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Published: Verve Magazine, Morality, 75th black-and-white issue, July 2009

In a special media partnership with IIFA, Verve collects the memories, candid moments and some extraordinary quotes from the stars that glittered on the green carpet at IIFA’s 10th anniversary celebrations in Macau. Sitanshi Talati-Parikh shares her weekend diaries, where her conversation with the stars veers between dark and light

I think it can all be traced to our first few moments in Macau – at the ferry terminal, sans conveyor belt for our luggage collection. Harried-looking local baggage handlers were pounding in and off-loading massive amounts of luggage onto a corner alcove, while the entire flight’s passengers – all headed to IIFA – looked on in bemused silence. Designer Anamika Khanna standing lost and bewildered clinging onto her bags, Farah Khan’s plaintive cry for help directed at brother Zayed, while the latter scouted around for local help and Anil Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor’s stealthy exit, all established the premise of the diaries of stardom. Ferry terminals, I have decided, are great levellers.

As I ate meals with some of the actors and directors who were courageous enough to step out of their room and walk the massive hallways of the excruciatingly large Venetian Macao-Resort-Hotel, I found them to be relaxed outside their domain. This was a work-vacation, where they would be winning awards amid great fanfare. I watched Farah Khan working through the day setting up her dazzling designs – sported by many a star on the green carpet as well as the fashion runway. With Hrithik and Sussanne Roshan being her show-stoppers, the crowd couldn’t help but take their eyes away from the sparkling jewels. Farah Khan’s personal style mantra? “Never over-accessorise. Don’t draw people’s attention by wearing too much bling – let your true personality come out.”

And then true personalities began to come out: the scales tipped a little towards the dark side, with the Cirque du Soleil-esque masks slipping and the layers of make-up barely concealing discomfort. What happens when a popular star walks past and steals the show? The moment an Abhishek Bachchan or a Hrithik Roshan would stroll past, they would get mobbed in seconds, while a talented Vinay Pathak would walk along practically incognito. With Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in the forefront, Mugdha Godse was barely noticed on the green carpet.

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Or Lara Dutta, who was noticed, not just for her lively presence and wit, but also for stepping up to the podium uncalled, claiming that Riteish Deshmukh, Boman Irani and she were (for the weekend) “joined at the hip.”

The crowd who had gathered over the days just for that one big celebrity sighting, often paying hefty sums of money for show tickets, spent most of their time hanging onto the barricades or prowling the passageways in search of their favourite stars. There were subdued murmurs of, “Where are the big stars? These are the young upcoming ones!” Ah, the price of fame – being a nobody is better than being a minor celebrity!

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Walking down the green carpet, Abhishek, forever the doting husband, was not left with any option but to lose the charming veneer and adopt a stern countenance with a group of fans that were jostling too close to him and Aishwarya.

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On the other hand, Arjun Rampal’s condescension and Anil Kapoor’s flicker of impatience with what can only be feigned disinterest as their fans collected and tried to get their autographs, made me wonder how it is possible to be so dismissive of those that have made them stars? Maybe, they were just tired?

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You could tell that the gentleman was tired. The eyes had dark rims and they were red – with exhaustion or lack of sleep, or both. But he went on. As a reporter said, “When he talks, we have no choice but to listen.” IIFA brand ambassador, Amitabh Bachchan held every single person’s attention when he said: “We believe that cinema binds communities together. When we visit the cinema and we sit in a darkened hall, we never ask who is the person sitting next to us – we never ask whether he is Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian; or what caste or race he is; or what nation he belongs to. We all sit there enjoy and love the product that we see. We sing the same songs, laugh at the same jokes we cry at the same emotion. What better example of integration than Indian cinema?

I asked him (for our thematic 75th issue) what he would define as the darkest period in Indian cinema. Not finding the question to be from the common mould, he asked for it to be repeated, and then in his commanding voice answered: “Cinema is a creative art and anything that restricts creativity can be termed the darkest era. When you restrict creativity, you challenge the very tenet of democracy, of freedom of expression – much like that of the press. If you say that you can only paint a painting in two colours, that is restricting creativity. That cannot happen – in a free world, in a free country as India is, we need the freedom of expression; keeping within the laws of the nation and the culture of the nation.”

Cushioning a star ego is a task into itself and with every expression, one can and must read between the lines. Amitabh Bachchan had a priceless expression when asked by a media person, “Bahut stars nahin aaye, to is time kya IIFA thoda thanda lagta hai? (Isn’t IIFA less glamourous this year – with so many stars not present?)” Taking barely a moment to recover from his amazement – I mean, who asks the Big B this sort of question? – he replied flippantly to appreciative laughter, “Aap hain to thanda kaise hoga? (With you present, how can you say the glamour quotient is missing?)”

The media were at their crass best, often behaving like buzzards – circling their prey and then swooping in for the kill. As I sat near Sushmita Sen and Govinda, waiting in dignified repose for a moment to ask my question, a young lady (if I may dare call her that) of TV origin came and sat on top of me – assuming that would be the best vantage point from which to force her questions. It required my highest level of meditation techniques to not throw her onto the cameraman crouched below. Sushmita, having lost most of the weight she had recently gained, looked stunning in sleek animal prints that showed off her tall, confident persona. She fielded questions (about her ‘fitness mantra’) with cultivated finesse – a reminder of her days as a beauty queen.

Talking about beauty and confidence, one simply cannot leave out Anushka Sharma. Barely a film down, and a mere modelling career behind her, this newcomer stood out with astonishing self-assurance and poise. Always well put-together, she finally had to exclaim, “I am running out of adjectives to describe the experience!” when repeatedly asked about her resounding success in landing a double whammy for her first film Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008) – the Yash Raj banner and Shah Rukh Khan. “I won’t sign films simply because I want to have a bigger house or car,” said the young girl – as if proving that she isn’t out to “play the number game.”

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Prevented by good sense and daddy dearest from playing the number game, is the very tall and very good-looking Sonam Kapoor. Vivacious and friendly, she awaits her coming of age in her next film – where she plays Jane Austen’s Emma. When the media questioned her about the answers to life, she looked bewildered. “I am still growing up as well – I can only find answers through trial and error. It is scary to have the kind of responsibility where you are asked questions about how things should be.” She was a tomboy growing up – “If you look at the so-called big stars of the past few decades, they are not the ultra-glamourous, big hairdo, lenses-wearing women. Think Nargis, Kajol, Rani Mukherjee, Sridevi. And they are the biggest stars. Madhuri (Dixit) is absolutely beautiful in Sailaab (1990) without her hair blow-dried in Humko Aaj Kal Hai…with hardly any make-up. Every generation has a naturally beautiful and spontaneous star. India accepts these stars.”

Aspiring star Sonu Sood, best known for his role as Sujamal in Jodhaa Akbar (2008), strives to choose roles with character. The tall actor (hailing from an engineering-and-some-modelling background) was mild-mannered and respectful of the seniors that abound in the breakfast hall, leaving the interview in deference to a veteran director who came to speak to him. Not before he remarked, “All my characters have had grey shades – in Yuva (2004), in Jodhaa Akbar. Every person has some kind of a grey shade. It connects with a cine-goer. Pure whites are not going to touch the hearts of the audience – it is the grey that matters, that adds colour.”

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Riteish Deshmukh

has apparently gained sincere popularity for his comic timing – as evidenced by the little race that took place in the hotel lobby – where he was being chased by some fans (an entire family, no less) and the guards were chasing the fans. It was a real-life comedy, where we of course, followed suit to see how it all panned out! The actor, who is also an architect, was candid when he said: “A film was offered to me, and I love films, so I gave it a shot. Comedies worked – if people find my comedy palatable, then I’m really grateful! I cannot force my stuff onto people – I choose films based on my sensibility or on what I think people might like. I like to face reality – I don’t like to think about things that could be a possibility – I am not delusional. Coming from a political family, loads of people thought that my first film was because of my father, who was a politician then. I don’t hold it against them, because if I was in their place I may have thought the same! I had to work hard so that people would call me Riteish Deshmukh and not son of Vilasrao Deshmukh – though I take great pride in being his son.”

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He drove the audiences to a state of euphoria (definitely more than Peter Andre’s powerful performance – my colleague Arti may disagree) with his impromptu rendering of a number from Rock On!! Farhan Akhtar was accessible, even a little endearingly nervous while facing the media. His presence was subtle, and his talent immense. “It is important for me to find a character that is real – no person is black or white, no one is just good or just bad, people change depending on what life puts in front of them, or the circumstances and changing situations that may befall them. The character of Luck By Chance (2009) was fascinating, because he was so real – so driven by success that he was willing to put his morals and his ethics aside. To still make him enjoyable to watch and on some level identify with the fact that everything that life has offered him and the decisions that he has made, albeit wrong in retrospect, seemed like the right thing for him to achieve whatever he wanted to achieve. It was so interesting.”

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Neil Nitin Mukesh, an experimental role-player who stayed out late partying and greeting everyone with exceptional deference, would agree. His leaning towards the darker roles has him playing Parag Dixit – a youth jailed for a crime he didn’t commit – in Madhur Bhandarker’s next, Jail. “I started my career by getting out of my comfort zone. I want it to be a challenging career. The reason I choose dark films and characters is very simple – they are more interesting. Where else do you get the chance to actually evolve as a human being?” As I happened to be sitting next to the scriptwriter, Anuraadha Tewari, she remarked that with Jail, “Madhur’s [Bhandarkar] layering has gone from black and white into grey – less judgemental than his original films.”

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On the flight back with the man himself, who plans to shock audiences with a comedy – albeit “sensible humour” – soon, Madhur Bhandarkar emphasised, “My movies represent contemporary society, with characters with grey shades or starkly black and absolutely positive. I try to combine realism and fiction. People think my movies are an exposé – I disagree. I think they are simply a mirror to society – a representation of all the myriad kinds of people that exist. My protagonist will always have a grey shade – from Chandni Bar (2001) to Fashion (2008). Priyanka Chopra was actually worried about taking up the role (in Fashion) because of what it would do to her image. But every film provides redemption for each of these characters – where the person comes out with flying colours.” I wonder if redemption is a mirror to real life….

The Cirque du Soleil show was a colourful blend of acrobats, jugglers, clowns, colours, masks and immense talent. It had us catch our breath ever so often as the performers catapulted themselves into the topmost echelons of artistic delivery. It also stood as a resounding metaphor for showbiz – a cruel make-believe world that weaves a magic wand and creates an aura of stardom. The ‘stars’ have no choice but to keep this myth alive. As I met some of the assistants – the make-up artistes, the hair stylists and the myriad staff that create the ‘look’ of the star, I found that they were loyal to their own, and busy tearing apart the rest. The models and the dancers were either stubbornly steering clear of showbiz, or trying to wheedle their way in. Fans, the fuel to stardom, were as fickle as they were loyal.

It is lonely at the top. It is also crowded, messy, competitive and superficial. And yet there are people like Javed and Farhan Akhtar whose accessibility and soft-spoken countenance makes one re-evaluate the black and white of stardom. Is it simply the on-screen persona that matters, or is it something more?

Being Hrithik

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Hrithik Roshan was charmingly affable and confidently reserved. He fielded questions about his personal life with ease and without a flicker of annoyance. Waiting for 45 minutes outside his room (with a host of other media) to speak to him, seemed to be well worth the wait. He will be seen next in Kites with Mexican actress Barbara Mori; and will begin work in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s next untitled film alongside Aishwarya Rai Bachchan – which he considers to be a dream role, the first after Koi Mil Gaya.

On not playing a really negative role
“In Dhoom 2 (2006), the idea was to make the bad look good. I have hardly done that many films – I do a film a year. I have no reservations on playing a completely negative character. The idea is to explore the boundaries of my talent as much as possible. Something that is exciting and that scares the hell out of me – I would do it! It’s more fun when you leap without a safety net!”

On reactions to an unkind media
“I have always been the kind of guy I am. I don’t have confrontations with people, problems with anybody in the industry. I am a peaceful guy – I live by my truths and I live free. Once you are happy with your truths, it doesn’t matter what somebody else says. My grandfather told me a long time ago, ‘The world is out to provoke you – if you get provoked it is your downfall.’ If I jump out and start justifying things, it’s just going to make me look silly. It is going to implicate that there is something wrong. I am happy the way I am, I am happy with my family.”

On Imran Khan who considers Hrithik the epitome of a perfect actor
“It is not just about talent – it is about being a good human being. What comes out through the screen subconsciously, is more the person you are than just the expressions you make and the talent you have. Which is why I think Imran will go a long way.”

On being a star
“I have no idea what it means to be a star. I know what it means to be an actor – it’s a job that I do, it’s a means to an end. I work hard so that I can enjoy the kind of life that I want to enjoy with my family and loved ones. I don’t even want to understand what it means to be a star – it is stressful and it is something that is used by some people to fill up that empty void which is a bottomless pit, the ego – I try and stay away from that.”

On living the art
“You have to enjoy what you do if you want to be a part of this industry. If you want to be a star – that is the wrong end you are pursuing. You have to truly enjoy the art. Acting is living in front of the camera. You are expressing emotions in front of the camera. If you are living with inhibitions and not expressing yourself every single moment, you will not be able to duplicate that in front of the camera. If you haven’t lived it, you can’t express it. Live free, explore your emotions despite a sense of fear. Have the courage to explore yourself – see what you are made of.”

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