Starry Encounters in Bollywood

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Bollywood diva Madhuri Dixit with writer Lavina Melwani. (Photo- Lavina Melwani)

Bollywood diva Madhuri Dixit with writer Lavina Melwani

 

Bollywood Tales: When Journos Turn Fans

Imagine sitting across the table from the iconic Amitabh Bachchan as he tells you – and only you – in his rich baritone about his daily life. Imagine  the one and only Madhuri Dixit chatting with you about who does the cooking in her family as her husband Sriram Nene gamely shoots a picture of her and you together. Imagine the wonderful A.R. Rahman actually bringing you a glass of orange juice when he hears you are fasting that day.

Yes, all this actually happened to me!

Indeed,  of all the aspects of a journalist’s life, perhaps the most surreal and seductive are the press days, interviews, conferences or junkets organized by various studios and production houses to publicize their new films. For a few hours, superstars become your new best friends, looking you in the eye and answering your most outrageous or  ridiculous questions with a warm smile.

Stars who are usually kept away from ordinary mortals like you and me are suddenly sitting inches away at a press roundtable or in a one-on-one interview. To the star, you are no longer a nameless blur or a random fan but someone with a name and an affiliation, almost a person in your own right. You exist! You can ask the star almost any question and get a reply.

Sometimes at press events stars honor the most outrageous requests for a recitation of a famous dialogue or a poem, churning it out almost on demand.  Sometimes they’ll even share some intimate detail of their childhood or of  their youth with you. They are indeed your new best friends – at least till the press junket ends!

Shah Rukh Khan in 'Kal Ho Na Ho' - Bollywood location shooting in the US

Shah Rukh Khan in ‘Kal Ho Na Ho’

Amitabh, SRK  & More!

Journalists are really fans at heart and try to curb that instinct but don’t always succeed. Now with smart phones proliferating, almost every reporter wants a picture with the Khans or the big Bollywood actresses. And when it’s someone as big a superstar as Amitabh Bachchan, autographs and book signings and photos are almost mandatory. I even know of a few reporters who have actually touched Amitabh Bachchan’s feet and asked for his blessings! One photojournalist wrote on Facebook ecstatically that when he bowed down for blessings,  “Bachchanji kissed my forehead!”

I remember the first time I actually saw superstar Shah Rukh Khan in the flesh, at the press conference for ‘Ashoka’, many years ago. It was truly surreal, seeing that well-known face in real time. It was as if a demi-god had descended from the big screen and entered the world of humans. He seemed smaller than he appeared on screen, he was chatting in English fluently, and you realized that of course he was a regular human being too! Most of the reporters were acting like frenzied fans, which they all probably were.

Mira Nair with reporters at the press day for The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Mira Nair with reporters at the press day for The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Photo: Lavina Melwani)

Bollywood Press Junket or Indian Wedding?

So these press events are often a place to let your inner fan loose. Some of these press do’s are held in grand five-star hotels or sleek boutique hotels with a fancy hospitality suite set up and everything smooth and nice to make it a pleasant event for stars and press alike. Depending on the caliber of the stars, the press junkets often have long check-in lines, especially since media outlets have proliferated over the past decade. With scores of online, broadcast and radio outlets added in, it’s quite a blizzard of press people at these events.

Some events are like Indian weddings with a huge brunch buffet laid out and even goodie bags to take home! At the press conference for ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’, reporters took home a chunky gift bag containing a white bathrobe with the insignia of the imaginary hotel that Dev Patel’s character ran in the movie. Not that you really use such things and they only add to the stuff in your life – but some reporters did say they loved them and actually used them.

 

The star cast of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The star cast of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Several of the stars met with the press at the conference at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel – a far cry from the crumbling Best Exotic Marigold Hotel! It was almost intimidating to see so much distinguished star power gathered in one room but they were all surprisingly down-to-earth and chatty.  Judi Dench, Penelope Wilton and Tom Wilkinson were there along with Indian actress Tena Desae, who makes her western debut in this film, and the acclaimed director John Madden.

The actors spoke about India, about their own lives, and listening to these topnotch stars relaxed and off-screen was quite a pleasure and a privilege. Dame Judi Dench confided, “My character says ‘India is an assault on the senses’ and I never had a desire to go to India but  within 24 hours I was completely, completely fascinated and bewitched by the country. The beauty of the people I thought was astounding – the color, the noise, the smell – everything about it is completely staggering – and I can’t wait to go back there. ” She added: “We’ve made some remarkable friends who are very keen on the mobile so if my mobile was to go off now – it’s probably one of them!

Hrithik Roshan and Barbara Mori

Hrithik Roshan and Barbara Mori

Flying Kites with Hrithik Roshan

Another fun press day I recall was with Hrithik Roshan, the Mexican star Barbara Mori, producer Rakesh Roshan, composer Rajesh Roshan and director Anurag Basu for ‘Kites’ at the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel. The sizzling ‘Kites’ posters with Hrithik and Barbara locked in an embrace were everywhere and the two seemed to have stepped right out of them and joined us at the table.

Hrithik, the heart-throb of millions, was suddenly sitting opposite us and talking very intelligently and calmly about films, life and family. We were about six reporters sitting at a round table. He also showed how considerate and down-to-earth he was, asking all the scribes, “Do you want me to keep all your tape recorders here?” When I hesitated to hand mine over to him, saying I needed to keep an eye on it in case the battery died out, he extended his hand and said,   “Yeah, sure! I’ll keep a check on that!”

I thought that endearing, considering that he’s got a lot on his mind – a huge multimillion dollar film about to be released worldwide in two different versions, thousands of fans waiting on him and the global media about to give their verdict on ‘Kites’ – and he was going to keep an eye on my rusty little digital tape recorder to see if the battery sputtered out!

Even as they discussed the film, both Hrithik and Barbara revealed they both had ‘Kites’ tattooed on their wrists.“That’s something we all did while we were shooting Kites – it’s like celebrating the journey. It’s forever, it’s the whole world, it’s the universe!” he smiled. “We all have it. Suzanne has one, my dad has one!”  Barbara Mori chipped in, “My mom has it!”  Added Hrithik Roshan, “It’s a symbol of how well we connected and shared some fantastic moments.”

Harold & Kumar - Escape from Guantanamo Bay

Meeting them in the flesh – Harold & Kumar – Escape from Guantanamo Bay

 

Other fun press events have been connected to ‘Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay’ with Kal Penn and John Cho in the flesh. Fun gewgaws were handed out – but they didn’t serve us White Castle burgers! Mira Nair’s ‘Vanity Fair’ was also a press do with lots of stars including the ‘Legally Blonde’  star Reese Witherspoon and Mira Nair herself. The films ‘Bend it Like Beckham’ and ‘Water’ have also had bustling press days where not only did you get to meet the stars and directors but also catch up with all your media buddies. There is a somewhat celebratory, social air to all these events.

With Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘My Name is Khan’, there was a lot of buzz as both Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol were there in person – and the most beloved film couple was being seen together after a long time. The media frenzy and the long lines for security checkups was quite amazing – everyone seemed to take it patiently. After all, we’re talking SRK!

SRK and Kajol in NYC

SRK and Kajol in NYC

Meeting Amitabh B Face to Face

When Amitabh Bachchan was here for a major retrospective at the Lincoln Center in New York, the place was over-run with desis, from retired grandparents to college kids to taxi drivers. There are no statistics available but if a scientific study was undertaken we’d find every other Indian is a Bachchan fan! And that includes the media, I’m sure!

The press folks were extremely lucky to get 15-minute interviews with the Big B himself, and were like a huge star-struck tribe. It was intimidating to have the time with him – what do you ask this superstar when probably every question under the sun has already been asked? What came through in my chat with him was the universal aspect – the craving for doing one’s work, working hard to do a good job and the fact that family and grandchildren are the greatest joy.

What came across was the human being at the core, and where in spite of  the seeming glamour and adulation, life is still about waking up, going to work and coming home to family and dinner.  Amitabh Bachchan looked me in the eye and said: “It’s a job – you finish a job, you leave your job in the studios and you come home, just like an ordinary person.”  I asked him how he’d like to be remembered and he said simply, quietly: “As a good human being.”

Which brings us up to the most recent press day  for ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’  with Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber and the inimitable Mira Nair in person. We all discussed many things but a light note with much laughter was added in when Kate Hudson described how she did the dramatic scenes while breast-feeding her new baby Bing: “For me it was how exhausted I was, emotionally and physically by the end of it, breast feeding and then handing Bing to Riz and going on camera! If I had another child, Mira’s the only one who could convince me to do this again!”

My latest encounter with the stars was at the press conference  for ‘Yamala Pagla Deewana 2’ put together quickly by the organizers in a matter of two days at the elegant restaurant Junoon.  Yet every press person had turned up – and so had every fan who knew about the event! After all, it was a chance to meet not one, not two but three bona fide Bollywood stars! Dharmendra and his two sons, Sunny and Bobby Deol.

This was a crowded festive bash for press, sponsors and their guests and everyone was having a field day.  The exuberant fans were quoting Punjabi poetry at the mike and even asking questions so that Bobby Deol felt compelled to ask, “Are you from the press?” In the media room set up for interviews, guests had rushed in to get their  pictures with the stars. At the end of the day everyone took home glittering red and silver goodie bags containing CDs of the movie’s music.

Sunny, Dharmendra & Bobby Deol

Sunny, Dharmendra & Bobby Deol

 

Three for One: Dharmendra, Sunny and Bobby

What is the power of the press, I mused as I left the event – why do the stars give access to the press? The answer of course is that for the stars, the press is a stand-in for millions of fans. Through the articles the journalists write, fans connect with the stars, and so the press has power only because of the fans it can reach. Quite a humbling thought!

I remember a crowded press day for ‘Singh is King’ with none other than the hugely popular Akshay Kumar at the luxurious Essex House Hotel near Central Park. The press were hosted, wined and dined and introduced to Akshay Kumar who joked and fooled around, making everyone laugh. After the event, I was walking down the street and saw a huge crowd encircling a yellow cab. And there was the flamboyant Akshay Kumar again, right on top of the cab! He was surrounded by delighted cabbies who had hoisted their hero on to the roof of the cab. Such is the fan power of Bollywood.

In the end,  be it the multi-billion dollar Indian film industry, the Bollywood superstars or members of the press  –  they all exist due to the simple fact that unknown, ordinary people spend their hard-earned money to dream, to be entertained for a few hours in a dark space. All the magic happens because of the fans and their filmi passion. It is their devotion that has brought Indian cinema to its 100th successful year. May their tribe strengthen and increase!

(C) Lavina Melwani

(This article first appeared in Khabar magazine)

Related Articles:
In Celebration of Bombay Talkies
NYIFF – 2013 – Celebrating Indian Cinema
Made in America – Bollywood Comes to the US

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Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. [email protected] & @lassiwithlavina Sign up for the free newsletter to get your dose of Lassi!

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