(This article by Anna MM Vetticad first appeared in The New Indian Express on September 25, 2011.)
KAREENA, QUEEN OF THE TIGHTROPE WALK
Good looks, charisma, perfect grooming, reasonable acting talent (or the willingness to work hard in that department), sex appeal, a flair for dancing, a mind-boggling wardrobe, the ability to look good in both Indian and Westernwear, a thick skin, PR skills... Phew! Long list, huh?! Well, if today’s most commercially successful Hindi film actresses were required to send out their curriculum vitae, these are the qualifications they’d be listing.
And then there’s that other characteristic that you’re unlikely to read in black and white on any heroine’s bio-data, although it’s essential in this male-dominated industry: popularity among the industry’s leading heroes.
At first glance Kareena Kapoor is not the ideal candidate for the job. She is known to speak her mind, she has antagonised several colleagues over the years with some of her utterances, and her personal life has resulted in several tricky equations in the industry that would have intimidated a lesser professional. But as Bollywood collectively rubs its eyes in disbelief at the collections continuing to pour in for Bodyguard, the year’s biggest hit so far, it’s clear that Kareena must be doing something right. After all she is, as of now, the most commercially successful Bollywood heroine of her generation, she has earned a fair share of critical acclaim, she’s the only one to act with every single top male hero of her time (more than once) and she’s a favoured colleague of all the three Mega Khans.
Since money talks more than anything else in the Hindi film industry, let’s first take a look at Kareena’s track record at the turnstiles. According to the trade website boxofficeindia.com, if a projected estimate for Bodyguard’s lifetime gross collections were to be made, then with a possible Rs 225 crore earnings, the film is likely to end up as Bollywood’s second highest grosser of all time worldwide, next only to the Aamir Khan-Kareena-Madhavan-Sharman Joshi-starrer 3 Idiots which notched up Rs 350 crore. There’s more. Take a look at the record holders for opening week net collections (after entertainment tax deductions) in India alone: Bodyguard (Rs 101 crore), Dabangg (Rs 81 crore), 3 Idiots (Rs 76 crore), Ready (Rs 69 crore), Golmaal 3 (Rs 62 crore), Ghajini, Raajneeti, Tees Maar Khan, Singham and Housefull. Kareena is the only heroine with three films on this list (her third is the ensemble cast comedy Golmaal 3).
Naysayers will point out that these blockbusters notwithstanding, Kareena has more flops in her filmography than her contemporary Katrina Kaif. There are film buffs and critics who believe that Kareena — unlike Priyanka Chopra and perhaps even Deepika Padukone — has been far less experimental in her choice of films, and especially in recent years has primarily stuck to masala-driven entertainers rather than roles that challenge her as an actress. This is particularly disappointing for those who were impressed with her decision to start her career with J.P. Dutta’s unglamorous Refugee instead of a frothy romance, and the early evidence of her desire to be different that came in the form of Sudhir Mishra’s Chameli. Says veteran film critic Rauf Ahmed: “Kareena is one of the most talented actresses of her generation but she knows on which side her bread is buttered. She’s very smart like SRK who is not at all a bad actor, as we have seen in films like Chak De, but is now playing to the gallery. Kareena realised early on that the Chamelis and performances will not give her the box-office success she wants. So she went about it smartly. She realised that the three Khans are the ones delivering hit after hit, so she kept them in good humour, and remained with them rather than experimenting outside, just the way Katrina stuck to Akshay Kumar for some time. And it worked well for her.”
Fans may deem this an unfair trivialisation of Kareena’s achievements, but those who’ve witnessed the male supremacy in Bollywood’s power structure will understand the constraints that even the most talented actress must contend with. And even Kareena’s harshest critics will concede that she has rarely, if ever, played a mere pretty appendage to a leading male star. Even in her most commercial outings, her character has been essential to the story and never that of a showpiece without substance. Says Malayalam-Tamil-Hindi filmmaker Siddique, director of Bodyguard: “There is no doubt that my film is centered on the hero, but at its heart it’s a love story and the heroine is extremely important because Salman Khan, no less, is playing her bodyguard. The girl’s role required a star who was also a performer, and that’s what Kareena is.” The actress herself believes that it’s no mean achievement to have a significant and substantial role in a Salman-starrer. “That hasn’t happened to any actress in the last five years!” she says in vintage Kareena fashion (see interview). And what about her role in Ra.One, the film that is better known as the next Shah Rukh Khan vehicle? Says Ra.One Director Anubhav Sinha: “I look at it like this — Ra.One is a father-son story, but can I tell you that story in three lines without naming Kareena’s character? The answer is no, that’s how important her role is.”
And that, in The Gospel According to Kareena Kapoor, is a happy place to be in. The actress’ forthcoming roster of films would be the envy of any female Hindi film star. After Ra.One with SRK, there’s director Reema Kagti’s untitled film with Aamir Khan and Rani Mukerji, Agent Vinod with boyfriend Saif Ali Khan, Karan Johar’s production Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu in which she co-stars with a hero nearer her age, Imran Khan, and of course Madhur Bhandarkar’s controversial film Heroine.
The commotion over Heroine mirrors the story of Kareena’s career. The part was first offered to her, but she declined it — due to lack of dates, say she and Bhandarkar; due to a disagreement over fees and the “bold content”, say the industry grapevine and sources close to Kareena. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan was subsequently cast in the role but when Ash announced her pregnancy after shooting a part of the film, she was scissored out of the project and Kareena was persuaded to walk right back in. Wasn’t she concerned that she would be souring an already awkward relationship with her sister Karisma’s ex-fiance Abhishek and his powerful family? Those who ask, don’t know Kareena. “There are movies that I haven’t done that somebody else has done, how does that matter?” she asks. “We’re here to do our work, not to hold hands and sing in the park.” But the parting of ways between Aishwarya and the team of Heroine was very public and very unpleasant, so was Kareena not worried that her acceptance of the role would create further tension with the Bachchan clan? “Not at all,” she says emphatically. “They have their own life, and the Kapoors have the deepest and utmost regard and respect for the Bachchans and vice versa. Such a thing has not even crossed my mind.”
Still, it’s hard not to wonder about the difficult personal terrain that Kareena in particular — more than any of her female colleagues — has negotiated in her 11 years in the industry. Though Kareena and ex-boyfriend Shahid Kapoor have publicly said that they would have no problems working with each other, their break-up was clearly acrimonious if their last few public appearances together around the time of Jab We Met’s release are anything to go by. Not only did Kareena quit Hrithik Roshan’s debut film citing an insubstantial role, she is known to have been in a relationship with him in the early part of the last decade which reportedly ended bitterly on the sets of Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon. Ranbir Kapoor will certainly not be accepted as a hero with her since they are cousins (unless they play siblings in a film) so there’s one upper-crest hero ruled out for her for reasons beyond anyone’s control. She is widely known to have not got along with Bipasha Basu during the making of Ajnabee which led to some friction with Bipasha’s then boyfriend John Abraham. And then of course there is Abhishek.
Despite Kareena’s assertions about personal and professional lives being separate, the truth is that she’s not worked with Hrithik since Main Prem… in 2003, with Abhishek since his engagement to Karisma ended, or with Shahid since Jab We Met in 2007. But Komal Nahta, founder of the trade website koimoi.com, explains at length why Kareena survives and thrives despite these hurdles: “The male stars who are not on good terms with her are mostly not right on top of the rung. On top are the three Khans, Hrithik and probably Akshay. Abhishek is not in the reckoning for the top slot, and in any case she was not doing films with him since the Bachchans and Kapoors don’t get along, so nothing has changed because of Heroine. As for Hrithik, well, nothing is permanent in this industry and after all these years, if some project comes along I think both of them will be more than willing to work together. That leaves us with Ranbir who does just a couple of films a year. But considering that she has a great rapport with the three Khans, what does she need to worry about?”
What, indeed? Nahta elaborates further: “It would be unfair to say Kareena has cultivated the Khans — the Khans too need beautiful heroines who are good actresses and dancers, and have sex appeal. There aren’t too many girls who could match the three of them. There’s a shortage this side as well as that side, so it works both ways.”
And so, Bollywood’s most famously undiplomatic star is more complex than you can imagine. She may take potshots at John, but the Khans love her; she may question Priyanka’s accent on a talk show, but on film sets — which is where the professional in her kicks in — she is what director after director describes as “a hassle-free star”. Says Karan Johar who worked with her on Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham: “She’s not a diva on the sets. She gets ready easily, she is quick on the uptake, she’s a director’s dream and a production house’s delight.”
Besides, her refusal to mince words about some colleagues is part of the star persona that her fans find both charming and disarming; it provides constant fodder to the gossip press that keeps the public amused and the actress in the news. “There was a time when even I didn’t talk to Bebo (Kareena’s pet name) for a whole year, but that didn’t stop her from emerging as a movie star,” says Johar who now describes her as one of his closest friends in Bollywood. Adds another buddy, Rohit Shetty, Kareena’s director in Golmaal Returns and Golmaal 3: “She’s undiplomatic but she’s one of the most seedha bachchas (straight kids) in the industry. I’ve told her that though she thinks she’s very smart, she’s actually a bhondu (fool). She just goes with her heart, that’s why she gets into trouble.”
Adding to the Kareena package is the fact that she’s never been taken lightly as an actor. Though her roster of films now appears more mindlessly commercial than cerebral, she does have her very own calling card on the acting front: Jab We Met. After Refugee and Chameli, Jab We Met is the film that gave Kareena an opportunity to showcase her immense talent and screen presence. It also grossed Rs 50 crore at the box office worldwide (unprecedented in these times for a female-centric Hindi film), and marginally chipped away at the industry stereotype that heroine-oriented films don’t rake in big bucks. Now that her CV boasts of three back-to-back solid earners at the box office in Bodyguard, Golmaal 3 and 3 Idiots, she’s returning once again to a film which focuses on her: Heroine.
Today, Kareena is the Hindi film actress who can be your chammak challo or your Chameli, depending on where you are coming from; whose wolf-whistle-inducing screen presence takes nothing away from her acting chops; who fits well into haute swimwear and makes salwar kameezes look hot. She is also currently her industry’s highest paid heroine. Trade sources reveal that post-Bodyguard she commands Rs 5 crore per film, followed closely by Priyanka and Katrina who are in the Rs 4-5 crore category, Aishwarya who charges about Rs 3 crore for a film and relative newcomer Deepika who gets Rs 2-2.5 crore per project. Cousin Ranbir says he’s “a big fan” and that he’s “really really proud of what she’s achieved”. Siddique says he’d love to work with her again after Bodyguard because “she’s the kind of actress who grabs your attention on screen with her charm, her screen presence, her body language, her voice, her smile” and also because “it gives me as a creative person great satisfaction to work with an actress like her who contributes something to my vision of a character”. Madhur Bhandarkar calls her “a lethal combination of a glamorous woman and a talented actress” who “will be around for another 10 years”. And Kareena’s father Randhir Kapoor (whose long estrangement from her mother Babita, kept him away from Kareena throughout her childhood) can barely contain the pride in his voice as he adds: “These girls (Karisma and Kareena) have made a big success of themselves completely on their own steam, without my support, and I’m very proud of the fact that they’re bloody good at what they do.”
Kareena is undoubtedly in a commanding position in the industry, and her goal now is “to act in different kinds of films, strike a balance, do the small films, the big films, everything”. That’s good news for her dad who wants to see her “trying out more meaningful cinema, not rotten appalling films like Tashan which was one of the worst movies made in India. I’d really like to see her in more sensible films like Jab We Met.” His views are echoed by Kareena’s well-wisher and Chameli director Sudhir Mishra who urges her to do more roles that do justice to her talent. “She has the rare ability to surprise herself when she goes before the camera,” he says. “I’m not advocating that she do art films or boring films, just films that make her stretch herself. And if such offers don’t come often enough to Hindi film actresses, then they should become like the men, take the bull by the horns, construct films, produce films. Our female actors should be more political in a sense, take it as a challenge to encourage directors who want to make female-centered films instead of waiting for things to happen. I’m sure there are many stories around, many directors both male and female who are dying to work with Kareena.” Next step, Ms Kapoor?
(The writer is on Twitter as @annavetticad)
Related link: Kareena Kapoor interview
(1) Kareena Kapoor’s profile shot: Raindrop Media
(2) Jab We Met poster: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jab_We_Met
(3) Chameli poster: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chameli_(film)
Note: These photographs were not sourced from The New Indian Express