On ba­bies, be­ing Bol­ly­wood roy­alty, and Ba­jrangi Bhai­jaan

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When, at just 20, Ka­reena Kapoor leapt into the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness with her de­but role in Refugee op­po­site Amitabh Bachchan’s son Ab­hishek 15 years ago, she had a fairly good idea of what was to come.

A Bol­ly­wood blue blood af­ter all, Ka­reena be­longs to a fam­ily that has been on top of the movie busi­ness for four gen­er­a­tions. Fame, suc­cess and glam­our had been her con­stant com­pan­ions, not part of a wish-list. But not one to rest on her DNA lau­rels, Ka­reena de­cided to firmly es­tab­lish her cre­den­tials as a star who can hold her own. A decade-and-a-half later, with Ba­jrangi

Bhai­jaan break­ing all box of­fice records, this 34-year-old has proven be­yond doubt that her tal­ent is her own, not an in­her­i­tance.

Ba­jrangi Bhai­jaan grossed more than Rs41 bil­lion (Dh2.3 bil­lion) in just nine

days and her pre­vi­ous film, Sing­ham Re­turns, was the top earner in 2014, so Ka­reena is sit­ting pretty as the undis­puted queen of the box of­fice.

But over the years, Ka­reena’s pri­or­i­ties have changed. From fo­cus­ing on be­ing the dar­ling of the masses, she now be­lieves that strad­dling the two very sep­a­rate worlds of block­busters as well as crit­i­cal ac­claim is pos­si­ble. ‘I think com­mer­cial suc­cess as well as crit­i­cal suc­cess is im­por­tant,’ she says in an in­ter­view with Fri­day. ‘But mak­ing a good film is more im­por­tant. And that’s what we have here.’

Ka­reena is re­fer­ring to Ba­jrangi

Bhai­jaan, a story re­volv­ing around the life of a lit­tle mute girl from Pak­istan who loses her­self in In­dia with no idea how to find her way home. She finds an hon­est do-gooder – played by Sal­man Khan – who takes it upon him­self to unite the girl with her fam­ily. Ka­reena plays Sal­man’s love in­ter­est in the film, a role that she agreed al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter she was of­fered it. ‘It’s the story that mat­ters,’ she says.

‘Ba­jrangi is such a dif­fer­ent Sal­man Khan film. When you usu­ally see a promo of a Sal­man Khan film, what strikes you first of course is the hu­mour, then the ac­tion, and the type of mind­less com­edy that peo­ple love. But this is the first time that I’ve seen a Sal­man film where in fact the story has more promi­nence, even more than his per­for­mance, or the mu­sic. It’s re­ally the story.’

And that ap­par­ently is what drew Ka­reena to it in the first place. ‘I play the role of a school teacher from the old part of New Delhi,’ she says. ‘When Sal­man’s char­ac­ter lands up in Chandni Chowk with this lit­tle girl, my char­ac­ter helps him to get to Pak­istan and pushes him to make the right de­ci­sions. She’s the voice of rea­son, be­cause Sal­man’s char­ac­ter is a lit­tle slow-wit­ted.

Happy to be the co-star and not play the ti­tle role, Ka­reena re­it­er­ates that af­ter 15 years in the in­dus­try, all that she cares for is the qual­ity of the movies she makes. ‘I am now in­ter­ested in do­ing good films only,’ she says. ‘I’ve al­ways wanted to be known as a star ac­tor. Yes, I wanted to be a movie star but I also wanted to be know as a good ac­tor. I wanted to en­joy my star­dom, but I was ready to work for it. So I have en­joyed mix­ing things up, work­ing in the com­mer­cial block­busters at the same time as do­ing dif­fer­ent films like Chameli and

Omkara, both crit­i­cal suc­cesses that earned me awards.’

While in Chameli (2003) Ka­reena played the role of a pros­ti­tute with great con­vic­tion, in Omkara (2006) she teamed up with ac­claimed di­rec­tor Vishal Bharad­waj to recre­ate Shake­speare’s mas­ter­piece Othello. Ka­reena’s por­trayal of Des­de­mona helped her rake in most of the pres­ti­gious awards that year, in­clud­ing the Film­fare Best Ac­tress (Crit­ics) Award.

But in spite of her crit­i­cal suc­cess, she still en­joys the fame and adu­la­tion that comes with be­ing a su­per­star. ‘I love be­ing glam­orous and I love to dance to catchy num­bers on screen!’ she says. ‘But not just

‘I want to work with all the KHANS. I want to work with ev­ery­body. I DON’T want to be TYPE­CAST as do­ing only COM­MER­CIAL films or only WOMEN-CEN­TRIC films. The jour­ney has been AMAZ­ING’

that. I have al­ways wanted a bal­ance be­tween the two. So, it’s been a con­scious de­ci­sion that I will do both se­ri­ous films as well as block­busters, kind of mix up the two.

‘I cer­tainly don’t want to be type­cast as do­ing only com­mer­cial films or only women-cen­tric films. No. I want to work with all the Khans. I want to work with ev­ery­body. The jour­ney has been ac­tu­ally quite amaz­ing be­cause I think god has been kind to me.’

A far cry from the am­bi­tious 20-year-old who walked out of what was to be her and su­per­star Hrithik Roshan’s de­but ve­hi­cle

Kaho Na Pyar Hai (Tell me you love me) af­ter shoot­ing for three days, to star in what she felt was a bet­ter bet, Refugee with Ab­hishek Bachchan, she has al­ways been am­bi­tious.

‘Even when Bebo [Ka­reena’s pet name] was a kid, she wanted to be an ac­tress,’ said se­nior jour­nal­ist Indu Mi­rani in an in­ter­view some years back. ‘She used to hang around the sets of [ac­tress and el­der sis­ter] Karisma Kapoor, who is six years older. She was ob­sessed with los­ing weight even though she was only 15 and very slim. She looked stun­ning even then.’

Though she was born with a sil­ver spoon in her mouth, Ka­reena was not the bratty star kid she was made out to be by the media. ‘With pop­u­lar ac­tors – Rand­hir Kapoor and Babita – as par­ents and the leg­endary ac­tor, film-maker Raj Kapoor, as her grand­fa­ther, the fra­ter­nity and the media as­sumed that Ka­reena will come with a lot of diva-like at­ti­tude,’ says Indu. But she proved ev­ery­one wrong with her sub­tle yet pow­er­ful per­for­mance in her de­but film Refugee, which earned Ka­reena her first award.

From then on she has man­aged to stay on the path of suc­cess, while never let­ting it take over her sense of bal­ance. Whether it is her friend­ships or her com­mit­ment to loved ones, she is known in the in­dus­try for stand­ing by those who mat­ter to her.

For in­stance when Ab­hishek Bachchan re­cently tweeted a mes­sage mark­ing 15 years since Refugee was made, de­scrib­ing Ka­reena as his all-time favourite co-star, it made her very emo­tional.

‘I don’t think I can share the bond that I share with Ab­hishek with any­one else,’ she re­sponds. ‘There was a cer­tain raw­ness and ner­vous energy we both had back then, and we both went through and ex­pe­ri­enced a lot to­gether. Though we were both star kids who had lead priv­i­leged lives, we were both ner­vous. Af­ter the ini­tial hes­i­ta­tion, we got along fa­mously. We were lit­er­ally like brother and sis­ter, even though we were ro­manc­ing each other on screen. It was re­ally weird. But I think Refugee will al­ways be the big­gest land­mark of my ca­reer.’

Not sur­pris­ing, con­sid­er­ing that Ka­reena is known to be very loyal. ‘As a per­son she’s very nice, loyal, friendly and very

‘I played ANIL KAPOOR’s WIFE and now I’m play­ing his nephew AR­JUN’s wife. And who knows, I might just be RO­MANC­ING some of the other YOUNG boys in the NEXT FEW YEARS!’

emo­tional,’ said Indu. ‘She doesn’t throw starry tantrums.’

That is one of the rea­sons she’s worked with al­most all the he­roes in Bol­ly­wood.

‘Yes, that’s true!’ she ex­claims. ‘I’ve worked with Anil Kapoor in Be­wafaa (Un­faith­ful) and now I’m work­ing with his nephew Ar­jun Kapoor (in R Balki’s un­ti­tled pro­ject). I don’t know how that hap­pens. Even [hus­band] Saif tells me it’s quite re­mark­able how I’ve done that. I played Anil Kapoor’s wife and now I’m play­ing Ar­jun’s wife so I hope that with god’s grace I am al­ways able to work ex­tremely hard, look great and feel great. And who knows, I might just be ro­manc­ing some of the other young boys in the next few years!’

While the al­lu­sion to her age is ap­par­ent, her fans don’t seem to think that Ka­reena is in the se­nior cat­e­gory. In fact, there are of­ten com­par­isons drawn be­tween her and Alia Bhatt, 12 years her ju­nior. In fact, Alia says she’s thrilled to be com­pared to her.

“I think that it’s al­ways nice [to be a role model for a young ac­tor],’ says Ka­reena. ‘In ev­ery gen­er­a­tion they’ve pit­ted me against ev­ery ac­tor and now I’ve be­come used to it. Ear­lier it would an­noy me but now I’m fine with it. Also, Alia is spec­tac­u­lar and she’s a won­der­ful ac­tress. I don’t know how an­noy­ing it is for her to be com­pared with me all the time. But she’s great and we’re re­ally good friends and we got to spend some time to­gether dur­ing the shoot of our up­com­ing film, Udta Punjab [ Fly­ing Punjab]. We didn’t re­ally shoot any scenes to­gether in the film, but were on the set to­gether so we had some lovely times.’

In fact, Ka­reena is re­ally look­ing for­ward to Udta Punjab. Star­ring op­po­site her ex-love Shahid Kapoor for the first time af­ter they broke up many years ago, the film ex­plores how sub­stance abuse is tak­ing a toll in the north­ern In­dian state of Punjab. ‘I think it’s a bril­liant film, and it’s go­ing to be quite path-break­ing in its [own] way,’ she says. ‘Again, I’ve gone by the story, but I also have

a won­der­ful role in it. It’s about drug abuse, and I play a doc­tor who is the con­science and the back­bone of the film.’

Ka­reena also con­sciously chose the film ‘be­cause it is so dif­fer­ent from Ba­jrangi

Bhai­jaan’, she says. ‘So you’ll see me in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent light. And af­ter that I go back to another very dif­fer­ent film, Balki’s un­ti­tled movie. I’m very ex­cited about that be­cause I think it’s a very spe­cial part, of an in­de­pen­dent work­ing woman. It’s a mod­ern love story that’s quite orig­i­nal. I don’t know how peo­ple will re­ceive it, but the role is won­der­ful, and that’s all I am re­ally both­ered about at this stage of my ca­reer.’

In this com­fort­able space that she’s carved out for her­self, Ka­reena es­chews the trap­pings of star­dom. She’s more of a home­body af­ter her mar­riage to Bol­ly­wood star Saif Ali Khan in 2012 and likes lis­ten­ing to old songs and watch­ing old movies. ‘She likes the el­e­ment of grief and sad­ness in these films,’ said Indu. ‘She likes to wal­low in them. She’s not the type to move on. She thrives on melan­choly.’

That prob­a­bly is the rea­son why she’s still sen­ti­men­tal about ex-flame Shahid Kapoor, who told her about his im­pend­ing mar­riage be­fore an­nounc­ing it to the world.

Her own two years of mar­riage have set­tled her, she says, though she and Saif are not ready to start a fam­ily yet. ‘All I can say is I rec­om­mend mar­riage,’ she says. ‘I think I’m look­ing bet­ter af­ter my mar­riage than I was ear­lier. I’m feel­ing bet­ter and it’s about mak­ing things work. Ev­ery­thing re­quires work. You have to work at it, whether it’s your ca­reer or your job or even your re­la­tion­ships,’ she says. ‘ I be­lieve what is most im­por­tant is that you have to en­joy what­ever you’re do­ing. Most peo­ple are un­happy be­cause they don’t en­joy their job, or they are un­happy in their mar­riage. If you are happy in what you do, life just flies by.’

Ka­reena says Ba­jrangi Bhai­jaan is not your usual run-of-the-mill Sal­man Khan movie

Ka­reena is known for play­ing di­verse roles, from Ra.One to Refugee, Sing­ham Re­turns (right) and Chameli (bot­tom) Ka­reena’s sense of style and charisma have won her mil­lions of young fans

Ka­reena says she looks and feels bet­ter af­ter her mar­riage to Saif Ali Khan

With mother Babita (left), older sis­ter and ac­tress Karisma and niece Sa­maira

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