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Is Sajid Khan the worst director in India?

Everyone in Bombay thinks they can direct a movie. Amateurs, screenwriters, film school graduates (both those who want to change the way we make movies, and those who want to make a living), television directors, actors who aren’t getting meaty work, theatre artistes… everyone either believes that direction is the ultimate aspirational goal and that they’re good enough, or that it’s a mug’s game. Even producers who want to cut out the middleman. By the time you read this sentence, Kick, which released yesterday — marking the directorial debut of Sajid Nadiadwala, a longtime producer — will have earned some massively obscene amount.

As a result, we see far too many poorly directed films. We see tackily assembled films, films with weak pacing, films where the director clearly can’t imbue actors with the necessary spirit, where the narrative goes haywire every time a song appears, where it’s depressingly evident the director doesn’t know where to place the camera, where everything appears slapped on together like some messy cinematic stir-fry, films lacking in nuance, consistency and grace. These directors may be handicapped by external factors, they may learn on the job, they may eventually find and capitalise on their own strengths, but — mercy be damned — for now it’s apparent there are too many directors in Hindi cinema who don’t know what they’re doing.

sajid1Sajid Khan should not, by any measure, be counted as one of these directors. As someone intimately bound to cinema, someone who has filmmakers all around him — sister Farah is an ace entertainer, cousins Farhan and Zoya Akhtar have each piped freshness into our films — and as someone who used to wickedly skewer filmmakers for being bad at their job, he simply has no business being this kind of journeyman. He is equipped with that ideal cinephile combination, a massive library of films and a great memory. His knowledge of English-language cinema is staggeringly encyclopaedic. I have had friends call him up out of the blue to settle bets about Ghostbusters 2 and he has replied instantly, off the cuff, clearly the man you want to call if on the hot-seat and phoning a friend, or if the 3Gs too weak and IMDb isn’t loading.

As for Hindi cinema, he knows our worst and weakest films very intimately indeed, and has made a career out of mocking them. The shows he hosted on TV, Kehne Mein Kya Harz Hai and Ikke Pe Ikka, took the mickey out of Bollywood with tremendous élan. He berated films for buffoonery, thoughtlessness, crass overacting. A section of his show, “Ham Scene Of The Week”, remains a very watchable YouTube favourite, wherein Khan would zero in on some horribly overcooked moment and, basically, point and laugh. And we laughed right along.

I haven’t met him in person, but he’s apparently a man with a clever (albeit foulmouthed) sense of humour, a man who is — like most of us film fanatics — easily goaded into fanboy mode, a man who gushes about the films he most adores. My film-snob friend M met him, bonded over film-geekiness and told me he was actually pretty fun. By all accounts, this is a man who loves the movies.

Why, then, is he so obsessed with ruining them?

~

Khan’s first film, Heyy Babyy, had too many Ys. Why, for example, was it made in the first place? Why was there not a single smart gag? Why didn’t he write a script before he started shooting? Why instead did he ripoff Three Men And A Baby and, while doing so, why did he strip it of all its tender charms? Why did he throw in bad innuendo instead? And why did Sajid Khan, the man who taught most of India what “hamming” meant, feel the need to have one of his protagonists, a Muslim, fall to his knees and perform namaaz in front of a Christmas tree inside a hospital while the background score rose to a melodramatic crescendo?

housefullThe film was a catastrophic failure except for one minor detail: it was a monstrous hit, a record-breaking behemoth that did better than everyone expected. Since then, his films have gotten successively stupider. Housefull, Housefull 2, Himmatwala, Humshakals. These are not merely bad movies, they are grotesqueries, designed to torture people who can read, people who want more from movies than apes and slaps. Housefull (which ends with footage of its producer’s birthday party) and its sequel clicked — presumably with a crowd that demanded nothing but Akshay Kumar and bronzed girls in swimsuits — but by the time Himmatwala and Humshakals came around, the audience was as revolted as the critics.

(My friend M, who I mentioned earlier, sent me a picture of her armpit hair as revenge for taking her along to Housefull. Fair enough.) Even stars seem to have had enough, with Humshakals hero Saif Ali Khan openly declaring the film a huge mistake and scrapping previously announced plans to work with Sajid again. Akshay, going ahead with Housefull 3, has dropped Sajid from the project and replaced him with director duo the Samji brothers, one of whom, cruelly enough,  happens to be named Sajid. The tide is, naturally, turning.

In my review for the abysmal Humshakals, I wondered what Khan’s motives could be for churning out such awful, awful films. “Is he trying to make the country stupid? Is he suicidally trying to see how far people — producers, audiences, actors — let him go before someone assassinates him? Is this all some subversive meta-joke being perpetrated on us for not having applauded his acting in Jhooth Bole Kauwa Kaate? Is he turning his whole life into one gigantic ‘ham scene of the week’?”

I wanted, very sincerely, to post these questions to Sajid himself. The reason I’m writing this column instead is because this magazine contacted me to set up a one-on-one interview with Sajid, a slug-fest where I expected the gloves to be off, and him to shut me up with concepts of populism and how, as BJP-bhakts say, all that matters in the end is the public, um, mandate. His publicists confirmed and unconfirmed and eventually said they would be fine with an interview if nothing negative was said about his films. Mission impossible if ever there was one.

It was a debate I was looking forward to, because my questions are more sincere than glib. This is sadism, not incompetence, and I desperately want to know why somebody who — we must all assume, for sanity’s sake — knows better, carries on to keep making movies this sickeningly bad. How pathetic does he consider even the lowest common denominator he shamelessly chases? Does it not hurt the fanboy inside him to abuse the medium so criminally? To make movies that are execrable for the sake of making millions? His argument, I suspect, may just boil down to the millions, and the fact that he has many and I have none.

But directing a film is more than a job. It is an honour, a privilege, an opportunity. After creating toxic films that are invariably hurting every one of us in some way — each of us who works in movies and each of us who loves movies — dare he bring himself to watch his own work? Dare he care?

~

First published Mandate magazine, August 2014

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Queen: What Madhuri Dixit did next

“What did you choose? The coffee?”

There is such a thing as a very Andheri office. One building away from Mainland China, one alley away from a horrid little advertising agency I worked in for a few weeks when I first moved to Bombay, stands a functionally grey monolith. It houses, among many others, an office so utterly nondescript it could belong to anyone from a realtor to a stockist of ballpoint-pen refills. It would, however, have to be a stockist obsessed with privacy. Ringing the doorbell that sultry afternoon led to a voice through a speaker – with the firmly curt tone of automated gates in California-based TV shows – and I identified myself, promising the voice that I did indeed have an appointment “with Madam,” and waited interminably while my claim was checked and double-checked.

The reception area is tiny — barely a couple of chairs plonked across a man on a desk, surrounded by phones — and clearly not too many are allowed to come in and wait, at least at one time. “Two minutes,” said a voice too busy to sound reassuring, and I sat back amid the exaggerated normalcy. Until I looked to my left and saw – within that small, caricaturedly unspectacular bastion of the humdrum – a massive painting, vibrant and striking and carrying a stylish signature (and, indeed, a signature style) that even a philistine like I could recognise.

This is certainly a freebie, a present from the artist — the nation’s most iconic painter and the only one who is truly a household name — a man who famously watched a movie several dozen times before publicly declaring just how besotted he was with, well, “Madam”.

It was a movie, in fact, most of the nation appeared to have watched far too many times.

Video piracy in India began with Hum Aapke Hain Koun, and I was there. It was the autumn of 1994, with Delhi at its most affectionately crisp. The Sooraj Barjatya behemoth, released that August, monopolized every theatre in town. Video rental libraries were booming, with VHS cassettes regularly hitting shelves a few weeks or, at most, a couple of months after a film’s release. Despite the demand, Barjatya had stubbornly held out, leaving his film exclusively in theatres, near-bankrupting families compelled to ritually watch it.  I was thirteen when a very close friend sidled up to me after class and asked if I knew anyone who might want to buy a copy, on VHS. My mother’s ecstatic yelp convinced me a goldmine was upon us, and thus – with enterprising chum producing copy after copy and me pasting magazine pictures onto cardboard boxes in an approximation of cassette covers – did we please many an auntie of our acquaintance.

It is, therefore, with more than a smidgeon of disbelieving gratitude that – two decades after squeezing that unbelievably-long movie onto VHS by cutting down the songs — I am ushered into a conference room where Madhuri Dixit walks in and wonders if my cup has coffee in it.

~

MD3From scene-stealing ingénue to pinup goddess, from magnificence to misstep, Madhuri Dixit has always been worth watching. She sobbed and snickered and shimmied through movies of varying quality – taking on both clichés and surprises with equal brio – and the mesmerized masses lapped it all up. By the numbers, she’s the most successful heroine of all time, the highest paid actress and the only one to ever get paid as much as her leading men. She has bested any so-called rivals, been billed above the biggest actors, and, in an industry defined by songs, she owns the most unforgettable dances of all.

The last three decades have seen her celebrated, deified, dreamed of and craved. In 2001, Pakistan’s then President Pervez Musharraf sounded almost wistful when, at the Agra Summit, he remembered Pakistani fans at a Sharjah cricket match singing “Madhuri De Do, Kashmir Le Lo” (to the tune of “Joote De Do, Paise Le Lo.”).  That was a song from the bootleg-inspiring Hum Aapke Hain Koun which, despite all the obsequious saccharine pandering so evident now, was a considerable gamble at the time: an inanely-long film with over a dozen songs and one of the first 90s hits without a villain.

For a woman topping the A-list, Madhuri has frequently taken chances — with scripts, directors, co-stars – and bucked the predictable. The gangland drama Parinda came in 1989, alongside her first blockbuster Ram Lakhan; 1991 saw her in both Lawrence D’Souza’s weepie love-triangle Saajan and Nana Patekar’s introspective Prahaar; 1992 had Dixit dhak-dhaking away in Beta, and playing a blind danseuse in the understated Sangeet. In 1997, while basking in the spotlight of Yash Chopra’s Dil Toh Pagal Hai, she gambled on Prakash Jha’s Mrityudand – a woman-oriented character drama and one of the director’s earliest films, with the (still) unknown Ayub Khan as her leading man.

Dixit’s acting chops have proven as impressive as her stellar screen-presence, the star often gleaming despite films duller than the tired old tins their reels are packed in. Even in failed films, her eyes sparkle with eagerness, and a seemingly effortless spontaneity colours her performances, infectious energy carrying her through moments of tremendous farce as well as painful melodrama. Looking back at, say, the moronic Deewana Mujhsa Nahin — where Dixit has to contend with an annoying character, the worst wardrobe imaginable, and an obsessive stalker in the form of Aamir Khan at his most cutesy — the actress still shows off innate charisma. Like with all actors the camera has a crush on, even her lowest points are worth smiling at, and often show remarkable, untapped potential.

This might not remain untapped for long. While Madhuri Dixit may seem to have proverbially done it all, she is now picking radical parts and sharp filmmakers. Our cinema, staunch in its dated ways, isn’t prepared for this refusal to go quietly into the twilight of supporting roles. She may not command the numbers she once did, she may not be the starlet setting boys afire, but she is unquestionably, defiantly — almost inexplicably — still a superstar. What she does makes a difference, and she could alter how our cinema treats heroines. The reason Dixit’s experimental films haven’t show up as vividly, in the light of her considerable filmography, is because her hits have always dwarfed them to the sidelines. But thirty years after she first showed up on screen, Madhuri Dixit appears keener than ever to shake up the status quo — if only to make room for herself, one more time.

~

MD1A Madhuri Dixit movie isn’t what it used to be. In one of her two 2014 releases, she plays a parkour-ready outlaw quick with mid-air kicks; in the other, a poetry-fetishizing empress in love with her handmaiden. Both, as one can imagine, are suicidally huge risks for a megastar in an industry not used to rewarding bold choices. Playing a gay aesthete in January before playing Rajinikanth in March – there’s never been anything quite like it.

In that Andheri boardroom, Dixit, 46, sounded content about the new films. “I’m trying to think of any movie in the past,” she said of Gulaab Gang, “that, in that setting of a Bollywood potboiler, has women in the key roles. A movie with all the masala, all the dialoguebaazi, and yet with a female protagonist and antagonist.” Based (very) loosely on crusading outlaw Sampat Pal and her all-woman brigade of pink-saree clad vigilantes, Soumik Sen’s film is hardline commercial cinema, a film unsubtle enough to have starred, say, Akshay Kumar. “That a woman was playing that kind of a role was fascinating, I thought, because it changes the rules in one go. It’s like throwing down a bowling ball and watching the pins go flying.”

Gulaab Gang isn’t a great film, though there is a definite thrill in watching Dixit swagger about with exaggerated machismo, kneeing rogues in the chest. She essays her role with marked dignity, but the best part of her performance might be signing a film that unlikely: an old-school movie by a rookie director, with less of a budget than she, or that genre, is used to. The actress was attracted to it for multiple reasons. “The film also spoke about women’s rights and education, and society in general. It was a statement on what’s happening around us: laws need to be stronger; we have this whole infrastructure and yet nothing really happens. And I think, in its own way, Gulaab Gang addressed that too. There were a lot of things that made me do Gulaab Gang.” One of which, clearly, was getting trussed up in harnesses and swung around trucks to beat up goons. If only because her boys, Arin, 10, and Raayan, 8, would enjoy watching mummy wreak some havoc.

Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya wreaks very different havoc, a decidedly child-unfriendly film about con-men hoodwinked by an imperious lesbian with a literary bent of mind. It is a highly nuanced film, and Dixit – playing the once-wealthy Begum who plays up to men to pay her bills – does so with delicacy and a self-aware grace that eludes any of our current heroines. “The old culture is fast fading,” she says, “the nawabiyat is crumbling to pieces. As things become more ‘new-age,’ there’s no place for characters with old-world charm, and they try desperately to fit into the new generation.”

It is also a film where our most mainstream actress plays a woman who prefers the company of women, a twist that, while subtle enough, is certainly a shocker. Dixit assures me she wasn’t worried. “I knew exactly what we were doing. And there was a lot of ambiguity to it; we were not stating anything. We left it to the viewer to interpret it themselves: it could be two women who were fed up of men in their lives and they want to be by themselves, or it could be something else you notice. And I love that little ambiguity.”

Chaubey, whose first “lesbian draft” was wickedly explicit, confessed it gave his heroine cold feet. But then he realised, while honing his script, that overt sexuality would kill the loveliness of the story’s eventual reveal, an angle pegged on Lihaaf, Ismat Chughtai’s scandalous short story from 1942. “She told me about her fears, and I addressed it: This is exactly how I’m going to treat it. If you’re observant, you’ll get it fairly easily, however, if you aren’t watching carefully, you don’t get it, and that’s it. It doesn’t harm your enjoyment of the movie,” said the director, who co-wrote the script with Vishal Bhardwaj. “And then she was fully on, you know. Unlike Huma [Qureshi, who plays the object of Madhuri’s affections in the film] who was very excited and who was constantly talking to me about it — ‘how do I touch her? how do I look at her?’ — Madhuri didn’t fuss, she didn’t discuss it too much. However, when shooting, there were absolutely no inhibitions. She was all systems go.”

~

It is a career that took off with an advertisement.

Screen India was the most powerful industry-to-industry publication through the 70s and 80s, and their third-page advertisement was, for a considerable while, the hottest real estate in Hindi film publicity, limited largely to paid announcements for films celebrating a grand theatrical run, or first posters for films with whopping budgets. It was, therefore, rather startling to see a dramatic six-page ad ‘launching’ a heroine who wasn’t merely unknown, but unknown because her first five films had flopped.

At 17, Madhuri Dixit did a tiny film called Abodh opposite Bengali actor Tapas Pal, which sank without a trace. As did her next four films. During the shoot of Awara Baap, the second of these flops, however, she met Subhash Ghai. Ghai, a hugely successful director who was bulletproof at the box office for two decades straight — from 1980’s Karz to 1999’s Taal — glimpsed something special. “When I first met her in Kashmir,” said Ghai, who was there to scout locations for his 1986 multistarrer Karma, “she was playing some very small role as Rajesh Khanna’s daughter. A hairstylist, Khatoon, who had worked with me in Karz, came to greet me and said ‘ek chhoti ladki hai, side-role kar rahi hai’ (‘There’s this little girl, doing side-roles’) and she introduced me. Patli si ladki thi. (She was a slim sort of girl.)”

Ghai was impressed by the slim girl’s face, one he recalls as “absolutely photogenic,” and, he said, by her impressively “well-mannered, cultured and innocent” persona. “She was an unpolluted actor. I had the confidence that I could shape her into a star. So I took her on as a project.” Ghai spoke of this phase as “re-erecting” Dixit’s career because he discarded her flops outright and refused to even watch them. “I told her that ‘I am making this film called Karma, and after finishing this film, in one year, I will make a film properly to launch you.’ I wanted to sign her to a 5-year contract so I could groom her properly, and all I wanted was her loyalty.”

Ghai shot a quick Madhuri showreel, sending it to eight producers and directors. “Ramesh Sippy, Inder Kumar, Shashi Kapoor Productions… Everyone I knew well. I said to them that ‘If you think this face, this video is okay, then contact me. I am signing this girl and if you want to sign her, send me a cheque for Rs 5,000.” By the end of the week, Ghai had eight cheques, following which he took out the historically eventful advertisement.

MD8“This girl who was a flop yesterday is blooming today and will be a superstar tomorrow,” is how Ghai summarized the 1985 ad I was unable to locate from the Screen archives. “She had become a flop heroine,” said trade analyst Amod Mehra, “but what a launch that was! Six pages continuous in Screen? When nobody had even heard of her? It made her career.” Ghai’s coup de grâce was the final page, emblazoned with the names of the eight producers who had already signed the relatively untested actress. Thus was Dixit a sensation before stepping forth as Ghai’s heroine.

Then, like a much-shaken fizzy drink finally uncorked, came the stream of hits. Dayavan, Tezaab (1988); Tridev, Parinda and Ghai’s own Ram Lakhan (1989). From this point, there was no stopping Dixit, basking in blockbuster bubbles and getting stronger with each successive triumph. The film industry reacted the only way they knew how: as a herd. Dixit had nine releases in 1989 and ten in 1990. Everyone wanted her.

“If you wanted histrionics,” said Mehra, trying to sum up what producers felt at the time, “Madhuri Dixit was your number one choice. Very quickly in the 90s everyone started comparing her with Madhubala, as a beauty who could charm anybody. But Madhuri grew as an actress besides just being a star.” Mehra dismissed any serious competition. “Sridevi was a great comic actress, but that was it. She was a very commercial heroine. For big masala-movies people wanted Sridevi, but when they had a role that needed acting, they had to have Madhuri. She had an edge; everyone felt she was the complete Indian woman.”

~

“Madhuri Dixit is the most solid man I’ve met in the industry,” Shah Rukh Khan told Filmfare magazine in 2006. “Yeah, you heard right. She’s truly like a man. She’s the most solid thinker, the most solid emotionally, a solid believer. And of course, her talent is unquestionable. From her I’ve learnt the most.” Evidently one of those overachievers who believe a man is the ultimate compliment, Khan spoke about how he merely follows her lead. From a famously cocky superstar who knowingly exudes the persona of a charming narcissist, his compliment was very telling: “She is the only one I feel I am not as good as.”

MD7Dixit has always marched to the beat of a different benchmark. Her first “hit pairing”, in tabloid parlance, came with Anil Kapoor. Already a star with films like Mr India behind him, Kapoor recommended Dixit to director N Chandra, who cast Dixit in Tezaab, her breakthrough movie. The duo enjoyed colossal success and became a golden ticket for producers, the most recent of their sixteen collaborations being the 2000 release, Pukar. But all was not peaches and moustaches. One of their biggest films, Beta, in 1992, cast Kapoor unflatteringly as a bullied simpleton and Dixit as a firebrand defiantly challenging her husband’s mother. Dixit, all eyes-blazing, was the most striking thing about the film, especially while melting the screen with the ludicrously suggestive Dhak Dhak Karne Laga song. “Beta should have been called Beti, people tell me,” Dixit smiled nonchalantly at me, but according to Amod Mehra, Kapoor wasn’t enjoying the fact that Dixit was walking away with the lion’s share of the applause.

If so, he wasn’t her only leading man wary of, well, being led. “She only started Dil [in 1990] because Anil didn’t have dates at the time, and Aamir [Khan, with a string of unsuccessful films following his 1988 debut hit, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak] was a nobody,” explained Mehra. “So another hit pair was born. But once she became a superstar, the biggest heroine… Anil pushed for actresses like Urmila [Matondkar] and Sridevi in films like [1997’s] Judaai, while Aamir was picking actresses like Manisha Koirala [in 1995’s Akele Hum Akele Tum]. Nobody wanted to take on Madhuri any more.”

Assuming these actors didn’t feel threatened by Dixit, they might have had something to say regarding the characters she played. Most were canny, independent girls, bright students or feisty professionals who suffered little foolishness, especially from leading men who (not so long ago) played their saviours. Mainstream directors like Ghai – even in the loud, testosterone-filled Khalnayak, ostensibly a Sanjay Dutt vehicle – made sure they wrote a meaty part for Madhuri.

By the mid-nineties, she was queen. She had the films, the roles, the audiences. Once it became clear to producers that her name on the marquee resulted in that all-important box office opening, she began to render her heroes redundant. In Hum Aapke Hain Koun, for example, not just does she enjoy above-the-line billing higher than the film’s hero, Salman Khan, but – according to a recent article in The Indian Express – she was paid a then-astronomical Rs 2.7 crores for the film, more than almost anybody at the time. (Amitabh Bachchan, according to rumours, was paid Rs 2 crores for Khuda Gawah a year before.)

“This is what happens when the heroine becomes bigger than the hero,” Mehra said. “Stories and films have to be built around her stature. So they become heroine-oriented films — which then don’t work at the box office.” This doesn’t mean that independent, intelligent female characters weren’t accepted – on the contrary, 90s actresses like Kajol and Manisha Koirala brought much sass to their roles – but these characters belonged (according to conventional industry punditry) alongside even stronger male leads. This is an industry where sexism runs deep and male stars, to this day, cherry-pick the ladies they work with.

Getting too big to tread on her heroes’ toes would signal an imminent downfall, but Dixit avoided the precipice in defiantly heroic fashion. She roared like a cougar and began to do what only the heroes do – namely, working with young boys while taking charge of those films’ commercial reigns.

Madhuri was breaking ground, boogeying with young Akshaye Khanna in 1997’s Mohabbat, nine years after being pinned down by his father Vinod Khanna in Dayavan. Consider how notoriously unfair Hindi cinema has been to the ageing actress. Even as wrinkly heroes routinely don wigs to woo starlets a third of their age, leading ladies are put out to pasture cruelly early, age first relegating them to the dreaded sister/mother roles before forgetting them entirely. Rakhi Gulzar, for instance, played Amitabh Bachchan’s lover in Barsaat Ki Ek Raat before playing his mother in Shakti just a year later.

MD10Yet Madhuri played by her own rules and was rewarded for it, producers caving in and forking over the astronomical fees she demanded. “I’m proud I did it because it paved the path for others to follow,” Madhuri said. “And when you do something groundbreaking, there’s always a risk. But I think I was always clear what I wanted to be, where I wanted to be, and where I wanted women in cinema to be. So that always dictated my choices, whether it was the pricing or the choice of films, I wanted it to be the best and I thought I deserved the best.”

Yet Dixit’s ceiling-shattering didn’t pave that path after all. Measure that triumph, if you will, in the context of today, where the most feted heroines –Deepika Padukone/Kareena Kapoor – get paid less than half of what even a second-rung hero – Shahid Kapoor/Imran Khan – makes per film. That Dixit managed to achieve – and, on occasion, exceed – parity in an industry so irredeemably sexist is a testament to her singular star-power.

~

One of the ways Dixit managed to avoid slipping from the top rungs at a time when younger actresses were pilfering the spotlight was by retreating unexpectedly into the shadows. In 1999, she found herself a soft-spoken cardiovascular surgeon living in Denver, Colorado, one who shared her Marathi Brahmin roots. Her marriage to Sriram Nene was a largely un-filmi affair, following which she didn’t immediately pull the plug on her career. A few significant films followed, including Pukar and Lajja, but after Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s massively publicised Devdas — where, for the first time since her fledgling days, she got the supporting role instead of the lead, which went to Aishwarya Rai — she decided to relocate to America.

Her “comeback,” after five years off the greasepaint, was a 2007 production called Aaja Nachle, about an NRI dancer returning to India to save a theatre in her village. Produced as it was by Yash Raj Studios, it was mounted on a scale so lavish the earnestness was buried by bling. Madhuri dismissed any question of ring-rust. “It’s like bicycling. Or swimming, for that matter. Or,” and here she paused for a hint of drama, “actually even walking. You can’t forget. Once you’re in front of the camera, it comes very naturally.” It was the concept that clearly touched a nerve. “I loved the fact that there’s this woman who leaves her country and goes somewhere else, makes a life for herself, and then finds out that whatever she was passionate about is crumbling and she has to come back, and she has to fight for that culture and…”

So Madhuri Dixit has come back to save us all? “No!” She burst out laughing, those devastating peals of laughter. “You can’t save anyone, it’s not possible! But at least you can contribute to making people aware, at least talking about it, at least educating people about what is [fading], what we’re losing. Even today, the masters who are experts in Kathak, Bharatnatyam, in classical dancing, they all say people don’t want to learn it because they all want to be dancers overnight. Which isn’t possible when you don’t know classical dancing, but once you know classical, you can master any kind of dancing in the world.”

And then, to drive her cultural metaphor home, she talks about cyborgs. Naturally.

“Do you watch Star Trek at all?” she asked, a raised eyebrow topping that smile, acutely aware her half-man half-machine metaphor may be lost on a non-Trekkie. “So cyborgs just come and assimilate people into their own culture, turn them into half-men half-robots and that’s it. So they’re one, they think as one. But if you really want to live in a world as one and yet have your identity, then your culture is something that you uphold because that will give you identity.”

Yes, that Choli-Ke-Peechhe lady digs sci-fi. (“Trek and Wars,”she insisted, even after she nails a William Shatner impression.) Dixit loves the high-concept hoo-ha, and over the last decade, like any parent, has watched a whole lot of animated cinema. She raved about Pixar’s Up, lamented the lack of quality animation in India, and is fascinated by how emotive superhero movies can be, “with the dead parents and the villain going hahaha or the uncle being killed.” Would she do a superhero movie? “Oh yeah,” she purred. “Absolutely. It would be fun. It has its own fascination, from Spider-Man to Catwoman; there’s something exciting about these characters. And they’re all made from comic books. Which is just… amazing.”

Dixit is currently intrigued by the Hollywood model, getting writers and directors to develop material specifically for her, instead of merely wading through scripts thrust her way. If Dixit can facilitate the kind of movies she likes to watch, we may be in for an interesting time. But can she command a Krrish-sized budget today? And, if not, — given the fickleness of producers and distributors and the ever-changing list of eight or so actors considered “safe bets” — is the smallness of the film necessarily a bad thing?

~

A clue to her future may lie to her past: one of her best and most-offbeat performances.

Maqbool Fida Hussain’s Gaja Gamini is a peculiar beast. Hussain, India’s most emblematic modern artist (and a painter of movie-posters in his earliest days) watched Hum Aapke Hain Koun 67 times in theatres, got obsessed with Madhuri and made a series of paintings featuring her, a series he signed simply, and dramatically, as “Fida.” When HAHK released, he was 79, she was 26, but a friendship was struck. Six years later, Hussain directed his ode to Madhuri.

An evocative but indulgently absurd work, Gaja Gamini – which means one with the gait of an elephant — remains an unforgivably theatrical bit of navel-gazing that is, without question, stunning to look at. “There was a bound script,” she revealed. “You’d be surprised. There was a whole storyboard. But his thing was not about the dialogues, not about what we were saying to each other. He used to say he wanted to make ‘moving pictures’ where if you just snip any of the frames out from the reel, it should look like a painting. And that’s exactly what he did.”

In the film, Dixit plays three (or perhaps more) overlapping muses, the women inspiring Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Kalidasa’s Abhigyan Shakuntalam and a young photographer’s finest work. This photographer was played by her Dil Toh Pagal Hai co-star Shah Rukh, who didn’t quite understand what was going on. Dixit, on her part, couldn’t make out Yash Chopra’s trademark mumbles during the DTPH shoot – though her unintelligible mimicking is spot-on – and Shah Rukh would translate it for her. “So when we did Gaja Gamini together, I remember Hussain Ji would come and say ‘Abhi aese bolna hai, abhi aese bolna hai,’ (Now you say it like this, now like this) and Shah Rukh,” she laughed before throwing on a completely vacant voice, “was ‘What does this mean?’ And I explained that we shouldn’t ask what it means but follow what it says.” Thus did the biggest stars of their time provide subtitles of cinematic understanding, helping each other through entirely different, but equally choppy, waters.

It had to have been a daunting brief for an actress. “It was! What Hussain Ji was trying to do with the film was to say how mysterious a woman is. Poets are trying to describe her with their poetry, painters are trying to capture that magical moment, that smile or whatever, and yet she’s so mysterious that nobody can really describe or, say, define her because she just plays so many roles.”

“It was eccentric,” she agreed, smiling, “but very cutely eccentric. And it was, in a way, liberating, because I could give it my own interpretation. It wasn’t like he knew the nuances of what acting is or stuff like that, so I had a lot of freedom. And we created something that was very different. The dances, also, were very innovative.”

She spoke fondly of the “fabulous, fabulous” Hussain and his spirit, of how he’d come to visit her in Denver and frantically look around for a canvas, assuring her he was carrying his own paints. “And I said ‘why don’t you… just relax? Sit back, I’ll give you a cup of tea, put your feet up and don’t paint.’ And he says ‘you’re punishing me!’ And that was an eye-opener to me, the way nothing else mattered and he just wanted to paint, and go on painting.”

Masala movies of the 70s and 80s traditionally made a big deal of something called the hero’s “entry shot,” the first time the camera shows us the leading man, often a dramatic pan up from his boots to his face (at which point the camera, like an overconfident stand-up comic, freezes for a second, anticipating applause and whistles). Hussain, in his two-hour film, obscures Madhuri’s face for the first half-hour, showing us her dancing but covering her face with strategically raised mudras. Finally, we see her sitting by herself and are told she’s blind. Dixit smiles beatifically while men try to woo her with music, following which she breaks suddenly into a musical aalaap and, with a dramatic spurt of energy (and a change in setting) begins to dance next to gigantic musical instruments painted as white as her saree.

And it is here — as she sensually straddles a cello while a black, trademark MF Horse watches her – that Dixit scorches, unashamedly turning on the oomph around these fortunate over-sized instruments. It is a preposterous set-up but Dixit’s electric vitality makes it come alive; she gasps and thrusts and touches the instruments with a devastatingly fluid grace. A minute later, Dixit can be seen sitting and talking, softly and realistically. She’s surrounded by actors grandstanding theatrically, projecting their lines in an infuriating way, yet Dixit keeps things crisply, cleanly cinematic. There is a mastery here, an unwavering self-assurance through her every step, be it a tricky dance move or a demanding turn of phrase – perhaps because the film was tailored to fit her. It is a muddled but ambitious experiment, this film, and Dixit dazzles, turning in a unique performance, one without any cinematic reference point. The markedly abstract nature of the project aside, a reason the actress may have been so uninhibitedly luminous could be that Gaja Gamini was a pure artistic experiment, produced without making eyes at the box-office.

Which may just be her ticket right now.

~

Much of the go-for-broke ambition might have to do with having already exited stage-left whilst on top . Plus, she genuinely enjoyed being away. Strolling through a supermarket in Denver – “which is a very Caucasian kind of place, and the Indians there are mostly the transient kind, who come there for 3-4 years for their tech companies and move on” — occasionally spotted by an Indian or two and waving a quick hey before carrying on with her day, in gym clothes and bereft of makeup. Without minders to warn her from stepping out because crowds and the press were around. “For me having a family, a husband, a home, kids, was always a big part of my dream. Despite being so used to working, I was living the dream I’d made for myself. I was playing it to the hilt, really,” she laughed, then quickly clarified. “It wasn’t like a role, it wasn’t just play-acting. I come from a family of four kids and for me it’s very important, family is one of the important things.”

dedh-ishqiya-5vOn-set stories about Dixit revolve around an extraordinary work-ethic. “We were doing one of the songs,” recalled Soumik Sen, “and at around 12pm, lunchtime, she called me into her van and the first thing she asked me was ‘Do you have this location day after?’ and I was surprised but said yes. ‘Do you have the other artists day after?’ Yes. Then she broke the news that she’d been having a migraine attack since morning, and had been dancing with that. Now she said it’s getting too much, she’s had two pills, and it’s not gotten any better. If she feels okay, she’ll resume shooting, otherwise if I could please excuse her? It’s unbelievable for someone to ask you these questions first.”

Abhishek Chaubey was as thunderstruck, on the first day of shooting for Dedh Ishqiya, when she asked him, “in a very childlike way, ‘Was I good?’ It was a very innocent and very vulnerable moment, one where she was admitting ‘I could have fucked up, did I do it badly?’ It could have been an 18-year-old actor trying out a scene for the first time; that nervousness was there.”

It’s a good sign, the appetite remaining as desperate. Or is that the only way forward? Like Amitabh Bachchan over the last decade, is she forced to embrace the outlandish, the unexpected, in order to stay relevant? Is she choosing not to do a commercial vehicle opposite Salman Khan, or will that not be offered to her at all? Or has she found enough calm in order to do what she likes? She appreciates the edgier new filmmakers, and rattles off praise for virtually every young actress, from Kangna Ranaut to Priyanka Chopra, singling out the latter as a personal favourite. But don’t expect her to play mommy to them just yet. “I don’t feel like that yet, you know? I mean,” she burst out laughing, those irresistible ding-a-ling chimes, “my kids are just 8 and 10! I mean, what the hell? Let them be 25, and then I’ll play mother.” The laughter rings out genuine, secure, unafraid.

The Bachchan analogy draws itself. The late 90s saw Amitabh age gracelessly into self-parody unfortunate films like Laal Baadshah and Sooryavansham. Then came a television gameshow. So big became the actor in the role of the Kaun Banega Crorepati anchor that he sprung back into relevance, taking on a mixed bagful of roles. While not the leading man, he built up a new niche filmmakers were forced to respond to: despite him playing the hero’s father, the role had to be a textured one. This led to other senior actors – Rishi Kapoor being a prime example  – finding fresher and more challenging roles now than in their prime.

Several older actresses are doing interesting stuff. Shabana Azmi, for example, continues to shine despite her age with roles as varied as witch, don, affectionate mother and manipulative politician. But as an arthouse actress, she doesn’t have the commercial cache required to make producers and filmmakers change the way they write roles. When Madhuri Dixit does a small film, it doesn’t remain a small film.

By playing dyke and dacoit in the same breath, then, Dixit has blown the bloody doors off, in terms of perception and possibility. Thanks to her – and Sridevi, whose English Vinglish was a runaway smash – Hindi cinema is poised to create a space that didn’t really exist, at least for the commercial movie heroine. Suddenly it appears possible for actresses to stay pertinent despite conventional diktats of age or marital status or a certain kind of look. And she might not even have to dance.

~

MD2During her all-conquering 90s, it was easy to draw parallels between Madhuri and Julia Roberts – an amazingly successful star with an iconic smile, and paychecks as big as the boys – but things have changed. In Dedh Ishqiya, she delivers a finely etched, wonderfully-balanced effort, a breezy but brilliant performance that shows just how far she has travelled, from heroine to actress. Somewhere in the mid-90s – between Beta and Anjaam, I’d estimate – she grew aware of the breadth of her narrative range and started steering clear of false-notes since. This clarity, of precisely how taut one’s own tightrope is, is what makes an actor find her zone and begin to excel, and Dixit seems perfectly equipped to take on genuinely mature roles. Now, with an increased willingness for bowling-ball-sized risks, there is an emerging possibility for sculpting complicated characters and mature performances. Like, say, Meryl Streep. Of all the veterans revered for their acting, she’s the only one who consistently remains a leading lady, by any measure —  a red-carpet favourite, an industry icon, an influential actress, monopoliser of awards… A star. A Meryl Streep film, no matter its budget, can’t quite remain a small film.

Madhuri yelped at the mention of Streep. “That’s a big shoe to fill though! I just want to be different. I want to surprise with each film I do next.” Speaking of Hollywood influences, Streep “obviously” is the first name she took, but the choice of the second was rather tell-tale. “The new girl, Jennifer Lawrence. She just gets into whatever role she’s playing and she’s so young and it’s crazy.” She went on to mention actresses as varied as Angelina Jolie and Helen Mirren, and positively gushed over Cate Blanchett’s astonishing turn in Blue Jasmine, but the very fact that she’s citing a 23-year-old wunderkind as an influence shows how serious she is about not playing ma just yet.

She might not have to, honestly. The “heroine-oriented film” might have been box office blasphemy back in the 90s, but things are evolving. Vidya Balan was the hero in The Dirty Picture and Kahaani, as was Kangna Ranaut in Queen, and the audience showered those films with grateful applause. Dixit feels we are giving women more textured parts. “She plays a character now. It’s not just a revenge drama, and she’s not either avenger or victim, which is what heroine-oriented films used to mean.” She’s also gratified that female characters can now be unapologetic, without needing to justify whatever ambitions they might have. “Earlier you had to think that abhi aesa dikhaaenge toh audience might not like it; there’s a sick brother and uske liye kucch karna hai and that’s why she’s a cabaret dancer.”

A pivotal development in aid of extraordinary performers and performances in current cinema is the fact that hits and flops don’t matter like they used to. Not to actors, anyway. Now an actress can feature in a warmly-applauded flop and use the momentary acclaim to springboard toward her next project, ideally one with more visibility. It isn’t foolproof — and kismet can’t be cheated — but there are more chances and better odds for the talented, with even the looniest Hindi blockbusters now aiming at casting a richer ensemble. It is a highly promising time to be a strong actor, with newspapers and magazines looking beyond the usual, starry suspects to cast their applause. In Irrfan Khan, Rajkumarr Rao and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, we are beginning to see the rise of the unconventional leading man. The women aren’t far behind, and while there aren’t Streep-shaped roles quite yet, if this lady has her way, we might find the superheroine we’ve longed for.

The game is on. It’s been 26 years since Ek Do Teen, and Madhuri Dixit still counts.

~

An edited version of this piece appeared in Caravan Magazine, June 2014

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Philip Seymour Hoffman: Goodbye, Master

That fat guy.

The first time I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman was in Scent Of A Woman, playing an uppity prep-school bully. I vividly remember that floppy hair falling onto his round face, scrunched up all the time, as if the sun was glaring right into his eyes even in the shade. That fat guy who made the sickeningly sweet hero appear noble, that fat guy with the smirk of superiority spread across his mug.

He began popping up in notable movies, movies like Patch Adams and When A Man Loves A Woman which got a lot of television-time, and genuinely great movies where he played weirdos, like Boogie Nights and Magnolia and The Big Lebowski. Here was a young and seemingly fearless guy, a guy deftly turning into one of those character actors New York Times reviewers call “reliably excellent.”

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Then, in a landmark Cameron Crowe movie called Almost Famous, he played legendary rock critic Lester Bangs and guided many of my generation about journalism. Too cool to act cool, he acerbically gave us the straight dope: about life and faith and conviction and rock, and when I turned film critic a few years later, I picked his words as my survival mantra:

“You cannot make friends with the rock stars. That’s what’s important. If you’re a rock journalist – first, you will never get paid much. But you’ll get free records from the record company. And they’ll buy you drinks, you’ll meet girls, they’ll try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs… I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it.”

(Thank you, PSH. Truly.)

It takes a lot to sell words that fiendishly simple, and Hoffman did it with such authority that while he might not have been the film’s leading man, he emerged its brightest light. Its golden god, as it were.

And it was in him we found a man willing to debase himself, to play the fool, to go out on whatever limb was furthest, all for the glory of the movie. The length of the role never mattered, and — unlike in A Late Quartet, which contained one of his finest performances — Hoffman had no trouble playing second violin.

Soon it became clear that he was one of those special actors who made an impression no matter what cinematic world he inhabited. In 2004, he appeared in a hideous film called Along Came Polly, a Ben Stiller vehicle where Hoffman’s Sandy Lyle spoke candidly about “sharting”, a grotesque scatological gag about how he defecated while breaking wind, and did it so often he’d had to coin a word for it. It was an… unfortunate film, and I wondered whether he was to be mired forever in material so clearly beneath him.

One year later, he won the Best Actor Oscar for Capote: a performance where this grizzly giant turned small and fey purely by mannerism; a performance that, through its cold mercilessness, remains a scalding critique of writer Truman Capote. Suddenly it became clear that this man could do anything at all. He could be funny, vicious, profane, cunning, brilliant, slackjawed, omniscient, obsequious, perverse, perfect — and he shone each time, often more dazzling than the films he was in. A lumbering large man who — when need be — could swiftly twist and burst into song, nimbly tangoing with a roomful of naked women.

latequartetThat fat guy. Even that girth seemed to affect different approaches in service to the material: he could be genially plump, imposingly Falstaffian, a bloated artist, a chubby romantic, a stout sibling, a flabby film-writer.. And all while staying the same size. To paraphrase something an iconic actor once told another icon who shared Philip Seymour’s last name: other performers starved for parts or stuffed themselves with protein, but Hoffman acted.

His filmography boasts of some of the finest directors of all time: Sidney Lumet, The Coen Brothers, David Mamet, Mike Nichols, Cameron Crowe. And his most significant collaboration was fittingly with a filmmaker regarded the most talented of his generation. Paul Thomas Anderson cast Hoffman whenever he could, and the duo grew together — from Hard Eight to Boogie Nights to Magnolia to Punch-Drunk Love to The Master — bold and defiant and majestic, rising dizzyingly past any expectations.

The last few years showed his willingness to hurtle past any boundary, to endow simple parts with bittersweet nuance, and to dare writers to come up with a performance that would be a challenge. Charlie Kaufman scooped up the gauntlet and wrote the impossible Synecdoche, New York — about an artist who creates a New York within New York, one that mirrors his shambolic life through a warped lens — and Hoffman trounced the writing, rising above the meta-trickery and giving us a bravura performance that might well be his legacy. A blowhard and a nitpicker, a failure and a bastard, a genius and a true visionary. It’s all there, and thanks to his propensity to stun us, that might not even be part of your top three Philip Seymour Hoffman films.

That, in fact, might have been his greatest feat. To surprise us every single time, come what may. To show us a simple enough boxed-up character and then spring out in a way we could never anticipate. He’d roll up his sleeves, make us understand and believe and wait, and then — with a flourish, while his patter enchanted us — the stubbly master would yank a rabbit out of his baseball cap. Always without warning. Always off-guard.

And now he’s dead. Before the devil could know it.

~

First published Rediff, February 4, 2014

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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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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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