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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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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.

~

salman2Salman Khan was all set to throw a party for Will Smith. Legend — and relatively credible word — has it that Salman was utterly shattered when Shah Rukh Khan finagled 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 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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Why Kareena will remain Kareena

Even the Married Woman stereotype is red hot.

kareena1The pallu that, in one strategic slip, changes gears from bashful to boastful. That oomph that comes from experience. That smile which knows which men to fend off and which to encourage. That wrist, miraculously flexible by years of egg-whisking. That silently leonine air that comes of controlling a pride, a brood, a household. That grace under unending pressure. That self-assuredness. That way she can always tell when the milk’s gone off. And, without question, that sheer and complete unattainability. Do we not always want who we can’t have?

Why, then, the asinine assertion that actresses in India remain desirable only till they tie the knot? As a culture that has always fetishised the married woman — from Bhabhi to Boudi, the aforementioned stereotypes abound — how does it make sense for us to suddenly get prudish about ogling actresses who just so happen to be wives?

As theories go, unavailability is as daft as can be. Nobody sitting in a movie theatre imagines they have a shot with Priyanka Chopra simply because she whines about being single in interviews. And what dreamy delusion stops short of fantasy because of a mrs-shaped technicality, a mere squiggle before a name?

The people who do care about the unavailability of actresses happen, in fact, to be the same ones building up the ludicrous fallacy about how the public doesn’t want to see married women on screen. It is the heavy-bankrolling producers who insist strongest about casting single starlets simply because marriage does indeed make an actress less attainable to them, nudgenudgewinkwink. The public couldn’t care less.

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Malaika Arora Khan. I’m no pollster, but that lady may well be the most blatantly lusted after woman in our cinema today. Does the fact that she’s married to a burly actor lessen her appeal when she grinds on screen? Does it lessen her appeal in any way at all when she grinds on screen with his brother? Nope, and that’s as it should be. Just like Marilyn Monroe’s marriages — or indeed, her many men — never dented our universal craving for her. Hollywood, in fact, makes it hard to keep score, but drool we do regardless of who’s-with-who.

And yet, Bollywood’s punditry wholly and unanimously subscribes to the theory that actresses lose their appeal after they get married: a statement that might have something to do with the fact that we constantly like casting younger girls opposite older men. Not that any sort of Bollywood formula is at all surefire: the actress with the most impact on Hindi film audiences this year is one significantly older than the Khan triumvirate, a married woman returning to the big screen after about a decade and a half.

The stubborn fatcats with the chequebooks, however, staunchly refuse to buy into fact, consider gamechangers anomaly, and continue to look askance at leading ladies with hyphenated last names. And we can editorially tut-tut all we like, but that won’t change things.

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What could change things is a woman who isn’t content being a heroine.

kareena2Kareena Kapoor Khan — a 32-year-old who has just married into singularly unfortunate initials — wears the pants in her relationships. At least the ones with her filmmakers. As the country’s highest-paid leading lady, she commands both banknotes and box-office openings, and has the singularly incredible star power to remain unfazed by failure. Her films may tank in theatres, may be savaged by critics, but Kareena isn’t out to prove herself, or her stardom: she walks away from the debris with her memorable chin held up, her head high, her hips sashaying invincibly past the doomed rubble of a ruinous Friday. And when the films do click, she smiles like she knew they had to.

Kapoor is, thus, significantly less comparable to other actresses and more to someone like, well, Salman Khan. Regardless of the project, so firmly has the stardom been established that the cape will be worn (and paid for) even if the film doesn’t soar. Not just is Kareena most unlikely to slow down following her very recent nuptials, but she — the first Hindi film heroine to be blasé and candidly on the record about her relationships — may indeed storm more intensely in the months to come, and blaze a trail for actresses, and not just for married ones, but for older ones.

Because it takes one with the fierce incandescence of a star like Kapoor — starina, even, to rhyme with the csarina she doubtless is, a star driven amazingly enough by her own staggering sense of entitlement — to redefine the age-old presets that continue to handcuff our films. To effectively force the powers that be to sit up and take notice. To keep the fire burning. And a slower flame might well prove to be the most scorching.

Congratulations, Kareena Kapoor Khan. May even your bhabhidom dazzle us all.

~

First published (but in a very sloppily edited version) in Femina magazine, November 2012

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The girl with the legs

I met Deepika Padukone’s legs at a party once.

They wore blessedly tiny white shorts, as if sunbathing. They looked the part, too, bronzed and toned, sculpted from Renaissance-era marble, just, you know, tanned. Gulp. The actress atop them seemed far more reticent than her sensational stems, speaking softly and keeping mostly to herself. Her, I barely met. The legs, on the other hand, screamed Hi from right across the room. And dozens of us waved moronically back, spilling drinks and walking into coffee-tables as we gaped helplessly.

It is this effortlessly distracting aura that Shah Rukh Khan tapped into as Deepika walked by in Om Shanti Om. He clutched at his heart and swooned, theatrically overwhelmed by prettiness. Deepika was seven when Shah Rukh conquered the nation with Baazigar — the second film she’d ever seen — and yet here he was, holding her dupatta like a schoolboy who’d just swallowed his tongue. It was a dream she’d never dreamt.

Daughter to Badminton champion Prakash Padukone, her childhood treasured sport instead. “It was all about the All England [Badminton and Lawn Tennis Championships] and the World Cup,” she says, speaking about how the family got together once in a while to go watch a film, always something big and dreamy and romantic. “Something YashRaj or Dharma.” She admits to a DiCaprio poster alongside tennis pinups, but films were never something that mattered.

Modelling, however, always did. She pored over magazines, followed pageants, and loved to pose. “I think everybody knew about my passion for being in front of the camera, performing, the ‘glamour’ aspect of it,” she vocally air-quotes the word, almost as if flaunting that gorgeousness is a bad thing. “I think I figured it out in school, because I enjoyed being on stage, photo-shoots, fashion shows and all that.” A career she actively worked towards, she feels, unlike her current one. “I knew that modelling was something I definitely wanted to do. Films… I just didn’t expect [that jump] to happen so soon.”

It happened. At 25, Padukone is one of Hindi cinema’s most recognizable faces. Aarakshan, out this August, will be her tenth film as leading lady, in less than five Bollywood years. What she lacks in range, she tries to make up with gams and gumption. She’s played a movie star, a cab driver, a blind roller-skater, a freedom fighter and even a half-Chinese Ninja-type. “I don’t get to choose what comes to me, I choose from what comes to me,” she explains, a suddenly articulate spark. “I’ve been fortunate that my directors think I can do different kinds of films. But I enjoy doing love stories the most. Those are the films I really enjoy watching.”

Being Cyrus director Homi Adajania’s next film is one of those. She calls it “a hardcore love story,” insists the title Cocktail isn’t final, and, while refusing to spill any beans, dubs it her most challenging role. “This year the films are all different. Aarakshan [a Prakash Jha drama where Saif plays a Dalit] is next and then Desi Boys, which is a romantic comedy, going into Cocktail with Saif, going into Race 2, an action-thriller.”

“There is a kind of cinema [the audience] want to see you in, definitely, but I guess for them also it would be nice to see me in different kinds of roles. Shah Rukh is the perfect example. Everyone loves him as Raj, sure, but they also don’t mind seeing him in a Don 2 or an Om Shanti Om, y’know, doing something different.”

Very telltale, the way she looks to a man, the top man even, as her measure, not to any of her female colleagues. Unlike many of them borrowing accents from Manhattan and Melbourne, Deepika — who says ‘Thin-kuh’ for Think and ‘Wooduntte’ for Wouldn’t — appears a plainer girl who pronounces her apostrophes. An occasional Aishwarya giggle pops up hiccupishly, but vanishes as she talks beyond the rehearsed.

I firmly believe stunners view other stunners very differently from us gogglers, and ask Deepika who in Bollywood looks better than she does, in terms of physical attributes.

“Mmmm. Physical?”

Yes, go on, be superficial. Who do you think has nicer legs or eyes or a smile?

“Well, I’ve always admired Madhuri’s… expressiveness. Oh, and Priyanka’s confidence.”

Cheating. Confidence isn’t physical at all.

“Okay, okay. Let me think. Kareena’s… light eyes. And Katrina, I guess, for the way her hair is always in place, no matter what.”

Deepika, you’re hedging. Point blank: is there anybody in Bollywood you think has a better body than you?

“No.”

Automatic, instant, defiant. With the kind of pluck that shows she’s here to stay.

~

First published ELLE magazine, July 2011.

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Not just another sideshow

In tribute to a foreigner who became one of the most endearing parts of our 80s cinema.


It’s one of those t-shirt ideas I had a long time ago and really should get made one of these days. All I’m looking at is a plain white tee with the words “Jai Bajrang Bali” in quotes. Attributed to, of course, Bob Christo. You’re welcome.

We lost that unforgettable gent earlier this week, and the outpouring of grief and genuine commiseration on the Internet has been heartening, triggering off a wave of nostalgia about that ruddy, beefy Australian man our cinema so enthusiastically cast as the face of foreign evil.

Depending on what exactly you Google, you learn that Christo had quite the checkered past — involving CIA spy-ships and engineering and karate and terrorists in Rhodesia — before he came to India, became Sanjay Khan’s bodyguard, and apparently struck up a friendship with the gorgeous Parveen Babi. He then became Bollywood’s wicked-whiteman in residence for a quarter of a century. Fascinating stuff, and apparently, a memoir by the man is mercifully on its way. It’s just a shame that Bob won’t be around to see us lap it up.

For lap it up we doubtless will. Christo, frequently clad in either period costume as a British officer in pre-Independent India, or in Bollywood costume as a smuggler (read: gold-framed Aviator sunglasses), always entered the film all guns blazing, promising to be a formidable foe to the good guy till he inevitably received his comeuppance. Yet, incredibly enough, this firangi foil, this stock-character Caucasian cliché — a strongman with a bald head and french beard, like a caricatured wrestler — turned out to be a hugely popular actor with a genuinely warm screen-presence, likable even in folly: even, in fact, as he cowered at the feet of an invisible superhero trying desperately hard to pronounce a line of prayer right.

Rest In Peace, Bob. You were one of Bollywood’s blessed imports who gave the industry true character. We are an industry notoriously quick to latch on to foreigners showing an interest in our wares, but ruthlessly quick to drop them as soon as we find something more unique.

Yet there are names who become a part of us and whom we appropriate as our very own. The English-Greek Fearless Nadia is as much a part of Indian cinema as is, say, Madhubala. Katrina Kaif, the most successful actress in the country today, is as Indian as heroines can get. We have forced them into being ours, just as we did with Bob. And ours they shall remain.

So thanks, Mr Christo. Not just for taking the punches all those years, but for being such a sport about all our jingoistic idiocy. We’ve always appreciated it. May the force be with you. Or, as you said, Jai Bajrang Bali.

~

First published Mumbai Mirror, March 23, 2011

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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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