She has her pick of illustrious industry names to append to her own, but KareenaKapoor Khan’s star stands alone, says NishitaJha
THERE ARE various machinations to getting an audience with a film star in Mumbai, depending on the tier of success you are dealing with. The newly-arrived might answer their own calls. The ambitious hire agents to stonewall them from the press (a pretence at being too busy to answer the phone). The discreet have publicists that call for friendly chats, peppered with relevant crumbs of information — and then, there are those that summon. TEHELKA first met KareenaKapoor two years ago on the sets of Golmaal Returns, when she was among the top-billed stars in the industry. An SMS summoned this reporter to Hyderabad. Since then, Kareena has starred as the lead in a dozen films (among which, 3 Idiots, Bodyguard and Ra.One were the highest grossing films of the decade), signed on twice the number of brands she once endorsed (her 22 endorsements — all carefully selected to ‘match her personality’ — make her the highest-paid actress in Bollywood today); worked with the Khans twice over — and married one of them.
Speaking to Simi Garewal years ago, Karan Johar talked about the first time he realisedKareena was a star. In a scene from KabhiKhushiKabhieGham; Kareena is introducing Shah Rukh Khan to HrithikRoshan. The two men are sizing each other up, 10 seconds of pure electric repartee. But for Johar, who was watching on the monitor, Kareena stole the scene: “There she was, standing between two of the biggest stars in the industry, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her,” he had said. Kareena’s last release, MadhurBhandarkar’s Heroine, banked on this distracting luminescence. In spite of the scathing reviews the film received, Heroine was praised across the board for Kareena’smesmerising depiction of MahiArora, a neurotic superstar losing her sheen.
Our last meeting was chaotic — Kareena was in the midst of a 40-hour shooting schedule, changing costume every few takes, constantly looking at her cell phone, texting non-stop. Now, newly wed, wrapping up the last leg of commitments prior to leaving for her honeymoon with actor Saif Ali Khan, Kareena, 32, is relaxed. Her sheen has grown. “Everyone around me — journalists, actors, producers, fans — are so concerned about what marriage will do to my career. I’ve been living in this house for five years, and I think I might be the only actor in the industry to have openly admitted to living with my partner,” she laughs.
Here lies the problem with being summoned to an audience with Kareena. Her unbelievable ease with her own stardom, a clear-eyed understanding that everyone (‘journalists, actors, producers’) wants a piece of her story, makes her difficult to talk to as a woman sans celebrity. Unlike her peers, Kareena will make no pretence at having being chosen by fate, or of being humbled, or of having analysed and rejected the industry’s false idols. Kareena was born to and raised by a family that has been around for 80 of Indian cinema’s 100 years, and it is in that narrative that she firmly and unabashedly locates a chapter for herself.
“You have to understand that all I’ve ever wanted since I was born is to be a Hindi film heroine,” she says stressing the words, “with all the connotations of romance and melodrama that it brings. I’m not putting on a show. This is who I am.” Looking through this self-indulgent prism for an instant, you can see why queues of reporters calling Kareena arrogant, leave her flummoxed. She does not quite intend to be canny, but talking about herself is part of who she is. Film journalist InduMirani recalls visiting Karisma’s set years ago and being told by a 15-year-old Kareena that she couldn’t wait for the day Mirani would interview her. “I used to travel in public transport before I became a star, but everyone always knew me — they knew I was a Kapoor, they knew I was Karisma’s sister,” she says. Ask her to deconstruct that appeal and she replies, “The way I look, my star power and my work. Not who I’m married to or how old I am.” Ask her about her mental devices for entering scripts as varied as Tashan and Dev, and she reels off the box-office numbers for Tashan, the national frenzy over size zero and her first meeting with Saif.
Sift through these glossy Kareena anecdotes, the references to her own enviable body of work, the readily offered trade figures and endorsement deals, and the real KareenaKapoor begins to reveal herself in glimpses of quicksilver. In an interview barely three years after her debut with AbhishekBachchan in Refugee, a 23-year-old Kareena had said about the industry, “This place is beautiful, but it can also be unbearable, sometimes I feel 50 years old.” Kareena believes, like her sister Karisma, that the biggest obstacle to her career has been the burden of expectation that the Kapoor name carried. While their mother Babita was the rebel who fought hard for the daughters to act, Kareena feels she’d have had it easier had she been a struggler from a small town. “I have tremendous respect for people who’ve had to fight the odds, but what people perceived as my overconfidence was defensiveness. I always knew that I had no choice but to succeed,” she says. After a critically acclaimed launch, Kareena found herself trapped playing variations of the same simpering sweet child-woman. “It was a different time, one had to try and work with as many combinations of actors and directors as possible. Visibility was the key and numbers were important,” she says. But while she may claim that she is content signing one big film a year (“It’s what all the actors do,” she says, “why should I be any different?”) — Kareena is still worried that Hindi films will never offer her the variety of roles that, for instance, Hollywood offers an A-list actor like Angelina Jolie. “Can you imagine anyone in LA worrying about how the fact that Angelina has six children will affect their film? Our industry is so passé. We’re still trying to keep our sweethearts 16 and give them 20-inch waists,” she says, betraying the first flash of concern that the industry may not have proved too creatively satisfying. Kareena acknowledges this when she agrees that no female actor signs a role with Shah Rukh or Salman Khan because of what the script can do for them — it’s always only to work with the star. Even though she admits that being a Hindi film heroine for the past 12 years might make her the right person to comment on Bhandarkar’s Heroine, she refuses to admit that it sold tired tropes — “ I wanted to work with Madhur, and he wasn’t making an exposé like he did with Fashion. Heroine was a personal story,” and then, “I wanted a film where I had more than three songs and a few scenes.”
This lack of substantial roles means more of the same — experimenting with different combinations of screen partners and producers, playing well-received roles in forgettable films, with an occasional flash in the pan like Omkara orJab We Met. Although Kareena insists her roles are a well-chosen balance of commercial hits and serious roles, each of them have been coloured in the vivid hues of Bollywood’s imagination.
In a telling example, Kareena’s character in Heroine decides to change the industry’s perception of her by playing a prostitute in a low-budget film. In a departure from her usual approach to acting, she is accompanied by a friend to a brothel, where she spends time with prostitutes. In 2004, Kareena had made a conscious decision to change her candy-floss image to that of a more serious actor by starring in Sudhir Mishra’s Chameli, playing the author-backed role of a prostitute. Since the film’s release, the mainstream media always referred to Kareena’s performance in Chameli as the gamechanger. In truth, apart from “driving around Kamathipura a bit”, Kareena did not have to prepare for this role either. “I don’t know what scene I will be reading for tomorrow, and I prefer to keep it that way,” she says. “For me, acting is more about reacting to the moment. If I have to feel that emotion on set tomorrow, why will I feel it now? I don’t need to actually die to play a dead person,” she says. Her co-actor in Chameli, Rahul Bose agrees that what Kareena lacks in method, she makes up for with an innate understanding — “All acting could be considered reacting, but Kareena is intuitive, instinctive and has flow — the three essential qualities for an actor.” Kareena believes that the camera is the only instrument that can look into her soul — “That moment when the camera begins to roll is the most honest moment of my day,” she says.
WHAT MAKES KareenaKapoor so relatable to her audience is that in spite of the Kapoor legacy, she has never played coy with the media about her relationships, her family or her failures. Even through the most corrosive one-on-one interviews — like the Mumbai tabloid that once asked her — “Why don’t you want to marry? Do you just want to have fun? What went wrong with Shahid? Did you leave him because he wasn’t successful enough? Were you cheating on Shahid with Saif?” and finally, as a desperate shot “Why did Abhishek dump your sister?” — Kareena manages to hold her own by supplying only as much information as necessary without appearing uptight. In spite of the one televised appearance years ago where she refused to thank father RandhirKapoor for any of her successes, she insists that the Kapoors have been amenable to her acting career, and continue to be a close-knit family. Probe a bit further, and she clams up — “I think my fans know that if I’m silent about something, it’s probably not true,” she says softly.
At the height of her success, KareenaKapoor says she has never spent a sleepless night or had an insecure moment. She chooses to stay off all forms of social networking (“It’d just be an added responsibility. I have 22 brands, an acting career and a full-fledged relationship to look after. It’s more than I can handle,” she says). She is currently reading a book of world history meant for young adults, one that Khan recommended for her, saying “It’s beautiful that you’re curious and want to learn. Don’t ever be ashamed of it, don’t hide it.” This rich inner life that came into existence through her five-year-long relationship with Khan is something that brightens Kareena visibly. The sense of belonging to a family with a set of friends so culturally diverse from her own microcosm continues to delight her “through the nights of conversation”. More importantly, it has allowed her to become more than a Kapoor, more than that child hankering for the arclights — KareenaKapoor Khan knows that there is a world beyond movie sets, and as Louis Armstrong sings while she sees me out, it’s a wonderful one.