But who can really hate her — overheated housewife, faux Indian princess or nagin? Aastha Atray Banan meets the multiple personality order called Mallika Sherawat
IT’S A HOT and humid day. But at Mumbai’s Famous Studios, sweltering heat doesn’t interfere with the important business at hand. Shouting, cajoling, promising the moon, passive aggression, suicidal despair, it’s all part of the everyday logistics. Then Mallika arrives.
Seven hours of waiting backstage, as Mallika records an episode of Zee’s Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, we are shepherded into her vanity van for a quick chat. She apologises quickly with the same unmistakeable mouth that once kissed its way to fame, and you are already distracted.
The distraction doesn’t stop at her long legs, slim waist and full bosom in a white lace dress. Her eyelids bat flirtatiously and non-stop. You believe that she is genuinely happy to see you, until you remember where you are. Then you wonder — is this how she wins people over? Despite not having a single big hit to her credit since Murder, except the sleeper hit Pyaar Ke Side Effects, Mallika just doesn’t seem to disappear. She is at Cannes (though Aishwarya Rai would like to pretend she isn’t). She is being hailed as the next Brigitte Bardot by Time’s Richard Corliss. She became the first Indian actor to have been given an honorary citizenship in Los Angeles, and now she is starring in the strange Hollywood production, Hisss. What is it that ‘they’ see we seem immune to?
Maybe they love her because she plays exotic Indian princess so beautifully, simultaneously devoid of sin and full of Mae Westisms — she recently called a python her best onscreen lover. “I am the salt of the earth,” she declares, and Third World salt is clearly the best kind.
“She is such a princess. Did you know that she didn’t even know what the middle finger denoted when she first came to LA? It was hilarious,” executive producer of Hisss, William Sees Keenan, laughs, adding, “Seriously, she is a saint, a nun even. She draws the line between what is sensual and trashy quite clearly.” If Keenan is to be believed, she doesn’t smoke or drink and is in bed by 10 pm.
There is a pause needed here. Is this the same Mallika who set India on fire with one memorable numeral — 17 kisses in a film? And the same Mallika whose soundbytes make you wince (‘I am like Viagra to Indian men’)? But a few minutes into the conversation and you realise you are in a brand new game — Mallika as the sexy nerd, too bright for Bollywood. “What sets me apart is that I am not an actress defined by the man she dates. I am an actor who dares. Wasn’t it Woody Allen who said, ‘Not taking risks is a bigger risk?” she says with a steady gaze. She does this often — spout showbusiness philosophy. “I read a lot of biographies. Did you know that Bette Davis’ tombstone reads, ‘She did it the hard way’? I am such a nerd.” Rumours on FTII campus has it that Sherawat has Bollywood’s biggest collection of world cinema, and that she is a walking film encyclopaedia.
“Why do people assume — just because I do the roles I do — that I’m like that? I like my professional persona, but I’m very different in real life. But why does that matter to anybody? I say what I say, and do what I do, because it’s a part of my work persona.”
She shrugs away questions about her early reputation in Bollywood. “The kisses were no big deal. Wouldn’t one kiss her husband? We are in the 21st century for god’s sake.” Or the criticism about the black dress she wore during the premiere of Inglourious Basterds. “Blame Dolce and Gabbana,” she laughs, “Anyway, the red carpet is not meant for comfort. It’s meant to grab eyeballs.”
Mallika quotes Bette Davis and it’s clear she sees a parallel in Hollywood’s favourite ‘broad’ — an outspoken firebrand. She talks a lot about fighting her conservative Haryanvi upbringing on her way to Bollywood. “My parents thought I was joking. It’s still not accepted in my family, though my mother supported me,” she says. There are reports her father disowned her when she decided to act, and so she took on her mother’s name, and thus was born Mallika Sherawat from the ashes of Reema Lamba. She was also allegedly married once, to Jet Airways pilot Karan Singh Gill, whom she met as an air hostess. There are plenty of Reema Lamba stories from that period but she dismisses them with a single line and steely glare, “I was never an air hostess.”
In all this rewriting, she does not erase her time as a student at DPS Mathura Road, and later Miranda House College in Delhi. She remembers it as uneventful though. “I wasn’t interested in boys. Didn’t we just talk about me being a nerd?”
Mallika’s contemporaries have a different story to tell. “We knew her as someone very popular with the boys. You couldn’t ignore her. She was always there, always asking for attention. Later, when we heard her in the media with her stories about a hard childhood, we all had a good laugh,” says a junior from school who insists that Mallika is 34, and not 29 as she claims to be.
But Mallika Sherawat doesn’t seem to care about the accusations of being spotlight-hungry at all costs. “Isn’t it good I can get attention so easily? I love it when people call me audacious.
A few minutes into the conversation you realise you are in a brand new game — Mallika as the sexy nerd too bright for Bollywood
I don’t want my fans to get bored, and I want my producers to make money, and I want to be laughing all the way to the bank. So being audacious works for me.” It may also be a strategy to be different in an industry full of factorymade actors. The road less travelled has kept her in the news for sure, even though Bollywood seems to be wary of casting her.
Himanshu Malik, Mallika’s first co-star in the 17-kiss hit Khwahish, is a good example of the confused weathervanes Bollywood is composed of. “The brand of movies Mallika likes doing are too risqué and her ‘I-am-sosexually- forward’ personality makes her shelf life less,” he says. Of course, for all of Malik’s piousness his 15 raging minutes of fame began and ended with kissing Mallika.
Mallika’s Hollywood story doesn’t look like it will end with Hisss. She will also be seen in Love, Barack, a romantic comedy set in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Mallika plays Aretha Gupta, a devoted local Obama volunteer coordinator.
Filmmaker Saket Chaudhary, who cast Mallika and Rahul Bose in Pyaar Ke Side Effects, tries to explain Bollywood’s attitude towards her. “She has always played characters who are on the edge sexually, except in my movie. Bollywood doesn’t allow her that. We can’t distinguish between the real and reel persona. She was very professional, a delight to work with. She gave me no hassles, despite my being a first-time director.”
Right now, Mallika is riding high on the Hisss wave. She is sure that the movie, which stars her opposite Irrfan Khan, and for which she has been in the news again for shedding her clothes, will be a superhit. “It’s the age-old story of the spurned nagin, only with great visual effects. How can you resist that?”
It is difficult to not admire Mallika’s chutzpah. There have been no crowds cheering her on all these years. But as her inspiration Bette Davis said, “I survived because I was tougher than anybody else.” Mallika has been a good student.