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Cover Story
February 13, 2019

Raveena Tandon: “There’s Space For An Older Sensual Woman”

Text by Paromita Vohra. Styling by Divyak D’souza. Photographed by Tarun Vishwa. Assisted by Zenia Daruvala and Khushi Bhatia. Hair by Florian Hurel at Artist Factory India. Make-Up by Kritika Gill

Women on the silver screen had just begun to showcase a certain confidence, independence and joie de vivre. And ’90s superstar Raveena Tandon infused each of her performances with her distinguishable brand of physical energy and natural femininity. Paromita Vohra, writer-filmmaker, has a conversation with the accidental actor to examine the space she occupied on celluloid in her heyday, and follows her evolution into an even more self-aware sex symbol since then

People who grew up in the 1990s will remember the advertisements for Maggi Hot and Sweet Sauce starring Jaaved Jaaferi and Pankaj Kapur. One of which featured this very entertaining line about the joys of having a colour TV: “Channel One — London, Channel Do — Raveena Tandon.”

I’m smiling at the memory of it as I sit before Raveena Tandon now, in 2019, as we talk of her 28-year film career and what it meant to be an actress in the ’90s. She is strikingly beautiful, disarmingly candid, naming names, airing opinions and girlishly voluble, but with an uncommon ability to pay attention to questions and really think about them before responding.

“Although I came from a film family, I guess we were very non-filmi. My mother sent me to school with oil in my hair for years, and people would mock me, calling me ‘vernie’ (vernacular) or ‘behenji’ (dork) or be like, ‘Your dad works in Hindi films? Eww!’” We laugh because as part of a certain generation, we remember acutely a time when any Bollywood love you had, had to remain firmly in the closet, and public life and coolness was all about acting as if you only liked ‘English’ movies and ‘English’ music.

“Acting wasn’t really in my plans as such. I was studying and thinking of doing the IPS exam, or becoming a pilot. But I was in the middle of an internship with Prahlad Kakkar, when I got a call from Shantanu Sheorey’s office saying they had heard of me on the college scene and wanted to shoot me. That led to my doing an ad for Sunsilk. Then I ended up doing more ads — one for Bisca noodles, one for Dollops ice-cream. I was just 15 or 16, drifting along like most young people do. I thought, ‘Ok, I’ll do this now.’”

It’s notable that most of the brands Tandon mentions don’t seem to exist anymore. The first decade of Indian liberalisation was marked by a kind of libidinal energy. New companies, new brands, new television channels and new idioms of what it meant to be Indian bubbled up successively. If anything typifies those years, it is the sense of culture being remixed, mirroring a transition from an older, nationally focused India to a new one with global aspirations. English and Hindi mashed up to create a lively new vernacular, suggesting that these two worlds, so far separated by a strict hierarchy and snobbery, could mingle and reformat each other. There were other border crossings. Shah Rukh Khan went from being an anti-hero to a hero. Vamps began to vanish as heroines claimed more overt sexual expression. Women on screen went from stylised, elaborate displays of femininity to a more androgynous exuberance.

“Everywhere I went with my dad (director Ravi Tandon), people would say, ‘She should do films.’ I think it was because Mahesh Bhatt had just launched Pooja Bhatt, and Nagma (step-daughter of producer Chandan Sadanah) was coming in to movies, so maybe people felt that I should do it too. One day GP Sippy called my dad with an offer. He said, ‘Ravi, it’s my home banner, your daughter is like my daughter, she will be perfectly protected.’ My dad said, ‘Ok, give it a shot.’ We did one photo shoot with Sheena Sippy, who is Ramesh Sippy’s daughter and had just started doing photography — and that’s how I ended up acting in Patthar Ke Phool (1991) with Salman Khan.”

This casually narrated anecdote is actually packed with a historic shift, mentioning as it does, four daughters in one breath. However progressive Bollywood’s great and not-so-great men might have been, or what images of women they created on screen, they were firmly conservative when it came to their own daughters, quick to marry them off. Commercial Hindi film actors and directors launched their sons’ filmi careers — but never those of their daughters. It’s a telling indicator of how Bollywood actually viewed women in the workplace — a view they did not want to expose their daughters to.

It was a significant turn in the ’90s then, that women from film families entered the movies — Pooja Bhatt, Raveena Tandon, Karisma Kapoor, Kajol, Tabu. They brought a confident, cosmopolitan contemporaneity to the screen, which came with both, their urban education and their connections. This meant a far more assertive female presence; one which carried its femininity lightly. Even the fashions they wore — jaunty ponytails and insouciant bangs, denim jackets and hoop earrings, mini-skirts and pedal pushers — they seemed to do for their own pleasure and not so much to allure.

“I had gone to co-ed schools, and I was in Mithibai College. I used to travel by train. I used to ride a motorbike or an open jeep to college. I learnt Taekwondo. I knew how to change a tyre and fix a puncture, I knew where the radiator was and why it was heating up. In fact, Shah Rukh even said this about me in Mushtaq’s (Sheikh) book: ‘Raveena rides a horse like a man.’ I wanted to say ‘Better than a man, ha ha.’ My mum never came with me on shoots once I had settled in. She was not the ‘Baby ke liye juice lao’ (Bring missy some juice) ‘filmi’ mum. My father always told me, ‘Even a baby, when she falls, gets up, gets it together and walks again. So you will fall in life, but you have to get up, get it together and move on.’ So, I found my way on my own, making professional and personal mistakes, figuring it out myself, fumbling along.”

This casual independence, an energetic physical presence infuses the body language of many heroines of that time. In a song from her first film, Patthar Ke Phool, the lyrics are made up of movie titles (Kabhi tu Chhalia lagta hai, kabhi Awara lagta hai, kabhi Hero lagta hai, kabhi Anadi lagta hai); Tandon seems free, easy, cheerful and open, but notably, in spite of her undeniable beauty — a regular girl.

A regular girl, in fact, like so many other young women in the ’90s, who, educated in pre-liberalisation India’s subsidised university system by middle-class parents keen on treating their daughters more equally than before, were making their way through professional life, in the many new and growing media and service industries. They were earning their own money, and sometimes living on their own as jobs took them away from home. In the lives of these women too, older divisions of good girls and bad, smart girls and bimbos, career woman and housewife were becoming meaningless. They loved work, mobility, fashion, freedom, feminism. Think of the women of the iconic ’90s television show Tara. They wanted to succeed and fall in love, be everything that they could and sample whatever the world had to offer.

“So many women come up to me and say, ‘You were my girl-crush of the 1990s.’ Men can flatter you. But when women say it, it pleases me because I feel it’s real in some other way,” states Tandon.

Maybe it has something to do also with the fact that in an era before the reign of stylists, Tandon, and other actresses of that time, say, Kajol or Karisma, were far from perfect and polished, looking as if they shopped on Fashion Street, just like the rest of us. Kajol’s unibrow and Karisma’s upper lip would be unthinkable on the movie screen today.

“I never did my eyebrows in most of my early films. You will remember my hair always looking a bit disheveled. I hadn’t even started waxing before I did my first movie!” laughs Tandon.

But this precise carefree, ordinariness was comforting and cheery to a generation of women trying to find an identity that was not limited to or by their appearance and traditional gender roles. It’s not that they made us feel like we could be movie stars as much as the fact that we could be ‘cool’ just as we were.

Yet, for all her artlessness, the overwhelming image of Raveena Tandon is definitely of hotness; of the sexy mast mast girl from Tip tip barsa pani and Tu cheez badi hai mast mast.

“I didn’t know Bollywood dancing. All my dancing in Patthar Ke Phool was like, I’m at some Mithibai social,” she laughs, miming that be-bop dance move of the young. “But I understood that I needed to learn something else. So when Saroj Khan was rehearsing for other films, I would go to Satyam Hall — which was a popular rehearsal space — and dance in the back row with the chorus dancers, to learn. Later I went to Gopi Krishnaji for kathak classes.”

What did this teach her? “Discipline and posture,” she says, without a blink. “Most importantly, kathak gave me a more Indian body language. Our rich heritage of dance and music is so deeply ingrained in our blood, however westernised we become or act. I think to communicate to a mass audience you need to have that. And I learnt from that expansive vocabulary of expressiveness, the difference between simple sexuality and subtle sensuality — it’s not about taking off your clothes, it’s about the look in your eye.”

The ’90s was a transitional time for bodies on screen. Diverse bodies, even if only as background dancers and minor characters, were giving way to a more homogenous, middle-class look. But just as Hindi and English mixed, so an Indian body language needed to mix with the more urban body language that was taking over the screen. This non-verbal vocabulary of how we walk, dance, dress and romance unites our external and internal selves — who we are with what we are becoming. With her combination of urban cosmopolitanism and repertoire of traditional expression in dance, Raveena Tandon embodied a contemporary ‘desi-ness’, a new sexiness that combined the many different registers of that time. Erasing the division between heroine and vamp, this kind of woman was more sexually straightforward too, frequently hugging, touching and clutching the hero, expressing desire on most equal terms.

“People said about Tip tip barsa paani and Tu cheez badi hai mast mast — ‘Oh it’s objectification’. I don’t agree. It came from a Lakhnavi colloquialism — ama tu badi mast cheez hai (babe, you’re quite a number). It was not about ao meri jawani aur mujhe le lo (I’m yours for the taking). It was sung both ways — the boy sang it to a girl, and a girl sang it to the boy too. It was mutual.”

This reflected off-screen social changes. “In college when girls fell for a guy, they pursued him. If it didn’t work out they moved on. It was simple. In Bollywood, Pooja Bhatt and I were the only ones who were open about dating. I always admitted what I felt — whether I was in love, whether I had been rejected, whether I was heartbroken. I don’t think there’s any shame in all that. I was also very collegial with men. But our media then was narrow minded and would link you with everyone. It used to hurt and upset me — not because I think having a relationship is wrong, but because it wasn’t true! I wasn’t into the whole PR scene. I was just straightforward about myself. But their gaze was so twisted that people refused to accept it. They would say — ‘How can she be so honest? She must be fake!’”

To be seen as fake when you are honest reveals the Indian preference for duality. The straightforward, unaffected woman has sometimes inhabited Bollywood screens — Geeta Bali and Neetu Singh come to mind. But for the most part, Indians have preferred the duality of a demure exterior and implied sexualness in women. But by the end of the ’90s, these ideas of fakeness and naturalness underwent a sea-change, especially for women on screen.

“The first time I plucked my eyebrows was for Aks in 2000. It was a turning point for me, I’ve been plucking them ever since!” says Tandon. It was a turning point in a larger sense too. The beauty pageant woman — whose natural beauty could be nipped, tucked, manicured and conformed to a global ideal of beauty — gained ascendance in the 21st century. As the economy was reshaped by the logic of the multi-national corporation (bye bye Dollops ice-cream) women’s bodies and personae mirrored the shift. We entered the era of the brand — where people were products and products were people, not just extensions of each other but versions of each other. Being polished and ‘produced’ became a new route to power for women and the gap between advertising and Bollywood reduced. This provided a doable method, a route through which more middle-class women could enter show business without those famed nepotistic connections. But it was a double-edged democratisation which also erased the unmoderated freeness, the screwball freshness found in madcap movies like Andaz Apna Apna (1994), which starred Tandon.

“Today girls come fully evolved and finished, like you could get them off the shelf. By their second film they have improved dramatically. We took 25 films to get to that level.”

When you point out the severe body image culture, Tandon shrugs. “We had it worse. We were body shamed by big magazines calling us ‘Kali billi’, (black cat) ‘Amazonian woman’, ‘Thunder thighs’. That can’t happen today — things are more politically correct and that’s good. It’s changed otherwise too. Earlier the heroine would say ‘mera pati mera devta hai’ (My husband is my Lord!). Then came, ‘He is my suhaag, kill me, not him’. Then I did Daman (2001), in which I kill my own husband and wipe off my sindoor. Those changes have seeped into mass entertainment too.”

She adds, “I think that women are in a much better place in the industry today. Today, a #MeToo movement can happen because there are so many more women working, and the awareness has gone up. In my time, if a woman spoke up, no one believed her. The actor would call her a psychopath or threaten violence — actresses have gone through that — and magazine editors would use it for headlines instead of supporting her.”

These changes are undeniable and important. Yet the causal freedoms that did not have to be justified by “gender issues”, which ’90s girls emanated on screen remain in our minds. Their very individual and original spirits were the heart of their glamour and allowed them to mature into a different womanhood too. The idea of a glamorous middle-aged woman that Tandon embodies in an Aks (2001) or a Bombay Velvet (2015) reformulates sexiness into something powerful, centred entirely on their personalities. It is a sexiness the women command, which is not easily reduced to one meaning by any gaze.

“There is a space, I suppose, for an older sensual woman — like Tabu in Andhadhun (2018). Filmmakers and audiences have broadened their horizons. The lines between ‘realistic’ and commercial have blurred.”

It’s worth remembering that just as such women once mixed up older and newer social Indian worlds, they are also the ones who helped blur these cinematic lines. The commercially successful actresses of the 1990s frequently crossed over to offbeat films in search of different roles and different selves — whether it was Tandon in Shool (1999), Praan Jaye Par Shaan Na Jaye (2003) or Daman, Tabu in the films of Gulzar and Vishal Bhardwaj, and even Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in Raincoat (2004). To watch the journeys of women suffused by individuality is to watch the screen expand as it accommodates their unique glamour and power.

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