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December 26, 2014

Goddess Of Glamour

Packing oomph into every move, Malaika Arora-Khan burns the silver screen in foot-stomping numbers. Ace lensman Atul Kasbekar points out why, even after two decades, she has continued to remain ‘elegantly sexy’ – no matter what she does, what the lyrics are and what new contortions the choreographer conceives

In model /actress Naomi Campbell’s book Naomi, a bunch of famous people in the industry were asked to fill a page about the supermodel. Iconic photographer, Steven Meisel filled his entire page with only the words ‘I Adore Naomi’ on repeat!

If I was asked to fill a page with my thoughts on Malaika Arora-Khan that pretty much would be the most telling and definitive way for me to say my piece. But then, in this case, I must elaborate more than Mr Meisel, effectively to say the same thing!

My first encounter with Malaika was years ago, on a shoot for a woman’s magazine. The editor called and said they’d made a discovery. There was this young girl they believed was the next best thing and wanted four or five different photographers to shoot an image apiece. I shot Malaika in a white shirt on the sand at Marve Beach. A simple enough shot, but what struck me apart from those impossible cheekbones, was her quiet confidence. For someone facing the camera, even the first few times, she had the aura of someone who knew where she belonged.

Nothing much has changed over two decades, except that she talks more. Those impossible cheekbones still remain, only now there’s ‘that’ backside that would have Beyoncé and J-Lo do a double take.

In fact, I’ve routinely stated in interviews that Malaika’s perhaps the best model I’ve ever had the good fortune to photograph. And this was something that led me to do a madly effective exercise.

On at least two separate occasions I asked a promising young model (Deepika Padukone was one of them – she had just embarked on her career with modelling) to sit quietly when I’m shooting with the ‘Goddess’ and just watch how she works the camera and the person behind it.

Once the shoot is on, so is Malaika. On! She goes into a zone and nuances a Nikon and iMac into overheating. What’s special is that while she will inevitably get fantastic images with familiar photographers, even a novice can’t get a bad shot. She knows the light, the angles and expressions that work effectively for her. If the person behind the camera isn’t working all of these optimally for her, she works them for him.

‘Elegantly Sexy’ – that is really the perfect term to describe her. No matter what she does, what the lyrics are; what new contortion the choreographer conceives.

It doesn’t matter if she ensured that she ruined train rides for everyone other than SRK. It doesn’t matter that the advertisement she was in for a coffee was replete with sexual innuendoes and became a torchbearer for the merits of foreplay. Munni Kabhi Badnaam Nahi Hoti. What she does is never tacky, cheap or vulgar.

And most people have the same reaction. When everyone near a courtroom is looking for their 15 minutes of Warhol with any silly excuse they can get, no one ever thinks Malaika is crossing some moral line. Incredible I think. How? I have no idea. Perhaps a book someday would spill those secrets.

Two decades…that is an eternity in the beauty business. In fact, in terms of timelines in today’s insanely evolving and multiple visual options, 20 years is effectively a period from the Jurassic Age to the present.

Most actresses in their 30s suddenly seem to fall out of contention in our inherently chauvinistic film world. But not Malaika.

Can anyone even begin to comprehend what an incredibly complex combination of beauty, hard work, public relations, fitness, street smarts and general chutzpah it needs for a beautiful face to remain a strong contender 20 years later? From model, to host, to VJ, actor, item girl, wife, mother, producer – a baffling range of facets in her process of constant reinvention.

I honestly doff my hat at this fantastic exercise in retention at the top. As a photographer I know just how insanely competitive it is for someone to be relevant for that period of time. For a person facing the camera it’s that much tougher. For a woman, it is even more so.

Part of her popularity is also due to her inherent goodness. Without fail, she will make it a point after every show to go backstage and thank her dancers, spots and other tech crew. She has a wicked sense of humour and won’t hesitate in indulging in good-natured banter and ribbing with everybody – from the director to the coffee boy. I believe this has held her in mutual warmth with a lot of people. Given a choice between Malaika and someone else who could deliver, I’m sure it’s the fun company and bonhomie that tips it in her favour often enough. I know that has routinely worked with me.

In all the talk of alleged camps and fights and ill will between superstars at the top, she manages to feature in the movies of both sides of supposedly warring parties, whether in an item song or a cameo with clockwork regularity. You have to be made of something pretty special to make that happen!

In any industry there are those that set a benchmark and a standard for people in the future. While one can argue endlessly about whether other professionals in the advertising/ beauty/ photography business set those levels, I would bet my house (and it is a nice house) that Malaika is up on everyone’s list as one of India’s best ever.

I adore Malaika…. I suspect everyone else does as well!

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