking, I feel that much more difference can come in the way of his storytelling,” explains Varma. “Now, Vishram Sawant is a guy who thinks very, very wild. Like the decor of The Factory, I’ve never seen any decor like that, as an interior work. So if he wants to make a film, I would like to believe that it’d be so bizarre.. it’s like art, whether you like it or not, nobody’s seen it before.”

For all his take on the inadequacies of the new wave, Varma hasn’t watched any of his boys do their own thing, really. He insists this is because of an inherent lack of interest in the subject matter — “I don’t want to watch Chak De because I don’t like sports” — and not one born out of resentment. “Anurag keeps saying to the press that he’s stopped watching my films, but that’s okay, I’m still very fond of him.”

As always, Ram Gopal Varma is a ticking timebombful of contradictions. What cannot be questioned, however, is that if these men, or the filmmakers and genres they spawn, ever defiantly smash the twin towers of kitschy mainstream Bollywood masala, that man who made Shiva was the one who lit the fuse.

RGV on his protégés:

Sriram Raghavan

Ek Hasina Thi, Johnny Gaddaar. Our only bonafide thriller maker.

I saw a film he had made on this guy, Raman Raghav, the serial killer. I was pretty impressed with some portions of the film — if not the overall film, but I could make out budget constraints, etc. And I could see the brilliance. He surprised me quite a few times with the way he shot a few shots, and the mood he created with Raghubir Yadav and all that.

I’m also very fond of him on a personal level, person to person, you know? He’s a very patient guy, keeps on working all the time. So it’s a combination of the brilliance I saw and the personality I saw.

We kept discussing ideas. I had this story idea loosely based on this film called Concrete Jungle, about this woman — actually, it’s exactly the same story. So it was a combination of that and something I heard from the police forces, an incident like that, so it sparked off from there and we worked on it and that’s how Ek Hasina Thi happened.

E Niwas

Directorial debut Shool won the National Award for Best Hindi Film

See, E Niwas was basically my office boy. The point is, after a person works enough number of years… once he understands the basics of how a film gets made and if he can control the crew, tell them what he wants and doesn’t want, then he’s ripe for directing. He might be called technically the director, but Shool happened under the heavy supervision of Anurag Kashyap and Manoj [Bajpai], they used to discuss everything. So he might be the director, but I was depending quite a lot on the others around him to guide him.

His qualification is not because he was my office boy, it was because I saw his dedication and his sincerity to work over a period of time.

I think directorially he was perfect in Shool. If he failed anywhere, it was in the script, the story.

Shimit Amin

Ab Tak Chhappan. Chak De India. Rocket Singh: Salesman Of The Year. ‘Nuff said?

Shimit came to me because he wanted to work with me because he was very impressed with Company, and I was just starting Bhoot at that time. He came because Sameer Sharma, who was working with me on the script of Bhoot, along with Lalit Marathe, recommended Shimit as an editor. So I said fine and he came from the US to edit Bhoot.

In the course of interactions with him, more than anything else I wanted Shimit to direct. In fact, that was also Sameer’s suggestion.

I just felt that a guy who is not so much into the underworld here — he’s not a Bombay guy, he doesn’t move around with those people — and his basic exposure is towards cinema from there. He’s not into Mumbaiyya language and all that. So I thought it might be an interesting experiment to put a guy like that into a subject matter like this. So that’s how Ab Tak Chhappan happened.

Chandan Arora

Charming, naturalistic filmmaker behind Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon, Main Meri Patni Aur Woh, and the upcoming Striker.

See, Chandan also is quite strong as an individual. I worked with him on quite a few films as an editor, from Mast to Company to Jungle. Now, Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon was just a story idea I was told by Makrand Deshpande. I loved the idea, and then I mentioned it to Chandan, and he wanted to do it. So pretty much it was Chandan’s baby, I kept away from the film. Which means, in other words, it is his own thing that came out.

With films like Ab Tak Chhappan or even Ek Hasina Thi, I would have been very involved in the way the film is edited and cut, and also cutting the length etc. Madhuri Dixit, on the other hand, is a film that is pretty much Chandan’s. That’s not the [kind of] film I would make.

Anurag Kashyap

The cult-spawning icon of Indian independent cinema, began his career by co-writing and shooting chunks of Satya.

My first memory of him was when I was shooting Daud, he just used to be standing there and looking at me shooting. He wasn’t working with me. I don’t even remember now who it was, but I had told someone I was looking for a writer and someone sent him. I can’t recall who and how, but my memory of him was that he used to stand there waiting for my shoot to finish.

When I started Satya, the first writer who came to meet me was Anurag. And when I was speaking to Anurag, he sort of suggested this guy Saurabh Shukla. He knew him from somewhere, called him a senior guy. And so Saurabh came on board.

Over a period of time I was very impressed by some lines Anurag used to come up with, and by his intensity. He just gets completely immersed in whatever he’s talking about. Like when he used to come and narrate scenes to me, I probably wouldn’t even listen to what he’s speaking, I just used to connect with his intensity at that point of time.

And he’s very, very complex as a person in terms of whatever I’ve seen. See, I would have never ever made a film with Anurag — I never did make one — because he’s too independent and his style of cinema, his sensibility is very, very far away from me. He’s the guy who’d never probably make the film if I tell him the subject. He doesn’t like my kind of subjects like I don’t like his.

~

First published Man’s World, February 2010

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In conversation with Vishal Bhardwaj

No Holds Bard

Getting under the skin of the man who proves cinema belongs to everyone.

In 1988, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski made a series of ten films about the Ten Commandments, using highly polished allegory to explore meanings and interpretations of each of the Commandments, while looking at the hardships evident in contemporary Polish life. The great director used a different cinematographer for each of the ten one-hour films, and the project created for television went on to become the master filmmaker’s best known work, surpassing even his pathbreaking Three Colours trilogy.

The series is called The Dekalog, and it is a collective of DVDs Indian cinema should be eternally thankful for, largely because a music composer born in Bijnor felt his jaw drop as he watched the films, realising the inexorability of his passion for the medium. Cinema is the most visceral of artistic formats, and it is a stunning testimony to its universality that a man untrained in the art form but propelled by his own awestruck reach towards greatness is now Indian cinema’s finest cinematic craftsman.

vishal-shahid2Vishal Bhardwaj is 48, just about the age that Kieslowski was when those ten films first made it to the world a couple of decades ago. I sit across from the director in his Bombay apartment as assistants and family chime in with wardrobe suggestions, moments before he has to leave for an interview. He speaks exasperatedly about how it takes more energy to promote a film than to make it, apologizing to pause between sentences to take calls fobbing off actresses, the sort popular enough to be unmistakable just by their first names. For everyone, repeat everyone, wants to be in one of his movies.

His latest film is a couple of Fridays away from release, and the explosively titled Kaminey does not look anything like what Bhardwaj, over the years, has lulled us into expecting from him. This is a director who has earned himself the title of Bollywood’s Bard by inventively adapting Bill Shakespeare’s immortal plays into very earthy Indian cinema, and one who has crafted some gems of children’s cinema in a country which regrettably ignores the genre. His last take on Othello is considered one of the finest modern films made, and critics and audiences have been earnestly craving a third Shakespearean act.

Instead, unpredictable as ever, the usually literary Bhardwaj’s newest offering is as pulp as fiction can be. Kaminey, loosely translated as Knaves, or Rascals, is a story of twin brothers with speech defects, a slick and handheld caper film set over madcap events taking place over one day, with an authentic romance squeezed in between the lines of cocaine. It looks at Bollywood cliché and turns it on its head while revelling in it, and promises to be far cleverer than standard theatrical fare. Dhan te na!

“Everyone wants to make a caper film,” Vishal trills excitedly as we clamber aboard his SUV to trek from suburban home to suburban studio. “At least once. Like everyone wants to make a gangster film, or have their own take on The Godfather. It’s such a juicy genre, yaar.” It is also a genre well suited to Bhardwaj, a director who balances violence with poetry with ease, deftly walking the unlikely tightrope between the ultraviolent cinema of Takashi Miike and the subtle nuances of a Gulzar romance. “I was really inspired by Tarantino’s films, Guy Ritchie. That was the space. In that I had to hunt up something original, do something that hasn’t been done before.”

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