Big Brother, Father Figure
Hakim’s Aalim Hair Lounge in suburban Mumbai, is a convenient though unusual, place for the interview, interspersed between a photo shoot. For, Suniel Shetty is a busy man. In the morning, he’s going to be at Taj Lands End, Bandra, meeting up with ace cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar, then he’s tied up through the weekend, organising and participating in the Mumbai-Pune Moto Xtreme rally. So, it’s a take it or leave it situation. I take it. Used to stars who treat the concept of time lightly, I turn up a tad late, only to be greeted at the door by the art director who tells me that Shetty has been there for the last 15 minutes…and I can cool my heels because he’s getting dressed.
He emerges finally, all bronzed and rippling muscles in ganji and jeans and, as he sits down to get his hair attended to by the pretty stylist, I perch next to him on a swivel chair where my feet don’t touch the floor. Precariously balancing paper, pen and myself, I desperately try to maintain eye contact with the actor while talking to him…not at all easy, what with his long mane swinging and the hairdryer coming perilously close to singeing my brows.
Shetty, born and brought up in the rarefied atmosphere of Malabar Hill, did not really aspire to be an actor. His restaurateur father,Verappa Shetty, although partial to having a doctor in the family, did not really mind what his only son did for a living, as long as the said son made money.
The son was then heavily into martial arts, dreamt of donning the cricketing blues for India and, when not wooing and impressing Mana Kadri, with his prowess on motorbikes, generally hung around the apparel boutique, Mischief, which he had started with a few close buddies.
“A lot of industry people would come here to shop and it was people like director, Rajiv Rai and photographer, J P Singhal who encouraged me to join films. I have always believed that when opportunity knocks, I must take it. And here it kept on knocking.”
Although the first film he signed was Sajid Nadiadwala’s Waqt Hamara Hain, his first release was Balwaan. “Non-filmi background, non-conventional looks and yet I had signed 45 films even before my first release,” he grins. Although his beefcake physique and daredevil stunts garnered him a loyal fan following, none of the initial films set the box office exactly on fire and the brickbats were quick to follow.
“They said I could not talk…could not act…could not dance. Tell me what I haven’t been called – ham…wooden…doorknob…non actor….”
Did that hurt? “No, why should it?” he shoots back. “It was all true, wasn’t it? The only thing I knew when I entered the industry was how to jump off from the eleventh floor.”
The only other thing he knew was how to make and keep friends. And that’s why today even the fickle cinema industry, refers affectionately to him as Anna – big brother. “Oh, that was started by Sanju (actor, Sanjay Dutt), just to prove to everybody that I was older than him! But I do have this strong protective almost paternal instinct in me that justifies the name,” he confesses.
Protective and paternal…even towards his female co-stars? “As an actor there are bound to be attractive girls all around me, but I know where to draw the line. Maybe that’s why most heroines look at me as a father figure; but that in itself is dangerous because most girls want to marry guys who remind them of their fathers,” he says with a straight face even as he holds a pose and peers through stark bamboo branches in the salon courtyard. Do I imagine the wicked glint?
Talking of marriage wife, Mana and he have a rock steady relationship, not once fissured by alleged link-ups and rumoured romances, the bane of every Bollywood star. “We have been happily married now for 15 years and that was preceded by nine years of courtship. In fact, I got married before my first film released.”
Wasn’t that harakiri for a wannabe hero? “I knew here was somebody who was depending on me…who loved me and I couldn’t let her down, so we got married. My wife and children mean the world to me. I love them to death and there’s nothing I would do to hurt them in any way.”
He makes no bones about the fact that when it comes to priorities, his family and friends come first. “Of the 26 students in my class in school, 11 of us still meet up every Saturday. Two of my oldest friends – Rajiv Goenka, a chemical engineer and Prakash Khubchandani, a doctor – are also two of my oldest business partners. With Sanju, I’ve got three Shades outlets selling high end sunglasses.”
So, is Shetty a better businessman than an actor? “Suniel Shetty is emotional and doesn’t follow the rules of business,” he replies wryly. “He rules with his heart and falls. I wouldn’t call myself a good businessman and, as an actor, I’m still learning. Yes, I do excel in time and man management. I have a great team and I treat them as equals. Of course, I’ve had bad experiences and I’ve learnt my lesson – not to trust any and everybody. But at the same time I’m not so disillusioned as to stop trusting totally. Above all, I follow what my father taught me – never lie in business, always be honest.”
In spite of the rough, tough exterior, Shetty is a self confessed softie. “Anyone would come to me with a sob story and I would buy it. I must have worked with at least 30 new directors. If I liked a person, I’d say yes. Now I’m wiser. It makes no difference to me whether it’s a solo hero or five-hero project as long as the director is creatively inspiring. I have absolutely no ego hassles and don’t mind playing second fiddle to anyone. Filmmaking is like the glorious and uncertain game of cricket. Even if I don’t do well in a match, I will still be happy if my team emerges triumphant. Acting is like a team effort. If a film is a hit due to the histrionics of a Paresh Rawal (Hera Pheri), then I don’t brood over it. It is counted as my hit too. I salute anyone who helps me in making the film become a hit.”
He continues, “My best films would be Hera Pheri, Mohra, Dhadkan, Border, Refugee… because these helped me finally get rid of the non-actor tag. Now I’m proud of the work I do on screen.”
Besides his restaurants and boutiques, his Popcorn Entertainment produces films (Rakht and Khel to date) as well as organises stage shows abroad. There’s more happening on the business front with the Bollywood-based, theme lounges he’s planning to set up abroad. “Bollywood has become the yardstick for Indian popular culture. All the clothes and accessories retailing from these lounges will be Bollywood inspired. There will also be a styling salon and Indian café complete with Hindi music,” he enthuses.
Ten such ‘Bollywood Se’ lounges are planned across 10 cities including Dubai, London and Singapore as well as a couple in the USA. Does his celebrity status help his business? “Initially it does. But, in the end, the quality of service is what matters. People may flock to my Salt Water Grill (a hip restaurant on the beach) because I’m associated with it, but unless they’re happy with the food, ambience, service, they’re not going to come again,” he states candidly.
He is also among the more socially conscious of the film fraternity and is an ambassador for Save The Children, India, for which he’s spearheading the Moto Xtreme 2005 – a 10 hour rally – to raise money for a school at the Bandra-Kurla Complex, Mumbai. “It isn’t only about racing down the highway at top speed. The most important part for me is raising money for the school. I’m going to enjoy the ride as my son, Ahaan, has promised to be my co-driver.”
He has adopted a village near Lonavala called Kunegaon. “I am building a house there,” he explains. “There’s a stream running nearby and, when I saw village women coming from afar to wash clothes and collect water there, I realised that this was their only source of water. So now I’m building a bore-well to make their life a little easier.” A temple and a school are also on the anvil.
Also in the pipeline is a project with mother-in-law, Vipula Kadri, to found a boarding school for soldiers’ children. “To keep the children away from war and terrorism,” he explains. He recently launched ITC’s SOS Children’s Village of India range of greeting cards for the current season.
Obviously, children are his Achilles heel and he says he’s a great dad to his own – son, Ahaan and daughter, Athiya. “I’ll rate myself 15 on 10 as a father,” he says and unabashedly admits to spoiling them to death. “I don’t work on Sundays and spend all my time with them…play football with Ahaan who’s 10 and wants to play for Arsenal. My daughter is 13 and all she wants to do is shop…so we shop till she drops!”
Does he ever wonder how a simple Shetty boy whose only ambition was to play cricket for India managed to achieve all that he has? “Laxmi has been very, very kind to me. My family, friends, well-wishers have been kind to me. All my needs have been met. All I ever wished for – for myself, for my family – has been given to me.” In obvious gratitude to the almighty, he is vegetarian on Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturdays, whilst the rest of the week, his favourite fare is prawn gassi/rice and crisply fried kane (ladyfish).
We’re back inside the salon and he talks of the holiday he is planning with family and gang of friends to some island near Singapore. “They only ask me along because I’m the joker in the pack. They know I’ll do lots of masti and keep everybody – bachchas and bhabhis – happy. It has nothing whatsoever to do with my so called star value,” he smiles and as the stylist and her deadly dryer hover back into view, I back away.
Styling by Navin Shetty. Jewellery Me by Adora.
Hair styling by Raychel @ Hakim’s Aalim. Location courtesy: Hakim’s Aalim Hair Lounge, Bandra.
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