Interview: Parineeti Chopra by Tara Kaushal

July 2015: For Parineeti Chopra, being fit is waking up fresh in the morning. Once carrying 90 kg on her petite 5’6” frame, she discusses her weight-loss journey, and newfound love for fitness and health as she flaunts her toned new bod.

The cover of  Women's Health .

The cover of Women's Health.

"Body con at its best! Body con at its best!" she yells excitedly as she emerges from the dressing room in what is her fourth change of the shoot. The dress is bright red, perfectly offsetting her creamy complexion, and figure hugging to show off her new fit frame. Her body language is confident and casual; she’s smiley, friendly and chatty, her language peppered with casual expletives… every bit as “real” as co-star Arjun Kapoor says she is. 

She’s in jeggings and an aquamarine tee, her hair in a high pony when she sits opposite me for our chat. Some things have changed for Parineeti in the year since we interviewed her last. For one, she's gone from being a person who wasn’t into labels and designerwear to someone who has grown to appreciate them. “Saying I will only wear this brand or that, to be ‘branded’ at all times doesn't come naturally to me. But I’m a sucker for quality, I literally stretch clothes to test them, and you can see the difference in cut and quality with good brands.” Having said that, her staple clothing is still gunjis and shorts, and loose shapeless t-shirts. And she’s still not going to spend three lakhs on a dress—the investment-banker-turned-actress says she “would rather pay an EMI or buy something more substantial!”

The biggest change though, is that she’s acquired a new, if belated, interest in fitness.

The Unlikely Actress

Despite cousin Priyanka’s movie-star status, Parineeti was “never influenced”, and, growing up in Ambala, Haryana, only ever wanted to be an investment banker. Upon her return to India after graduating from Manchester Business School in the 2009 recession, she landed a job in the marketing department of Yash Raj Films. Here, she fell in love with acting, decided to give it a shot, signed a three-film deal with the YRF banner… and the rest, as they say, is history. Six films later, here she is.

Being an actor sure feels good, and she loves performing, being in front of the camera. But there are many things that come with it that she doesn't enjoy so much—the lack of private life, too much scrutiny, too many cooks in your life. “There are so many elements, from the team of people to the fans, that contribute to you as an actor and as a brand—those can be slightly high pressure.” She admits to having no idea about the behind-the-scenes aspects of the business when she first faced the camera.

Kapoor reminisces about their film, Habib Faisal’s 2012 hit Ishaqzaade, which was his first and her first in a lead role. Despite a tumultuous start, they became and stayed friends. “I don’t think that equation can change, especially with your first co-star. Because, for what it’s worth, they know all your insecurities, strengths, weaknesses, flaws and issues because you've faced the camera together at such a vulnerable time in your life.”

Had she known earlier in life that she wanted to be an actress, she would have been more prepared for this journey, she says. “Even if you’re making an omelette, there are more failures if you don’t know what you’re doing.” She’s learnt everything on the job, growing in the eye of the camera. It, and audiences at large, has also been privy to her weight-loss journey.

Motivation from Without

She’s pleasantly plump in Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl (2011), but seems to have gotten steadily fitter since. “I was always a lazy person, never a sportswoman, and it led me to be obese in university,” Parineeti discloses. Even when she was 90 kg, she never considered herself unfit or fat. “Most people who are unhealthy or unfit don't consider themselves so. The brain switches off. I would eat like it's no ones business; I had no stamina, no health, the worst skin, the worst hair… I was one podgy person!”

Motivation to lose weight came in fits and starts. Her weight dropped owing to her busy lifestyle when she got to Mumbai, and the compliments that began coming her way drove her to join the gym. Since she doesn’t like the gym, that didn’t last, and she yo-yoed. Being offered her first film got her inspired again: “‘Okay, now I’m an actress, I’ve got to do this,’ I said to myself.”

But it never really came as a calling from inside.

Fitness Bug

Until the start of this year, that is. Like her love for acting, there wasn’t an ‘Aha!’ moment when she acquired the fitness bug, they both came through “slow catharses”.

It started with wanting to become thin: she wasn’t fitting in to her jeans, didn’t like the way she was looking in pictures and was always trying to camouflage her fat. “But now it’s beyond the aesthetics. I have to feel healthy, fit and energetic no matter what I may look like.”

As she gets bored easily and has “spent 26 years without any exercise”, she’s taking it slow and doing what she enjoys. She does one-on-one hour-and-a-half classes with a trainer 15-20 days in the month, alternating between martial arts like kalaripayattu, yoga, weights, the gym and dancing. “It’s informal; she comes to where I am—either home, the YRF gym or a dance hall—and we will do whatever we feel like that day.” It helps that she’s had the time to focus on her fitness this year, while perusing scripts and meeting directors before zeroing in on her next projects.

“Fitness simply means having no fatigue when I wake up in the morning. If I don’t wake up fresh, I know something’s wrong—it may be that I’m unfit or I’ve eaten wrong the previous day or I’ve not worked out.”

While she’s not on a conventional diet, she follows a food plan based on allergy and intolerance tests conducted abroad. She doesn’t reveal details, but explains it as such: “I’ve been told that there are these foods that don’t agree with me. I’m allowed to eat everything else whenever I want.” There are no set rules: just lots of water and no eating after 7 PM. “I eat biryani casually because rice is apparently good for me.”

I ask Kapoor, who met her only a few days ago, what he thinks of her newborn interest in fitness, and he insists it must have been there all along. “Once you become an actor you do take care of your body, if only subconsciously. I just think she's become more aware of the finer details of how to take care of it and her health. With time and age you have to become increasingly conscious of your body because that's your most important tool.”

The diet and exercise is working, she believes. (Kapoor and I agree.) “I feel so much better! I love the changes in my body. My skin, hair, nails all feel great.” Will this newfound passion last? “Oh yeah,” Parineeti says emphatically. “Once it comes from within, it stays. Your body feels so good that you know you can’t let this go.”

An edited version of this interview was the cover story of Women’s Health in July 2015.

Interview: Shraddha Kapoor by Tara Kaushal

December 2014: For someone who’s only ever wanted to face the camera, the success of the past couple of years has been a dream come true. Shraddha Kapoor is riding the wave and soaking in all the love.

The cover of  Women's Health .

The cover of Women's Health.

I take in the view as I wait for Shraddha on this sunny Sunday afternoon, watching waves hit Silver Beach from the Kapoors’ seventh floor apartment in Juhu, Mumbai. She breezes in soon—wearing a smile, a comfy deep blue tee, Aztec-print beige jammies and thick-rimmed black glasses—and settles into a sofa placed under a portrait of her father.

It may be an obvious question to the daughter of a famous actor, but I ask it anyway. And she says yes, to be in the movies was always, always the plan. Even as a little girl, she’d act, dance and dress up for functions at school… “In fact,” she breaks off animatedly mid-sentence, “you must see this.” On her phone, she shows me what is obviously an early nineties’ picture of a school play—kids all dressed in pseudo-adult outfits, bright lipstick and rouge—and there she is, signing an autograph! “I was playing Madhuri Dixit. A friend shared this photograph with me yesterday, and I was like ‘Oh My God!’”

Yet, she spent two years at Boston University, majoring in psychology. “When you hear so much of ‘tu badi hokar heroine hi banegi’ (‘you are only going to be an actress when you grow up’), you want to rebel and swim against the tide. But deep in my heart I always knew this is the only thing I wanted to do.”

A Rare Love

Back on summer break, she started getting film offers. “I thought: I can either start acting after three more years or I can just do it now.” Parents Shakti Kapoor and Shivangi Kolhapure were very supportive, though they still try to coax her in to finishing her course, she says, calling herself a “dropout” (an endearing and misplaced concern for a star, methinks). It was her third film, the 2013 blockbuster Aashiqui 2 that catapulted her into stardom, the first of her hat trick.

Seeing “love in people’s eyes” is the “biggest high”, and has changed her whole life. “Fans don’t want anything from you… It’s even beyond art, it’s about catering to that unconditional love.” Social media allows them to give her direct feedback, and pleasing them colours everything she does—from the movies and roles she chooses to the her sartorial choices.

Though her personal style is “jhalli” and “bohemian” with Goa pyjamas, track pants and maxi skirts (similar to her Ek Tha Villain character and as she’s presently dressed), “I’ve been told that I should not be like this.” She now feels the responsibility to make an effort, and lately, since Tanya Ghavri’s become her stylist, has started to enjoy and embrace fashion more.

Her fans have also loved her subtle presence in the spectacular Haider. She had no reservations, despite it being an ensemble cast, the lack of a traditional hero-heroine equation, her small role and Tabu’s legendary one. Vishal Bharadwaj is a “ball of love who makes you feel like you have something special, makes you feel alive,” she says.

Given that, in India, an actor’s screen and public image is what people actually think of them as a person, I wonder whether this need-to-please will prevent Shraddha from playing darker characters. “I would keep that at the back of my mind—are the people watching going to be happy seeing me like this? Upset? Interested? Surprised?”

A Chance to Dance

She’s now doing Remo D’Souza’s ABCD2, and having an absolute blast. “I’ve been waiting to do a film in which I can dance. None of my films till now have had any big dances, and suddenly I get a movie where I only dance!” Everyone on the cast but Varun Dhawan and her is a professional dancer. “We’ve just been added to the group, and hope we fit in.” When she first saw the steps, she was sure she wouldn’t be able to do them until the dancers told her that, when she entered the hall, she had to stop thinking, just feel it and do it.

For this movie, she’s been on a meal plan designed by celebrity trainer Marika Johansson, who formulates a diet based on your problem areas and preferences, and delivers meals for the day each morning. She tries, but loves food, especially fried food. “Jalebis with hot milk is deadly!”

Her dermatologist too tells her to eat healthy and not to pick her pimples (“I get tempted”). She’s going through a “really bad skin phase” (I count three measly pimples) and is working on improving her skin. She doesn’t do much: drinks water and green tea, washes with a face wash and moisturises.

A Fresh New Year

It’s been two incredible, hectic years for Shraddha, and “2014 has been too fast!” She spent last New Year’s asleep in bed. During the holiday season this year, she’s expecting to be in Las Vegas shooting a schedule for ABCD2. They wrap on the 30th and the whole crew may stay back—“Sounds like fun to me!”

The revived trend of all-round performers in the film industry, a la stage, is exciting to this girl who asserts, “I love dancing as much as I love acting as much as I love singing.” This New Year, the lights will only get brighter, the stage, bigger, for this girl with a dream.

An edited version of this interview was the cover story of Women's Health in December 2014. Read another interview of Shraddha Kapoor here.

Interview: Nargis Fakhri by Tara Kaushal

November 2014: Life has been an unplanned adventure for the fun and feisty Nargis Fakhri, and she’s making the most of it, looking at the bright side and spreading some of her abundant joie de vivre.

The cover of  Women's Health .

The cover of Women's Health.

Laughter. It was the first thing I heard as I walked across the length of Suresh’s studio to where Nargis Fakhri sat getting her make-up done. And it would be the last thing I would hear when I left her interacting with the stylists readying her for the first shot, my own sides aching from laughing for the most part of an hour and a half.

There are multiplicities in Nargis that one cannot know to expect, no matter how much you’ve read about her or stalked her on Twitter. As her gorgeous face blossoms with make-up in to one that has the hormones of the nation aflutter, she’s sitting there in an old tee riddled with holes, a cartoon tiger in front, its backside at the back—“This is how I normally dress,” she says. 

“My friends say I’m an eight-year-old boy in a woman’s body.” While this eight-year-old is warm, keeps people around her in splits, does accents and finds farting really funny—“Like when you are in yoga class and someone bends down and lets out a fart, you just die laughing!”—Nargis is also abounding with deep wisdom, an empathetic old soul.

Travelling Beauty

This art major and a psychology minor from Queens, New York, started modeling so support her first love, travel. She has always enjoyed fashion, sees it as a way of creatively expressing ones individual self. She prefers androgynous styles, and, like a true New Yorker, the colour black is her favourite. “I don’t really like colourful stuff. Although everyone says ‘OMG, you look so beautiful in colour,’ I’m like, ‘Thanks, but I’d like the black dress please.’”

Looking good comes from the inside, for her, from genetics, of course, as well as from making healthy food and lifestyle choices. “I love fruits, sprouts and vegetables, and I prefer my veggies raw than cooked. I love eggs, have chicken once in a while.” She has cookies in her bag, leftover from what she bought the day before, that she brings out to share with the team. “Eat whatever you like in moderation. And get to know your body, certain foods don’t work with certain blood types.” Hers is AB, and modifying her diet according to her blood type has reduced the stomach problems she’s suffered all her life. She’s allergic to alcohol though she drinks on occasion, and is not supposed to have coffee (but she loves it and has it anyway) or too much meat protein.

She cooks her own food, preferring simple fried vegetables. “I eat asparagus, carrots and broccoli every single day, fried with a little bit of olive oil and salt.” Food is the secret to her skin too. “I do a peel once in a while, but haven’t had one in a long time because I just did an 11-day detox and my skin feels amazing. The truth is that you are what you what you put into your body.” She also works out, mixing an active life with lots of cardio, dancing, yoga and Zumba.

“Tai chi and yoga are great balancing exercises, because everything in life is about breath and we are not breathing properly. With fire breathing, you start burning calories just by breathing right.”
The  Women's Health  cover story.

The Women's Health cover story.

The Journey of Life

She has spoken often of how surprising Rockstar was, how she had never been to India (she believes she has a karmic link to the country) or thought of being in the movies before she got the call to meet Imtiaz Ali for the role of Heer opposite Ranbir Kapoor. Who would have thought?

“Nobody would’ve thought. My friends back home laughed because all my life I was always ending up in random places meeting interesting people, and I think it’s just my openness to accepting whatever the universe gives me meant I didn’t deny anything. Why I’m here is because I took a chance.” Though when her mum saw Rockstar, she couldn’t stop laughing: “She said, ‘You should have done this when you were born, 'coz you were always yelling and crying an putting on a big show for nothing!’”

She travels across the world to shoot locations now, but “it’s not travelling, it’s work. Travelling is where you stay for three months, make friends and meet people, hang out and work a little bit.”

“I can be refined and classy when I need to be, and want to be a kid and have fun when I want to. If I saw a patch of grass I’d be like, come! I’d make everyone take their shoes off and roll around on the floor, which makes no sense to people but it is so liberating and rejuvenating.”

Finding Her Place

One can see why this free spirit who loves nature has had a tough time adjusting to the unexpected fame and lifestyle, and she’s only recently started to see the positive side and make peace with it. “A lot of introspection that has happened in the past three years, a big spiritual growth, and I’ve come to say: okay fine, everyone makes sacrifices for something that they want.”

Guided by a guru, she has become very spiritual, learning about alternative medicine, holistic healing, yoga, mediation, earthing. “I started realising that the reason people say I am so young-looking and have loving energy is because I am still always trying to connect with Mother Nature.”

As a child, what she wanted to do was to help people. “I’ve realised that you can use fame to bring awareness to different causes, and to inspire and motivate people.” She is harnessing an inner power, of having lived many lifetimes and a full life “that’s going to help me help myself and me to help others.”

A Means to an End

It could be the tiger (she was recently part of NDTV’s Save Our Tigers campaign) or children, the elderly or just regular people. She recently helped US-based Vishen Lakhiani, of the Mindvalley Foundation, with a campaign to raise 10 million dollars for education projects in developing nations.

This is one of the reasons she’s a quotable-quotes kind on social media, “cheesy” even, not this goofy a-joke-a-minute girl—“It’s a platform where I can be positive for other people.” (Besides, she feels that, culturally, people don’t get her personality here, and her humour doesn’t lend well to writing.) “It feels so good when you get an email saying, ‘You have changed my life and helped me’ or ‘I thought about suicide but you saved my life.’” She gets to meet a lot of people, and tries to be more positive than she is and as smiley as she can be, because the energy rubs off.

This is a lot of pressure. “Sometimes I’ll be having a bad day, or have my monthly woman stuff and people are harassing me for photos, and I just wanna say, ‘I am bleeding, leave me alone!’, but I try being the most positive I can be.”

She’s says this unselfconsciously, first qualifying that she doesn’t mean to be narcissistic: “I’m now that piece of coal that is going through the stress of being diamonised.” And I agree: with Nargis Fakhri, the best is yet to come.

Some people tell her she should be a stand-up comic, but she believes no one gets her jokes.

On Romance
I’ve not had sex for god knows how long. How I wish my manager was a guy. It’s so funny because she and I are always working in the most beautiful, romantic places, having dinners together. One day we were walking through this beautiful hallway, perfect lighting, great mood, so I looked at her and asked, “Do you wanna hold hands?” She looked horrified and said, “No!” and ran off ahead of me. And I was like: “I am joking!”

On Housework
I love ironing. I have a weird fetish for ironing clothes, I iron my underpants and fold them nicely. I guess my maid gets upset because she then has nothing to do. She’s like, “Ma’am should I iron?” And I’m like, “No!” Then she looks at me really confused. Though I hate washing the dishes, and if I get married and I don’t live in India and have a maid, the guy has to wash the dishes. I will cook but I will not wash dishes; I will look at them and I will walk away. I have had dishes piled up for over a month with fungus growing on them, and I’m like, “I ain’t washing those.” And my then-boyfriend was like, “I ain’t either.” Eventually we had to do them together—I made him wash, I dried.

An edited version of this interview was the cover story of Women's Health in November 2014.

Interview: Shruti Haasan by Tara Kaushal

September 2014: She rocks red lipstick, a white ganji and leather neckpieces, but she can also let her hair fall in soft curls and take pouty selfies with shaggy-haired dogs. It’s the reason actor, singer-songwriter Shruti Haasan is the 'Kolaveri' Diva.

The cover of  Women's Health .

The cover of Women's Health.

She started out as a star child and went on to being a child star, so it’s surprising that Shruti Haasan says she has never felt the pressure, the burden of expectations, let alone wilt under them. “I’ve always been encouraged to find my own voice, be my own person. That’s been so important that I really haven’t bothered about what anyone else is doing, including my parents.” She’s got her name tattooed on her back in Tamil—she’s got to be serious.

On this muggy pre-monsoon Mumbai day, the shoot’s running a bit late (as shoots are wont to do), and I am ushered in to chat with Shruti Haasan as her make-up is being done, big curlers are being set in her hair, her food is being ordered and the style team is discussing what she is going to wear.

As people buzz around her, I can’t help but think that this attention must have always seemed natural to the daughter of superstars Kamal Haasan and Sarika. Not true, she says. “Both my parents are very simple people. Except when it was the night of a movie premier or someone was receiving an award, I didn’t really feel like I was extra-special… it was an ordinary upper-middle-class kind-of upbringing.” Of her childhood, her father says, “Apart from helping Shruti grow the way she wanted, we did very little.”

Getting Here

What she does conjure up is a childhood in Chennai, bursting with the arts and creativity: “My parents aren’t religious, and the arts have been the only standard god in our lives.” She believes art is all encompassing, an idea she embodies as an actor and singer-songwriter, dancer and model; as does her multitalented younger sister Akshara (who is an actor, screenwriter and assistant director). Growing up, she says, the movie set always felt like an extended home. So is she home then, at home, living the life of an actor; at 28, doing seven big movies this year. “To be honest,” she says, “music is my soul-calling and acting is something I just stumbled into, though it doesn’t seem like this would be likely.”

Music is what classically trained Shruti has always wanted to do, and it was her primary pursuit for many years. She sang her first song, in her father’s Thevar Magan, at six, and continued to sing, write lyrics and compose music for Tamil and Hindi films. She studied at the Musicians Institute in California, and was the vocalist of the alt rock band The Extramentals that played blues and rock with slight pop and Hindustani influences. “Music was my mainstay. It isn’t now, but it was. I don’t get to do as much because my schedule doesn’t allow it and there’s really no time to practise with a band.” She counts Lamb of God, Incubus, Tori Amos and Aqualung among her inspirations, and loves danceable ghati Tamil songs—though not the chart-topping ‘Why This Kolaveri Di?’: “When you’re the Kolaveri girl, it’s not so exciting!”

The Here & Now

Now, Shruti says, she’s equally (but in a very different way) passionate about being an actor. Considering she chose to prioritise her acting career rather late in the day, it has certainly picked up, and the seven films she has in her kitty all have big stars spanning the Hindi, Tamil and Telugu film industries. In Hindi, there’s Welcome Back and Rocky Handsome with John Abraham, Gabbar with Akshay Kumar, and Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Yaara with Irrfan Khan and Vidyut Jamwal; Hari’s Poojai with Vishal, and an untitled film with Vijay and Sridevi in Tamil; and an untitled Telugu film with Mahesh Babu. This is really the kind of life she has always wanted—being busy, travelling and not having a moment to think. “There’s something really fun about travelling with a movie… Having said that, if my entire film career was in this room, I’d be happy doing that as well.”

The only thing she doesn’t like about her job right now is how much she has to pack and unpack. On days that she’s home in Mumbai and not working (which is rarely, she laments), she likes spending time with her friends, watching TV and cooking. Given the recent rumours linking her to cricketer Suresh Raina, I ask her if she’s single, if she has a “good friend” hidden in her closet, and she laughs: “No, I’m really single. My good friends are my good friends, other friends are other friends… though none of those exists at the moment!”

The  Women's Health  cover story.

The Women's Health cover story.

Body Balance

Shruti’s favourite cuisine is Tamilian—it’s what she enjoys cooking and what she indulges in when she’s not watching her diet: chicken biryani, ghee-laden sambar and potato curries. She has to make a conscious choice to eat right and workout whenever she can because, of late, she says, she’s developed a tendency to put on weight. While a nutritionist has guided her in the past, she has now figured out what works for her body and carefully balances her proteins and carbohydrates. As far as exercise goes, she says she has never worked with a trainer. “I’ve always had a leaning towards athletics and I understand my body. I do some basic cardio, dance and work with my body weight, at a gym, at home or in a hotel.”

Like most of us, Shruti’s tried crash dieting and has also been through phases of manic working out, where she has been “addicted”. “But then, you’re just not a very nice person, plus it’s really not good for you. It starts showing in your personality, on your face, because your body needs fuel to be happy, and my fuel is food.” Though today she’s not working out as much as she used to—it fluctuates according to the type of role she’s playing—for the most part she sticks to a diet and exercise plan she’s devised and is comfortable with.

As the stylists bustle around, our conversation veers towards her fashion sense, and she says she is not very fashion conscious and what she wears depends on her mood—catch her at a party or at an awards function, and you’ll see what she means, her style can go from boho to glam. “I would say that my dressing sense is very eclectic. It’s not about what’s in fashion or what’s trendy or who the best designer is—it’s never been about those things. It’s just about the mood and state of mind that I'm in.” She doesn’t have a favourite designer either. “I may like a piece from this designer or that, but not the rest of the collection. I like to mix and match.” Her team jokes that she may not have more than one outfit from any particular designer in her wardrobe! One thing’s for sure though: black is her all-time favourite. “I am always wearing black. I believe that once you’ve discovered black, you are just sorted for life!”

By showing her mettle in the acting arena, and by taking very public stands against stalkers and those who recently leaked pictures of her from the film Yevadu (she’s filed FIRs in all cases), Shruti is certainly making her voice heard. She comes across as a balance between right-brain artistic and left-brain sensible, with a fierce independent streak. Making feminists proud, she asserts: “I’ve got things to do and bills to pay. Financially, mentally and physically, I am responsible for myself.” Asserts Kamal Haasan: “Whatever she is, is her making now—her music, words, wisdom, all.”

No daddy’s little girl, this.


“From the time Shruti would fit the length of my elbow to my palm where her head rested and she straddled my biceps, I discovered she was a rocker; her younger sister was a walker. Shruti would sleep only when she was rocked to sleep and Akshara had to be walked around. Shruti did not do extraordinary things except a few astounding ones like reading any material you gave in her hand when she was seven months old. Newspapers, tablet strips, chocolate wrappers, anything she would read alone, in a language only she understood, a language of her own. 
I think apart from helping Shruti grow the way she wanted, we did very little. Whatever she is, is her making now—her music, words, wisdom, all. From the crook of my arm to standing four inches taller than me in her heels that give her a giddy height, I still can recognise the Shruti I have known. She has just begun.
Moving aside from my bias as a father, just watching her as a curious and maybe an envious peer, I see her travelling great distances and attaining greater heights even without her heels. Shruti is a special child as a human and an artiste. I never believed in blessing so I applaud even before her true performance has begun.”

An edited version of this interview was the cover story of Women's Health in September 2014.

Interview: Lisa Haydon by Tara Kaushal

April 2014: Riding high on the success of Queen, golden girl of the moment Lisa Haydon talks about her journey from supermodel to actress.

The cover of  Harper's Bazaar .

The cover of Harper's Bazaar.

She appears at the table just after the cover shoot, plonks herself in to a chair, and greets me with a warm, “Hi, I’m Lisa. Will you eat?”—No—“Do you mind if I eat while we chat?” She is make-up-free, wearing a white, layered hakoba ruffle top and jeans, and is absolutely breath taking with her flawless raven skin, collarbones to die for and unreal body. We chat as she munches through her lunch, and I appreciate that this “Indian version of Angeline Jolie” (the words of her first booking agent, not mine) isn’t just uniquely beautiful, but fun and free-spirited, mature and oh-so-smart.

The success of Queen “feels really, really good.” In this coming-of-age travel-comedy-drama, she plays Vijay Lakshmi, a liberal hotel maid and single mother, the catalyst for the introspective journey that Rani, played by Kangana Ranaut, undergoes during her single honeymoon. “I didn't think about it too much when I signed this project with Vikas (Bahl, the director). I just loved my character so much that I wanted to play her.”

For the raving urban masses and praising critics, Queen gets it right, placing its women in shades of grey and not slotting them in to binaries of good/evil, and ending on a progressive, feministic note. “There’s this one verse from the Bible—‘Unto the pure all things are pure’—that my mum used to read to me growing up,” she tells me. Considering we’ve heard nary a bad word about the film, we agree that the audience forgets to judge Vijay Lakshmi because she’s authentic and natural, and comes from an honest place. “There are no pretences about the way women are. Rani’s character is just letting loose, discovering life and learning from Vijay Lakshmi—who burps, snorts when she laughs, is a single mom, drinks, smokes, has a lot of sex… And none of these things makes her a bad person.”

I prod Lisa about the similarities she admits to sharing with Vijay Lakshmi. “Our lifestyles are very different, she’s a little more carefree in the way she executes her life, but the heart and soul might be the same. Playing her was a bit of a catharsis—for two-three months shooting in Paris and Amsterdam, I became her, drinking, smoking, sitting with my legs wide open. When I returned, I quit drinking, I’ve stopped going out and I ran the marathon; I felt like I needed to cleanse the wildness out of me.”

She credits Vikas for many things—for a “comfortable and interactive” experience and for recognising her uniqueness. For his part, Vikas pays her a huge personal compliment by saying he auditioned her five times for the character he had originally written, but soon realised she was “ten times wilder and more free-spirited” than the character he was creating. “Inspired by the way she is, her body language, how comfortable she is with her body in any environment, I actually rewrote the character to make her exactly like the spirit of Lisa in real life.”

The  Harper's Bazaar  cover story.

The Harper's Bazaar cover story.

The real life Lisa was born in Chennai to a Malayali father and Australian mother. She lived in Australia and the US before moving back to India in 2007 to be a model. “It just kind-of happened. I was working as a waitress in Sydney and wanted to make extra cash, and my sister (Mumbai-based model Mallika Haydon) told me to try modelling. I know somewhere deep down I must have always wanted to be a model, not because I wanted to model but because I wanted the lifestyle. Not a wealthy one, but a travelling, bohemian life, full of experiences.” Armed with photos shot by a neighbour against the white wall in her bathroom, she was signed by her first booking agent. In India visiting family during Fashion Week 2007, Mallika, who she calls her “trailblazer”, pushed her to meet Marc Robinson and give it a shot. “It all just started snowballing from there, with magazine covers, endorsements and TV commercials. I was travelling, doing all the things that I wanted to do but wouldn't have been doing in Australia.” She went back, packed up her apartment and has been in Mumbai since. “I didn't look back.” She’s recently single, having called off her engagement to long-term beau DJ Karan Bhojwani.

As a supermodel in the Indian film industry, she has faced her own challenges: “The main one is that I know I’m a deep thinker and not just a pretty person, but because you model you have to put yourself in that box in some ways. It’s hard to deconstruct that opinion, it takes time, and the only way you can is by being given an opportunity.” She’s taken it slow, starting with a small role in Aisha (2010) as Aarti Menon, a New York-returned yuppie, after being spotted in a coffee shop by Anil Kapoor; then dancing to raunchy beats wearing hair-extensions, falsies and skimpy clothes in Rascals (2011) made her feel like a misfit in the industry and almost made her quit. “I recognised that if I do too much of this I’m going to get caught in a rut and not be able to showcase what I want to, or be taken seriously as an actor. So I waited for the right script to come along. Everything happens in its own time.”

In the meantime, she designed clothes for Sher Singh, a licensing association she is no longer pursuing. And has started an organic skincare line called Naked. “You know how they say you are gifted or have certain talents. I think this might be my gift, because, though I haven’t studied too much about it, the recipes come my mind. I get them lab-tested and somehow they always work.” She uses only her own products on her gorgeous skin, and wears no make-up on a regular day. “For a day meeting I’ll put on some under-eye concealer, mascara and a little blush. In the evening I like to go a bit deeper, using brown that has purple tones, something a little more glamorous but still nothing too much. I think less is more in many areas of life.” 

She continues to balance her modelling and acting careers, and is fashion designer Tarun Tahiliani’s campaign girl for the year “because of looks but more so because of the spirit and values she embodies,” he says. He is thrilled she has been acclaimed in Queen. “Lisa is a true ‘it’ girl for me, modern of spirit and effervescence, with an honest spontaneity and a dusky sexiness that is so India Modern.” I ask about her personal style for this summer, and she says she’s going white. “I like the subtlety of an androgynous look, and mix-and-match my clothes.”

Always, and especially now, after Queen, Lisa doesn’t see the things that set her apart from others in the film industry as hindrances but as USPs. She knows that improving her Hindi is going to be an ongoing process, but “at the end of the day, I don't give in to any of the things that people would consider weaknesses—the fact that I'm tall, or that I have raven skin, or that I have this accent. They are my specialness.” As urban Hindi films begin to portray the cross-cultural diaspora of our metro-going-on-cosmopolitan cities, she feels there is space for someone like her right now. “I think that in this day and age there are many people like me who feel they are Indian—I’ve spent most of my life in this country—despite their ethnicity or where they grew up. And I know there will be people like me in our films.” This is not to say that she wants to always play this character or get stereotyped; and she intends to work on things that are not her strong suits in order to play varied roles.

She doesn’t know when her next film with Viacom 18 will be out, and she hasn’t signed anything since Queen. “I’m waiting for something worth my salt.” On going over our conversation, I realise that biding her time is a recurring motif in the journey of this inspiring woman who wants to do good work on her own terms. “This is now the beginning of the Lisa Moment,” says Tahiliani.

An edited version of this interview was the cover story of Harper's Bazaar in April 2014.

Interview: Helen Cross by Tara Kaushal

April 2007: Helen Cross is the author of two booksthe critically acclaimed My Summer of Love, which won the Betty Trask Award in 2002 and The Secrets She Keeps. She’s currently down from Birmingham as a Writer-in-residence at the Mumbai University.

Helen Cross.jpg

You’re a Writer-in-residence at the Mumbai University. How did that come about? How has your experience been?

I’d worked with the British Council in Indonesia. And, as part of their association with the Mumbai University they needed someone who could teach and is a writer. I teach at the Leeds University and so I fit the bill.

It’s been amazing here. I teach a creative writing class that comprises of MA students, BA students and a few people from the British Council’s writing group, The Writer’s Circle. I am astounded at the quality of students here.

At a creative writing course, you should be learning confidence as much as you’re learning technique. That’s what I’m trying to do with the students here—give them the confidence to tell their story. A lot of Indian students are more conscious of ‘Oh, what if my parents read this?’ but that’s something that everyone has to get over. Becoming a writer is about standing up outside of family and expectations and risking not only the disapproval of your families and parents and friends, it’s also bad reviews, the literary establishment not liking what you’ve said, people not understanding what you’ve done, or it not being the right time for it.

So once you have the talent to write and have learned how to write, the next step is to gain the confidence to say what you believe to be true about the world.

My Summer of Love is based where you grew up. How much of it is autobiographical?

Well, it is absolutely set in the area where I was born and brought up which is an area of England called East Yorkshire. It’s where my parents and my family live—I’ve lived there for 18 years and I go back there very regularly. So the geography of the place is very much there and the characters are people that I very much knew and grew up with. It’s about a girl who meets a very wealthy family and becomes involved with them. And I knew a very wealthy family and I had some dealings with them. Some of those things happened to me, but that isn’t my story—or I wouldn’t be here with you, I’d be in a long-term institution somewhere. (laughs)

Likewise, The Secrets She Keeps is a story about a young boy who goes to work for a family as a nanny. When I was 18, I went to Manhattan and I worked as a nanny. But it’s a boy now and he’s in England. So you’re kind of working with material you know about. It’s about wanting to say something as a writer and that’s when you transform it into more than itself.

For me, writing is a mix of memory and imagination. Memory’s where the truth of people’s lives really lies: the things that happened to them, their relationships with their parents, their families, their attitudes and their politics. But one must make it something more, craft it, make it art through one’s imaginative capacity. It’s a delicate blend of memory and imagination that I like in writing. Things that are true but also crafted.

My Summer of Love was made into a film by acclaimed director Pavel Pavlikovski and won the Best British Feature at the Edinburgh Festival. What was that process like for youwere you a part of the filming at all? Was it difficult letting go?

I wasn’t part at all of writing the script because it didn’t have a script. The director, Pavel Pavlikovski is a very interesting man, who’d done a film that I’d really liked. Initially, there was talk of My Summer of Love becoming a two-part television drama. I was a bit alarmed about that because I thought they’d sensationalise the story. Then Pavel showed me a very different take on it, a very artistic take and he worked largely through improvisation. So they had the book and the actors and they created a world in the sort-of way a writer does, by imagining.

As a writer you’re not really visualising things: I couldn’t have told you absolutely how the characters looked, but I could have told you what their interiority was, what their consciousness was. With film it’s all visual, not subtle in the way a book is. A book goes from one person’s head into another persons head—no one’s going to have the same My Summer of Love as a reader because everyone’s creating it in their minds. But when it becomes a film and everyone has the same thing.

It was a bit disorientating, watching someone transform your imaginative material into the real world. But it’s a beautiful, poetic film. The book itself is very poetic—the imagery and the language all evoke a very melancholy mood and the film captures that.

Your debut novel created quite a stir and won the Betty Trask award. How did that shape yours and others' expectations for your next book?

The thing about publishing is that it takes ages—a book takes about a year to come out. So by the time the first book came out and won the award, I’d already finished the second one. I’ve been quite lucky with the award from this society of authors, the rave reviews and the book being translated into quite a lot of languages.

People did expect the second book to be similar to the first. But I feel as writers you’re not really following anything, just honouring your own ideas. So the second book was very different—it was set in Yorkshire but is quite a different story. Luckily, I wasn’t affected by what people wanted me to do.

You’ve finished writing your third novel. What’s it about?

It’s about a young Muslim man, living in England, and an older English woman who’s got a daughter. How they start off distrusting each other and how, despite the wishes of their own communities they fall for each other. It’s told through their individual voices and the voice of the woman’s 11-year-old daughter.

Race is a big issue in England. Birmingham, where I live is a very multicultural area—lots of Indian, Pakistani and Somali people. But it’s an uneasy culture: people don’t know how to integrate. Should they be integrating into British culture or embracing their own cultures. There’s a lot of racism in English society but there’s also a lot of ignorance which breeds racism, which is often not what is intended.

Birmingham’s one of the first ‘Minority Majority’ cities in the world where the majority of the people are from the minorities and the indigenous white population is the smallest. It’s fascinating and very different from where I was brought up in Yorkshire which is a totally white, working class old-style culture.

When did you start writing? And what actually made you give up your day job and say, 'Okay, I’m going to write now'?

I’d thought I could do it since I was very young. I was good at writing and at drama. So when I left university, I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford upon Avon and I worked with them for four-five years. While I had a job, I was doing quite a bit of writing—short stories. But I also knew that in order to concentrate fully, in order to give your mind over to a story, you have to make the decision to devote yourself to it. And I also thought that if I don’t just go for it, it would always be ‘Oh, something that I could have done if only I had the courage to do it.’ So when I was 28, I gave up my job.

I went to the University to do an MA in Creative Writing and I spent a year writing short stories and attending classes and then when I finished that course, I wrote My Summer of Love.

How do you write?

It is hard. It takes a long time.

My Summer of Love took about 18 months to write, and I was writing pretty consistently. And my second novel took another 18 months to write. The key to writing novels is to finish them—so many people start novels but don’t get to the end. It’s only when you get to then end of a novel that you realise what you’re actually writing about. Only then can you go back and make a new draft and edit it and make sense of it. But people get stuck in the middle and they kind of wait around for some inspiration, which isn’t going to come. You get to the end and you realise what you’re trying to say and then you go back and redraft. A lot of writing novels is redrafting, adding this, taking this away: it’s like sculpture. The way the sculptor finds the form in the middle of a block of marble, that’s what you’re trying to do. You’re waiting for the story to come through in a more coherent way.

I write the first draft by hand because there’s this link between the brain and the fingers. That’s why handwritings are so unique. And I don’t throw anything away—there might be that little bit if gold dust hidden in there. In the end, you do have to put it all on a computer just to shake it up a bit, but I do most of my work by handwriting.

Your favourite books and authors…

I like this American writer called Lorrie Moore who is a storywriter. I like a lot of short story writers and poets. There’s this English writer called Laura Heard. I like people who write with a more politicised edge. I like Dorris Lessing—she’s a maverick in English writing. I like George Orwell, always liked what he had to say about England.

I like writers who have something to say about the world that it is, not just about generalised ideas about world matters or violence. I like books that are tied to a location, a people and a place. Books that look at not just what characters are like on their own, but what they’re like in relation to other people and what they’re like in relation to society. How society sort of forms them and shapes them. My books always try to have a bit of a social edge, how these characters are formed by the world that they’re living in; the attitudes to class, the attitudes to women, all those things have an influence on the character.

So you’re a feminist writer…

I probably am. People don’t really ask you that in England because they presume that everybody is because it’s kind-of beyond that point. It’s interesting; here everybody is interested in that because feminism here is a much more dynamic and active force, isn’t it?

Maybe because feminism has done what it had to do in the West…?

Yes it has, I think. In England you now have what is called post-feminism. People are worried about what feminism has done. There’s a lot of anxiety about a lot of highly educated independent women, who can’t get husbands and don’t have any children because they’re so tied in with these huge careers. Whereas here feminism is a very important and much needed force. I can’t ever imagine thinking that a woman can’t do absolutely everything, intellectually and socially, that a man could do. I can’t imagine anyone believing that a woman is in any way inferior.

The struggles that women writers in India and women generally have to overcome here are very different to what we are used to now in England. We’re in a very different stage. You kind of tend to forget the frustrations of women who are tied to pre-feminist ideas of what women should be; educated women who just have to get married and look after kids. That’s an absolute hell for an educated intelligent woman.

But England and America, and most westernised countries have become sort-of dangerously individualistic, which is the flip side of the situation, and that leads to a kind of loneliness in people, isolation. It’s not the model that Indian feminism or anyone would want. The bonds of freedom can break down so far that people are isolated.

An incredible thing about Indian society, to me, seems to be the warmth of people and the communal sense. People have a sense of responsibility towards one another. We don’t see so much of that in England.

Here people have been so welcoming of us, my children as well. While I hope that these people will get such a warm welcome in England, I doubt it because we’re not used to welcoming people the same way, into our homes. Kendra, my five-year-old, has her own group of friends who call for her and take her out every evening: those things don’t happen so much in England anymore. People are frightened of their children being outside on the street and frightened because the world isn’t really a community anymore, just lots of little individuals. That’s something I write quite a lot about as well, where all this individualism is going, fragmenting society.

So tell me, have you got the Bombay Diarrhoea yet?

No! (laughs)

Well I kept thinking that we’re bound to get something, the children at least, but we’re all surprisingly healthy. We eat a lot of Indian food at home in Birmingham so we’re all kind of used to spicy food.

An edited version of this interview appeared in DNA in April 2007.