Shobhaa De en Tue Aug 06 15:22:26 IST 2019 julio-ribeiros-booming-voice-can-wake-up-the-dead-shobhaa-de <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I became an ardent fangirl of Mumbai’s legendary top cop Julio Francis Ribeiro from the very first time I met him at a glittering diplomatic soiree in Mumbai! I actually stammered and blushed like a giddy-headed schoolgirl, when I was a seasoned magazine editor and newspaper columnist at the time. Julio gallantly paid me a compliment, as his elegant wife, Melba, impeccably dressed in trademark pastels, looked on indulgently. Till then the only ‘Julio’ I had heard of was a delightful singer called Julio Iglesias. But, here, right in front of me was this towering figure of a man, nattily dressed in a well-cut suit, surveying the large and glamorous gathering with the trained eye of a cop keeping a look out for trouble.</p> <p>He was the much admired police commissioner of the city (1982-1986), and there were dozens of fans fawning over this quintessential Mumbai Boy. We continued to run into each other from that point on, and soon Mr and Mrs Ribeiro became family friends, gracious enough to attend our dinner parties. Julio would sportingly regale guests with his incredible cop stories—rarely holding back from speaking his mind.</p> <p>Julio (everyone addresses him affectionately by his first name) will turn 92 next month—but he is still the ‘go to’ guy when one needs a fiercely independent take on the shenanigans being indulged in by the Mumbai Police. Julio was recently approached by Sharad Pawar to head an inquiry into the messy Param Bir Singh-Sachin Vaze case. Julio simply stated, “I am not available”. He also added he would not touch something like this with a barge pole. It is Julio’s public stands on messed up matters like this one that impact our lives. No wonder he is seen as a cult figure and ‘citizen hero’.</p> <p>Decades ago, my first cousin (A.G. Rajadhyaksha) had the respect of the police force, too. Like Julio, he was upright and refused to play ball with politicians. He retired as the IGP (Maharashtra)—and that was that.</p> <p>Julio is different; he is gregarious and communicative. At 91, his booming voice can wake up the dead. Even though he regretfully admits he ‘shuffles’ these days and cannot match strides with his walking companions.</p> <p>Honoured with a Padma Bhushan, Julio was India’s ambassador to Romania where he survived an assassination attempt—his second; the first was after his bold, even controversial strategy to tackle the insurgency in Punjab.</p> <p>Julio is our hero, and I believe we have not acknowledged him adequately. Last week, when he bluntly referred to Mumbai’s notorious, trigger-happy ‘encounter specialists’ as ‘criminals in uniform’, our city cheered and thanked him for calling out the racket that successive governments have actively encouraged. That is Julio. During sensitive television debates, he confidently goes where others fear to tread. This no-nonsense quality of the man has won him admirers across the world.</p> <p>Years ago, Julio was at our home, while iconic cartoonist, the late R.K. Laxman, was discussing his latest work—from the <i>Crow Series</i>—that my husband had acquired from Laxman himself (Dilip was an avid collector of Laxman’s pocket cartoons). The two men were counting the number of crows in the picture. R.K. said, “54 crows.” Julio heard: ‘54 crores’. Julio joined them and exclaimed, “Wow, Laxman! Well done!” R.K. retorted, “54 crores, I say!” And everybody shared a laugh. Laxman enjoyed one more whiskey and the evening ended soon after. The playful side of cops is rarely on display in public. But Julio is not just another famous cop. I wish more of us had the gumption to firmly tell our netas, “Sorry, I am not available!” Had more citizens done this, Maharashtra would have been a far better place and not a den controlled by ‘criminals in uniform’. &nbsp;</p> Thu Apr 08 17:58:13 IST 2021 with-bombay-begums-pooja-bhatt-gets-worthy-comeback-she-deserves-shobhaa-de <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Let us start with a horror story: Recently, a 25-year-old man in Bareilly stitched up his wife’s private parts with aluminium thread, suspecting her of infidelity. He expressed no remorse when he was arrested. The victim survived after being left in a pool of blood. Yup, this actually happened. It is, no doubt, an extreme case of marital violence, but it does reflect the terrible reality faced by women in rural India.</p> <p>Then there is the other kind of equally disturbing urban reality—the sort projected in <i>Bombay Begums</i>, the Netflix series. It features Pooja Bhatt and a host of exceptionally talented actors. It is positioned in the rarefied world of modern banking, where, as we know, Indian women have led the charge for years. <i>Bombay Begums</i> is not that far-fetched, even if a few critics have shredded it mercilessly, going so far as to demand Netflix “sack” its staff for projecting “empowered women” in such a distorted fashion. A senior critic insisted she found the representation highly offensive. There is more to our lives, she said, than harping on exclusively female concerns—menopause, miscarriages and menstruation. I am not sure if these objections were based on squeamishness or prudishness.</p> <p>Pooja plays Rani, the boss lady of a bank, surrounded by male sharks in sharp suits out to get her. And yes, she is menopausal, often rushing mid-presentation to the executive loo to deal with hot flushes. Her deputy Fatima (Shahana Goswami) is faced with a dilemma after suffering a miscarriage (graphically projected), while her precocious step-daughter Shai (Aadhya Anand) agonises over delayed periods (staring at her stained panties when it finally arrives). Granted, this does not make for ‘pretty’ or ‘entertaining’ viewing, and I am sure several viewers squirmed. But, hello! Haven’t we all gone through similar incidents as women? Is blood and gore in testosterone-driven action thrillers more acceptable because it is male blood spilling on screen and not a female bodily discharge?</p> <p><i>Bombay Begums</i> deals with other issues, too—class divides, infidelity, betrayal, cover-ups, gender fluidity, religious prejudice, sexual harassment, body shaming and surrogacy. Pooja’s character is sharply delineated and mostly credible. She could have been projected as a one-dimensional archetypal power lady—ruthless, manipulative and insecure about other women. Fortunately, that trope has been junked to show her as a far more nuanced career woman, dealing with her share of domestic conflicts and not afraid to confront her many vulnerabilities. Men in her elevated position are rarely given similar problems to resolve.</p> <p>Pooja tackles the role bravely, playing her age—49—and making a heroic effort to handle clumsily written sex scenes. These feisty ‘begums’ drink, smoke and have sex freely on an ‘as and when’ basis. If a few viewers were wondering whether such stuff happens... erm, yes! Do teenagers snort coke, down shots and hook up with classmates? They most certainly do. Why shut our eyes to the drastic, even dramatic, shift in our society? Small-town India merged with the big, bad cities when no one was looking! So, the young girl from Indore who slips in and out of beds and relationships in <i>Bombay Begums</i> is not a caricature at all. Walk into any pub today, and you are likely to meet Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur). While the men in this series (Rahul Bose, in particular) have been reduced to clichés, it is important to remember that the series is driven by begums and not nawabs. Perhaps, season 2 will rebalance the dynamics.</p> <p>I was delighted to watch Pooja back where she belongs—on screen. Having known her since she was a teenager and admired her spunk, it was wonderful to see her as the begum of begums! Someone with her talent deserves nothing less than a meaty enough role to rate as a worthy comeback. I am glad she got it!</p> Thu Mar 25 14:05:50 IST 2021 didi-dada-and-disco-dancer <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>This is going to be one hell of a fight! The <i>Naagin</i> from Nandigram is pitching herself against the Cobra from Bollywood. Both are equally poisonous and well-matched. Not sure about <i>didi</i>’s dancing skills, but she has made a career out of making everybody else dance to her tune. That is, till a formidable combo (Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah) decided to change Didi’s soundtrack, take over her territory and hog the close-ups!</p> <p><i>Khela Hobey</i> (game on) is the Trinamool Congress’s battle cry in West Bengal. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is a fighter all the way. So what if her top honchos have jumped ship at the last moment? So what if Mithun Chakraborty, once her chosen one, is now with the BJP, repeating old dialogues from past movies? <i>Didi</i> is giving it back, with catchy <i>dialoguebaazi</i> of her own! Besides, she has a trump card―Rahul Gandhi. The Dimpled Darling will effectively split the vote and it will be advantage didi.</p> <p>With all the bizarre shenanigans going on, one chap has emerged sharper, shrewder, smarter than the rest―<i>Dada</i> (not <i>didi</i>’s brother!), otherwise known as Sourav Ganguly. He has chosen to stay out of the snake pit, even though he may have been promised the chief ministership by BJP bosses. “Everyone cannot be everything,” stated the canny cricketer, playing with a straight bat. Correct. Why walk away from such a prestigious/lucrative job―president of the cricket board―to get your hands dirty in a filthy political swamp?</p> <p>Having interacted with all three (albeit, briefly), here is what I think: the coolest of the lot is Sourav―the shrewdest, too. He is suave, soft-spoken and a strategist who does not show his cards. He also knows how to adeptly wiggle out of tight spots, with little collateral damage (reference: his ‘marriage’ to Nagma). Next comes <i>didi</i>―a fire-breathing dragon lady, capable of going to any lengths when cornered. Her brand of politics is not in sync with today. But who is brave enough to tell her to stop shrieking and start negotiating? Mithun used to let his grinding hips do the talking in the past. But at 70, those gyrations have become a joke. Oratory and mimicry are not the same thing, Mithun <i>da</i>. Besides, why be a poor man’s stand-in for Akshay Kumar on a political podium?</p> <p>At the moment, optics and high-pitched accusations are driving this key election. If the BJP manages to win a majority, it will be a tight slap in the face for <i>didi</i>’s supporters. She can accuse her rivals of “<i>tolabaazi</i> (extortion)”, but countless critics will accuse her party of the same. As for Mithun, who was magnanimously described as “<i>Banglar chhele</i> (Bengali boy)” by Modi, it remains to be seen what this cobra’s bite will deliver at the polls. “I am not a harmless snake,” he boasted to the crowd at the Brigade Parade ground. “One bite and you will turn into a photograph.” Whatever!</p> <p>The smooth and savvy Sourav has kept his shirt on so far. One hears a lot about the behind-the-scenes offers thrown at him. His sense of timing is legendary―do not be surprised if he jumps into the fray at the right moment. Maybe, he is being saved up for the last and highly crucial round of campaigning in the tumultuous state, where everyone wants to start a revolution.</p> <p><i>Didi</i> has had her chance to transform West Bengal―only her constituents can say whether or not she blew it. “You talk of ‘Sonar Bangla’ after selling Delhi,” she thundered in Siliguri, accusing Modi of several failings, including not being around citizens during the Covid-19 crisis, while she was in hospitals and on the streets. The crowd roared its approval. But cheers do not necessarily mean votes. Will West Bengal groove to ‘Disco dancer’? <i>Ki bolbo</i> (what say, eh)?</p> Thu Mar 11 10:51:20 IST 2021 a-thousand-dishas-will-rise-up <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The moment I heard about Disha Ravi’s dramatic arrest, I was tempted to instantly register my outraged reaction and express unconditional support. Why? Déjà vu! She reminded me of my 22-year-old self. In our youth, have we not felt passionately about causes that matter? Cynicism and worldliness surreptiously creep in much later. But, at 22, with ideals and idealism intact, we are ready to stake everything for our beliefs―right or wrong. Today, the climate activist, accused of serious charges by the Delhi Police, has catapulted into the international arena of high-profile catalysts for change, much like Greta Thunberg before her, and several others who are likely to follow in the footsteps of these two.</p> <p>I wonder if even two months ago, Disha could have imagined such a shift in her personal narrative and such a radical conversation around the prickly (unresolved so far) farmers’ issue, brought on largely by her arrest. Her youth (gender, too) is neither an alibi nor an excuse. At 22, she is not a giddy-headed little girl, who can be effortlessly swayed or brainwashed. Individuals younger than Disha have played significant sociopolitical roles throughout history. Age is no defence when it comes to sensitive issues expressed in the public domain. Nor is immaturity or ignorance. I am not here to plead her case, or explain the consequences of the ‘toolkit’ controversy. She has her family, friends and lawyers to perform that role.</p> <p>The response to the #fingeronyourlips movement makes it clear that the arrest has generated an avalanche of support for her, not just in Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai, but across continents. People are questioning the definition of “anti-nationalistic thoughts”―which is what she stands accused of. Being environmentally conscious cannot be deemed a crime or described as being anti-nationalistic. But, perhaps, the agencies know something far more incriminating about Disha, than the rest of us, who are merely going by her work in this space that is easily available.</p> <p>Disha is being carelessly called ‘Bengaluru’s Greta’. Come on, guys. Be a little original. Why look westwards for role models? We have enough climate change activists right here in India. Why not ask them a few pointed questions about Disha’s initiative? We are not the experts―they are!</p> <p>Till such time as we know what happens to Disha going forward, I can only go back to my own college years, when, absurdly enough, we were staging sits-ins, burning American flags and chanting slogans to protest the Vietnam War. It was not ‘our’ war―but our hearts were in the right place. We were raising our voices against oppression and injustice, and letting the authorities know that ‘Make Love, Not War’, was the only way to save the world. And yes, we also painted the internationally recognised peace symbol on our faces, exactly like Disha has done fifty years later. This is what being young is all about! It is the one glorious period of our lives when we are unafraid and romantic enough to believe we can change the world. It is a precious prerogative that must not be brutally snatched away by the state.</p> <p>The administration has inadvertently created a folk hero out of Disha by going after her so blatantly. They have alienated a huge segment of their vote bank! Not the smartest move, guys. Do not trample on the dreams of those who disagree with your politics. You may use your clout to silence them for now, but for every Disha you arrest, a thousand more Dishas will rise up. What will be your solution then? Let me guess―build more jails! Right?</p> Thu Feb 25 15:59:31 IST 2021 peecee-see-and-believe <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Priyanka Chopra Jonas is on a roll at the moment. <i>Unfinished</i>, her play-it-safe memoir, is due for publication this month, and the publicity blitz is on at full throttle. Priyanka is in London, staying in a bubble as she shoots for a forthcoming international production. We conduct our interview for the Jaipur Lit Fest between shots―she in an electric blue outfit, with a crackling fire in the background, while I sweat it out in muggy Mumbai. I had read her book in one go, and all of it was fresh in my mind as we spoke. I started with the last chapter first. There had been a barrage of non-stop back and forth between her publicists, me and the JLF team. There were far too many ‘sensitive’ questions that had to be avoided, even though they are mentioned in the book and are far from sensationalistic. I was amused by these fervent requests to keep our conversation sanitised and casual. I mean―PeeCee is a global personality who has smoothly handled television hosts like Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres. What was she feeling so coy about?</p> <p>I have interacted with Priyanka for over a decade, and always come away impressed. She is highly intelligent, frighteningly articulate, ambitious and disciplined. The memoir is described as a journey of self-discovery―and, in many ways, it is exactly that. Priyanka meticulously traces her childhood, teenage years, the beauty pageants she won and her unexpected entry into Bollywood. The rest is a familiar story known to her fans―her foray into music, subsequent move to Hollywood, <i>Quantico</i> and now <i>The White Tiger</i>―she is the executive producer of the hit movie and plays ‘Pinky Madam’ with panache. As a UNICEF ambassador, her voice is being heard across the world, especially her work with underprivileged children.</p> <p>The book diligently chronicles her every triumph and achievement, and is sure to inspire young people. But does it reveal anything about her that is not in the public domain? Yes and no. She talks candidly about the racist comments she faced as a student in the US, and the taunts that came her way in Bollywood as a ‘dusky’ newcomer looking for the right break. As she herself states, she wants to hang on to 10 per cent of her life as a private space, not meant for sharing. The balance 90 per cent is all yours! I would have preferred to settle for a 60-40 ratio.</p> <p>The last time we met was when she agreed to deliver the prestigious Penguin Annual Lecture in Delhi (2017). I was gobsmacked by her delivery that night―she dazzled and was an incandescent presence on stage. She flew in and flew out within hours, made no starry demands and behaved like an absolute trouper. There was zero evidence of jet lag, fatigue or impatience as she met young fans from an NGO she supports, in the lobby of the Taj Mahal Hotel, some of whom wept with emotion when she hugged them and spoke a few kind words. Dressed in a shocking pink jump suit, she looked and behaved every inch the international star she is.</p> <p>All our encounters over the years have been relaxed, woman-to-woman exchanges. Priyanka’s mother, Madhu, is a ‘real babe’ (down-to-earth, outspoken) I enjoy meeting. But it is Ashok, her late father, whose presence dominates the narrative. She proudly carries him on her wrist with a tattoo that reads, ‘Daddy’s li’l girl’.</p> <p>And, yes, if you are dying to know what makes her marriage to Nick Jonas tick―Priyanka provides a mantra. For me it was the mention of a mandir next to the grand piano in their Beverly Hills home that said more about their bond than all the words devoted to their first date, unexpected proposal and present life.</p> Thu Feb 11 15:04:34 IST 2021 adarsh-gourav-actor-and-crow <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Confession: I had mixed feelings about Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker prize winner, <i>The White Tiger</i> (2008), when I read it back then. Those feelings were carried forward during the first few minutes of watching its Netflix adaptation. Not another movie about a western filmmaker’s idea of India, please! The opening sequence packaged every conceivable <i>desi</i> cliché―images of garishly painted Hindu gods and goddesses, poverty-stricken pavement dwellers huddling and shivering in the harsh Delhi cold, overcrowded bazaars, grime and filth, a clumsy voiceover and a crazy, drunken car ride. I was about to turn away in sheer annoyance when my attention refocused on an unknown (to me) actor―Adarsh Gourav, the ‘servant’ in the film.</p> <p>One look into his incredibly expressive, luminous and intelligent eyes, and I was hooked. Gourav, playing the low-caste Balram Halwai, a villager from dusty Laxmangarh who becomes a driver to the wealthy, venal Sharmas, delivers a performance that knocks the socks off unwary viewers like me. It is a case of inspired, brilliant casting, and Gourav, who has received rave reviews in the international press, could well be a worthy successor to Irrfan Khan, the most successful international actor from India.</p> <p>Gourav is a Jamshedpur boy, so is the leading lady and one of the producers of the film, Priyanka Chopra Jonas. While hers is a negligible role, it is Gourav who eats up the screen in every scene. Considering he is pitted against seasoned actors like Rajkummar Rao and Mahesh Manjrekar, it is no small feat. In his interviews, Gourav says he prepped for the role by working 12 hours a day as a plate cleaner at a food stall. It was this experience that made him acutely aware of how millions of Indians are ‘invisible’―we simply do not ‘see’ those who are poor, shabbily dressed and not famous. Gourav stayed ‘in character’ by dressing and behaving like Balram for three months, managing to fool a man who offered him 020 for lifting iron rods from his vehicle.</p> <p>Ramin Bahrani, who wrote, directed and co-produced <i>The White Tiger</i>, was Adiga’s college mate. By picking Gourav and extracting such a terrific performance out of the 26-year-old, the award-winning American director of Iranian origin has impressed audiences worldwide. Yes, there will be comparisons to Danny Boyle’s <i>Slumdog Millionaire</i> and Bong Joon-ho’s <i>Parasite</i>, given that all three films focus on ugly class divides, prejudice, inequality, rage and revenge.</p> <p><i>The White Tiger</i> features predictable bum shots of people defecating in the open, and the casual brutality of <i>maaliks</i> hitting servants and, in this case, framing the driver for a crime committed by his employer. It is when the worm turns and servitude is replaced by fury that the film engages viewers more fully. A lesser actor would have messed up the transition, but Gourav handles it deftly.</p> <p>If many of us squirmed while watching the scenes of the driver’s humiliation, it is because they are so familiar. Today’s generation refers to servants as house help or staff. But has anything really changed? Gourav plays his masters shrewdly, piling on the compliments, flattering them shamelessly, and smiling through the abuses hurled at him. We know he will emerge triumphant in the end, but because of a trite resolution, the ‘New India Rising’ message remains hollow and phony as a finale to an otherwise riveting watch. The ‘invisibility’ of our masses is the film’s far bigger takeaway.</p> <p>In Gourav, we may have found a talent capable of going well beyond the limitation of his scripted dialogues. He describes himself as “mostly an actor, occasionally a crow”. Intrigued? Watch him play Balram Halwai and figure which avatar appeals more to you. I am rooting for both―the actor and the crow.</p> Thu Jan 28 14:20:05 IST 2021 rajini-missed-the-bus <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Do not give me pressure and pain, I have made my decision…. I am saying ‘no’ to politics.” The “people’s leader (Thalaivar)” has got his fans into an absolute tizzy with his sudden about-turn. This is called bad politics. Either you boldly take the plunge and swim, or you keep your mouth shut. The most successful actor in the history of Tamil cinema clearly missed his cue―plain and simple. Besides, Rajinikanth is not a run-of-the-mill regional superstar―his fans worship him as God incarnate.</p> <p>For a man who started his adult life taking up odd jobs as a carpenter, coolie and bus conductor, Rajinikanth’s extraordinary story is worthy of a detailed biopic on Netflix. There are Bollywood stars who are far wealthier than he is. But hey, Rajini was honoured with a Padma Vibhushan in 2016, and his earlier films dubbed in Japanese and other languages make him a bigger global icon than any other Indian actor―including Amitabh Bachchan.</p> <p>Somewhere along the way to achieving his unique positioning as a “megastar” in the movie firmament (and following in the tradition of other stars from Tamil Nadu like MGR), it was inevitable that Rajini would be wooed by hungry political parties to hop on the bandwagon and capitalise on his stupendous following. But Rajini had other plans―he tantalised his admirers by announcing that he would start his own party and fight from every constituency in the state. His bombastic claim was met with healthy scepticism by political players―if at all, Rajini should have taken the plunge in 2016, they felt. It was already too late to leverage his popularity and fame.</p> <p>Then came Rajini’s recent health hiccup, that further derailed the key decision and made the waiting game painful. “Will he or won’t he?” as a political strategy does not always work. In Rajini’s case, the wavering resulted in a yawn. Nobody really cared after a point. This is the sad part. Two big stars from the south―Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan―have fallen flat trying to become mass political leaders. It is all about timing and branding. Both need to be in sync for a late career in politics to take off and soar. These two got it wrong.</p> <p>Superstars like Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan know their power and clout―they are smart enough to use politics and politicians to further their film ambitions, without stepping into that murky world themselves. Amitabh Bachchan tried and shrewdly withdrew after a tepid flirtation with the second oldest profession in the world. Not everyone possesses MGR’s magic.</p> <p>I have never met Rajini, but I did interact with his gorgeous daughter Aishwarya and through her, his wife, Latha. Both the accomplished ladies behaved in a refreshingly “normal” way―no attempt to attract extra attention, and no borrowed starry airs. Some of their Bollywood counterparts make a career out of reflected glory and strut around surrounded by beefy bodyguards. Aishwarya is stylish, sophisticated, well-read and charming. The parents have done something right! I look at a few Bollywood brats throwing their weight around, demanding privileges, and the difference in upbringing becomes instantly apparent.</p> <p>Thalaivar has spoken! Let us hope this is his final and well-considered position about getting into politics. It takes courage to back out at such a late stage―an actor risks losing face. Rajini has bowed out at just the right moment, without embarrassing himself any further.</p> <p>Health before all else, sir! I would like to think the pandemic is to blame for his ding-dong stance on politics. Covid-19 played wicked tricks with far too many folks and made some of us delusional. Rajini sir bailed out in the nick of time. &nbsp;</p> Thu Jan 14 14:00:38 IST 2021 the-tycoon-who-inspired-a-book <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Shantanu Naidu and Ratan Tata share a unique relationship. The legendary tycoon is an octogenarian, and Shantanu, a millennial. Age does not come into their incredible bond. They are ‘friends’—close, connected and perfectly in sync with one another. <i>I Came Upon a Lighthouse: A Short Memoir of Life with Ratan Tata </i>chronicles the enviable love they share—there is no other word to describe their partnership. The bond began in 2014 when Shantanu was a dog-loving student in Pune; an automobile engineer, he developed an innovation to save local strays from being run over by speeding cars. In a short note&nbsp;at the start of the book, Tata writes about how Shantanu came into his life—it started with their deep compassion for homeless, ill-treated, abandoned dogs and cats—and grew into something astonishingly tender and beautiful. Tata invested in Shantanu’s small start-up, after receiving a letter from him about his passion-project, Motopaws.</p> <p>Today, Shantanu works closely with the man who not only made it a point to attend his simple graduation dinner in Ithaca—cooked by Shantanu’s amma, after he finished his MBA at Cornell—but also offered him a coveted position (deputy general manager) in his own office, which is efficiently run by four handpicked people, three of them being women. Shantanu’s book (illustrated by Sanjana Desai) is all heart and sentiment. It is written with disarming candour and a touching simplicity. When he writes about enjoying strawberry waffles for breakfast at the spiffy New York hotel, The Pierre, with an amused Tata across the table, or when he describes his morning swims to ‘get some sun’ while on a Kerala break with the business magnate, there is an appealing sense of naturalness in the tone. It is like frenzied international travelling on a private jet with a world famous icon, and being in the presence of global celebrities at dazzling events is really no big deal for this young man from Pune! That is how intimate and true their feelings are.</p> <p>Tata is a reticent man. He guards his privacy fiercely and rarely attends public events. For all his genuine humility and modesty, his is one name in India which comes with a&nbsp;platinum edge.</p> <p>December is Tata’s birthday month—and one would imagine a man in his position would be busy cutting a multi-tiered cake with VVIPs. Nothing of the sort! Shantanu tells us that for the past few years, it is he who organises two cupcakes with a single candle, a ‘crappy’ movie, and pina coladas (for Shantanu) and that is how they celebrate! The book is about several such delightful anecdotes, which show Tata in a totally different light. Readers get to see his other, very human side which allows him to crack jokes with Shantanu about his curly mop of hair, or tease the young man about ‘lipstick on your collar’—a popular song from the 60s.</p> <p>‘Shantaa-nu’, as Tata calls his adoring executive assistant, is blessed and privileged indeed. He even&nbsp;has a picture with his&nbsp;arm flung around the&nbsp;legend! When he refers to his boss, friend and mentor as a beacon of light, it warms our hearts. I loved the bit where Shantanu shared priceless nuggets of their ‘pandemic time’ together, when the great man would watch over Shantanu as he finished a gigantic chewable vitamin-C tablet or reluctantly drank turmeric milk. Shantanu has given the world a real treat—by showing readers the most endearing side of a man who is seen as a superhero by millions.</p> Thu Dec 31 14:09:43 IST 2020 a-friend-through-and-through <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I knew Tina Munim much before she became Tina Ambani. She was a vivacious, gorgeous young girl on the cusp of mega stardom. We met quite by chance at a tailoring shop in South Mumbai and clicked instantly. Soon after that encounter, I bagged her for a posh fashion shoot, which I supervised. I watched her as she effortlessly posed for the camera, which she clearly loved. I was struck by her unaffected, natural, no-nonsense conduct, minus any starry airs. I am delighted to share that that hasn’t changed, even if her surname has. Cut to 2020. This is the time of the year when a delicious and complex winter dish is prepared by eager <i>maharajs</i> (cooks) in Mumbai. Called <i>undhiyu</i>, it consists of tender beans, tiny aubergines and chunks of yam, slow cooked in pure ghee. Tina and I continue our friendship of four decades with a strong <i>undhiyu</i> connection—her cook makes it, and I eat it!</p> <p>This has been a week of <i>undhiyu</i> and much more. The Tina-led multi-speciality hospital in Juhu—Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital—is at the number one position in western India for the fifth year running (THE WEEK-Hansa Research Best Hospitals Survey 2020). Tina sent me a message conveying the good news, hastily adding, “Kudos to my committed team…. They stood by my decision on continuing all services during the lockdown and have performed a fabulous service to society without worrying about themselves, while staying put at the hospital throughout.” This is indeed commendable, but like I texted back—every team needs a dynamic leader to provide the right motivation—and Tina is that person. I witnessed it firsthand when the hospital opened and she took me there to proudly share the grand moment with her team. What impressed me was her knowledge and understanding of how each department worked. She knew almost every team member by name, and was informed, engaged and driven.</p> <p>This avatar of Tina didn’t surprise me. I have always known about her single-minded focus on matters she cares about—her family being her most important commitment. Observing her with her sons is to see Tina at her best—she is indulgent and affectionate, teasing them about their girlfriends and easily slipping into their world. Having watched the boys grow over the years, it is amusing to see two tall, hirsute chaps politely joining their parents’ friends at the dinner table, waiting to rush back to their rooms, somewhat embarrassed by all the sudden attention.</p> <p>Tina is known to be a fiercely loyal friend. Recently, when her costar of yore, Sanjay Dutt, was diagnosed with a serious health condition, it was Tina who ensured he received the best possible care at her hospital. Dutt is back on the sets, looking wan but picking up rapidly.</p> <p>For the past several years, Tina and Anil have maintained a comparatively low profile, concentrating on their projects, travelling extensively and avoiding the media. While Anil has been dealing with tricky business matters, Tina has enthusiastically taken to social media—Instagram, in particular—to keep the family flag flying high. Her frequent posts reveal little-known aspects of the Ambani <i>parivar</i>—archival wedding photographs, for example, or rare pictures of her father-in-law, the redoubtable Dhirubhai Ambani. She is quick to greet and congratulate family members—Mukesh and Nita Ambani, in particular, who have recently welcomed their first grandchild.</p> <p>Tina’s fascinating life is worthy of a Netflix series. Two years ago, she and I did a lovely shoot for <i>Harmony</i>, her magazine that celebrates senior citizens. She had just turned 60, and I had published my book <i>Seventy... and to Hell with it!</i>. Our respective interviews told our individual stories in an undramatic, honest way. It was more than a mere celebration of age; it was equally a celebration of friendship.</p> Thu Dec 17 22:01:54 IST 2020 et-tu-bhavna <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>How fabulous really are those Bollywood wives from <i>FLBW?</i></p> <p>Like everybody else who was tickled at the thought of watching a poor man’s version of the wildly successful <i>Keeping Up with the Kardashians </i>(13 years, 19 seasons and still going strong), I tuned in on November 27 to catch the latest Netflix reality series―<i>Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives</i>. Oh dear, oh dear, this was anything but fabulous, I groaned. It was downright tawdry, tacky… and taxing, to boot. Perhaps, deliberately so. <i>Keeping Up with the Kardashians</i> is equally terrible―but it still dominates ratings.</p> <p>The only star wife I knew from this show was Bhavna Pandey, better known these days as Ananya Panday’s attractive mother. What was this demure and well-mannered lady doing with those other overdressed women, jabbering mindlessly about nothing at all?</p> <p>All four protagonists are connected to Karan Johar, one of the canniest producers in Bollywood. This level of ‘dumbing down’ cannot be for real, you think naively. But it is! A show like this works best when it appeals to the lowest common denominator.</p> <p>All these wives are tough cookies. They run their own businesses besides swanning around as star wives―even though their husbands are far from being thought of as A-listers. Which makes the wives ‘B-listers’, seen more as Gauri Khan’s groupies. Despite that, they have created a niche for themselves as ‘aspirational lifestyle ladies of leisure’, who claim to go shopping only in a Rolls Royce.</p> <p>Coming to Bhavna, I have known her for over 20 years, as a quiet, efficient and sensible planner of swish events for brands like Cartier and Louis Vuitton. As an invitee to these posh evenings, I can vouch for Bhavna’s classy approach and smooth efficiency, dealing with prima donnas and tantrum-throwing stars. She is a naturally friendly and relaxed woman, which somehow does not shine through in this series. I remember her patient handling of a few over-demanding invitees asking for special privileges during a ‘royal’ elephant polo event in Jaipur. I also recall her discreet management of a slight scheduling glitch during a dinner at a Dubai event, which had the glorious Italian superstar Monica Bellucci as chief guest. My husband and I were seated at the head table with the diva, and there I was a goggle-eyed fan staring unblinkingly at Bellucci, who had required some urgent calming down!</p> <p>I had also known Bhavna’s late in-laws, Dr Sharad and Dr Snehlata Pandey, both of whom were well-liked, well-admired ‘Bandra-ites’, highly sought after by Bollywood stars. Bhavna’s gregarious husband, Chunky, was an unlikely actor back then and did achieve a modicum of success. He was better known in the movie world for his antics and sense of humour.</p> <p>As a businesswoman, Bhavna’s net worth is pegged at an impressive $20 million. She has been running a fashion label called ‘Lovegen’, which does have its young fans sporting easy, breezy, sensibly priced collections.</p> <p>Watching Bhavna in <i>FLBW</i>, I was reminded of her original understated personality and wondered about the on-screen avatar, which, while not being as cringe-generating as the other three, is still a far cry from the person I remember interacting with on multiple occasions.</p> <p>That is reality TV for you―there is nothing authentic about any of it. Even so, listening to these four cackling over ‘Le Bal’ and how prestigious it is to be invited to a pretentious soiree where young ladies are compelled to waltz with their proud daddies, inside an opulent ballroom in Paris, made me double up with laughter!</p> <p>Come on―surely Balle Balle is more your scene, ladies?</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Dec 03 14:57:03 IST 2020 visiting-pune-again-donald <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>We are told Joe Biden has gone into a huddle with key advisers, as he waits for President Donald Trump to move over and take his butt out of the White House. Even as world leaders rush to congratulate Biden on his recent victory, Donald is still trying hard to delegitimise his rival’s win by tweeting, “He won because the election was rigged.” Yeah, right! Well, we will still have orange hair to contend with till January. We badly need a global jester to amuse us in these grim times.</p> <p>I recall our brief encounter in Pune, in 2014, with much amusement. Donald was not the president of the US at the time, but had informally announced his decision to throw his hat into the ring. He was in Pune to attend a big ticket promotional event for Trump Towers, his premiere entry into the luxury living space in India. Partnering Donald in this glamorised venture was local builders Panchshil Realty, promoted by Atul and Sagar Chordia, close associates of NCP strongman Sharad Pawar. Tout-Pune was agog at the thought of meeting Donald over a tightly structured evening. I was both curious and amused at the prospect of being in the same ballroom&nbsp;with one of the most unusual public figures on earth. I was not disappointed! Up there, on stage, with the gorgeous Lara Dutta as his interviewer, Donald effortlessly took over the show and dominated the conversation, as only he can. Lara had done her homework meticulously, and asked all the right questions, especially with regard to his business ventures in India and vision for the future.&nbsp;</p> <p>Larger than life? Tick. Garrulous? Tick. Super energetic? Tick. The man with seemingly tireless energy had flown into Pune for a few short hours, and was scheduled to jet off straight after the event. His sense of timing was as precise as his crazy sense of humour. I recall him tugging at his trademark orange thatch of hair to prove it was not a wig! The audience clapped and cheered as he came up with one bon mot after another, while a poised and charming Lara floored everyone with her equanimity.&nbsp;</p> <p>We were escorted to an anteroom by the hosts, for a quick introduction, handshake and photo op. The security around Donald was tight and thorough, as expected, but my daughters and I managed a few moments of face time with the individual who would soon become the ‘most powerful man on earth’. Hurrah! He made eye contact, engaged in brief social chatter, posed for pictures and was promptly hustled away by burly men in black suits talking to their cufflinks. The person I really felt for was Donald’s son (Donald Jr), who was accompanying his father and spoke after him. Imagine his predicament! Half the fancy crowd present in the ballroom had rudely left as soon as Donald got off the stage. But for me, it was the younger Trump who came as the real surprise package—bright, friendly, unpretentious and straightforward, as compared with his pompous, bombastic dad!</p> <p>Come January 2021, there will be an inglorious exit from the White House. Meanwhile, I am waiting for Barack Obama’s&nbsp;<i>A Promised Land</i>, which is likely to be the hottest book of the year, even if there are a few&nbsp;<i>desi </i>politicians in India who are squirming at his sharp observations and pointed digs. Why do I get the feeling Donald, with his towering ego, will be back in Pune soon? There are still a few apartments left to flog in his super swish development—that’s why!</p> Thu Nov 19 17:07:56 IST 2020 our-gentle-hurricane <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Kapil Dev and I share a common zodiac sign (Capricorn) and our birthdays are a day apart. Many moons ago, he invited my husband and myself to a lavish birthday celebration in a grand suite at Mumbai’s iconic The Taj Mahal Palace. It was a rowdy, lively party with Kapil in full flow. Unfortunately, we had to leave early and missed the rowdiest part! It was at the time when the Haryana Hurricane had conquered the world of cricket and was being hailed as the Indian Cricketer of the century, “one of the greatest all-rounders’’ and more. I remember thinking how totally natural and down to earth he had remained, exuding an unapologetically rustic charm, and telling me to overlook his shaky angrezi accent and vocabulary—not that it mattered!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kapil’s flair and confidence at the crease—who can even compare? I am not a cricket aficionado, but even I was awestruck going through his records and accomplishments as a legendary cricketer, who had pipped Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar to walk away with the Wisden title of the greatest Indian cricketer of the century in 2002. He described the win as his ‘finest hour’.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All these glorious moments will soon be available to Kapil’s fans across the world in Kabir Khan’s much awaited movie, 83, starring Ranveer Singh as Kapil, with ‘83’ marking the year of India’s historic World Cup win, which had him captaining the team.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite all the honours (Padma Bhushan included), the essential Kapil Dev is still the lad from Chandigarh, born to a timber merchant father and a homemaker mother, as one of seven children. He once confessed he regretted not having paid more attention to education as a young boy, which may well be the motivation for Kapil starting a foundation (Khushii) along with Romi, his wife of 40 years, to educate underprivileged kids. At the time I used to meet them occasionally, either in Mumbai or in Delhi, I had noticed how effortlessly they would become the centre of attention, even at large gatherings with wall-to-wall celebrities present. At one such glittering party in Mumbai, which saw the biggest Bollywood stars in attendance, it was Kapil Dev’s arrival that caused the most excitement. Later the same evening, I caught up with him in a more secluded area, and was delighted to see him choosing to spend precious time with the waiting staff of the fancy restaurant—sportingly posing for pictures, signing autographs, sharing anecdotes—while other celebrity guests preferred to schmooze with one another. Refreshingly, Kapil had walked in alone, minus body guards or an entourage. I cannot imagine the current crop of cricket heroes doing that.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ranveer Singh is as approachable as the toothy cricketer he is playing on screen. Like Kapil, Ranveer is a live wire, who never snubs admirers begging for selfies. Ranveer can effortlessly carry that legacy forward. Both men are robustly in touch with ground realities, while aiming for excellence in their chosen fields. Kapil is known to be an ace and astute businessman. Ditto for Ranveer. Kapil has authored four books, including one on Sikhism. We are waiting for Ranveer to follow suit with a no-holds-barred biography. As a family, the Devs project a wholesome togetherness, which is adored by fans. No wonder, the 61-year-old Kapil’s recent health hiccup (angioplasty) generated deep and genuine concern across the world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To be admired and worshipped as a sportsman is one thing—but to be loved and adored as a human being is a true blessing. As his loyal fans have consistently maintained, Kapil da jawab nahi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Instagram@shobhaade</b></p> Fri Nov 06 16:31:24 IST 2020 how-bad-are-bad-boy-billionaires <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Did India really need a tepid docudrama on a few ‘bad boys’ to understand what was going on? Hardly! When someone called Francis phoned from London more than a year ago and ran the Vijay Mallya proposal past me, I instantly refused.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But he was persistent. Countless calls and WhatsApp messages later, and after repeatedly stating that I would not badmouth a family friend, the shoot was finally scheduled. I did not provide access to my home, nor did I provide any leads. I granted an hour and told the team to hire a room at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, which is close to where I live. It was pretty obvious that they were in search of masala—anything sensational and negative that would damage Vijay’s reputation. It was only after they mentioned the participation of Vijay’s son, Siddharth, in the series that I came on board.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The probing questions, asked softly and politely, were shrewdly constructed to disarm the interviewee and get the person sufficiently relaxed to spill a few beans. Well… they picked the wrong person. All attempts to goad and bait me into saying terrible things about Vijay fell totally flat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Vijay is way too smart to let amateurs rain on his party! I am not here to sit in judgment over his life or business decisions—let the courts unscramble those intricacies. The Vijay we knew as family was far more interesting than the public persona. That ‘construct’ came much later, after he had decided to brand himself the ‘King of Good Times’ and court mega media attention. Back then, it seemed like clever positioning to enhance brand recall and push beer sales. Looking back it is this very tag that came back to bite him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Of course, Vijay changed over the years and the person we saw at his defiant 60th birthday party in Goa was by now a global ‘rock’ star—revelling in extravagance, flaunting his flamboyance. And, possibly, enjoying it all—the fawning courtiers, the lackeys, the groupies, the hangers-on.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We had been his house guests years ago at the very same Kingfisher Villa, during the housewarming party, which followed a very traditional ‘Griha Pravesh’ puja earlier in the day, performed by family priests he had flown in. Vijay was (and I am sure remains) a deeply religious man, a proud Gaud Saraswat Brahmin, who abides by rituals and dutifully adheres to his faith. He is an extraordinarily attentive son to Lalitha—his mother, the feisty matriarch, with whom I have spent quite a few entertaining hours, laughing and chatting about the ‘good times’, not all of them connected to her son.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Vijay has one of the quickest, sharpest minds, capable of calculating several unconnected matters simultaneously. He counts in Kannada, speaks fluent Bengali and is anything but a random ‘philanderer’.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Unfortunately, this Netflix docudrama is a missed opportunity. It lazily skims the surface. There are no new insights and it has nothing fresh to offer. Regurgitating what is already in the public domain is a facile way to approach a multi-dimensional personality like Mallya. It was Sid Mallya’s impassioned defence of his father that salvaged this project from total collapse. Let us hope there will be a more comprehensive, in-depth portrait of a man whose wild reputation hides his other, far more complex side—the one I know and like.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Oct 22 16:49:18 IST 2020 suhana-khan-comes-into-her-own <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It cannot be easy being the offspring of a Bollywood superstar known as King Khan. But, Shah Rukh Khan’s 20-year-old daughter has frequently said she loves being called “Daddy’s Girl”. Last week, Suhana, who is an acting student at New York University, addressed the issue of ‘colourism’ head on in an Instagram post (she has 1.1 million followers). She wrote about her own experience of being called ugly at age 12, and more recently, with trolls who taunted her with nasty ‘<i>kaali billi</i>’ tags.</p> <p>While a section of social media hailed her for raising a sensitive issue, others trolled her for her stand, pointing out that her father endorses a fairness cream! This is the real dilemma faced by children of incredibly popular, iconic personalities, like SRK. If they decide to walk an independent path, they risk being mocked, and if they choose to remain in the shadows, they are laughed at even more for “doing nothing with their lives”.</p> <p>Suhana is no stranger to the double-edged sword that dangles over her. It started when she was featured on the cover of Vogue (India) at age 18. What Vogue considered a ‘scoop’ was dismissed as a gimmick by critics who pointed out the obvious—what had Suhana done with her life to merit a prestigious cover? Subsequently, Suhana’s parents may have advised her to lie low and focus on her studies. Clearly, with her latest post, Suhana has jumped back in and her views are being avidly discussed. If a superstar’s daughter has been a victim of ‘colourism’ in a country obsessed with fair skin, one shudders to imagine what it must be like for millions of other ‘dusky’ young girls.</p> <p>Suhana belongs to Gen Z. These are kids who take their individuality seriously and are known to speak up on issues they consider important. Suhana has called out those who cruelly discriminate against individuals based on their skin colour. By raising her voice, she has also demonstrated her willingness to go beyond being seen as a pampered star kid.</p> <p>She has been born under a spotlight, and will have to live with constant public scrutiny. She describes herself unselfconsciously as a ‘future star’! Not a ‘future actor’—which is very different. With two good looking brothers (Aryan and AbRam) and a high-profile designer mother (Gauri Khan), her life seems prescribed and unbelievably privileged. After all, SRK ranks among the richest stars in the world. Her brother Aryan is being groomed for superstardom, while little AbRam already has a considerable fan following at age 7. All three children must know their destiny as celebrities to Gen Next.</p> <p>On Gandhi Jayanti, Suhana and AbRam featured in their father’s social media post, recreating the famous three monkeys pose with another person. Even that well-intentioned post was dissected and critiqued by trolls, with a Sayani Gupta (actor) asking SRK to speak up for the truth and not just shut “your ears and eyes and mouths”. This may be the first time that a very junior female star has dared to take on SRK and his family. It will be interesting to see how Suhana responds not just to this jibe, but to what may follow.</p> <p>It was bold and brave of Suhana to put herself out there with the ‘<i>kaali billi’</i> post. It must have resonated with countless young girls and boys dealing with an unfair ‘fairness complex’, even within their own families. At the end of the day, she is just another 20-year-old, grappling with issues of identity and confidence. When she disarmingly says, “I have crooked fingers’’ in a promotional video, one can perceive her vulnerability, which makes her seem like any other girl—funny, awkward, defensive, appealing.</p> <p>Now that she has raised the banner of ‘colourism’, it is time to take Suhana Khan more seriously. When will we ever wake up to a ‘colour blind’ India?</p> Fri Oct 09 18:37:19 IST 2020 back-in-the-game <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The last time Urmila Matondkar was in the news was when she was photographed with Rahul Gandhi in March 2019. She had jumped on to the electoral bandwagon and was welcomed into the Congress by the ‘Big Boy’ himself. It is another matter altogether that she lost, and almost immediately resigned from the party, citing ‘internal politics’. But, while she was at it, she had emphatically stated her long-term commitment to serve the people of India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Urmila became a trending topic last week, when she boldly took on Kangana Ranaut and debunked the charges against Bollywood. She also came out in support of veteran actor and Samajwadi Party MP Jaya Bachchan, who had spoken up strongly in Parliament against actors who were tarnishing the entire film industry by badmouthing colleagues. By now, Kangana’s penchant for promptly hitting back at detractors is well known—and hit back she did!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was when she scornfully referred to Urmila as a ‘soft porn’ star, that an incensed section of Bollywood fans reacted and condemned Kangana’s crass comment. By then, Urmila had had her say across multiple platforms and thundered she would not ‘tolerate’ anybody attacking the good name of Mumbai and Maharashtra by daring to question the police about the investigations into the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. When I heard her raising the issue of ‘tolerance’, I half-wondered if she was all set to switch political parties and join the Shiv Sena well before the next elections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For a bright, beautiful and articulate woman of 46, this would certainly be the right time to jump in, and stay in, not merely flirt with, politics. As a ‘Marathi Mulgi’, who studied in Mumbai and Pune (BA in philosophy), Urmila would certainly make a worthy candidate from her constituency (Mumbai North), with her glamour quotient and bhashan-making skills. She has the makings of a shrewd political player—pity she debuted in the political arena with the wrong party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Her chequered showbiz career could have taken off to higher levels had she picked her projects better, after making a spectacular success of a role tailor made for her by her besotted mentor at the time, Ram Gopal Varma. As Mili Joshi in Rangeela, playing opposite two big heroes, Aamir Khan and Jackie Shroff, it was the petite but perfectly proportioned Urmila who walked away with the top honours and a Filmfare Award (1995). It was the same year that she acted in a Malayalam action thriller opposite Mohanlal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite these amazing breaks, Urmila did not manage to leverage her initial success, and was soon relegated to accepting offers to play judge on dance reality shows.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Perhaps, this is Urmila’s moment—she has certainly impressed prime time viewers with her sensible, sober views. She could have retaliated to Kangana’s taunt in the same language. But she did not.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I have known Urmila off and on over the years, even though we have not been in touch on a regular basis. She has been consistently warm, friendly, and well-spoken during our brief encounters. Years ago, she had spontaneously come to our home after an event, with her close friend, fashion designer Manish Malhotra. She disarmed the entire family with her bubbly personality. She has what it takes to become a politician in the mould of say, a Mahua Moitra, who is creating waves each time she speaks up in Parliament.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If Urmila does indeed join another political party, she should ensure she can handle ‘internal politics’—for which political party in the world is free of that mega menace?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Sep 25 17:31:36 IST 2020 the-bong-of-bongs <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Nobody projected the best of ‘Bongness’, as much as India’s former president, Pranab Mukherjee. When he passed away on August 31, at age 84, after slipping into a coma, the heartfelt tributes from across the board said it all.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>People from different strata of society, and representing diverse political ideologies, wrote the most moving tributes to the gentleman universally called and referred to as Pranab da. Da, or big brother, is not just a respectful way to address a family member, it also implies a great deal of affection for the person. Not every political leader from West Bengal gets to be called ‘da’ by the people. In that sense, Pranab da, who has been dubbed ‘the people’s rashtrapati by the media, occupied a special place in the hearts of citizens, much like another former president, the late Dr A.P.J Abdul Kalam. Perhaps, their humble beginnings and spectacular rise to the top had a lot to do with the widespread admiration enjoyed by them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Pranab da was born to freedom fighters in a small village called Mirity, and went on to acquire degrees in political science and history, followed by law. But far more than his academic qualifications and early career as a college teacher and journalist, it was Pranab da’s prodigious memory and incredible scholarship that impressed all those he interacted with.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I was all set to pull out my Bong Card (Bong through marriage) the only time I met Pranab da—at a tea reception organised by fashion designer Ritu Beri in a wing of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. It was a small group of mainly Delhi folks—and there was me! The protocol was amusing and I was tempted to giggle as officious members of the president’s team assigned specific ‘spots’ to each one of us, with instructions not to move an inch, or try to make conversation with the great man. That was a bummer! I had been practising my Bengali for a week, hoping for a minute or two with someone I genuinely had regard for.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Delhiwalas were most blasé, like they were totally used to hanging out with eminent personalities in grand settings. But even they were sweating, as the countdown began, and we stood to attention, waiting for gigantic doors to be ceremoniously opened. Voila! There he was, a diminutive man with a bemused expression. He looked like he wanted to be anywhere but in that beautiful salon, doing namaste to a bunch of strangers he might never lay eyes on again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>An over eager man next to me stepped out of line—figuratively and literally—trying to impress Pranab da by throwing the name of West Bengal’s most prominent media man, and claiming proximity. Pranab da barely made eye contact with this corporate loudmouth who was crudely showing off his Punjabi-Bengali. Then it was my turn! Pranab da stopped and semi-smiled. I swooned! Wow, the president of India was actually smiling at me! Encouraged and emboldened, I stammered something in my far-from-immaculate Bengali. He smiled some more and declared, “It’s berry berry hot today!” And moved to the next person.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We were herded to an area just outside the salon for a group picture. Strictly no selfies, we had been warned by a stern ADC. There, under the blazing Delhi sun, for a few brief moments, all of us felt wonderful being Indians, and that sentiment had a lot to do with Pranab da’s unpretentious presence. And about how a person with Pranab da’s extraordinary grit, determination and wisdom came to occupy the highest position any citizen can dream of. RIP.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Sep 11 18:22:49 IST 2020 sima-the-unlikely-celebrity <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Like many others, I was most reluctant to watch <i>Indian Matchmaking</i> on Netflix. Till my daughter Anandita forced me to give it a shot. Once I started, I could not stop! And the only reason I stayed hooked was to see more of a 57-year-old woman named Sima Taparia. She was the superglue that held this enterprise together. In India, we have traditionally accepted the concept of an arranged marriage. It has worked for centuries, and is likely to work for a few more—if marriage itself lasts. We are a <i>shaadi</i>-obsessed nation, and no matter what the counter-narrative, we continue to endorse ‘official’ match-making as one of the ways of finding ‘suitable partners’. No wonder then, that Sima has acquired a cult status, not just in India but across the world, after the mega success of the show. Despite the jeers, memes, digs and taunts about her views, Sima has converted a 15-year-old hobby into a highly lucrative business model today. And the wonderful thing is that she remains pretty untouched by her newly-acquired celebrity status.</p> <p>How do I know? I met her over high tea hosted by Mumbai’s St Regis Hotel, with a hand-picked group of her admirers. Covid-19 protocol was firmly in place, as excitement mounted in the swanky suite. It was as if the curvaceous Kim Kardashian and not a pleasantly plump happy Marwari housewife-turned-star was about to walk in. Believe me, when she entered, there was applause! There she was, dressed and groomed like she appears on camera—and, equally relaxed as she got introduced to awestruck invitees, her well-dressed husband Anup by her side, smiling broadly, proudly taking in the warm response to his wife.</p> <p>I jokingly told Sima, “All of us are willing to ‘adjust’, ‘compromise’and ‘be flexible’.” These are the key words and instructions Sima sprinkles during her show. A show that now attracts fans from across the world. Over <i>garam chai</i> and cupcakes, we chatted like old friends, even though we had just met. That is the thing about Sima—not only is she comfortable in her own skin, she makes everyone else around her feel the same. Sima is a natural. What you see is what you get—no tricks. It is this precise trait that works big time on camera, since the show is unscripted—she walks in blind when the door opens and takes it from there.</p> <p>Sima herself received over 3,000 biz requests after <i>Indian Matchmaking</i> aired. At the moment, she is processing just 135 of those, and says disarmingly that she is unable to take on any more. Today, she has enquiries flooding her website from as far away as Nigeria.</p> <p>Sima states flatly that she sticks to a ‘certain status’ and does not take on any and every client. Recently, she shared a post that went viral about her own arranged marriage at age 19. But her story had a charming, romantic twist! One can sense the rapport and closeness between husband and wife as they exchange glances and communicate non-verbally, with enviable ease. Sima’s forthrightness and candour are her trump card. My daughter Avantika mentioned her divorced-with-children friends, who are interested in starting again. Would ‘Sima Aunty’consider such alliances? Sima’s prompt reply, “Why not? There is a market for them also.” I told her to consider gay matches, given the ever-growing segment for same-sex <i>shaadis</i>. Sima paused for a few seconds. It was something she had not thought about or attempted so far. I kept pushing, “See the numbers… tell your producers. It’s all about inclusivity these days.”I showed her a text message from a gay friend: “Please ask Sima to find me a <i>rishta</i>.” She smiled, “Why not? There is always a special someone for everybody.”</p> Thu Aug 27 14:22:00 IST 2020 adieu-amar <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The only way to describe the late Amar Singh (he passed away in Singapore on August 1) is as a “loveable rascal”. No matter what he did or said, no matter how outrageous his conduct, there was something most endearing about the man. I clearly remember taking two steps backwards when he arrived unannounced at our home, with a common acquaintance, for what was a private dinner for close friends. Far from being embarrassed, he made himself right at home, mingling freely with our guests and regaling everybody with his vastly amusing and highly gossipy tales. Mumbai not being Delhi, and this being more than 20 years ago, nobody knew what to make of this upstart who was so at ease, throwing big names around and making bombastic claims. Somehow, I warmed up to his rustic, raw, unfiltered personality and admired his chutzpah. Nothing and nobody can keep this man down, I remember thinking at the time.</p> <p>That is pretty much an accurate view, given Amar Singh’s highly controversial political career which saw great highs and abysmal lows, including a judicial custody stint under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Nothing fazed the man, not even serious allegations of corruption, not even being expelled from the Samajwadi Party by his mentor Mulayam Singh Yadav in 2010 for facing widespread scorn for contributing $5 million to the Clinton Foundation. For a man born to humble parents—he told us about his father’s modest locksmith stall in Kolkata’s Burrabazar—Amar Singh’s mind-boggling rise in public life is the stuff only masala movie scripts can rival. Oh yes, he tried his hand at movies, too, acting in a Hindi and Malayalam film.</p> <p>He enjoyed power play at all levels and got his high from cultivating wealthy, well-connected, influential individuals. If they were also glamorous and flashy, Amar Singh’s ecstasy became almost palpable! He fancied himself as a kingmaker, but behaved more like a college groupie around the rich and famous. I would watch him as he worked the room, hobnobbing and networking brazenly, shaking countless hands, air-kissing gorgeous socialites, flashing starlets on his arm, dropping names galore not bothered by snubs or sniggers. It was his rhino skin that kept him afloat, particularly when his chips were down and he was treated like a political/social pariah. The very same people he had gone flat out to help after cultivating them meticulously, shunned him publicly and blatantly. Like a whipped schoolboy who had been rusticated by the principal, Amar Singh licked his wounds in private and sulked openly. He gave countless interviews bad-mouthing those who he said had “betrayed” him. I had spotted him in Mumbai a few times during this period and wanted to gently tell him he had passed his sell-by date by then and had become more of an embarrassment, a huge liability to his old “close friends”. Mumbai society can be harsh and cruel to people like Amar Singh, who come up the hard way from the streets, become power brokers, but are regarded as nothing more than street hustlers.</p> <p>The last time I ran into him was at my own book event in Delhi. He was half his size and looked visibly sick. I failed to recognise him, and frankly, I was not sure whether or not his name was on the guest list. Not that any of this bothered him—he came up to chat and once again I marvelled at his gung-ho spirit. I recalled him telling me about starting his career in Delhi as a young graduate, working for K.K. Birla’s <i>Hindustan Times</i> as a liaison officer—the standard euphemism for “fixer”. He had chuckled: “I know all the big journalists in India and abroad because of my first job.” His candour was disarming. So was his “never-say-die” spirit. Amar Singh, adieu. In your own unique way, you will always remain <i>amar</i> in our memory.</p> <p><b></b><br> </p> Thu Aug 13 13:59:04 IST 2020 the-ever-combative-kapur <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>An Oscar is the kiss of death in Bollywood,” tweeted the award-winning actor-producer-director Shekhar Kapur to one of the most talented musicians alive, A.R. Rahman, who responded somewhat laconically. This exchange highlighted the increasing polarisation in Bollywood, as actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s tragic death continues to raise important issues of nasty behaviour and blatant discrimination in India’s billion-dollar film industry.&nbsp;</p> <p>Kapur comes with impeccable credentials as a filmmaker—he has deftly directed great actors, from Cate Blanchett (<i>Elizabeth</i>, 1998) and Heath Ledger (<i>The Four Feathers</i>,&nbsp;2002), to Seema Biswas (<i>Bandit Queen</i>,&nbsp;1994) and Sridevi (<i>Mr India</i>, 1987). He was keen on directing Rajput in the much-delayed&nbsp;Paani. The two had reportedly spent four months discussing and prepping for the project that did not get off the ground. He has gone on record to claim he knew people who had “wronged” the 34-year-old actor: “What happened to you was their karma. Not yours,” read his cryptic tweet, after the tragedy.</p> <p>&nbsp;Regardless of how this saga pans out, it is great to know that the 74-year-old Kapur continues to be combative—as he can well afford to be. With a net worth estimated at $25 million, he is in an enviable position to say and do as he please. He is also one of the few people in Bollywood to take a stand when required, as he famously did when a “trilogy” of his superhit directorial venture,&nbsp;<i>Mr India</i>,&nbsp;was grandly announced without informing him. He asked an important and very valid question: “Where is the director’s ownership on material he has created?” This did not go down well with the community, with people like Javed Akhtar questioning his stand.&nbsp;</p> <p>Given Kapur’s education and background (CA from London), he is entirely at home in an international arena, unlike some of his Bollywood counterparts. Yes, he is fastidious and picky when it comes to projects—because he can afford to be just that. Why compromise with one’s vision, particularly if the same vision has paid rich dividends in the past?</p> <p>The last time I met Kapur was a few months ago at a mutual friend’s dinner. As always, I found the genial Kapur at his relaxed best, happy to talk shop. But equally happy not to. Among other invitees, there was author Amitav Ghosh with his wife, since the dinner was in his honour after a book launch. It was a small group with most guests having long associations. The exquisite Hyderabadi banquet was the uncontested star of the night, as the host and hostess (filmmaker Zafar Hai and his lovely wife Colleen) graciously looked after guests. Kapur, who was born in Lahore, was in full flow, but quietly so—there was zero attempt to hog the spotlight or dominate the discourse. He and I were meeting after a gap of several years, but it hardly mattered. The connect was immediate and cordial. It was yet another marvellous soiree that underlined a dying Mumbai tradition, and reminded all of us of an earlier era where evenings such as this one were enjoyed by like-minded people, learning from one another and celebrating each other’s success in an open, generous way.</p> <p>One hears Kapur will be giving his statement in writing to the Mumbai police regarding his association with Rajput. So far, more than 40 individuals have been summoned by the cops. I am not sure for what exactly! Are the police as starstruck as the rest of the country? Or, do they want to demonstrate their efficiency in “cracking” this tricky case by getting statements from stars like Kangana Ranaut? Let us see what is unearthed. But our man Kapur has declared he will dedicate&nbsp;<i>Paani</i>&nbsp;to the memory of the actor who did not live long enough to star in what promises to be Kapur’s magnum opus.</p> Thu Jul 30 15:40:30 IST 2020 the-sweetest-bachchan <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Bachchan Sr and Bachchan Jr checked into a suburban super-speciality hospital a few days ago after testing positive for Covid-19. As of now, father and son are in isolation wards, while the rest of the Bachchan <i>parivaar</i> is in self-isolation at their four luxurious bungalows in Juhu, a mere five minutes from the hospital. The family is being lauded for ‘destigmatising’ Covid-19, which is a pretty big thing, given the public’s phobia surrounding the deadly virus.</p> <p>Both the Bachchan men had gone back to work a few weeks prior to the hospitalisation, and urgent contact tracing is on. One school of thought believes that it is important for actors to support the film industry by showing confidence in the changed world of movie-making. Too true. It sends out a powerful signal to the industry, which is still figuring out a way to deal with the ‘new normal’.</p> <p>But this column is about the sweetest Bachchan—Abhishek. I have known him since he was a teenager. Having Amitabh and Jaya as parents was both a huge plus for him as an actor and a cross he had to bear. His father was not just numero uno, he was already a larger-than-life legend. His mother, Jaya, is an accomplished star in her own right. When Abhishek decided to get married, it was to actor Aishwarya Rai, often referred to as the ‘most beautiful woman in the world’. Where was Abhishek in such a crowded celebrity field? I like to believe he was where he has always been—in a confident and loving zone of his own creation. He is one of the most well-mannered young men in showbiz, which says a lot about his upbringing. And what he projects, at least publicly, is a picture of an even-tempered, good-natured young man, who is not trying to prove anything to anybody. That is tough, given his circumstances and the non-stop comparisons with his father.</p> <p>I have observed him closely during family functions at the Bachchan home and been struck by his unaffected and non-starry conduct with every single person around him. He comes across as a caring husband, doting father and a loving son. These are the qualities that have shielded him emotionally from the barrage of critical comments, mocking his ‘failure’. What failure? Abhishek is an award-winning, bona fide talent—watch him in <i>Yuva</i> and <i>Guru</i>. He has a terrific flair for comedy (<i>Dostana</i>), and even in person, it is his gentle sense of humour that stands out. Compared to his egotistical and narcissistic contemporaries, Abhishek is a study in contrast. I have seen him at social events, when he walks in with his beautiful wife and graciously steps aside to allow photographers to shoot her solo pictures. Such an endearing absence of ego makes him a very special person. I have also seen him at gatherings where some of his more successful colleagues are mobbed and the crowd chases them, while he waits with a patient smile to move forward.</p> <p>Today, the 44-year-old can be thought of as a middle-aged actor, even if actors in their mid-fifties are still chasing heroines half their age and playing romantic leads. There is a certain dignity about Abhishek that is absent in those others. I see them strutting around at events, surrounded by lackeys and bodyguards, and laugh at their self-importance. I see their carefully structured airport pictures and wonder who advises them. Abhishek demonstrates one admirable trait that is generally missing in the movie business—modesty. This makes him a far more attractive hero than those beefed up, haggard fellows hanging on desperately to their thrones.</p> <p>Do watch Abhishek as he gamely goes along with his high-profile family members, emanating grace and goodness. Amitabh and Jaya have many glorious triumphs, awards and trophies to look back on, but the most precious gift is their son, Abhishek. As for Aishwarya, marrying Abhishek may just be the best decision she ever made!</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jul 16 15:38:00 IST 2020 bobde-and-the-bike <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The Beatles wrote the evocative anthem, <i>When I’m 64</i>, in 1967. It opens with the lines, “When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now…” and innocently asks, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64…”</p> <p>The Chief Justice of India, Sharad Arvind Bobde, who assumed office on November 18, 2019, is 64, and from the snazzy pictures of him riding a limited edition Harley Davidson CVO 2020 recently (albeit, minus mask), it would appear he is still a rockstar with a headful of hair. Take that, Paul McCartney and John Lennon! A man of 64 in today’s day and age is certainly a far cry from the version depicted by the British popstars. And going by Bobde’s varied interests, which range from vintage automobiles, to mean machines like the bike he was ‘caught’ on this week, it is obvious our chief justice is quite a dude we like!&nbsp;</p> <p>There are several versions of what exactly the Easy Rider was doing on a bike that sells at approximately Rs 51 lakh. One version says he was not exactly riding it, but was astride the beauty. Another hastily clarifies that the bike does not belong to the CJI in the first place and the real owner is the son of a BJP bloke in Nagpur. Another post blames the dealer of the bike, claiming he milked an innocuous enquiry from the CJI to gain mileage from the publicity garnered. While yet another post talks about the bike being a part of the CJI’s post-retirement plan. Whatever! Can’t a guy go for a roaring spin on something as sexy without so many questions being raised? Our CJI sounds like a really cool person, being an environmentalist, music lover, keen photographer…. What more do you want?&nbsp;</p> <p>His track record as a judge is as interesting as he is. So is his lineage. His great grandfather was a noted lawyer, and his father, a respected advocate general of India. As the 47<sup>th</sup>&nbsp;and current CJI, who is due to retire in April 2021, Bobde has been in the news for delivering several important (and controversial) judgments in recent times.&nbsp;</p> <p>It is pretty refreshing when men and women in such hallowed positions allow their more informal sides to be viewed in the public domain. Our Nagpur-born CJI is one such individual and I do hope all this publicity does not inhibit him from sharing his Hell's Angels persona with the public.</p> <p>For too long, we have slotted our judges into pre-determined compartments and not allowed them to breathe and just be! The image of the chief justice of India racing down a highway on a sleek bike is pretty modern and attractive. It breaks the mould and instantly strikes a rapport with the young of the country.</p> <p>I would love to see many more judges and other eminent personalities pursuing their passions without feeling coy. My only grouse in this case? Someone attempting to ‘justify’ the photograph suggested the CJI did not actually take that gorgeous monster for a ride, he merely climbed on! That is a little like that unforgettable Bill Clinton admission more than 25 years ago when the former president of the US sweetly assured his loyal countrymen that he “didn’t inhale…” marijuana smoke! Come on, guys. We are all adults with our own favourite leisure activities, okay? If bikes are the CJI’s big thing, so be it! How amazing!</p> <p>Roarrrrrr away, dear sir. We are keeping an eye on you… and the speed limit. Next time you decide to go for a <i>chakker</i>, do take our <i>vahini</i>, your wife Kamini (plus two masks), with you. Easy Rider… have a great time!&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Jul 02 17:51:52 IST 2020 the-boy-from-bihar <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When people say Bollywood is a cruel place, I reply, “Yes, it is! The beast we call ‘Showbiz’, spares no one”. This hungry beast took one more victim last week, when 34-year-old Sushant Singh Rajput took his own life in Mumbai. I had once met him briefly at an awards function a few years ago. He was there as the boyfriend of one of the ladies, who was being felicitated as a ‘Woman Achiever’. He arrived late, kept his head down throughout, and left early. I remember thinking to myself that this young man lacked hustling skills and was not at all socially adept. Or else, he would have worked the room full of influential producers and directors, and sweet-talked a few. But this young man was made of some other stuff. He had a sense of self and a sense of pride—the very attributes that may have contributed to the tragedy that left the nation shocked.</p> <p>Forget <i>Gangs of Wasseypur</i> and think ‘Gangs of Bollywood’. The deeply incestuous world of movie-making in Mumbai works in such insidious ways that young actors hoping to make it big on the basis of their talent alone are given a harsh reality check by the Big Boys, who run the show on their own terms. Unless these ‘outsiders’ agree to play ball and kowtow to their rules. Sushant may have been a bit too intense, too cerebral and too sensitive for this lot. His amazing trajectory in films speaks for itself. The directors who worked with him have mentioned the rigour he invested in each role during his seven short but impactful years in Bollywood. I have watched five of his 10 films, so I can say this confidently: as a nuanced and polished actor, Sushant was streets ahead of most of the current lot of propped up ‘stars’ favoured by the Big Boys. I watched <i>M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story</i> twice within the span of a week, just to catch what I may have missed the first time. And to think that Sushant spent months training with Kiran More to perfect Dhoni’s famous ‘helicopter shot’ and get the cricket captain’s body language right. That is called admirable dedication to ones craft.</p> <p>Yes, all this was noted by Sushant’s growing legion of fans. It was also noted by the Big Boys who had shoved him out of major productions earlier. Undeterred, Sushant gave two hit movies made on comparatively smaller budgets (<i>Kedarnath</i> and <i>Chhichhore</i>), even as his personal life may have been coming apart. There was a great deal of chatter around the social ostracism he was being subjected to by this same lobby. It was said that he was not invited to major Bollywood parties and was snubbed by prominent filmmakers.</p> <p>The Boy from Bihar preferred to gaze at real stars through his prized possession—a Meade LX600 telescope with a spectrometer that ‘gave a feel of a time machine’. The Boy from Bihar, who wanted to be an astronaut, had won the National Olympiad in Physics, and remained an astronomy buff till the end. One can safely say, Sushant was not the average Bollywood actor, even though he did have that six-pack and could out-dance any of his contemporaries.</p> <p>Something slipped somewhere. And even though he was under treatment for clinical depression for the past few months, when the end came, his emotional reserve was not sufficient to save him. The issue of mental health is the elephant in the room which very few people are ready to confront. The lockdown has taken its toll on countless individuals. Going forward, the feeling of being trapped, alone and without support will claim more victims. Let Sushant Singh Rajput’s untimely death serve as a wake up call to all of us struggling with mental demons, big and small. It takes nothing to reach out and respond to a cry for help—you could save someone’s life.</p> Mon Jun 22 08:33:51 IST 2020 superstar-of-the-season <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Sweet irony. Till about a month ago, Sonu Sood was one more Bollywood hunk—all muscles and decent acting chops—that’s it. Today, he is a folk hero, after he nimbly jumped into the pandemic panic, and emerged as a Covid-superstar. His first act of kindness was to arrange 60 buses at his own expense, to send back 350 migrants to their home state, Karnataka. Apart from transport, he ensured they had sufficient food and water for the journey.</p> <p>He was present to see them off, and of course, the press was briefed.&nbsp;In an interview after his good deed was acknowledged and publicised across social media platforms, Sood spoke with sincerity and sobriety, saying he did it as he was moved by the plight of migrants. Suddenly, Sood’s popularity zoomed into stratosphere and at one point, he even managed to beat the unbeatable Salman Khan in the social media stakes! He followed up the bus initiative by another dazzling act—he chartered an aircraft to ferry 150 migrant ladies from Kerala to Bhubaneshwar.</p> <p>Soon, he had transformed himself from a dimpled six-footer, playing a baddie in Bollywood films, to Saviour Sood. His do-gooder fame had spread so rapidly that all sorts of helpless victims of the pandemic started to contact him directly over Twitter. Like the abandoned old mother at Mumbai’s Bandra station whose son had thrown her out of the house. And another set of 1,000 migrants who were later transported from Uttar Pradesh to Bihar.</p> <p>Sood’s story reads better than some of the movie scripts he has picked. He came to Mumbai with 05,500 in his pocket and shared a poky little flat with six other hopefuls looking for breaks; today the 47-year-old is a wealthy businessman, actor and producer. To that, one can safely add “philanthropist” after his Santa Claus act. He is the proud owner of high-end cars like the Porsche Panamera, the Mercedes-Benz M-Class and the Audi Q7. He owns several properties, including a lavish one in Mumbai, which was in the news for some transgressions. That news has been buried for now. And, Sonu frequently pitches in to create&nbsp;public awareness for several campaigns launched by the Mumbai Police and other government bodies.</p> <p>Sood has acted in several multilingual films, starting his career in 1999 with a Tamil film titled, Kallazhagar. He also appeared in a Chinese film and claims friendship with the likes of Jackie Chan. Given that he had come to Mumbai to take his chances in the competitive world of modelling, Sonu made it to the top rung of the Grasim Mr. India contest before getting his movie break.</p> <p>Today, he has catapulted himself into another league. It is a coveted upgrade. In fact, those who have worked with the actor say, somewhat cynically, that the Covid-19 humanitarian work has been his best investment to date. Overnight, Sonu Sood is the go-to guy for distressed folks in India.</p> <p>Industry watchers also say Sonu will no longer accept supporting roles—remember, his early break in Bollywood came with him playing Abhishek Bachchan’s brother in <i>Yuva</i>. A producer commented cynically that henceforth Sonu will demand treble his fees and dictate the kind of role he feels he is worthy of, given his enhanced status. Sonu had already displayed an “attitude issue” when he walked out of Kangana Ranaut’s&nbsp;<i>Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi</i>. He was pretty outspoken at the time and his views were seen as “sexist” by critics!</p> <p>Oh well, today’s version is a “new, improved” Sonu Sood. No doubt, he will be richly rewarded by the authorities. Do watch out for his name when the next Padmas are announced. Who knows, maybe he will join politics next and emerge as a people’s hero. Anything, is possible in showbiz and politics!</p> Thu Jun 04 16:41:23 IST 2020 heroes-stand-alone <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Unquestionably, the biggest corporate hero in India right now is the 53-year-old managing director of the Bajaj Group. His unfiltered, bold and scathing critique of the Rs20 lakh crore “stimulus package”—grandly announced by the prime minister—and further spelt out by his loyal finance minister, had citizens wondering what the hell was going on, given the enormity of the economic crisis, combined with the tragedy of the migrants-on-the-move issue.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It took a straight-talking captain of industry, Rajiv Bajaj, to call their bluff, when he described the package as “unsustainable, piecemeal and erratic”. He spoke up strongly against the “arbitrary lockdown” and mentioned a “governance problem”. As if that was insufficient, he also described the strict lockdown as a “draconian move” and accused the government of “preposterous” handling of the crisis, saying what was started by the coronavirus was spread by the authorities. He urged corporate India to speak up, while assuring his employees there would be no job cuts. By making his position abundantly clear and not mincing words, Rajiv Bajaj not just lived up to the outspoken legacy of his father, the legendary Rahul Bajaj, but also took it a few notches higher.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The almost near subjugation of corporate India is really a matter of disappointment to citizens. Goldman Sachs says India will experience its worst recession ever with a 45 per cent second quarter slump. Despite such dire warnings, business leaders have refused to castigate the government or suggest swifter ways to bounce back. Rajiv Bajaj warned unequivocally: “Do not hold a sword over people’s heads.” Why should Bajaj Jr be the lone ranger in the dense corporate jungle? Why are the other big boys on the block silent?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One of my earliest memories of Rajiv go back to a holiday years ago. Both our families were staying at the same resort. Rajiv was clearly a fitness and yoga buff; I watched in awe as he effortlessly stood on his head, and performed various complicated asanas. He talked amiably to everyone, as did his wife Deepa. His son Rishabh was a toddler at the time. I was most impressed by Rajiv’s personality, and his lack of pretence. He behaved like any regular guy taking a break with the missus and kid, unlike some of his contemporaries (including a few members of the Bajaj clan), who often strut around throwing airs, with an entourage in tow.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Hmm, I remember thinking, how refreshing this chap was. The same chap who took over the reins at Bajaj Auto in 2005, turned the company’s fortunes around, by introducing the wildly popular and commercially successful Pulsar brand. Rajiv leads a team of 45,000, and lives a quiet family life, away from the glare of celebrityhood.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Recently, he has become a staunch advocate of a homeopathic immunity booster called Camphora 1M, which he believes can help combat the deadly virus. Such is Rajiv’s credibility and stock right now that my daughter promptly ordered Camphora 1M for our entire family.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is the thing about heroes, particularly those who shine during a crisis—people start looking up to them since the scenario on most other fronts is so discouraging. By raising important and relevant issues, by asking for clarity, Rajiv Bajaj has displayed the sort of leadership qualities that are disappointingly absent in others. He has urged the prime minister to “give direct money into the hands of people”. He has been pushing for opening up factories and getting back to work without further delay. “Start an ‘inspector raj’,” he says, assuring authorities that his factories will comply with whatever rules come into play. Respect!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri May 22 17:00:30 IST 2020 powering-the-vaccine-hunt <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I met Daddy Poonawalla—Dr Cyrus Poonawalla—the billionaire chairman of the Serum Institute of India, around 20 years ago and found him charmingly eccentric, with a razor sharp mind and a nonchalance that is most disarming. His sense of humour fell into the ‘Bawaji brand’, typical of the loveable Parsis. Over time, we met here and there, mainly at Vijay Mallya’s lavish parties and occasionally at events in Pune. At the time, his handsome son Adar was a student in England. Today, the world’s eyes are focused on the 39-year-old scion, who is promising a Covid-19 vaccine by September. Adar is realistic enough to state candidly that he and his team of researchers are 75 per cent, and not 100 per cent certain of success. Adar has also stated that he will be putting many, highly profitable products on hold while concentrating on this one mission that can save millions of lives. Here is wishing them all the luck in the world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Adar and his wife Natasha (executive director at the Serum Institute, besides being acknowledged as an international fashion icon), are friends of my children, so I have interacted with both of them from the time they got married in 2006; they first met at Mallya’s extravagant New Year’s Eve party in Goa. I have watched them evolve over time, and marvelled at the ease with which they have made their transition from a wealthy and glamorous ‘Pune Couple’ to globally recognised philanthropists and patrons of the arts. Clearly, it was the more outgoing Natasha, dressed in dazzling haute couture and perfectly groomed at all times, who grabbed eyeballs. Soon, the beautiful lady had wooed and been wooed by Bollywood stars who could not get enough of the Poonawalla hospitality and style. Their parties thrown for visiting celebrities like Sharon Stone attracted people from across the country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When Prince Charles and Camilla visited India in 2013, Pune featured prominently on their travel itinerary, where they were hosted by the Poonawallas. I was delighted to attend a high tea for the Duchess of Cornwall, beautifully put together by Natasha for a few ladies. The prince, meanwhile, visited the Serum Institute’s head office, and later attended the races with his wife. The royal visit, though short, offered an insight into how Adar and Natasha had evolved into India’s number one power couple. I watched Natasha with her guests at the high tea, where she played the impeccable and gracious hostess. The tea was laid out in the patio of their sprawling bungalow, and guests were courteously briefed about adhering to royal protocol. I did notice a few socialites attempting a clumsy curtsey on being introduced to Camilla when a simple namaste would have done.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A few days ago, I watched the couple take questions from filmmaker Karan Johar during the ‘I For India’ charity concert on Facebook, which raised over 03.5 crore for Give India. Natasha looked like an international movie star, with not a hair out of place despite the lockdown, while Adar was Adar, dressed in a conservative business suit, as he provided a measured response to questions about the much-awaited vaccine.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While the over-wrought world holds its breath in anticipation, one can be pretty sure this dynamic couple will be going flat out to contribute generously and work tirelessly till a viable solution is found. Once we stagger back to a semblance of normalcy, it will be great to follow the Poonawalla adventures on Instagram, a platform on which Natasha is wildly popular (more than 495K followers) and very active. We look forward to ogling at pictures of the family—Adar, Natasha and their sons Cyrus and Darius, as they jet from one amazing destination to the next, living the dream! Stay buoyant!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri May 08 17:55:31 IST 2020 bring-it-on-taimur <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Never did I imagine that one day I would be devoting a column to a cute kid! But then again, never did I imagine the world would be hit by a deadly virus! So, here I am, putting my thoughts on paper and investing time deconstructing a phenomenon known as Taimur—Taimur the toddler.</p> <p>Meet the wunderkind who breaks the internet each time he appears in public view. Well, one thought the gorgeous little chap would be spared the intense and intrusive fan gaze at least during a lockdown. After all, the paparazzi parked outside his Bandra home (24x7—no kidding! They work in shifts) cannot stalk the little chap during a quarantine. But guess what? Taimur’s amazing parents have recognised their son’s brand worth and the immense joy he spreads across the world, with just a wave or smile. And they have smartly turned into paparazzi themselves!</p> <p>Kareena’s posts keep Taimur’s vast following on social media platforms begging for more. The last picture that captured millions of Likes and hearts, showed Taimur playing Picasso and energetically splashing paint on a wall, while his famous father channelled his inner Monet and stuck to flowers (not water lilies, mercifully). Another Instagram post had Taimur taking gardening lessons from his dad.The Taimur effect is worth dissecting. Taimur is not the only cutie in Bollywood. There are other, equally cute, star bachchas—his own cousin Inaaya Naumi Kemmu for one, or Shahid and Mira Kapur’s two. But it is Taimur who rules. Is it the blue-green eyes? The pink pout? The tousled hair with golden streaks? Who knows!</p> <p>Going by these physical attributes, Karan Johar’s twins, too, qualify. And KJo is no slacker when it comes to “positioning” family and friends. His videos of the twins dissing their famous dad also grab big numbers. But the hysteria is nowhere close to the kind Taimur unleashes. It has to do with charisma.</p> <p>Clearly Taimur was born with it. I can vouch for this! I had gone over to Kareena and Saif’s home to finalise a book project. Taimur was a few weeks old at the time. His name was already known across the country, due to a silly controversy that questioned its appropriateness, given the controversial historical significance of the 14th century Turkish-Mongol ruler Taimur. The name stayed. The parents refused to budge. Soon, the boy became the most famous Taimur in contemporary history.I did not want to be too pushy to see the infant. But how could I leave without a sighting? I asked Kareena if that was possible, assuring her it was fine if the baby was not allowed visitors. Kareena charmingly obliged, and we went to the nursery only to find Taimur blissfully sleeping in his nanny’s arms. I could only spot blond hair and pink cheeks—and that was that. I left a small gift for him, blessed the newborn and checked out.</p> <p>Today, when Kareena candidly states that her only rival in the Bollywood celebrity stakes is her son, Taimur, one believes her. I hear, in those distant pre-quarantine days, a single, exclusive image of Taimur would be sold by enterprising photographers at three times the price of a click featuring any adult top star! Such was his draw. And the magic has not diminished. Taimur is born under a special star. In dark and dire times like these, I chose to write about Taimur for a reason. There is such utterly depressing news out there, that until and unless a vaccine is discovered, the world is going to be stuck in a Covid-rut. We all need a few distractions to keep our spirits up. Taimur’s photographs provide that tiny happy spike. I rejoice at the excitement his presence generates on social media. Taimur’s innocent antics bring a smile to my face as I wait impatiently for Kareena’s next post. There is something addictive about genuine fandom. Bring it on, Taimur!</p> Thu Apr 23 15:15:58 IST 2020 uddhav-comes-into-his-own <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I first met Maharashtra’s 19th and current chief minister long ago at his family home, Matoshree, when his father Balasaheb Thackeray was, by far, the most feared leader in the state. Uddhav’s gracious mother, Meenatai, and his charming wife, Rashmi, played perfect hostesses, as a delicious and lavish meal was served in thaalis. Uddhav was observant, pleasant and quiet. We see a completely different man these days as he firmly steers his state through the Covid-19 crisis. Last week, he sent out a stern warning to citizens saying his government would not tolerate any attempt to create communal disharmony. His no-nonsense attitude turned several hardcore critics into reluctant admirers.</p> <p>It cannot be easy being Uddhav Thackeray. He is 59 years old, and just about coming into his own. Even though he took charge of the Shiv Sena after Balasaheb’s death in 2012, and also of the party mouthpiece, Saamana, his mild manners and lacklustre delivery at rallies left followers disappointed. They were accustomed to the fire and brimstone style of his father and of his more flamboyant cousin, Raj. Ironically, Raj is now out in the political wilderness, despite the showmanship, while Uddhav has emerged stronger by the day. Such is politics!</p> <p>The Uddhav I appreciated had nothing to do with politics. I admired his talent as a photographer. Uddhav’s approach to his passion was that of a crack professional. It was not just a weekend hobby for the man who graduated from the prestigious Sir J.J. Institute of Applied Art. When he came over to show me the dummy of a book he was planning to publish, he shared his work with infectious enthusiasm. I was most impressed by the quality of the photographs, especially the aerial shots clicked from a helicopter. We spent considerable time discussing each frame, and the book was later launched at the Jehangir Art Gallery.</p> <p>His first few years as a full-fledged politician were not as well received. Critics wrote him off for not being more outgoing, more dynamic and more assertive. In a way, this is when he cut his teeth, and, I am guessing, he quickly figured the old style of bullying and browbeating Mumbaikars had become passe. Besides, Uddhav has had two very dependable allies right in his home—his ambitious and good-looking wife, Rashmi, who has taken over Saamana, and his older son Aaditya, currently a junior minister in his cabinet. Nobody had expected the strange alliance with the Congress and the NCP to last. But then, nobody had anticipated the outbreak of the killer global virus, either. Some leaders need a mega crisis to reveal the stuff they are made of.</p> <p>I have never understood our fascination for macho netas, who bare their fangs to keep citizens in place. The only quality a true leader needs to inspire people is trust. Our elected representatives often forget they are in office to serve us, and are obliged to guide us through tough times. So far, Uddhav has acquitted himself pretty well. He has projected resolve, not intimidation; a huge difference. A reign of terror is already upon us in the form of a microbe. We certainly do not need to see people behaving inhumanly towards their fellow beings. Uddhav has assured his people that his administration will work strenuously for all, regardless of one’s caste,</p> <p>creed or religion.</p> <p>Going forward, one would like to see him push Maharashtra forward economically. This will need a more aggressive tactic. We are okay with focused aggression. It was the other far more misplaced one that citizens were sick of, since it came at a huge cost. We like the new and improved version of Uddhav. Let us hope he stays this way.</p> Thu Apr 09 16:33:21 IST 2020 thank-you-dear-doctors <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>During this most challenging test faced by humanity, what has kept our spirits and hopes going is the incredible courage and commitment displayed by the medical fraternity across the world. But let me stick to the India story. Ever since the outbreak, doctors and support teams across our country have swiftly and willingly mobilised to contain the spread of Covid-19.</p> <p>On a personal note, I met two dynamic, well-spoken municipal doctors who came to check on my daughter who had returned from London on March 13. Their questions and systematic documentation made me marvel at the admirable job they were doing, at great personal risk to themselves. The lady doctors patiently took us through the various steps to be followed during the mandatory quarantine period, after which their assistants stamped my daughter’s wrist with the appropriate date. At all times, the team was proactive and patient, while taking us through the seriousness of the unfolding situation.</p> <p>A follow-up team showed up two days later, and they were equally meticulous. We got chatting and they told me how they were working round-the-clock in three shifts, barely getting to rest or eat a proper meal. The thick masks were causing discomfort, and their family time was severely curtailed. Despite that, they were cheerfully going about their work and reassuring panic-stricken citizens that if we all pulled together as one, India would be able to halt the march of mass deaths. I was impressed by their fortitude—they were young and had their entire life ahead of them, and yet here they were undertaking house-to-house checks, without once slacking off or being afraid of death.</p> <p>The very next day I received a message from a close friend telling me about her niece who is a junior doctor in a government hospital. I have known the young lady since she was a child and always believed she would make her mother proud, as she most definitely has! Like everybody else in her hospital, she has been putting in 16 hours a day, dealing with overcrowding and more. During the past month, she has been home just twice, and that, too, because she needed fresh clothes. Her anxious mother cannot always reach her, even for a brief daily chat. But there are no feelings of insecurity or resentment. Dealing with an unprecedented situation like this has made her resolve stronger. She has asked her mother not to worry. Yes, the resources are limited and the number of cases has gone up, but the doctors are doing whatever it takes to help the sick.</p> <p>It made me think of my uncle. He was a much-loved, much-trusted general practitioner in central Mumbai. He had an old-fashioned dispensary, with a compounder who filled glass bottles with mysterious liquids, the dosage marked with a paper strip. I remember his long hours as he met patient after patient, never once displaying anything but respect and regard towards each person. So many of his regulars were underprivileged people from the neighbourhood. The question of charging them fees simply did not arise. Had he been alive today, he would have served in whichever capacity and extended himself all the way in this monumental battle. Just as millions of doctors across India and the world are doing, along with nursing staff, ward boys and others. We owe them a big one.</p> <p>If, despite my reservations, I clapped at 5pm on March 22, it was because I wanted to demonstrate via a sincere, if very small, gesture how deeply we appreciate the staggering efforts of our medical fraternity to keep us safe. Let us hope this terrible crisis acts as a wake-up call and the government steps up its public health programmes on a war-footing. The Kerala model is the best way forward. Let us adopt it across states, and not place the entire burden of health care on our underpaid, under-staffed doctors slaving away in under-funded government-run hospitals.</p> Thu Mar 26 15:59:29 IST 2020 a-gifted-mind <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Chairing a jury is not an easy job. Especially if it is a jury deciding which debut author to honour with a literary prize. I love fresh, new voices. If those happen to be voices of women, that is a bonus! It was with a high level of excitement that I attacked an impressive pile of shortlisted books which had made it to the premier edition of the AutHER Awards, with 850 entries of books published between 2019 and 2020. Umm... there was hell lot of reading to complete before the deadline… but hey, the list was yummy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I stopped when I picked up a slim volume featuring 16 short stories. The cover gave nothing away; well, till you read award-winning author Jeet Thayil’s blurb. Fortunately, I missed it and got straight into the first story. The opening line struck me, “It seems as if I have been waiting here for years.” The setting is an airport. The writer is waiting for a delayed flight to Athens. That single line sets the tone for the rest of the collection titled This Is How It Took Place.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In retrospect, and knowing what I now know, the title is eerie. And, here is why: Rudrakshi Bhattacharjee was 16 when she wrote the stories. She passed away by the time the book was published; Shinie Antony, a close friend of Rudrakshi’s mother Debashree, helped get the book published. The author would have been 19 this year. In the eloquent ‘Afterword’ penned by Shinie, readers get a brief but significant glimpse into Rudrakshi’s world—a world as rich in her unusual imagination, as it was in reality. Here was a brilliant person, who at the age of 15 was offered unconditional admission at an Ivy League college (Stanford) for a creative writing workshop on the basis of her written submission. She was also a champion golfer, swimmer, a whiz at math and science. She left behind several poems, stories, a novella and many unfinished novellas. All this, Shinie tells us, were lovingly located by her mother from her daughter’s computer, diaries and scraps of paper. The same mother, Rudrakshi had once reminded: “When I write, I am a writer, not a daughter.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Rudrakshi shared the prize with another talented debut author, Rehana Munir. Rudrakshi’s parents had flown in from Bengaluru for the special evening, and were a picture of calm and grace on stage. Debashree’s acceptance speech on behalf of Rudrakshi (the couple’s only child) was extraordinarily moving. She spoke about love and acceptance, but she also mentioned the power of “detachment”—an attribute she acquired from her daughter.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ratnadip, Rudrakshi’s father, displayed restraint and fortitude when I spoke to him later. It was important to assure the parents that it was Rudrakshi’s prodigious talent that was being recognised with the prize—the jury was not casting a “sympathy” vote. That would have devalued all that Rudrakshi stood for.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was essential to separate Rudrakshi’s work from her life. The writer’s imagined world is the one readers have access to and respect. Rudrakshi’s fiction displays a maturity beyond her tender years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After a long, long time, I read a collection that made me wish I had met the writer. While reading Rudrakshi’s searing prose I felt so drawn to her personality. I was half-tempted to bombard her mother with questions. This was certainly not the occasion for such intense questioning—I let the urge pass. I went back to her book, and looked for all the meanings that I may have missed during the first reading. There were literally hundreds of lines, cushioned innocuously within paragraphs, that jumped out like rare gems in a packet of synthetic stones. It is a book to share. A gift from a writer who slipped away, leaving us begging for more.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Mon Mar 16 20:30:14 IST 2020 when-zeenie-plays-kasturba <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It must be totally bizarre for a 69-year-old woman to be constantly addressed as Zeenie baby (I plead guilty—it was a Stardust tag ). But such is the power of enduring and catchy nicknames. Zeenat Aman is gracious enough to not blush when she is thus addressed by fans. But her latest foray, playing Mahatma Gandhi’s wife Kasturba on stage, has got audiences curious. One can call it a case of inspired casting… or a neat commercial decision to rope in a yesteryear sex symbol to portray the life and yearnings of a woman whose sex life comes with many question marks. Some of my friends from across the border tittered and mocked the choice of Zeenat starring in a play titled Dearest Bapu, Love Kasturba, and called it “absurd”. But, hey—as a local critic pointed out pertinently, if we could accept a white actor (Ben Kingsley) playing the Mahatma, why cannot we applaud the team for casting Zeenat as Kasturba? I totally agree.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The night Dearest Bapu… was premiering in south Mumbai, Zeenat sent me a sweet text, inviting me. I would have jumped at it, had a family wedding not clashed. Our short exchange was affectionate and appropriate. Zeenat is old-fashioned when it comes to good manners. I have always appreciated this attribute. She is never pushy—not even when she has her back to the wall, and could do with help. As I discovered when she was dealing with a conman—an absolute menace, who had cheated her out of a substantial amount in money and jewellery. A man she had blindly trusted. Yes, she had approached the police and had him apprehended. But her problem was not about to end with the criminal being behind bars. Despite the odds, and dealing with multiple issues, Zeenat was steadfast in her resolve to tackle the matter in the correct way, without seeking the influence of well-connected friends.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For the past two decades, Zeenat has chosen to live her life as a semi-recluse. She told me she handles all her business affairs, including international appearances and promotions entirely on her own. This approach, in an era of a phalanx of pesky, bossy minders handling stars, is most refreshing. Zeenat has been seen on various TV shows, or gracing the odd award function, but she has behaved with absolute dignity, minus starry hype. And to think 30 years ago, Zeenat was one of the hottest women on the planet! I knew some of her ardent suitors, and the roll call of names is most impressive. I remember interviewing her when she was allegedly dating the then captain of the Pakistani cricket team—Imran Khan. Both were single at the time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I intend to watch her play soon. Zeenat has returned to the stage after 15 years. Critics say the absence shows in her faltering delivery. But I can safely predict a safe run, despite the dreary reviews.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It needs a huge leap of the imagination to see the same voluptuous leading lady from hits like Don, playing Kasturba’s ‘spirit’ clad in shapeless, white khadi. Zeenat did point out the obvious disconnect when she mentioned the disparity in their frames—Kasturba was a petite woman while Zeenat is a tall, big girl. But good theatre is supposed to submerge the audience in illusion and fantasy. Perhaps, a few more rigorous rehearsals and a rejigging of the dialogues will generate a more positive buzz. As for me—I will attend just to watch my old friend Zeenat on stage. And ignore all the obvious flaws in the production.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Feb 28 14:33:41 IST 2020 peter-peter-pumpkin-eater <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>So, are you happy?” A reporter asked accused No 4 Peter Mukerjea as he left the court after being granted bail in the Sheena Bora murder case. Peter grinned and replied, “You mean is the Pope Catholic?”Hurrah! Peter has got his swag back! It has taken more than four years to be granted bail. In the interim, Peter has had a bypass surgery, lost weight, hair and smile and has taken to walking with a stick. The Bombay High Court has stayed the execution of the bail for six more weeks, which allows the CBI to contest it in the Supreme Court.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the sessions court, Indrani Mukerjea, his ex-wife and prime accused in the murder case, asked the judge why she would kill her own daughter when it was more logical to murder Peter, considering 75 per cent of his assets were in her name and the rest was jointly held by them! That is a fresh spin to the macabre story, and heaven knows what Indrani may spring next to extricate herself.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Cut to Peter’s life pre- and post-Indrani. We knew him socially and greatly enjoyed his company. Here was an urbane, witty, naughty bossman, with an eye for the ladies. Then along came Indrani, and everything changed, including Peter’s rambunctious personality. We continued to meet them as a popular couple, and watched Indrani’s metamorphosis from a fairly unsophisticated but enormously confident woman to a spunky Mumbai socialite. Soon, she became a boss lady herself and boasted to everybody she met at parties and events that she earned much more than Peter and was running the show while her husband “chilled”. Peter basked in her glory, glowing with pride, as she held court and talked ceaselessly about her new acquisitions—homes in London and the South of France (it could be south of Spain, I forget), which she generously offered to me and my family to vacation in if we ever happened to be in that part of the world. Through her whirlwind professional and personal journey, Peter stayed in her shadow. It was clear he was a hopelessly besotted husband, unable to see a single flaw in his wife.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Last year, at the Times Litfest in Bengaluru, a soft-spoken lady approached me in the authors’ lounge and introduced herself as Shangon, Peter’s sister. She wanted some time to speak to me in private. I was about to walk into my own session, and requested her to wait for me. Later, we chatted for 20 minutes as she took me through the minutest details of the case. I promised to assist in getting her story published in the Mumbai papers, but not a single editor was prepared at that stage to run the piece. It is, after all, a sensitive case, and matters are still sub judice. Shangon and Gautam (Peter’s brother) have been attending every court hearing, sitting next to their jailed sibling, bringing him his favourite snacks and keeping his morale up, while monitoring his failing health. Shangon mentioned pointedly that nobody comes to cheer up Indrani, except her lawyers. That is telling in itself.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What happens next will be fascinating to track. Peter will not be allowed to meet his son Rahul, who was Sheena’s boyfriend and is a witness in the case. But at least he will be out of his jail cell, eating home-cooked meals and sleeping on his own bed. Whatever the outcome of this murder mystery, Indrani remains at the centre of the narrative. And, she is one tough cookie. Her health is not good, but her mind is ticking brilliantly. She, too, has applied for bail, arguing that if Peter was granted his, why discriminate against her. She has claimed that so far all the evidence produced in court has fallen flat. She also recently accused her former driver (who turned approver) of demanding Rs50 lakh from her to keep mum. With so many accusations and counter-accusations flying around, the curtain is unlikely to come down in a hurry on this sordid drama.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Feb 14 11:18:05 IST 2020 the-indefatigable-dalrymple <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>William Hamilton-Dalrymple shares a name with a renowned English surgeon. Both need scalpels for their work. Our Williamji or Dalrymplesaab uses words as dexterously as the surgeon uses his medical tool. He is a pucca Dilliwala ‘burra sahib’, albeit with a marked Scottish accent. His late father, Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple, was the tenth baronet. William’s older brother inherited the title, while William wrote, travelled, photographed, won awards, raised goats and children—all at a furious and astonishing pace. As co-director of the ‘Greatest Literary Show on Earth’—the Jaipur Literature Festival—he brings a unique energy to all he does. As a historian and academic, one would imagine he is ready to slow down. Not this man. At 54, with three grownup children, a beautiful painter wife, Olivia, and an almost unreal life at their farmhouse in Mehrauli, outside Delhi, William plays the part of a benevolent ‘White Mughal’ to perfection, swanning around in Pathani pajamas, loose, flowing kurtas, a gorgeous Kani flung carelessly over his shoulders. William is a performer. A man who reads his audience well, and plays to the galleries when the need arises. Through all that bluster and hearty laughs, ticks an amazing brain, acutely tuned in to all that surrounds him. But given his Scottish blood, the one thing William understands best is the power of money.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>His latest venture is a ‘Ganga Experience’ in Varanasi, with each participant shelling out £5,000 (gulp!) to get a distinctive perspective, curated and presented by William. When we met at the elegant Penguin Books party in Jaipur, I teased him about turning into a posh tourist guide. As always, he had an entourage of fawning fans mobbing him at the JLF, with his latest book, The Anarchy, flying off the shelves worldwide. His travels for each book are meticulously planned and documented and serve up rich detail and imagery. But it is when he does dramatised readings from his textured and eloquent writings, that even those who do not read his hefty historical accounts get drawn into the narrative. Simply but cleverly staged, with live music, appropriate miniatures and expensive carpets, the presentation invariably leaves audiences begging for more. I saw that in Adelaide, with invitees hanging on to every precious line. It is rare to come across as prodigious a writer, finding the time and possessing the talent to pull off a full on stage show!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Over the years, I have started to decode and accept William a little better than the first time we met over 30 years ago. That was a bit of a disaster! He was assigned by The Sunday Times (London) to write my profile and spend a week in my company, observing my life. Terrible idea! William was hopelessly distracted—he was on his honeymoon, and could not bear to stay away for too long from Olivia. They were staying at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, near my home, and he was in a tearing hurry to wrap up the assignment and get back to the inviting swimming pool. The loss, alas, was mine. But that is history. I have moved on. The William of today is a different animal—fun, irreverent, witty and, yes, less savage!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Recently, we spent a mellow evening at an impromptu after-party, post the concluding session of the JLF at Doha. A few of us had gathered—hungrily and thirstily in one of the suites well past midnight. There was greasy, over-priced Chinese takeaway food on the table, but mercifully the wine was top- class. We were joined by the fabulous Kutle Khan Project singers, who had closed the first edition of the lit fest with a rousing performance that had people dancing in the aisles. What followed in the suite was a relaxed mehfil, with everyone joining Kutle Khan as he sang ‘Mast Kalandar’. William was seated on the floor, and doing what he does so well these days—documenting every magical moment on camera. Yes, he was still working!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Feb 01 16:38:03 IST 2020 ustad-quintessential-charmer <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The boyish charm of the international tabla virtuoso is still intact. Zakir Hussain at 68, could pass off for a 48-year-old hippie, with his carefully disheveled mop of hair, casual shirt hanging over his slacks and the unmistakable ‘rock star’ air of utter nonchalance as he surveys a small but select audience, gathered to fete him—India’s number one percussionist at a unique event. It is the launch of Dayanita Singh’s maquette (mock-up of a book) dedicated to the man she calls her guru—Zakir! In her address, she thanks Zakir effusively and profusely for inspiring her to become a photographer at age 18. She talks about their first encounter in Ahmedabad, and how it changed her life. Through all the recounting of those precious years, when Dayanita’s camera chronicled moments (big and small) of Zakir’s incredible life during the ‘80s, the subject of her adulation (and the star of the evening), kept staring at his well-manicured nails or cracking an ironic, self-deprecatory smile at her generous praise. When he spoke, it was with immense humility and admirable tact, steering the conversation towards the life of artistes and interjecting it with backstage anecdotes. Like the times he shared the dressing room with the greats (Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ravi Shankar, Shivkumar Sharma and others). He dismissed off the title of being the ‘number one tabla player in the world’, claiming there were at least eight or ten equally good if not better players around. Then what was it that made him such a global star and marquee player? He confessed disarmingly, it was his ‘savoir-faire’. About the rigorous riyaaz required to make it big in the highly competitive world of classical music, Zakir, a Padma Bhushan awardee, gave all the credit to his legendary father, Ustad Alla Rakha, who would wake up young Zakir at 3am daily, when he was just seven, to begin the day’s punishing musical routine. “He didn’t touch the tabla at all… instead, my father spoke to me about music, narrated stories, talked about the various ragas… and invited me to sit on stage by his side during performances, observe everything… learn,” said Zakir.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Behind the cultivated image of an international ‘playboy percussionist’ is an aloof, reserved man, immersed in his music. His family life is never on display, and few have met his Italian American wife Antonia Minnecola, a Kathak dancer and Sitara Devi’s disciple. They have two daughters, and are fond grandparents, with a family home in California. Zakir prefers to let his tabla do all the talking, except when he is being interviewed on camera. As he hinted, everything becomes a performance eventually, if you are practically born on a stage. What I found fascinating was his method of prepping before accompanying another artiste. “Establishing a rapport is important. The exchange on stage is intuitive and non-verbal. There has to be a deep sense of trust and understanding between the musicians. This can only happen after you know one another’s lives. I like to figure out what the person eats, I want to meet the wife/husband and children, visit their home. Share a meal with them…. this is an essential part of the tayaari,” said Zakir.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Later, as he mingled with guests, over platters of artisanal cheese, he seemed far more relaxed, as did Dayanita herself. Their hour-long interaction had been expertly steered by veteran writer Nasreen Munni Kabir, who has done an interview-based book on Zakir (2018).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was a thought provoking evening for all of us, as we went out into the cool night, with words and images leaping inside our heads and hearts. What a lovely collaboration! Wah, Ustad, Wah!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jan 17 11:42:46 IST 2020 bravo-mimi <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>I WATCHED</b> a poised and beautiful young person wearing a floaty, flower print dress (the sort British debutantes wear to garden parties in the summer) with matching orange heels, being chased by photographers at a recently concluded fest in Kolkata. It took me a minute to recognise the glamorous Trinamool Congress MP from Jadavpur, as she made her way to the dais to talk about ‘success and happiness’. She was impeccably groomed and perfectly made up, and I could not stop staring! I recalled her debut appearance in Parliament, at which she, along with another beautiful MP from the TMC—Nusrat Jahan—had effortlessly broken a sartorial rule by showing up in a chic and very stylish trousers and tucked-in-shirt ensemble. Well done, ladies, I said to myself and cheered them on.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now here she was, talking easily and unselfconsciously about her early life and what success means to her. Fans in the first few rows were applauding her every remark. She was playing the worshipful crowd like a seasoned politician. And to think Mimi Chakraborty, an actor with several big hits in Bengali cinema, is just 30-years-old and a novice in politics. But hey—she campaigned hard, won with a convincing majority, and is there to prove to detractors that there is much more to her than being ‘The Most Desirable Women-2016’—a title bestowed on her through a poll. Today, she juggles an incredibly busy schedule which involves running between her constituency, attending Parliament, handling endorsements, doing personal appearances and, of course, acting. She lives by herself and prefers it that way, she confessed to her fawning admirers. She calls herself a ‘pet parent’ and insists her emotional needs are met when she gets home after a tiring day to be enthusiastically greeted by her four-legged companion.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As I listened to her views on happiness and success, I was interested in what she had to share and marvelled at how smoothly she balanced priorities. For a former model, who left her parents’ home in Jalpaiguri to seek her fortune in Kolkata, Mimi has managed to steer her life adeptly, juggling multiple roles and expectations and clearly impressing the tough Didi (Mamata Banerjee) sufficiently enough to get a ticket. Mamata, shrewdly, counted on Mimi’s star power to woo her constituency and bag that important seat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Mimi is no pretty-faced doll with a highly decorative presence and not much else. As she continued speaking, gauging the mood of the crowd and engaging with each person who asked a question, in a warm and personal manner, one could see a promising and long-term career in politics for her. I was amused when she said she feels happy when she bakes a cake, sticks a toothpick into it, and the toothpick emerges clean to indicate the cake is ready to be removed from the oven.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Mimi spoke emotionally about her early years when she did not receive any support from her folks, and had to fend for herself. She talked about the thrill of starting a fresh school term with new books, which her mother could ill-afford, but made sure to provide. Mimi’s first pay cheque was Rs15,000, and she recounted, with unfiltered glee, how thrilled she was at getting “so much money”. There was a childlike wonder in her eyes as she remembered her years of struggle, stopping once or twice to wipe her tears. None of this seemed rehearsed or fake.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bravo! Mimi… you have broken several stereotypes and so quickly at that. The bold decision to shed the sari in favour of pants for your first day in Parliament made a powerful statement about your individuality and sense of self. You deserve all the bhalobashi (love) you receive!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Dec 20 14:33:41 IST 2019 bhutan-queen-mother-in-khan-market <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The time was late, the weather cold and most shops in Delhi’s Khan Market had already downed their shutters. I ducked into a fancy gift shop, least expecting to run into royalty! I heard a lady being addressed as ‘Your Highness’—the lady’s back was to me. She turned around and it was Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, the beautiful and gracious Queen Mother of Bhutan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We had last met nine years ago at Mountain Echoes, the jewel of a lit fest in Thimphu, of which Her Majesty is the chief patron. It had been a warm and memorable encounter for several reasons. We were at a reception for visiting authors, hosted by then Indian Ambassador Pawan Verma, at our impressive embassy. The Queen Mother, the eldest queen of the fourth king of Bhutan (father of the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk), had launched her book at the fest, and spoken from the heart on the gorgeous Kingdom of Bhutan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That was also the very day King Jigme had announced his engagement to a young, beautiful commoner, Jetsun Pema, to cheers and applause from his subjects. Just as the guests were discussing this development, it was announced that the king and his fiancée would be attending the reception. It may have been an impromptu decision, because it threw protocol out of the window, as security officers scrambled to prepare for the king’s arrival at what would otherwise have been a typical lit fest party—informal and possibly rowdy. I was seated on a sofa next to the Queen Mother, talking about her book, family life, environment, fashion and movies, when a palace official came over to inform her about the royal couple’s imminent arrival. She swiftly turned to her daughter Sonam, and after a short exchange with her, excused herself and stood head bowed at the entrance to receive the royal guests as their cavalcade drove in. A hush descended over the gathering. It was an electrifying moment—all eyes were on the handsome king and his fiancée, both dressed in grand ceremonial robes, and so obviously in love. The Queen Mother greeted them with a deep bow, as guests awaited their turn to be introduced.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was during this short trip to Bhutan that I got to spend a little time with a remarkable lady whose commitment to furthering the interests of her country through cultural, educational and environmental exchanges came through so clearly. Her calm and grace as she handled questions and explained the nuances of an ancient culture charmed and impressed all those who met her. She was kind enough to subsequently give us signed copies of her coffee table book—Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And, I least expected to run into her buying scented candles in a market in Delhi. We reconnected instantly, and I asked if we could take pictures. Looking on and smiling broadly was the Bhutanese Ambassador to India Maj Gen Vetsop Namgyel. A small entourage was helping the 65-year-old Queen Mother make up her mind as she browsed through the store. I watched her glide past counters, a poised, perfectly groomed lady in black, and marvelled at her equanimity. Here she was, with her highly privileged background and status, behaving with admirable humility. I had just finished meeting a bunch of pompous ‘prominent people’ with overblown egos and no real attributes worth praising. I had watched them throw their weight around in the Authors’ Lounge at the Times Litfest, and been totally put off by their crass attempts to attract attention. What a contrast to this modest royal, who has authored three books and works tirelessly for her people, especially the farming communities! Lit fests are great equalisers. It is easy to tell the empty talkers from those who command and not demand respect. The Queen Mother is truly Bhutan’s national treasure, and I look forward to meeting her again, hopefully in Thimphu.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Dec 06 11:34:47 IST 2019 the-utterly-charming-sandy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As I began to write this column, I was doing extensive homework on one of the world’s most successful writers—Alexander McCall Smith. Discovery No.1: we share a birth year, and he is younger by a few months. We were introduced over email by Anil Dharker, the festival director of the prestigious Tata Literature Live. Anil had requested me to be ‘In Conversation’ with the author of over 80 books! I confessed I had not read even one of them. “Not even his bestseller, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency?” Anil asked in disbelief. “Not even,” I admitted sheepishly. And then I started reading his latest book, To the Land of Long Lost Friends, and was instantly hooked. From the opening chapter itself (Inside People, Outside People), I was pulled into an open air wedding taking place in a distant land. By the end of the book, I felt I knew each and every character intimately, especially Precious Ramotswe, doyenne of private investigators in Botswana, and the star of the series.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When I met Alexander (“Call me Sandy”), I felt like we were old friends—his book had done the trick! He was dressed magnificently in a Scottish kilt, and was naturally asked the most obvious question by a curious gentleman: “What do Scots wear under the kilt—if they wear anything at all?” Sandy must have answered that hundreds of times, for he had a ready reply. He clarified that he himself chooses to wear underwear. Underwear is optional for all Scots, except for those in the Scottish Regiment—nothing comes between them and their kilts! As a conversationalist, Alexander sparkles. He is a superb raconteur, and that evening he was in fine form, despite being severely jet-lagged. Elizabeth, his wife (a retired physician), is more reticent, and prefers to let her husband of 37 years, hog the limelight. Alexander was one of the stars of the Jaipur Lit Fest last year, and is certainly the big draw at Tata Literature Live this year. He seems indefatigable going by his website, which provides details of his hectic schedule, as he traipses across the world, meeting readers, giving talks and—hold your breath—still managing to write between 1,000 to 5,000 words a day! His astonishing output has placed him in the category of the world’s richest authors, with the likes of J.K. Rowling, a neighbour.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>His books share a common thread. They are about ‘finding happiness’. Over a drink, he had mentioned how he visits Botswana at least twice a year, because he finds that the people there are genuinely happy with their lives. Alexander, who is involved with many charities, has the rare gift of not just seeking, but spreading happiness. Words used to describe his work are “generous writing with dry humour, gentleness and humanity”. He shuns caricaturing and there is zero condescension towards his subjects. Gender issues form a huge part of his work. Through his characters he underlines male-female binaries, in a subtle and insightful manner.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I watched him move around the room easily and without the slightest airs. Here is a person who is also a professor emeritus of medical law, with honorary doctorates from 13 universities, a musician who has written the libretto for an opera, and is the celebrated writer of the world’s longest running serial novel, 44 Scotland Street. Gosh! And here I am—exhausted just looking at this one man’s incredible accomplishments! And there is Sandy—relaxed, disarming and utterly charming, while composing his next 5,000 words for the day inside his crowded head!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Nov 22 11:33:19 IST 2019 diwali-at-Jalsa <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>There are Diwali parties, and then there is THE Diwali party—the one hosted by the Bachchans. It is much looked forward to, and over the years it has acquired a near-mythical status. It was being hosted after a gap of two years, and when Jaya Bachchan phoned to extend an invitation, I was delighted to accept. It is one scintillating evening, which sees most of Bollywood on the lawns of Jalsa, though not in the open air. The Bachchans are considerate enough to create an air-conditioned marquee, lined with food stations and bars, as superstars converge to greet colleagues, play cards, and have a fabulous time.</p> <p>This year, as in previous years, there was a terrific melange of established stars and newbies. There was a fair representation of the vast entertainment industry, given Amitabh’s multi-discipline career—from movies to KBC. And there he was, standing tall, meeting and greeting every single guest with the same level of warmth. Think about it—there must have been close to 400 invitees that night. Amitabh, who had been spotted at a neighborhood hospital just a few days earlier, displayed zero signs of any illness. If anything, he seemed out to prove skeptics wrong—his health seemed robust, and his energy inexhaustible. This was my biggest takeaway from the long night. Here was a stalwart, a legend… who had not sipped even a glass of water, nor stopped for a nibble during those tiring hours of being a supremely welcoming host. He had not sat down even for a few seconds! And the smile on his face as he spent hours posing for selfies, looked genuine. This is nothing short of a feat.</p> <p>Amitabh is one of the most active senior citizens on social media. He has been ahead of the curve in many respects, but this advantage over other, far younger stars, cannot be underestimated. He is sensitive enough to realise the worth of each selfie posted by awestruck invitees to his Diwali celebrations. And, he was not about to pass up on priceless posts! That is brilliant thinking, I concluded, watching rows of fabulously dressed guests dutifully queuing up for a cherished photo op. I wondered if the stars of today, so many of whom were present, would ever be able to acquire Big B’s stature in the movie industry. He has weathered countless storms and controversies, major health scares and other challenges. Despite that—there he stands—tall and imposing, treating every guest with the same attention and warmth.</p> <p>Bollywood’s newbies floated around in elaborate designer outfits, mingling easily and behaving ‘starry’—fame is a tricky commodity to handle. These kids are just about learning the ropes. I observed them all with amusement—from Tapsee Pannu to Karthik Aaryan, Sara Ali Khan to Ananya Pandey. And, I recalled seeing Amitabh at the famous Stardust parties hosted by Nari Hira more than 45 years ago. He was also a newcomer to the super glam world of Mumbai’s tinseltown. But at no stage did he jump around from table to table, trying desperately to attract attention. It took him a while to establish himself after gaining a toehold in Bollywood.</p> <p>We left by the time Shah Rukh Khan arrived, and walked away as hero number one. His admirable presence of mind and courage helped saved the life of Archana Sadanand, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s longtime manager, when her lehenga caught fire at the party. Aishwarya rushed to her rescue while SRK doused the flames with his sherwani, receiving minor burns in the process. Despite SRK’s heroic act, the evening belonged to the tireless host.</p> Thu Nov 07 18:57:56 IST 2019 the-chirpy-mrs-and-mr-singh <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>From the very first time we met, I hit it off instantly with Shivinder Singh—the 44-year-old former promoter of Fortis, who is currently in judicial custody while under investigation for a Rs3,000 crore fraud. Of course, I am being naïve when I say this, but he did not look, nor sound like a crook. I found him and his beautiful wife, Aditi, utterly charming—it is rare to come across such a couple! As today’s teenagers put it so aptly, “They are totally into each other.” None of it appeared contrived or fake to me. It was a true-blue ‘mutual adoration’ society, with plenty of unabashed PDA, giggles and blushes. He was under the scanner even then, but looked completely unperturbed. I took several pictures of the couple, including a delightful one on the dance floor. At another family function, I had met their extended clan and spent a long afternoon chatting with Mrs and Mr Singh, admiring Aditi’s jewellery and his sense of humour. Then too, he had responded easily and confidently to questions I posed about the scandal that had created headlines internationally. I had urged Shivinder to write a book and present his side of the story, since press reports had been pretty one-sided. He had readily agreed and said he had been thinking about it, even though the matter was sub judice and he would have to leave out a lot of the hot potato material. I assured him his life would still make compelling reading—it had more masala than any movie script—religion, money and fraud! He laughed and we exchanged numbers to stay in touch.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The last time we ran into each other was significant. It was at the wedding reception for a mutual friend’s daughter. Many big ticket billionaires had jetted in for the event, only to jet out a couple of hours later. Aditi and Shivinder were doing the same. I did not ask if they were taking a commercial flight. The others had arrived in their personal Bombardiers. Earlier the same morning, another mutual friend had sent me an ominous text saying the Singh brothers were going to be arrested soon. I asked Shivinder chattily about the news, like it was normal for high profile business folks to face arrest. Well, it is becoming the new normal, I guess, because he shrugged, smiled… and I clicked some more pictures of the couple. This time, they did not dance. But everything else was intact—the PDA, giggles, jokes. I brought up the book again and he said he had signed up with a publisher, but was waiting for a competent writer… someone who would be in sync with his emotional state and sensitive to his point of view. That was not too difficult, I said and offered to recommend a few names. He said he had most of the material in place, but was getting stuck somewhere. Aditi kept staring at her husband, with love pouring out of her eyes. She added how intense her husband was… writing candidly about his life under the present circumstances was proving to be a huge challenge. It was time to say goodbye. No reference was made to the impending arrest. It was as if Shivinder genuinely believed such an action would not be taken.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I can hardly comment on the case, given that I know very little about how Religare Finvest Ltd (RFL) managed to siphon Rs1,000 crore to shell companies, according to the Economic Offences Wing. Now I read Shivinder has sought interim bail from the Delhi court and wants to settle. For me, Shivinder and Aditi will forever remain the chirpy, forever-in-love couple… childhood sweethearts-turned life partners, joyfully in tune with one another, if not the world. Through sickness and in good health. Through good times and bad.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Oct 25 11:24:44 IST 2019 ma-anand-sheela-second-coming <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The ‘Tough Titty’ from the wildly popular Netflix series, Wild, Wild Country (2018), came back to India after 34 years. It has been an incredible homecoming for one of the most controversial women in contemporary popular culture—Sheela Patel, better known as Ma Anand Sheela of the Bhagwan Rajneesh scandal. Today, at 70, she is basking in her newfound fame as she travels across her old stomping grounds, each move being filmed by a Bollywood crew for a documentary, and a possible movie on her incredible life as a sanyasin in Osho’s ashram—first in Pune, and later in Oregon, US.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I am sure she could not have envisaged such a rip-roaring reception to her dramatic return to the land of her birth. Sheela is the toast of the super-rich in Mumbai and Delhi, with movie stars, politicians and socialites falling over backwards to host lavish soirees in her honour. She has been provided a luxe wardrobe by designer Sanjay Garg, and I believe she is being paid a fat fee to cover her travel and stay, and a little something more for herself and the two ladies who are her companions and live with her in Basel.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I was requested by a private organisation to be ‘in conversation’ with her at a closed-door event in Pune. I accepted with enthusiasm, given how well we had hit it off when we last met in Prague at a similar members-only event. She had said she was afraid to come back to India, since there were many enemies waiting to eliminate her. Why? Because she knew too much about the sinister goings-on inside the Osho empire? Or because she was a convicted felon who had served 39 months on charges that included attempted murder, wire-tapping, grand larceny, kidnapping and bio-warfare. Sheela denies all charges and talks lightly about her incarceration, as if it is quite okay to have to defend oneself in these circumstances. She had demanded a security cover if she ever returned to India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Sheela of today is a transformed woman, who wants to stick to a carefully prepared script—love, beauty, social service. Any reference to the past (chronicled by her in the best-selling book titled Don’t Kill Him: The Story of My Life with Bhagwan Rajneesh) is shrugged off with a wave and a soft dismissal, “Let’s move on….” Most people who meet this version of Sheela have no knowledge about her shocking past, which suits her fine. Young people are awestruck and rush to hug this benign-looking, diminutive lady, who makes it a point to confess, “I was a young girl when I met Bhagwan…. I fell in love with him.” The audience goes “Awwwww”, and willingly abandons any hard questions about the long-term relationship with Rajneesh, who she insists she did not have sex with… and no, there were no orgies in the ashram, as outsiders believe (and… errrr, many can prove).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ma Sheela is a shrewd, intelligent woman who has figured out her time starts now. Life has thrown her a second and very generous chance. If she wants to make herself relevant and heard again, she will have to capitalise on the world’s interest in her as of now. Her Bollywood debut is already creating ripples, with Sheela nominating Alia Bhatt as the person to play her and Aamir Khan starring as the charismatic Rajneesh. Helming this sizzling project will be Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions. A good fit for both.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For a woman who showed her middle finger to an Australian journalist on camera and hurled the choicest abuses at international news conferences that overshadowed Ronald Reagan’s during prime time, Sheela is on a roll once more. Albeit in a totally different avatar. Reinvention suits Sheela. Unfortunately, the past cannot be wished away.... She may have ‘moved on’. But others have not. The fiery ‘Tough Titty’ will have to deal with this nuisance, alas.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Oct 12 11:07:37 IST 2019 remembering-the-rage-and-the-rain <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>This is not about Kiran Nagarkar, the writer. It is about Kiran Nagarkar, the person. I was in a distant land when I heard of his passing. I was taken aback by the suddenness. And yet, not. The news was conveyed via an email. I was sitting by myself at a café in Riga, Latvia, and had no one I could turn to. No one to share that moment with. I did not shed a tear. I carried on sipping my coffee, as if losing a friend of many years was well… normal. I guess, it is ‘normal’, but it is also immensely sad and painful… especially when you know your beloved friend had already given up on life. And perhaps, his passing had spared him further ignominy and humiliation. I sat for a long time over that coffee, a smile on my lips as I recalled our last meeting just two months earlier. I had sensed I might never meet him again—not just because he seemed even frailer than usual. Not because his voice had changed, as had the expression in his eyes… it was something else. Kiran had surrendered. And that flummoxed me. Surrendered? Kiran ? Did he not know he would always have millions of admirers who loved him, loved his books, loved his spirit?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That evening at Mumbai’s iconic Sea Lounge, I met a vanquished Kiran who spoke morosely about his emotional state—he had never felt this let down by people he thought were his supporters and friends. The same people who refused to acknowledge him or take his calls after the ‘scandal’. He expressed surprise and ‘gratitude’ that I had readily jumped at the opportunity to meet for tea. “Are you sure ?” he had asked hesitantly. I was certain.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kiran Nagarkar was battling charges framed by three women who had accused him of inappropriate behaviour at the time of the #MeToo fever. He was keen to talk about what had happened… in a puzzled and troubled way. I have no idea, and neither do I want to get into the details. With the rain pelting down over the angry, churning grey sea outside the bay window, all I really wanted to do was comfort a broken, finished man who had been turned into an overnight pariah by the literary establishment. He was dropped from lit fests just like that, and most of his speaking engagements stood cancelled. People he had known for years looked the other way when they spotted him in public. Editors claimed they could not overrule resistance from their female reporters, who insisted on ‘banning’ Kiran. His last book (The Arsonist) was shredded by critics, and he confessed not a single copy of Ravan and Eddie (Kiran’s most significant book) had sold after the story broke. He was not playing martyr. He seemed genuinely bewildered, asking over and over again where he had erred and in what way.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I tried to lighten the mood and change the subject. As always, we were conversing in Marathi and I was relieved when at some point Kiran used some delicious Marathi slang to hurl a few choice abuses at his tormentors. This endeared him to me the most! Instantly dropped was the self-pitying narrative. This was the feisty Kiran readers and friends adored—giving it back to those who had hurt and destroyed him. We laughed at his more graphic ‘gaalis’, and I asked for more Darjeeling tea. Kiran stuck to bottled water. I clicked several portraits, marvelling at how terrific Kiran looked, ravaged and fatigued, though he was. We went to the lobby and he said, “Let’s get someone to take a picture of us together.” “Let’s !” I concurred eagerly. There was but a moment of hesitation before Kiran asked, “May I…?” before placing his hand on my shoulder. We both burst out laughing. I joked, “Kiran… it is an age-thing! You and I do not have to bother to be politically correct—go right ahead.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is a sweet, natural picture showing two 70-plus friends, smiling in a relaxed and comfortable way—the way old friends are meant to. I teased Kiran that he had carefully wrapped my uneaten cookies in paper napkins, and taken his half-drunk bottle of mineral water with him. “I have paid for both—why leave anything behind!” he said. Why, indeed!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What Kiran Nagarkar has indeed left behind is a tremendously powerful body of work. May his literary legacy thrive and bloom. RIP, mazaa priya mitra.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Sep 26 17:05:23 IST 2019 smashing-doubts <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>We all love world champions, do we not? Our newest darling is P.V. Sindhu, just 24 and in a league of her own after claiming the title at the Badminton World Championships in Basel, Switzerland, on August 25, defeating Nozomi Okuhara of Japan. Sindhu was a picture of confidence and grace. With the Olympics just a year away, Pullela Gopichand is already figuring out a strategy for his star player, who, while thanking her coach profusely, dedicated the victory to her mother, whose birthday was on the same day. Sindhu also acknowledged the invaluable help she received from her strength trainer, Srikanth Verma.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But for me, the one person who stood out during Sindhu’s hour of glory was P.V. Ramana, her father, the man who has been her chief motivator from the time she started playing badminton. Not only does he drive her to training sessions, but he also gives his daughter a 30-minute nightly massage to help her sleep better. Sindhu is fortunate to have parents who have put their own lives on hold so that she can fulfill her dreams.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As I read a stream of congratulatory messages pouring in, I was trying to visualise the domestic scene in Basel. The lives of our sportspeople are exceedingly demanding, with zero time to unwind or just do nothing. I recall reading a candid interview with Roger Federer, in which he admits how strenuous it is for competitive athletes to endure punishing schedules without the luxury of switching off. He talked about rushing to the airport, getting into his private plane and jetting off, minutes after each match. He wistfully confessed how he missed the leisure of enjoying a dinner date over wine with his wife, after clinching the title in an exotic destination.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Well, the rewards are plentiful. So, I guess giving up on precious ‘we time’ with a partner does not hurt as much. But our beautiful young badminton champ is single and still in her twenties. I see her at glam events, clad in couture. She speaks articulately and naturally about life off the court. The mother in me gets all mushy. I want to see her with a supportive life partner some day soon.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Saina Nehwal and Sania Mirza seem to have worked out their personal spaces very skillfully. Saina’s husband (Parupalli Kashyap) belongs to her world. Sania’s cricketer husband (Shoaib Malik) lives across the border, and has always been acutely sensitive towards his wife’s commitment to tennis.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From the outside, the high profile world of our sports stars appears dazzling and glorious—which it is! But when one thinks of the sweat and slog involved in staying ahead in competitive sports, it is gruelling and taxing to say the least.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sindhu has not had it easy. Since the Olympics in 2016, she has lost 10 finals and won six titles. She has had to fight off the ‘choker in finals’ title. But with this decisive win, she has silenced all doubters and critics.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is a great time to be a supernova in the sports arena. And Sindhu should enjoy every bit of her success. This Hyderabadi girl says she enjoys biryani and pizza. Let us hope she gets to eat both, at least occasionally. Listed at number 13 among the highest paid female athletes, and with a Padma Shri (2015) to her name, our achiever is inspiring countless young girls to take up a sport of their choice, and give it their best.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With her impressive height and toned frame, she is a sought after model, gracing covers of international fashion magazines and wowing front-row fashionistas as a showstopper. There is no stopping our high octane shuttler, who has her eyes set on the Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b><a href=""></a></b></p> Fri Aug 30 11:35:49 IST 2019 why-neena-gupta-gets-my-vote <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I ran into the beautiful and supremely talented Neena Gupta at a mutual friend’s birthday dinner, on the day the National Film Awards were announced. I said, “I was hoping you would bag the best actress award for Badhaai Ho.’’ She laughed and said, “National Awards are great, but they don’t get you new roles… Filmfare Awards do… this is what Mahesh Bhatt told me years ago.” Going by Neena’s current status in Bollywood, I would agree with Bhatt. Badhaai Ho 2 has been announced and the original is being remade in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. She will be seen in an Akshay Kumar-Katrina Kaif starrer soon. Originality always wins. So does boldness. Neena is both, bold and original—an intrinsic part of her DNA.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I am not sure how she bagged the tricky role of a middle-aged mother who finds herself pregnant with her third child, much to the embarrassment of her family in Badhaai Ho. Remember, Neena had done the unthinkable a little earlier, by candidly putting herself out there and asking for roles. Why ever not? Here was an award-winning actress finding herself with nothing in her kitty, despite her obvious talent and enormous popularity on television and in Bollywood. Today, she is as busy as her equally talented fashion designer daughter Masaba, and divides her time between Delhi and Mumbai.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Neena, the breaker of rules and hearts, has always opted for the road less taken. When she decided to go ahead and have superstar West Indian cricketer Viv Richards’s baby out of wedlock, back in 1989, she sent shockwaves across India. But, she went ahead regardless. She has stayed unapologetic and calm despite all the criticism, only admitting, “It was a selfish act on my part.’’ Today, she is her talented daughter’s quiet and faithful supporter, sportingly wearing her designs to fashion events, and standing by her. The night we met, she was looking ravishing in a blood red, jungle-themed Masaba sari. The essential Neena remains unchanged over the many years I have known her. I recall a fascinating conversation I had with her on a Mumbai-Delhi flight, ten years ago or so. She had recently married a charming businessman (Vivek Mehra) she had met accidentally. Neena spoke about her new husband with humour and pride, and thankfully, everything seems to have worked out for them, going by public posts and pictures. Perhaps, he has provided the much-needed stability Neena needed after years of struggling to raise Masaba as a single parent. Those years could not have been easy, given the jibes and taunts faced by mother and daughter. As she once told me that her own father moved in with them to provide the emotional support both required. Today, she is worried about Masaba’s future, after the collapse of her marriage to Madhu Mantena, a filmmaker. But trust Neena to be fair in her views, as she commented wistfully, “I wonder what went wrong. All of us really liked Madhu. We found him very sweet.” I hastily reassured her that these things happen and as far as Masaba is concerned, she is by far the most talented designer of her generation, who is being wooed by international brands.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Those of us of a certain vintage will recall Neena almost stealing the show from Madhuri Dixit in that naughty, tantalising song, Choli ke peeche kya hai… (Khalnayak, 1993). Neena really had it all—has it all. Today, at 60, she could still give ladies half her age serious competition. Neena laughs easily, which is always a great sign. And speaks spontaneously—an equally attractive trait. Neena gets my vote—for her talent, of course. But above all—for being a gutsy, modern woman who dared to script her own narrative sans regret.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Aug 17 12:07:38 IST 2019 margaret-my-soul-sister <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Margaret Mascarenhas, transnational poet, essayist and curator, who passed away in Goa on July 14, had sent me one of her typically worded, sharp and witty text messages around 5pm on Saturday, July 13. She needed some help with a banking issue and as she cryptically stated, she did not have much time left, and would the bank manager in Goa kindly visit her at home to get a few key signatures, since she was hooked up to a drip, and very weak? I instantly activated a senior at her bank, who promised to send someone over on Monday.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Too late. On Sunday morning, I had just finished an exhilarating session at the Mysuru Literature Festival, when my husband informed me that my friend of four decades was no more. I had planned to visit her at her village home to say our final goodbyes, a week or so earlier. But the deluge in Mumbai had led to a mass cancellation of flights that morning. Her text had noted: “I am not a pretty sight…, do not fly in dangerous weather DE-ity.” This was her nickname for me. The one we always laughed over. Our relationship had started on a shaky note at an edit meet for a city magazine that never took off. She had recently recalled my negative reaction to her bright red nail paint. And she confessed she had pretty much disliked everything about me.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Margaret was an unusual woman—fiercely individualistic and with a formidable ego. Out of her three published books, I liked Triage: Casualties of Love and Sex the most, though it is Skin—her first book—that shot her into prominence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Margaret was not afraid of anything, not even death. In keeping with her free and ferocious spirit, she gave her Facebook friends a ten-day window to save any material they wanted from her account, since she planned to totally obliterate her presence on social media, claiming full agency over her words. She managed to do just that.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She was also puzzled by the concept of ‘legacy’ and wanted none of it. As her long time friend Peter Griffin mentioned to me, they had discussed it a few days before she passed, and it was mutually decided she would be happy “haunting” her loved ones as either a Goan kingfisher or a glittering firefly.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She had declared us to be “soul sisters” and our exchanges were invariably energising, as we discussed books, music, food (her passions), and children. She had held mine when they were babies and remembered each one of them by early character traits and idiosyncrasies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She had sent me a lovely photograph of us together, a few days before her condition deteriorated. Towards the end, she was too frail to chat, slipping in and out of consciousness. Despite the acute, debilitating pain, she would joke about her worsening condition and we would laugh over the after effects of morphine patches and what a bitch life was.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Her going away has left a huge void in my life. Not only because she was a friend, but because she was Margaret—passionate and compassionate.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I had heard her sing several times, and watched her dance—her large, expressive blue eyes surveying the space, not missing a thing. And I recalled her matter of fact remark when she shared, “I have a perfect body. I cannot tell you the number of artists, painters, photographers who want to work with me.” This was not vanity. I will always remember our candid conversation, and feel deeply saddened about this same perfect body being ravaged in the end.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I think of her vibrant presence as she worked strenuously on the Blue Shores Prison Art project with criminals and reluctant prison officials. Just Another Car Bomb (working title) was the book she was working on. What happens to that? What happens to anything, once the creator dies? A kingfisher or a firefly suddenly appears… and for a brief, while we fool ourselves about the glitter of our existence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Aug 02 11:55:27 IST 2019 fight-on-indira-jaising-and-anand-grover <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Indira Jaising is first an old and affectionate friend, and a brilliant lawyer-activist next. I have known her and her husband, Anand Grover, for over 40 years. At the time we met and grew close, they were still quintessential Mumbaikars—they lived in Bandra, commuted to Fort, and hung out with like-minded folks who looked up to them for their exemplary work. From fighting for the rights of the city’s homeless pavement dwellers to representing the victims of the horrific Bhopal gas tragedy, they were out there, tirelessly and fearlessly taking on the mighty, armed with their impeccable credentials and formidable reputations. Thanks to their pioneering efforts in forming landmark laws against domestic violence, discriminatory practices against HIV patients and much more, both were given due recognition in India and internationally decades ago. Indira, the first woman to be appointed additional solicitor general (2009), is a Padma Shri recipient and was ranked 20 in Fortune magazine’s 2018 ranking of the World’s Greatest Leaders, while Anand is recognised globally for his commitment to protecting human rights. I guess none of this counts with the present administration.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>An FIR was lodged against the dynamic couple by the CBI in June for alleged violation of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act. The Lawyers Collective, their NGO, is under fire. This came after the raids in 2016, when their premises were inspected and documents seized. The sudden raid this time, therefore, comes as a shock to those who respect the consistent and long-term efforts put in by them over the years, challenging all that is rotten in the system. I guess that is where the problem lies. Fortunately, the Bar Association of India has issued a statement condemning the CBI raids, calling it “excessive, disproportionate and unjustified”. Those in the know describe these raids as “spiteful and retaliatory”. Indira, as we all know, had demanded a “due inquiry process” in the sexual harassment case against Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The thing is, harassing those “engaged in constitutionally protected activities of advancing human rights and upholding the rule of law’’, as BAI points out, is one more way to shut down dissent in any form. It is a good thing Indira and Anand have succeeded in mobilising support by initiating an international petition that aims to generate thousands of signatures before August 15. I am not sure how effective such a campaign is likely to be, given that most citizens are nervously waiting and watching Narendra Modi’s new government after the incredible mandate that gives him and his team sweeping powers. The home ministry seems determined to send out a strong message to individuals like Indira and Anand: suspend your activism, or face the consequences. Knowing the stuff both are made of, I am certain they will fight back ferociously. But what can individuals do by themselves against a state that wields a big stick to threaten those who speak up? Frankly, a lot! It is imperative to join this protest against oppressive measures, designed to instil fear and silence those who dare to talk truth to power.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For me, Indira and Anand will remain the gutsy Mumbaikars who boldly put themselves on the line. Those days, I used to visit their cramped office, teeming with poor complainants pinning all their hopes on a group of idealistic lawyers who worked long hours filing cases pro bono on their behalf. These are priceless blessings from the voiceless. And, what happens down the line as Indira and Anand soldier on will impact not just the future of the Lawyers Collective, but our future as citizens in a democracy. I want them to know that they are not alone in this fight. Justice will prevail in the end. Nobody is asking for anything more.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jul 20 13:06:28 IST 2019 how-shahid-and-the-other-kapoors-are-refreshingly-regular <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Actor Shahid Kapoor’s quiet dignity and confidence make him stand out in an industry that encourages flamboyance and OTT conduct. From the start of a career that has been marked with critical and commercial success, Shahid has held his own against colleagues who were taller, brawnier, better looking, and yes, compulsive attention-seekers. For instance, he did not book a grand villa on Lake Como for his wedding, nor plaster every tiny detail of the pre- and post-ceremony on social media platforms. He chose a private, family celebration and a bride who was not from the film industry. It was as close to an arranged marriage as you can get! Mira Rajput (14 years his junior)—the lovely, fresh faced young girl who became Mrs Kapoor and shifted sans fuss to Mumbai—obviously took her cues from her husband, and maintained a low profile, while adjusting to life in a manic metro. Soon, they had a gorgeous little girl, followed by a baby boy. Through all these personal developments, Shahid continued to make his mark in films. Some worked, some did not. It was when his latest Kabir Singh (a remake of Telugu hit Arjun Reddy) created a national debate on misogyny, that Shahid attracted a fresh round of attention. After a controversial start, the film has crossed the magic Rs100 crore box office mark, and it is safe to conclude that Shahid will be in the running for top acting awards in 2019.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I refused to watch the film after reading about its content. But I figured it was my prerogative. When I tweeted my view, it led to an avalanche of mixed comments.This column is not about the movie or Shahid’s character in the film. It is about Shahid. And what I have observed over the years. Shahid’s father, Pankaj Kapoor, is a contemporary. He is one of our most talented actors (watch him in Maqbool—brilliant!). He is also an admirably low-key person; you would not recognise him if he were seated across the aisle from you on a flight! As I did not. All I noticed was a loving grandpa, keeping an eye on a gorgeous, restless granddaughter, who was running up and down the aisle, happily engaging with strangers. It was only after a few passengers started clicking the kid, that I discovered her parents! There they were—Shahid and Mira, just another young and good looking couple, returning to Mumbai from Chandigarh, after visiting Mira’s family. No bodyguards. No entourage. No fuss. No uniformed nanny. Just a regular ‘didi’ seated a row behind them. How refreshing! Shahid leaned across the aisle and offered me home-cooked aloo parathas, neatly wrapped in foil. We got chatting. And the time just flew by as both he and Mira spoke animatedly about their lives and the choices they jointly made. I could have been talking to any successful couple, making plans for the future. She mentioned they were planning an addition to the family—it was stated most naturally. He talked about his role in Padmaavat and his forthcoming projects. We also gossiped (a little!) and laughed at the ludicrousness of showbiz. Unlike a lot of Bollywood stars whose eyes glaze over the minute the topic shifts from them and their amazing selves, Shahid talked about so many developments—in the business and political spheres. Both of them were engaged and engaging, which again, came as a delightful revelation. Movie stars across the world are nauseatingly narcissistic. Their world view begins and ends with their latest triumphs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Kapoors behave like regular folks, because that is how they have been raised. I recalled spending a few days at Ananda In The Himalayas, and noticing a cute, young boy on the premises, whose head was always inside a big, fat book, even during meals! He was polite and courteous with waiting staff, but preferred to be left alone. It was on my last day there that I was told it was Shahid’s half-brother Ishaan Khattar, who had just made a terrific debut to great reviews in Beyond the Clouds.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jul 06 10:19:05 IST 2019 girish-karnad-and-the-power-of-modesty <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I had a massive crush on Girish Karnad for decades. If that sounds schoolgirlish and superficial, it is fine. It is the truth. I am sure there are countless other men and women who felt the same way about Girish. When he played Smita Patil’s uncaring, unfaithful husband in Umbartha (1982), a marvellous Marathi film, I waited breathlessly for him to be back on screen, even though the film centred around the effortlessly brilliant Smita. Girish’s role was not as well-written, and he certainly did not walk away with the best reviews. But that hardly mattered to diehard fans like me. He often repeated his reason for working in films: screen roles paid his bills. He made enough money from movies to fund his plays, his real passion projects.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is much to learn from people like Girish, who seemed immune to the labels thrust on him. From being called a modern-day Socrates to an “urban Naxal”, he took it all in his stride. As a literary genius, rooted in Kannada culture, the other Girish—suave, urbane, sipping a drink and enjoying great food at soirees—was equally at home in glitzy settings. Unshaken and far from apologetic when faced with controversies, like his takedown of V.S. Naipaul during a lit fest in Mumbai or his opinion (mangled by careless mediawalas) on Rabindranath Tagore’s plays, Karnad stuck to his guns. This remarkable honesty of opinion and the strength of his convictions set Girish apart from the herd of politically nervous, self-declared intellectuals.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The last time I saw Girish was at a lit fest in Bengaluru a few months ago. He was wheelchair bound and half his size. He had tubes in his nose and an oxygen pack. He showed no trace of self-consciousness, as visitors gaped and whispered. It was obvious he was gravelly ill. As a lifelong fangirl, I rushed across to greet him. He looked up and smiled benignly. My heart skipped a beat as my eyes briefly met his. Those eyes! Like melting caramel! I went back to my table with a sinking feeling. I knew I may never see him again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A year or two earlier, we had shared the stage at yet another literary event. I remember marvelling at his equilibrium and dignity when a brash, uncouth ‘writer’ hijacked the inaugural ceremony, ignoring the stalwarts onstage and brazenly plugged his new book to the young crowd. It was obvious those readers had little knowledge of the chief guest’s vast body of work. For them, Girish Karnad was possibly just another senior writer representing a bygone era. Despite the younger author’s crudeness, Girish did not flinch or show the slightest annoyance. He carried on with his enthralling keynote address, sprinkled with sharp political commentary and criticism of the government’s policies. I was disappointed by the indifferent applause at the end of his address. It was another poor reflection of this TikTok generation’s reading habits. The loss was entirely theirs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Much has been written by Girish’s contemporaries, who had been lucky enough to know the man who wrote brilliantly, thought brilliantly and lived brilliantly. The man who made early choices that shaped his future in significant ways. The Rhodes scholar who loved Hindustani music and the powerful playwright who straddled many worlds simultaneously. A colossus who wanted to slip away minus the fuss. Girish had instructed his family to decline a state funeral and to avoid any pomp and show when the end came. This is called class and good breeding. Girish Karnad’s contribution to our understanding of ourselves will remain through his incredible thoughts and words. As for me, it is that voice and those eyes that I will always recall, each time one of his plays is staged.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Jun 22 17:41:58 IST 2019 our-man-in-washington <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When my husband and I met Harsh Vardhan Shringla, the youngest Indian ambassador to the United States of America, he was, at the time, the youngest Indian ambassador to Thailand! We hit it off instantly! It was a delightful experience spending time with him and his wife Hemal, at their tastefully done up residence in Bangkok. What struck me about him was his innate grace and humility—nothing put on, nothing fake. He was natural, likeable and relaxed, as he chatted with our small group on a muggy evening in the capital of Thailand. The other guests were local VIPs and celebrities, and a few prominent Bangkok-based Indian businessmen. I was also introduced to the then King’s sister, and to a petite Thai princess named Priyanandana, who was once married to Maharani Gayatri Devi’s son Jagat. Gosh! What a small world!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Once I discovered Harsh was a Mayo College boy, who later went to St. Stephen’s in Delhi, several connections popped up spontaneously, and as the evening progressed, over excellent khaana peena, a grand evening was had by all. We also spent time on a well-organised evening river cruise, during which Harsh chatted informally and easily with everybody. I have interacted with many other Indian ambassadors over the years, but never with one who displayed such refinement and intellectual sophistication. Hemal, his artistic wife, was equally chilled out. I have met a few exceedingly snooty wives of Indian ambassadors, who behave like empresses with embassy staff, and treat guests with barely disguised condescension. As a couple, both of them were refreshingly ‘normal’, given his impressive credentials. Harsh speaks French, Vietnamese, Nepalese, English and several Indian languages. The soft-spoken boy from Darjeeling is a foodie and has a great eye for art. With his interesting postings (Israel, Bangladesh), he has a repertoire of stories and observations that provide fascinating insights into his busy, rich life.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On New Year’s Day this year, Harsh (IFS batch of 1984), presented his credentials to the President Donald Trump. Perhaps for the first time, one of our ambassadors indulged himself on this momentous occasion. Harsh not just shot a video of the short and picturesque ride up the drive-away to the White House, where a ceremonial welcome and guard of honour awaited him, but also posted it on Facebook. It was a charming clip from inside his car, and he frequently zoomed in on the Indian tricolour fluttering on the bonnet. For some reason, I found the whole thing deeply moving and got goosebumps, as I watched the final shot which showed our dapper ambassador emerging from the car, and being smartly saluted by White House staffers before stepping inside the imposing doors of the most famous living quarters on earth. He was off to an auspicious start!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With Narendra Modi back as prime minister, Harsh will be focusing on consolidating the even closer ties that both nations clearly want to cement going forward. So far, Modi has not been as visibly effusive and demonstrative with Trump as he was with Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama. Harsh being a low key, discreet diplomat, will work quietly and efficiently behind the scenes to ensure various fresh initiatives are green lighted soon.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As for me, I don’t have immediate plans to visit the US, but, honestly speaking, I am tempted to do so, for one reason alone: my affection for this elegant and compassionate man, whose intellect is formidable enough for him not to show it off. That sort of showing off is best left to amateurs! Shringla is a class act. India’s relations with the US are in his safe hands.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Jun 07 11:45:42 IST 2019 ruchir-sharma-tripping-on-indian-elections <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Here’s a quick recap for readers who may not be familiar with Ruchir Sharma’s byline and books. A highly successful New York-based investment banker, Ruchir runs a $20 billion-plus fund (Morgan Stanley), but his heart goes dhak-dhak for the country of his birth. For the past 25 of his 45 years, he has made it his mission to track the chaotic, dramatic but totally spellbinding process of the Indian elections. His latest book, Democracy On The Road, chronicles in marvellous detail all that was observed and experienced by his 20 high-powered fellow travellers as they trundled through the land, meeting farmers and leaders, eccentrics and godmen. This was Ruchir’s 28th road trip with more or less the same group that has stuck it out in conditions that are anything but luxurious at times. Never mind that the group has been dubbed the ‘Limousine Liberals’ by critics!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>During his book tour in India, one of his pit stops was Mumbai, where Anil Dharker, founder of Literature Live, had organised an ‘In Conversation’ between Ruchir and myself. I had about a zillion questions for the articulate author, having devoured his page-turner of a tome in one go. I told him the book read like a thriller. Has he already pitched it as a web series to Amazon Prime? Netflix? Ruchir blushed a little, but avoided a straight ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. He preferred to stick to his script and take the audience through his sharp and acute political comments in the book. Despite sensing his reluctance, I stubbornly soldiered on, hoping to crack Ruchir’s resistance to take our talk outside his book.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Given his high intelligence and easy charm, Ruchir, who is a sprinter, and a film and wildlife buff, has a fascinating ‘back story’. Babuji, his maternal grandfather, was a famous defence criminal lawyer and landlord in Bijnor. The book begins with an insightful family history, which explains Ruchir’s deep and abiding interest in India and its political landscape. Ruchir attended his first political rally at age five, when Indira Gandhi came campaigning to Bijnor, attracting thousands of folks. Ruchir says he has noticed that many a time villagers flock to these rallies only to gawk at a helicopter landing! It holds true even today.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Well, that Boy from Bijnor is now on the world stage, with a column in The New York Times and international publishers clamouring to grab his next title. Ruchir writes that he likes the “family feel” of desi politics, and is always overwhelmed by the warmth and hospitality of strangers as they host lavish feasts for his caravan during their halts. I wonder if those same strangers would extend this generosity to a band of non-entities; Ruchir’s group has well-known personalities like Prannoy Roy. Ruchir, who features on important lists like ‘Top 100 Global Thinkers’, is modest and low-key, besides being a great listener. He doesn’t miss a trick, which I noticed at the small dinner we hosted at our home for him after the event. He was attentive and keen to converse with all the guests, often bending low so as not to miss a line or a word. These traits are incredibly valuable while maintaining detailed notes on road trips. His encounters with Mayawati, ‘Captain’ Vijayakanth, Sonia Gandhi, Vasundhara Raje and other colourful characters make the complex political process and crazy local dynamics come vividly alive. His cross references to history also add the much-needed perspective to contemporary socio-economic-political-cultural-religious developments over the past 72 years of India’s independence. The book ends on an upbeat note: “.... in an era when democracy is said to be in retreat worldwide, it is thriving in India.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Thank you for your optimism, Ruchir Sharma. I can only wistfully add: I wish!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat May 25 12:19:48 IST 2019 didi-is-namo-in-drag <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>She is something else, our Mamata Banerjee—the woman who would be prime minister. What is the first word that comes to voters’ minds when one says ‘West Bengal’? Violence! And, violence it was that disrupted the fifth phase of the ongoing Lok Sabha elections when seven of the state’s 42 seats with 83 candidates and 1.17 crore voters went to the polls. Despite the heat, the state saw a 74.42 per cent turnout, which is far better than Maharashtra’s 57.32 per cent. High drama was expected in Didi’s state, and high drama is what we saw, complete with booth capturing and skirmishes galore. Cadres of her party—the Trinamool Congress—are known for their aggression, and anybody who has encountered members of Didi’s squad in Kolkata will uneasily narrate the ordeal of having to deal with them. This is what’s called ‘Didi Style’. Nobody wants to mess with the fierce chief minister of West Bengal—the woman who seems confident of displacing Narendra Modi as prime minister. God help us all if such a calamity does indeed take place. For, Mamata is Modi’s alter ego. NaMo in drag!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What astonishes me (being an honorary Bong through marriage) is how meekly Kolkata’s boxwallas have surrendered to Didi’s diktats. Those stuffed shirts and starched tangails are not known to put up with bullying. But such is Didi’s control, nobody dares to utter her name in vain. Didi has effectively silenced and browbeaten any opposition to her policies—jailing critics and journalists, and making it abundantly clear that she will hit back at anybody who refuses to toe her line. Compared to Didi, even a woman as ferocious as Mayawati appears mild-mannered and likeable. That’s saying a lot!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Whatever happens on May 23, the red-letter day when citizens will know the poll results, one thing is for sure: both these ladies will play a pivotal role in India’s future. I have no problem with assertive women, but I do have a problem with bullies, men or women. Mayawati and Mamata are bullies of the worst kind. Had Mamata established her credentials as an able administrator and attracted investment to her state, her bullying would have been viewed differently. But apart from cosmetic changes in Kolkata and a much-needed cleanup drive, Mamata hasn’t exactly covered herself in glory. The bhadralok shudder at the prospect of being in the same room as Didi. She, in turn, has utmost contempt for the decadent, over-privileged snobs who look down on the unwashed masses, preferring to stick to their own. Today, the snobs are pushed to the edge of society by the brash new breed surrounding Mamata.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I had spent an entire day with Didi while she campaigned in and around Kolkata. That was a long time ago. My experience back then had been pretty positive! I was told to sit in the backseat with her loyal supporter, while she sat next to the driver of her Omni, talking nonstop in her, by now familiar, high-pitched voice. She struck me as being a woman on a mission, with a one-point programme—herself! She was out to win, at whatever cost. Nothing wrong with that! Which politician jumps into politics to lose? Mamata was a woman possessed. And that’s how she remains. I thoroughly enjoyed watching her work the crowds, as we drove through lush, green hamlets, with bedraggled villagers cheering her. She spoke at me, not to me, rarely bothering with eye contact. A couple of times, she insisted on my being on a makeshift stage with her, as she harangued the motley bunch of sweaty volunteers to gather bigger crowds at the next stop.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Mamata is not a kingmaker; she is the king! If any ally is harbouring illusions of getting her support to form the next government without Didi extracting several pounds of flesh, forget it. The only way is her way, or the highway. I am looking forward to the fireworks!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri May 10 13:11:22 IST 2019 rajeev-sethi-master-of-all-trades <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I cannot be objective about Rajeev Sethi. I became his admirer over 40 years ago, and I am proud to be his friend. People describe him as a visionary. I see him as a philosopher. Rajeev will chuckle when he reads this. But any person who has the innate capacity to transform lives like he does, is not a mere scenographer, revivalist or crafts king.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Talk to the weavers and artisans who are part of Jiyo and you will understand Rajeev’s deep and abiding commitment to keeping our traditional skills alive—not by showcasing them in museums, but by finding markets for the products. These are true repositories of our heritage and traditions. Rajeev has extended their life lines, by providing a valuable framework through Jiyo. Rajeev emphatically repeats, “Jiyo belongs to a million hands.” It does. Every craftsperson is a stakeholder. Profits from the sale of their products go directly to the person. Rajeev and his dedicated team are key facilitators who identify skills, provide funds and encourage craft communities to give a contemporary twist to their work. It is this twist that is changing the commercial future of people who had all but given up on their ancient knowledge base (from basketry to herbal medicines) and switched to city jobs that had nothing to do with their precious legacy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Jiyo was registered ten years ago. But Rajeev himself has been on this path for four decades. I remember many visits to his tiny office/studio in New Delhi years ago, and meeting the most extraordinary people in the course of&nbsp; long afternoons. They would drift in and make themselves right at home—jugglers, acrobats, balladeers—while Rajeev divided his time and attention between visiting ambassadors, international designers, and global celebrities. His world embraced everybody! And what a rich world it was—and still remains.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Decorated by the German and French governments, Padma Vibhushan Rajeev Sethi is extraordinary and unique. The early Festivals of India, staged in America and France, provided a glimpse into what was achievable if the right platforms were provided. More recently, his incredible feat in creating all the massive artworks inside Mumbai’s iconic T2 air terminal has been widely appreciated.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;Despite all his stupendous successes, Rajeev’s current dream remains incomplete. Jiyo is one accomplishment that requires a massive amount of engagement in order for it to grow. When Jiyo came to Mumbai, the response was tremendous and the craftspeople who participated went back with their pockets full and many orders to take forward. This edition featured skilled crafts communities from 22 districts representing the Red Corridor. Rajeev has meticulously mapped similar communities in over 600 districts across India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A weaver spoke feelingly about his experience and described Rajeev as the rain that fell on his parched land and gave birth to a large, fruit-bearing tree that sheltered so many under its shade. Throughout these heartfelt tributes, Rajeev stayed in the background, making sure to call a shy person by name, urging him or her to share their beautiful creations on stage, in the presence of a very high-profile, informed and supportive audience. It was a pleasure to hear Jaya Bachchan interviewing a Jiyo member.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The message is clear: We must never forget the hands, eyes, hearts and minds that narrate our stories and proudly share them through their exquisite creations. While chatting with Rajeev’s team, my own sensibilities were further sharpened. Ever since then, each time I drape a sari, I silently thank the weaver behind it and seek a blessing for those magic hands. May they grow stronger and stronger with each passing season.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Sat Apr 27 17:28:44 IST 2019