The tough lilies of bollywood

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By Manjula Narayan

YOU’RE SITTING ALONE in the darkened theatre, stuffing your face with popcorn as you watch Dev D. In the row in front, a group of women are slurping their cokes. Then, Abhay Deol’s Dev, London’s Millennium Wheel in the background, asks Mahie Gill’s Paro to mail him a nude picture of herself. The women stop slurping, you stop popping corn. In an average Hindi film, this would’ve been the cue for the female lead to flounce off affronted and viewers would’ve settled back into their seats comfortable in the knowledge that none of the cloying conventions of Hindi cinema had been dispensed with.

Ah, but this isn’t a conventional Hindi film. 26-year-old Mahie Gill isn’t a bloodless Paro waltzing through baroque sets with a diya in hand. The picture is mailed, Dev flies back and you’re treated to sequences where the standard devices of the sentimental marriage video films of the 1990s are stood on their heads. Instead of saccharine love, there’s sexual intrigue, capturing of subtle social differences and cruelties within romantic relationships. At the centre of this satisfyingly tortured action is Mahie Gill’s brilliant Paro, who vents her rage on a water pump, who really makes you cry when Dev crushes her with his unthinking rejection and proceeds to get on with life, dancing wildly at her own wedding.

‘Who am I supposed to Kiss?’ was the first thing Gill asked Kashyap when he offered her a role in No Smoking

“I was dancing exactly like that for four hours non-stop at Dibyendu Bhattacharyya’s (He played Chunni in the film) son’s birthday party. Anurag Kashyap saw me and decided to cast me as Paro,” says Gill, who didn’t prepare for her role at all.

“Anurag wrote the character after meeting me. So the way Paro is in the film, that’s me,” says the girl from Chandigarh, who has a postgraduate degree in theatre – training that definitely helped her assay the complex role.

“Anurag doesn’t let you use glycerine because he wants things to look natural. Those were real tears,” she says. Perhaps it’s that raw emotion that’s got everyone from Ludhiana’s kitty party women to Patna’s crowds excited.

Surprisingly, her most difficult scene was where she sneaks a drag from Dev’s cigarette. “I’m from a Sardar family and I’ve never smoked, so that was tough,” she says, adding that an elderly fan ticked her off for precisely the same reason.

IT’S A GOOD thing she didn’t land a role in Kashyap’s No Smoking. The first thing she asked him: ‘Who am I supposed to kiss?’ and he said, ‘John Abraham’. Now, tell me, who won’t kiss him?” laughs Gill. You wonder if the down-home Punjabi goodness is an act. But clearly, that’s your jaded inner hack talking. The girl is unaffected enough to talk about her weaknesses. “I’ve lived alone in Mumbai for three-and-a-half years and at first didn’t have any work. And because I can perform only if I feel comfortable, I’m very bad with auditions,” says Gill who hopes to, some day, reprise Sridevi’s role in Lamhe. She will make a brief appearance in Anurag Kashyap’s Gulaal and is the female lead in Indrajeet Natoji’s Aage Se Right.

When she isn’t having her heart broken by men in mustard fields, she likes “inviting friends over and cooking for them. I love dancing and I like to sleep.” A split second later, she adds, “But I sleep alone, OK!” The timing is so perfect, you crack up.

You aren’t given to gushing about actors but you make an exception for Mahie Gill. If the industry doesn’t give her roles befitting her talent, it will be because they aren’t up to the challenge.

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Sharvani had never worn fancy shoes. She spent a month strutting in track pants and heels for Subhash Ghai’s Kisna

By Tusha Mittal

GROWING UP IN a small Gurukul in Kerala, Isha Sharvani, 23, spent weeks without looking into the mirror. “I didn’t give a damn,” she says, quite unlike the Bollywood bimbo she plays in Luck by Chance. When Subhash Ghai first approached her for Kisna, Sharvani had never walked in fancy shoes. She spent a month strutting in track pants and heels for the role. The glazed city was a culture shock: “I was such a dumdum, always getting conned. I’d believe anyone.” The airy, adolescent giggle makes you wonder if the bimbo she played is beginning to rub off. But she’s had too unconventional an upbringing for the Mumbai-effect to last.

Daughter of renowned dancer Daksha Seth, she grew up, home-schooled, on the banks of lake Vellyani, “in a mad house of costumes, instruments and artists,” where her parents researched snake worship and practiced an amalgamation of dance forms: martial arts, kathak, chau. After Delhi, Mathura, Vrindavan and Bengaluru her parents settled in Thiruvananthapuram, far from newspapers and cable TV — the nearest cinema hall was an hour away. Waking up at 5:30 am for marital arts, rigorous dance, and hearing Rig Veda recitations for six hours a day, the discipline paid off.

“Isha was game for anything,” says director Zoya Akhtar. “She was up on a tree for hours in a gown. She’s tough, not a wilting lily.”

Sharvani’s proudest moment came when she balanced herself vertically on one shoulder — for an opening sequence of a Kali dance show. “That sense of achievement felt mine.” And she’s not willing to give it up for Bollywood. “People think I’m mad not move to Bombay. But I choose to be in Kerala. I’ll always be an outsider in Bollywood,” she says. The courage comes from her parents: “They did nothing by the book.” When Sharvani returns to B-town, she’d like to work on dark comedies because “humour is a lovely way to send a powerful message.”

She enjoys the new young camaraderie in Bollywood: “Earlier it would really upset me to see how the spot boys were treated, but with the younger generation, everyone is chilling out together.”

It begins to tire a bit when you hear she stayed in Mumbai for only two days after the release of her most successful movie so far, and wasn’t party to any promotion buzz. Unlike the suave newcomers; Sharvani says she hasn’t a clue whether the media fancies her. You’re compelled to disbelieve, but only because of the unconventional life, you’ll relent. “I appreciate my organic life in Kerala and love the restaurants of Mumbai. I can strike a balance. I value both sides so much, I’m always in an eternal state of Wow!” The airy giggle returns.

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Special Correspondent

Tusha Mittal has been with Tehelka since March 2008. She was educated at La Martiniere, Kolkata, and has a bachelor’s degree from Depauw University in Indiana. While in the US, she worked as a reporter and a special sections editor for a local newspaper in Boston. She also interned with CNN Internationalin Atlanta and NBC Universal in London. In her final year in college, she studied the idea of peace journalism and the role of the media in covering conflict.

She travelled to Kashmir for her graduation thesis, which dissected the role of the Indian and Pakistani media in shaping public perception of the Kashmir conflict. Her journalism interests include reporting on environment, human rights, and conflict. She has recently won The Press Institute of India award for best articles on humanitarian issues published in the Indian media. AtTehelka, she has written extensively on land rights and displacement struggles. She is based in New Delhi.