India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Cover Story
November 16, 2005

Torrid Zone

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographs of Bipasha Basu by Atul Kasbekar. Photographs of John Abraham by Harsh Man Rai, Courtesy: Man's World. Styling by Nisha Jhangiani. Bipasha Basu: All outfits, from Gianfranco Ferre’s Fall/Winter 2005-06 collection. Make-up by Vimi Joshi, for M.A.C. Eyes, hush smes, paradisco, navy eyekohl, perwink mascara; cheeks, rule smes, silver dusk highlighter; lips, orangecream pro gloss; skin, moisture feed skin, studiotech. Hair by Madhuri Nakhale. Retouch artist: Sudhir Gautam. Location courtesy: Seijo and the Soul Dish

She burns up the screen with her slinky curves and bold moves…he’s the hunk who fuels countless female fantasies. Sizzling duo, Bipasha Basu and John Abraham are now poised to make a fresh impact on celluloid with offbeat career moves. Verve has a candid exchange with the coolest couple in tinsel town

Her Scenes
She’s sitting pretty…in more ways than one. Having got herself into even more perfect physical shape in the last few months – if that were really possible – through a rigid regimen of diet and workouts, the sultry actress has given ‘sexy’ a completely new connotation. No wonder then that No Entry, her latest box- office offering, has seduced the crowds into the theatres with its double entendres and oomphy body language.

His Shots
He’s savouring sweet success at the Toronto Film Festival where Deepa Mehta’s Water was showcased to rave reviews, as he briefly touches home in Mumbai before air dashing to an extended shooting schedule for his prestigious project, Kabul Express.

Their Script
The chemistry that crackled on the screen in Jism was no flash in the pan. Though their subsequent releases (Aitbaar and Madhoshi) did not really set pulses racing, no one questions their combined screen presence. Together, they spell mind-blowing charisma. Making no bones about their attraction for each other, Basu and Abraham have eschewed the routine “We are just good friends” statements.

Over to the hottest, cool combo in tinsel town.

Bipasha Basu’s Takes
At the appointed time her car rolls up outside a swanky suburban watering hole in Mumbai. She strides up to the first floor sunlit area and settles down comfortably in a bucket chair, behind the dark curtains of the hastily created make-up room.Warm, down to earth and very forthright, it does not take long for her to talk about matters closest to her heart – her family and her work. Before embarking on a roller-coaster conversation on the joys and trials of being an actress, I take a few moments to delve into her real life persona. When her father named her ‘Bipasha’, meaning deep dark desire – a feeling she naturally inspires – it must have been prophetic. She laughs out loud at the suggestion. “I love my name because I know that there are not ten of me. Most Indian names are very common. It does make good reading material considering the way my life has turned out.”

A pure and proud Bengali who was born in New Delhi and brought up in Kolkata, Basu admits to being laid-back, “a quality that seeped into me in the city I lived in for most of my life”. The middle child of three girls, she was a good, correct student. “I was my teacher’s favourite and also daddy’s pet since I was the youngest in the family for a long time till Vijayta, my younger sister, came along. My elder sister, Bidisha, who is my exact opposite, hated me because I never misbehaved at school!” Still, it was Basu, the local tomboy, who beat up all the children in her locality and was known as ‘Lady Goonda’.

As a child, she did not nurture any starry dreams nor did she, as a growing teen, preen before the mirror. Basu finds the suggestion rather amusing. Pointing to the looking glass in front of her, she tells me, “When I stand in front of a mirror I cannot see myself…. I like to be blind and see the world in soft focus.”

It is difficult to believe that this elegant swan was, some years ago, an ugly duckling of sorts. She chortles at the memory, elaborating, “I am a very nice person and that makes my overall package interesting; in my early childhood I was a round tub. Later, in my teens, my face continued to look the same but I stretched quite a bit. I knew that I was ‘something’ interesting when, in class XI, all the boys proposed marriage!”

When the teenage Basu won the Ford Supermodel Contest…and later made an appearance in Hindi films, she faced the usual criticism of being dubbed ‘wooden’. “As if that was not enough,” she reveals, “dark-skinned actresses were not really welcomed in the mainstream movies. I did not think that I’d be accepted. Today, bronze is in but at that time I was an unconventional actress. I used to put oil on myself to get tanned. Luckily, the look worked for me.”

She was also a newcomer who danced to a different beat. “I came in as a vamp,” says Basu, with no regrets at all. “Hindi film heroines then were all about being oh so righteous. It is so much more fun to be complicated….”

And the fact is that she is undoubtedly sexy. “What’s wrong with being sexy?” she counters swiftly, as she has always. “I want to wrinkle naturally and will not fight against nature to stay young, but I definitely want to look hot and sexy when I am 100 years old.”

The importance of being sexy and winning fans and friends is obviously a matter close to her heart. Having got on to her favourite soap box, it is difficult to stop her. “In India, it is taboo to be called sexy but worldwide it is a compliment. You do not have to be beautiful to be really sexy; you must have that element of attractiveness in you. Thank God,” she affirms, “I had a bit of international exposure before I joined Hindi cinema so I was able to comprehend the difference between sexy and vulgar. I have never looked vulgar – that happens only when you are desperate to make it big. Today, there are many girls who are called sexy but they are only indulging in skin show. I do not have to do anything to look sexy.”

Even with her glamorous physicality, Basu has been bagging different roles. She is most excited about playing a simple medical student in Prakash Jha’s Apaharan, a film that focuses on the harsh realities of life in Bihar. “Here, I wear simple salwar kameezes or kurtas and jeans with the minimum of make-up. In fact, I have used only kajal in most of the film. True, for a long time I was stuck with one image,” she confesses. “But now there are new directors coming in who believe in styling so it’s not difficult to try out different roles, something I have always wanted to do.”

Acknowledging that it is a “big compliment to be offered offbeat roles”, Basu quickly points out: “Most actors look for arty movies when their careers are dying out. A film, whether commercial or art, is a film. I am not going to actively look out for offbeat roles. Yet, I am doing ‘different’ films while I am still at my peak.” Pointing to her stylish image in the mirror after a swift costume change, she is indeed a show-stopper in the Italian designer couture that has been specially flown down for the shoot, a question arises if Basu will turn her back on the glam factor in her life, to prove herself an actress of mettle. “No way,” she retorts quickly. “My USP is the way I look. The youth identify with me. I cannot do only deglamourised roles as my fans want to see me looking great. I am intelligent enough to understand that it is important for me not to let that side of my personality slip.”

She exudes a strong maturity beyond her years as she analyses her popularity and flashbacks on her stint in the industry. “Even a donkey gets better after a few movies; I am much superior to an ass! I realised that I wanted to be an actor when I did Raaz and there was no looking back after that.”

Her early maturity, she ascribes to her exposure to the international circuit while still in her teens. It toughened her up – a quality that held her in good stead when she entered Bollywood. “From the age of 17,” she remembers, “I have lived rough, travelled around the world and met all kinds of people. I had everything at arms’ length but I never felt like smoking nor did I touch drugs. I may sip wine occasionally but I do not like drinking. I am proud to say that I am not ruled by any kind of addiction.”

Work dominates her life as does her passion for her family. Her involvement with John Abraham is no closely guarded secret. “We are old and mature enough to be open about our relationship,” she laughs. “We are not just ‘good friends’. John and I are boyfriend and girlfriend. It feels great to have a man like him in my life. We complement each other because we are normal people. We have simple middle class values – these are my real treasure trove.”

Their personal relationship was kick-started by Abraham, who according to Basu proposed to her within two days of shooting for Aitbaar. “He asked me, ‘Why don’t we get married? I want a son like me and a daughter like you because I do not like boys with big eyes.'”

Marriage is still a few years away, for Basu says she would like to put away her acting shoes when she gets married. “I want John to concentrate on his work. His career is on a roll and it is important that he should make it big. Plus, I have it in my head that the day I get married, I will stop acting. I will definitely not sit at home without doing anything though; I cannot live without working.”

So right now, she shares a marvellous relationship with Abraham – off screen and on it too – though surprisingly they have not done films together for a while. “We are looking at some scripts,” she says, admitting that they had decided not to work together for some time. “I do not find working with John difficult; he is a good actor. If my boyfriend was a bad actor I would not sign a film with him. We do not want to waste the chemistry we have on a script that will not do it justice. It’s awful to read later that real life lovers do not come across well on screen. That’s not really true.”

Acknowledging their common passion for work, Basu says they are poles apart in many ways. She does not share his obsession with speed. “I may take risks where my roles are concerned but I am not into anything that poses a risk to your life. I respect his passion for his wheels. I will never restrict him from going for rides… He cannot live without his bike. My passion is the people around me, my family….” And, of course, John Abraham.

John Abraham’s Frames
“Water worked for me in a big way.”
Abraham was the surprise package of Deepa Mehta’s much talked about movie on the ill treatment of widows in India. Following agitations by conservatives in Varanasi, Water was shot on location in Sri Lanka. “I was extremely proud that Deepa Mehta signed me on for the provocative and persuasive film,” says Abraham, who assayed a radically different role. “It is an Indian film in more ways than one. I had to do my homework well and put in a lot of hard work to get my act in order. I played a Gandhian kind of traditional person, bespectacled and dressed in dhotis. I had to get my Sanskrit diction just right.”

“I am not even remotely close to Hollywood.”
The effort paid off…. Rumours filtered home that the actor had been approached by a Canadian agent for Hollywood projects. Abraham remains surprisingly rather tight-lipped about his international presence. “Indians are not yet Hollywood, in the true sense of the word, not even Aishwarya Rai. She has done international cinema,” states Abraham crisply. “I am not living under any false inhibitions nor am I making any false proclamations. Several agents have approached me. I have taken a conscious decision not to move too fast and honestly, I do not feel the need to blow my own trumpet. When things happen they will automatically get noticed.”

“I was never labelled a non actor.”
Labouring under a dual disadvantage – “of my Christian name and the profession I came from” – Abraham has swiftly, in a span of few years, made inroads into the industry. Though his films did not always hit the box-office bullseye, “my performances were appreciated,” he says with due modesty. “I have this habit of underplaying my scenes. I do not appear to be acting and perhaps that is why I fitted into Deepa Mehta’s frame of things perfectly.”

“If you are not good, you will not survive in the industry.”
His firm favourite to date remains one of his early offerings, Jism. “I never really saw or read anything about me being called a non actor,” he states. “After Jism, my father told me, ‘I love the way you do not act.’ I take that as a compliment.”

Without a home production to fire his career, it took a couple of years and a few more films, for the industry and the world to sit up and take notice of his charismatic presence. “I do not think about whether being a star son is good or bad,” he says matter-of-factly. “I did not belong to the film fraternity. The industry has embraced me with frankness and respect. And, finally, I can always boast that I made it on my own steam.”

“Dhoom gave my career a new lease of life.”
The action film with a young and fun loving unit showcased Abraham as a cool villain. “Abhishek (Bachchan), Uday (Chopra) and I had a blast,” he laughs. “We are all almost the same age…and we did not feel as if we were working together. It was like a picnic. The end result showed how much we enjoyed the experience.”

With this movie that revolved around motorbikes and young men, he got a completely new audience hooked to his biceps and body language. “Children have really liked me in the film. I am touched that they love me not as Kabir (the character I play) but as John Abraham. With this fan following, I have become more responsible as I would not like to let them down.”

He is candid about his disappointment at his exit from the sequel. “We are still friends, nothing can change that,” he asserts. “I was naturally upset that I was not in Dhoom 2 but I prefer being gracious, rather than undignified and ungrateful.”

“I love the sense of freedom.”
Schoolmates, who remember him from his Bombay Scottish School days, recall his early fondness for bikes. No wonder then that Abraham was in his element in Dhoom as he zipped about on the tarmac hugging, mean machines. “If I had my way I’d have my bike right next to my bed,” he admits. “Bikes are in my blood. I have always been fond of speed and used to live on one wheel rather than two! My favourite bike is a Yamaha MT 01. Biking is a state of mind. Ask ten bikers and nine out of ten will say that freedom and the element of risk is what makes us move so fast.”

“What’s wrong in being called a hot hunk?”
Roles and flicks apart, his silver screen impact has been largely facilitated by his sexy image. Even Abraham will not deny that. “I feel good and special when someone calls me sexy or hot,” he says with a grin. “If you are exceptional in some way, why hide it? I am not at all self-conscious about my body or my hot image. I accept all the compliments graciously.”

Yet, he lays minimum importance to conventional grooming and the way he looks. “You may find it difficult to believe but I don’t spend time thinking about my appearance,” says the fit as a fiddle actor. “I am a workaholic by choice and instinct. I am best when I am doing something.”

“My looks don’t restrict my roles.”
He carries his hot hunk image with panache. Not only did Water spotlight him in a different avatar, his forthcoming productions are extremely varied. Listing his films in random order – Garam Masala, Babul, Kabul Express, Zinda, Is Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon, Salaame Ishq, Abraham reiterates, “Being sexy is not a bad thing. I can still look and act as differently as my scripts demand.” So it is no surprise that directors are turning to the actor with the Midas touch, even though he’s said no to them earlier. “I had said no to Karan (Johar) earlier but he understood why I’d refused the film – the role he’d offered was too small. We remained friends…and later, I did the film (Kaal) that he co-produced.”

“It’s great to be with someone like Bipasha.”
He cherishes his personal and professional closeness with Basu. “I don’t feel threatened by her looks,” says Abraham. Extremely proud of his stylish girl, he feels great that “the woman with me is so good looking. She is attractive to others too…but that does not bother me at all.”

Their working relationship is equally comfortable, though Abraham admits to being an easy person to work with. “I normally go into a shell when we are shooting,” he states. “It is easier for me to get into the skin of the character.”

Abraham has recently purchased a new flat in Bandra…so that obviously begs the question of when the avant-garde couple is going to tie the knot. “I know,” he smiles sheepishly, giving the same answer to the query that Basu has earlier addressed. “Everyone has been asking us the same question. Honestly, right now we are too involved with our careers. We are both doing well, with great offers coming in. Marriage can wait for a few years. At the moment, work is the most important thing on our minds.”

“I want to be not just a model but a role model as well.”
Having scalped names like Fast Track, Bombay Dyeing, Yamaha, Clinic Shampoo and Wrangler Jeans, Abraham has catapulted into the big league of the ad fraternity. The buzz in the world of cola commercials is that Abraham hi hai right choice for Pepsi. Talks for a contract are in the offing and Abraham is as usual non-committal.

Digressing from his ‘brandstanding’, Abraham, who is associated with PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals), points out categorically, “I would like to do peripheral activities that would give children an ideal to follow. We can easily mould their thinking. I would like them to develop empathy for animals, for kids less fortunate than them. If I can inspire such emotions, I would consider my job well done.”

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