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Cover Story
April 19, 2008

Madame Butterfly

Text by Sona Bahadur. Photographs by Atul Kasbekar. Styling by Nisha Jhangiani. Assisted by Hina Oomer-Ahmed. Set-design by Lamya Bhatri. Make-up by Kapil Bhalla. Hair by Latika

She’s become a leading lady in the opera of cultural change. After her own astonishing metamorphosis post-Celebrity Big Brother, Shilpa Shetty has been elegantly flapping her wings around select projects that reinforce her enormous brand power while also making a positive difference. Verve traces the butterfly effect of the actress-turned-diva’s life as she dons yellow, the colour du jour, for Verve

It’s a fascinating thought. The flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas. Associated with the chaos theory in physics, the notion draws on the premise that a butterfly’s wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that ultimately cause a tornado to appear or prevent it from appearing. The flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system that triggers off a chain of events with momentous outcomes. Unaware of its role in the weather cycle, the butterfly becomes an unconscious agent of transformation.

The butterfly reminds me of Shilpa Shetty. Last year’s events at Celebrity Big Brother leading to the actress’ historic victory after being at the centre of a racist row were surreal to say the least. Who would have thought a Bollywood actress trying her luck at a reality television show would jolt the world into taking cognizance of racism rampant in contemporary British society through her harrowing ordeal. The actress who was famously asked to “go back to the slums” by her fellow contestant and tormentor Jade Goody at the Big Brother house unwittingly became a key agent in the opera of cultural change in the UK after the show shook the British parliament, unleashed a tornado of protest against racial bullying and garnered unprecedented media coverage.

The chain of thought goes off in my head as I wait for the actress at Mumbai’s Mehboob Studio, a year after the episode. Yellow, the colour we’ve chosen to style her in on this day happily recalls butterflies, spring and fashion currency. Since morning Verve’s expert stylist brigade has been at work deftly arranging yards of pale lemon net fabric as backdrop curtains. A blower has been called for to move the fabric from behind to create a fluttering, dreamy effect. And a smoke maker. The ensembles selected for her — Shantanu and Nikhil, Surily Goel and Narendra Kumar — are a mélange of classic and trendy. But then anything would look good on that flawless body.

Recently back from Paris Fashion Week, the actress arrives spot on time. Dressed in a purple tee and jeans, she wears her celebrity lightly. As we catch up in the green room amid the din of the hairdryer, she tells me she senses a tangible change in the attitude to India overseas.  “I’m positive Big Brother changed a lot of misguided perspectives about Asian people. When I entered the CBB house, people would ask me where I lived. Their idea of India was slums and poverty. They’d say, ‘Oh, how do you speak English so well?’ It was really condescending. But today when I go to the UK, I see how much of a difference that one show made. If I’ve been even a tiny part of that change, I feel good I just went in there wanting the Indian community to tune in and feel proud. What came out of the show was so much bigger.”

Post Big Brother, savvy Shilpa has been green-lighting only those projects that do justice to her newfound role as an aspirational icon on the international arena. The decision to do Miss Bollywood, a West End Musical was a smart career move to consolidate her position as an actor overseas. The actress also saw it as an opportunity to change how the world’s largest film industry is perceived by the West. “Bollywood is often looked at in a very derogatory way — people see our films as kitsch with loud colours and costumes. But we turn out some really good cinema and have a very strong cultural heritage. I wanted to take a slice of Bollywood to the West with Miss Bollywood.”

Unlike previous adaptations like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bollywood Dreams and Merchants Of Bollywood, Miss Bollywood was a no-holds-barred song and dance extravaganza starring an actual Bollywood actress. The enormously successful first round at Berlin, Holland and London attracted both mainstream European audiences as well as Asians. “Recently I was in London and this guy came up to me and asked me when we were doing the show again. He had seen it and wanted to see it again with his entire family. That’s the kind of reaction we evoked. I’m not here to patronise India. But if I’m put in a position where I can talk more about my country and Bollywood and do something for them, I’m more than happy to do it.,” she gushes.

The actress is pleased about being invited as the chief guest at the recent Dove self-esteem workshop at Sebright Primary School in London, accessed by 1.8 million people on the net. Rumoured to have gone under the knife at one point, she waxes eloquent on the wider definition of beauty. “A lot of children abroad want to go in for plastic surgery because they are low on self-esteem. The workshop was designed to build their confidence and tell them that beauty is not always what it seems outwardly. It’s what you are within.”

Philanthropy has its place, but she’s also the lady with the Midas touch. Estimated in polls as one of richest celebrities to date post her victory at Big Brother, Shilpa has an estimated net worth of Rs 115 million. Miss Bollywood brought in one standing ovation after another, as she toured Europe with it. Her perfume S2 raised more than Rs 12,00,000 at an auction in UK. After topping charts in the UK, her fitness DVD, Shilpa’s Yoga, is being readied for release in the Indian market, giving grief to the legendary Baba Ramdev who almost rules the market of yoga education products. Even her unauthorised biography is a money spinner.

Despite being flooded with a million Bollywood offers, she has  focussed her attention on the overseas market choosing her projects and endorsements with utmost care. Even as offers are pouring in for a second innings of Miss Bollywood from Australia, Singapore and the US, Brand Shilpa is everywhere – her own perfume, a yoga DVD, a biography and a clothesline in the offing. “I’m not really as ambitious as people make me out to be. But it would be foolish on my part not to make the best of whatever I have at this point of time. The perfume deal was offered to me like any other endorsement. It wasn’t a deliberate career move. I didn’t go out there especially and say, “I’m a brand. Mujhe brand banao. People wanted to do it and I got paid for it. I was excited about the yoga DVD. As for the biography, the author never spoke to me directly. She picked up stuff from all my old interviews and what she saw on Big Brother and made a book out of it.”

Accused of riding the racism wave to rake in the moolah, the actress admits she has had more than her share of negativity. “A lot of positive things came out of Big Brother. But here in India people didn’t know what was actually happening on a day to day basis inside the house, so they were very critical. They said, ‘She did it only for the money.’ Fine, even if I did, that’s my prerogative. Who is anyone to pass a comment on it? To come out of something like this with dignity goes down as a huge compliment. And I felt very proud. There’s not a single moment when I regret doing the show. The strange thing is that people said such negative things in my own country.”

Did that leave her feeling hurt or betrayed? “Not hurt. But it made me wonder. I feel extremely proud and happy when I see an Aishwarya Rai in a Hollywood movie today. She’s one of the first Bollywood girls to make it overseas. But she, too, is always slammed by the press. It’s sad but I’ve realised that all the people who make it big abroad get a raw deal by the media in India. It’s beyond me because I feel proud as an Indian if somebody from our country makes it big abroad. And there’s all these award functions where I’m nominated for Indian of the year award but don’t get it. An award doesn’t reiterate my position. But yes, it would be very nice if my country honoured me. Because I love India. I love being here. Even today when the national anthem plays, I have goose bumps. I’m that kind of person.”

Criticism persists but Shilpa is too self-assured to care. “A lot of people I see on television say, ‘Who is she? What has she done? She had her two minutes of glory and now she’s gone.’ I wonder whether they are feigning amnesia. I had two successful films, Apne and Metro last year, both of which were already in post-production by the time I won the show. It’s just been a year since I’ve come out of Big Brother. I’ve done a West End musical, started my production company, released my own yoga DVD and launched my own perfume. So frikking hell, I did a lot in this one year. I don’t understand when people say, ‘What has she done?’ Hello, guys. I can’t prove myself anymore. I don’t need to, honestly.”

Ironically, despite being a successful actress for over a decade, Shilpa’s finest hour came outside Bollywood. Her chrysalis took 50 films and 14 long years. “Yeah, how strange is that,” she muses. Her sterling performances in Phir Milenge and Life in a…Metro were proof that Shilpa was more than just the best body in showbiz. Why didn’t we get to see her in more of such films? Did Bollywood deny her? “I can’t answer that question. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been part of any camp,” she says. Was it bad career decisions on her part? “Well. Yes, I think I did my fair share of really rotten films. I’m quite happy to have survived all of them. But I tried to pick the best out of whatever was offered to me. Phir Milenge worked critically but didn’t win any awards. Dus and Metro worked. But films like Fareb and Khamosh brought down my brand equity. Every heroine has her share of bad movies. I don’t feel ashamed. I think there was also a learning curve for me.”

Shilpa’s move to sign top UK publicist Max Clifford after winning Big Brother fuelled speculation about the future course of her career. Rumours have also been rife about a Hollywood innings, but the actress denies signing any projects — including Quantum of Solace — or having an agent in Hollwood. “I know a lot of people want to see me in Hollywood. It’s very sweet. But I really haven’t made any effort in that direction. I don’t think I can go through with the struggle. You have to shift there bag and baggage, meet your agents. The biggest actors have to screen test. That’s really not something I’m up for at this stage.”  If she had a choice, what would she want to do? “Anything that works at the box office,” she chuckles.

Hollywood or not, Shilpa’s undoubt–edly an international star. At the Paris Fashion Week last month, where she represented Louis Vuitton for designer Mark Jacobs, the actress occupied the front row with celebrities like filmmaker Sofia Coppola, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal and American burlesque star Dita von Teese. At the educational self-esteem workshop in London, she joined the likes of ‘Desperate Housewives’ actress Andrea Bowen, T4’s Miquita Oliver, Blue Peter’s Zoe Salmon and ex-Atomic Kitten Liz McClarnon. And her perfume S2 put her in the league of Kylie Minogue, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Lopez and Paris Hilton.

Despite a deluge of plum offers, Shilpa has not signed any Bollywood project in recent times. “Nothing excites me. There’s a lot of work behind me so I don’t want to be repetitive.” Instead the actress has started her own production company to make movies on her own terms.”  The company will be a huge leap forward and is the most exciting thing in my life right now. I won’t be acting in all of the movies, only ones where I suit the role. I’ll definitely make films with other actors. My films will be completely commercial because I’ve always been part of mainstream cinema,” she says refusing to divulge more details.

The only Hindi film she has signed post Big Brother is Sunny Deol’s home production The Man. The actress who loved Dillagi is excited about being directed by Sunny. “It’s a fantastic script. I play the role of an actress. It’s a very meaty role. All my films with Sunny have been successful. We start shooting in March and the film will release in August or September.”

What about the man in her real life, UK based businessman Raj Kundra? “Everyone knows I’m dating someone. What else do you want me to say? Suddenly my love life has become everyone’s business. But I’ve always been an extremely private person.” What qualities does she like about Raj?  “I am not answering this question. It has nothing to do with my work,” she demurs. And marriage? “Of course, I want to get married. But I believe a long-term commitment needs time. I’ll get married the day my work commitments are over. And that’ll happen sometime down the line. And yes, I really hope my relationship works out and culminates in marriage.”

Given her huge popularity in the UK, does she ever want to settle in London? “London’s like a second home to me, but I can never live there. Home is Bombay.” What has she done in life that she’s most proud of? “I think I’ve been a good daughter. That’s my only achievement. The work is great. But it comes and goes. I try to be a good person. If people remember me as that, it would be an achievement for me. The rest is immaterial, really.”

As the interview concludes, I revisit the chaos theory in my mind. Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the weather might have been vastly different. Looking back, does Shilpa believe providence had this grand plan laid out for her? Would things have turned around so miraculously for her had she not done CBB? “I think it was destiny. I’ve worked very hard and been around for a really long time. I’ve made it without being part of any camp or big production company backing me. Whatever I am – big, small, good, bad or ugly – I’ve made it all on my own. In a way what happened was poetic justice. I’m convinced there had to be divine intervention for me to have come so far.”

Survival instinct, grace under pressure, great attitude and what many would call an astonishing karma have all contributed to the actress’ phenomenal success story. With her ringing laughter and easy charm, it’s impossible not to like her. Through the Verve shoot, she’s a picture of congeniality, cracking jokes and fooling around. Later as she glides into the studio, we watch butterfly Shilpa come to life in a gorgeous palette of buttercup, canary and lemon-drop yellows. The hues create a happy, sexy aura around her. The actress is in the spring of her life. It shows.

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