Remember how, at Cannes 2010, Mallika Sherawat brought live snakes to promote her film Hisss? The snake she wore around her neck actually got less press than the lehenga that she wore at her debut appearance at Cannes 2005; it left very little to the imagination. Cut to Cannes 2018—the actor looked stunning in a lilac Tony Ward gown, accessorised with a simple pair of teardrop earrings and a cocktail ring by Piaget. She pivoted this way and that in her gold Ferragamo stilettos, looking demure and elegant. Now, those would have been unlikely adjectives to describe the Mallika of a decade ago. So, what changed?
Part of it is because she has learned a lot from her mistakes of the past. “I’ve made so many fashion faux pas and so many of my outfits have been disasters,” she says. The Haryanvi lass says she felt intimidated when she first walked the red carpet in Cannes 13 years, on actor Jackie Chan’s arm. “As I’ve grown as a human being, my fashion sense has also evolved, and become more understated,” she says.
But, perhaps, the more important trigger to the change in Mallika’s look was the cause she championed at Cannes this year—she went as an ambassador of the international relief organisation Free a Girl, which works towards ending commercial sex exploitation of children. Mallika has also appeared in a documentary on child trafficking in India produced by the organisation.
“So far we have saved 18 girls, and the number is going to grow,” she says. “Some children are only seven or so when their parents sell them to pimps. There is so much of distrust in them that it is difficult to make them come out of their shells. Once they do, you realise they are just like us and are full of dreams they want to chase.”
If one were to pick an ambassador for a cause like this, Mallika might seem like an unlikely choice. After all, this is the woman who claimed she was the first one to kiss onscreen and wear a bikini. She is the one who posed on an Ambassador car draped in nothing but the tricolour and was derided for calling India a “regressive and depressing country”. She is the one who reportedly charged Rs 30 crore for picking a contestant as her boyfriend in a reality show called The Bachelorette India, and later chucked him. She is the one who lashed out at Emraan Hashmi for calling her a bad kisser by saying that the snake she kissed in Hisss was a better kisser than him.
But, could all that be in the past? She says her involvement with Free a Girl has changed her a lot. “I’ve started looking at things with a lot more sensitivity,” she says. She has always been vocal about women’s rights. “When it comes to women, we are still a very regressive country,” she says. “There is so much of victim shaming and blaming. If you’re wearing a short skirt, you’re inviting rape. If something bad happens to you, you’re a ‘fallen’ woman. My own family turned against me after [my film] Murder came out. They spoke very harsh words. Even social media is not exempt. If I post a picture of me in a [bold] dress, I’ll get comments from men asking me whether it is an invitation. Thank God for this delicious button called ‘block’.”
She says patriarchy is rampant in the movie industry. “Many stars have tried to dominate me,” she says. “I’ve been thrown out of films and lost really good projects because I did not say yes to the demands of men. Bollywood is [still] a boy’s club.” Her small attempt to remedy this will be by featuring the voices of many independent women in her new show, which, she says, will be an Indian remake of an international Emmy award-winning show. “I’ll be producing and acting in it, but I’m not allowed to reveal anything more,” she says. “All I can say is that it won’t be your normal saas-bahu saga.”
What has not struck many people is the duality in Mallika’s personality. On the one hand, she is the traditional small-town girl who stole her grandmother’s jewellery and left home to become a film star in the big city. She is the actor who loves her home country; she once said that you can take her out of India, but can never take India out of her. She is the incurable romantic who once went all the way to Amsterdam to enjoy the tulip fields featured in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. She is the loving aunt who enjoys spending time with her brother’s son. She is the philosophy graduate who goes to bed early every night.
On the other hand, she is the bombshell who lives in Los Angeles and was dating (and maybe still is) the French businessman Cyrille Auxenfans. She is the newsmaker famous for her kissing scenes, outrageous statements and bold outfits. She is the party animal who was once seen dancing intimately with Antonio Banderas in a night club. She is the international celebrity who has hobnobbed with the likes of Barack Obama, Jackie Chan, Sean Penn and Prince Albert of Monaco.
So, how do you reconcile her two selves? Will the real Mallika please stand up? At one point, it seemed the actor herself was not sure who she was. But, in her new role of helping rescue exploited children, has she finally found her footing? It might be so. It might even be that a new Mallika is being forged from the broken shards of her old personality.