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April 10, 2014

The Barracks and the Beautiful

Text by Sitanshi Talati-Parikh

These driven professionals have solid grounding even if they have lived a nomadic existence. Discipline, endurance, strong commitment to fitness, confidence and the ability to fit in anywhere are defining qualities of army brats. Verve finds that their background is a strong player in their success

  • Neha Dhupia
    Neha Dhupia
  • Gul Panag
    Gul Panag
  • Anuja Chauhan
    Anuja Chauhan
  • Nimrat Kaur
    Nimrat Kaur
  • Tarun Tahiliani
    Tarun Tahiliani

“In the services one defined themselves by what one did and stood for, and that does someone more good than being dependent on possessions, especially those handed down to you. Our self- confidence came from ourselves, it was partially a nomadic life, thinking was the best way to travel, movies could be watched under umbrellas in the rain, and one was inculcated with a sense of pride”. – Tarun Tahiliani, designer

Were you aware that the celebrated designer and his sister, Tina, who runs the country’s foremost multi-brand designer store, Ensemble, both hail from a defence background? Their father, Admiral Radhakrishna Hariram Tahiliani, served as the Chief of the Naval Staff of the Indian Navy and as the Governor of Sikkim. Far more than you may realise, the great names of art and culture, fashion and television, corporate anchors and CEOs owe their allegiance to a background of serving the country. (See box for Bollywood’s army kids)

When you observe the way in which these young men and women deal with the pressures of public life, the way in which they remain calm under crisis or criticism, and have the patience and wherewithal to continue on a chosen trajectory, is seems to have a direct bearing on their powerful upbringing. Indian cinema actor, Anushka Sharma’s ability to respond with grace and restraint over the recent public scrutiny or Priyanka Chopra’s strong-willed endurance could be attributed to their upbringing. Former Miss India and Indian cinema actress, who once considered becoming an IAS officer, Neha Dhupia, is strong-willed and not easily moved. “I’m very stable as a person: when my head packs up my body takes over and when my body packs up my mind takes over. My Mom always says, ‘If it doesn’t kill you it only makes you stronger.’ My Dad always says, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff.’ My parents are humble, educated and unaffected by their surroundings. Being indecisive about things in life isn’t appreciated; it’s almost a sign of being foolish. It’s important to try – winning or losing isn’t important.”

The lifestyle, bordering on nomadic – as Tahiliani describes it – is bound to have repercussions – for most of them, the ability to make friends anywhere, to pick up and move on and remain disconnected from the trappings of setting roots, and treating it like an “adventure”, as stellar novelist, and Rajput army kid, Anuja Chauhan, puts it. It serves them well when dealing with fame, ephemeral industries, transitory jobs and new people. Indian cinema actress, Nimrat Kaur, who shot to fame recently with The Lunchbox, says “We never stayed in one place for more than two to three years. It keeps challenging your comfort zone. You need to make new friends and start afresh; you don’t have an identity you carry with you for years together.” Actor and activist, Gul Panag counts that she has been to 13 schools: “I’m still in touch with these friends. Having travelled so much, I do find it easier to view life as a wide canvas.” While Chauhan admits that “you get better at socialising, taking a deep breath, walking into a roomful of strangers and making friends with them”, she believes that not sticking around in one school impacts the chance of having deep friendships.

There is also a tolerance towards and the ability to deal with people, while fostering an innate sense of confidence and approachability. Says Kaur, whose father was a farmer’s son and didn’t have money for school: “The environment is extremely eclectic – people from all walks of life come in to the army to become officers. You are exposed to values from different cultures. Everyone has the same resources and furniture, is at the same level – it makes a difference to your worldview. As a girl I was never treated differently from the boys, you have the same responsibilities.” And they are definitely not shy talking to people. Chauhan agrees, “Army brats strut around a safe cantonment environment, and so they’re more confident – and more patriotic!”

Great mental strength and the ability to deal with situations bristling with tension give them staying power in industries that are cutthroat yet riddled with fragile and tenuous relationships. Gul Panag, whose father, H S Panag, is a general (retired) in the Indian Army, admits that having to deal with the fact that one of your family members may be posted to an area that is fraught with immense danger and dealing with the uncertainty that it creates, makes you mentally very tough. “The whole focus of putting country before self also creates a deeper sense of purpose and strength that is then evident in other areas of life as well – you are willing to take more risks, live life fuller and, of course, are also more grounded.” Perhaps this thinking gives Panag the ability to be outspoken on a public platform, the confidence to become an activist for social causes.

And along with that comes the actual physical strength – the training to keep going for long hours and withstand immense physical pressure. Army brats are all very outdoorsy, learning to swim and horse-ride at an early age, are automatically exposed to a wide range of sports and tend towards natural athleticism, even if all can’t eventually be the famous runner Milkha Singh or his golfer son, Jeev Milkha Singh. Or stunt star Akshay Kumar, for that matter! Panag started running when she was 16, inspired by her father’s passion for fitness. “He would often make an example of me to his unfit officers, comparing the fact that a 16-year-old girl could outrun them! The focus on fitness was certainly a way of life growing up, and it’s stayed with me always.” Kaur also stresses on the discipline that comes as a part of the culture, along with being physically fit – being physically on time! “My father was one of the fittest people I had known. It (the movie industry) is a physically exhausting field and being delicate takes that much longer to adapt to things.” Neha Dhupia is a regular in the Mumbai Marathon. “I never start or end my day without a run, even when I am travelling. Being in the (movie) industry you want to get away, to clear and relax your mind, not have it ticking like a time bomb.” Chauhan, who easily romanticises the cantonment life says, “I think the whole club-swimming pool-golf-course- embroidery classes-May Queen Ball culture is one of the best one could have those days.”

The regular social events in the barracks, which include participation in initial-level beauty contests such as the Navy Queen held at the Navy Ball, naturally prep the girls for thinking of pageants as a future option on a bigger scale. Dhupia changed her mind about becoming an IAS officer when an uncle suggested her entering her name in the Miss India beauty pageant. There was no looking back. From Sushmita Sen and Lara Dutta to Pooja Batra, there are a number of army offspring who have shone in beauty pageants and eventually gone on to become actresses. Panag admits, “I think every little girl dreams of being Miss India one day. I don’t know if it’s an army-specific thing. But certainly the outlook in the defence forces is forward looking and allows girls that freedom to dream and do.” But Kaur is quite vociferous in her anti-view, “My mother was never inclined towards beauty contests. I don’t subscribe to them personally. They are an easy way of making a mark. When Sushmita Sen won Miss Universe, or Aishwarya Rai won Miss World, everyone rejoiced. The novelty may have got diluted today – now there are other ways of being noticed.”

Being associated with a defence family also means dealing with the loss of life and coming to terms with insecurity about your loved ones. It also tends to make you value life more. Kaur, whose father was in the Indian Army and lost his life in a terrorist attack in Kashmir, has deep feelings about it. “Having seen death up close keeps your core strong. My inner strength or core comes from an upbringing I have seen – you can take everything away from me, but you cannot take away the upbringing. I have these values and they remain with me. I have seen extremely drastic times with losing my father on the field in Kashmir. I don’t know if being in any other profession would have changed things. Life is more fragile and you have experienced more dangerous situations. You don’t take things for granted; you value life and people. Things change without your control so rapidly. All you have is your conduct and how you treated people, and your goodwill.”

Without going deep into Francis Galton’s nature and nurture debate, and accepting that the ‘tabula rasa’ theory cannot be viewed in isolation, one must admit that one’s upbringing and surroundings have a strong and dynamic impact on our choices, thinking and personality. It defines whom you eventually go on to become and defines how you deal with circumstances. Army brats are given a solid foundation upon which they manage to make something of themselves – as so many people in diverse fields have proven. Galton’s half- cousin Charles Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is not too far from the truth when it comes to defining the success of these individuals from defence backgrounds. They are fit, determined and they often show us how it’s done.

BOLLYWOOD’S ARMY BRATS

  • Akshay Kumar
  • Anushka Sharma
  • Arjun Rampal
  • Celina Jaitley
  • Chitrangada Singh
  • Gauri Khan
  • Lara Dutta
  • Mohnish Behl
  • Pooja Batra
  • Preity Zinta
  • Priyanka Chopra
  • Sushmita Sen

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