India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Cover Story
May 18, 2008

Wild Prodigy

Text by Sona Bahadur. Photographs by Jatin Kampani. Styling by Nisha Jhangiani. Assisted by Hina Oomer-Ahmed. Make-up and hair by Brendon De Gee

A dedicated Messhugah headbanger with a thing for black nail colour and army jackets, Shruti Haasan is also musician of heavy mettle. A few gigs, four original songs online and Kamal Haasan’s gorgeous 22-year-old daughter is being hailed as a debutante with international promise. Sona Bahadur discovers the free spirit’s world as she amps up the glam in rock-goddess mode for Verve

Shruti Haasan is one proud geek. She does serious Nintendo time, adores the X-Men and describes Batman as her dream man. Earlier this week she spent eight happy hours rediscovering her favourite cartoon series from the 1980s, Jem and the Holograms on YouTube. “Jem is this rock star by night who transforms into girl-next-door Jerrica by day. Only no one knows they’re the same person,” she tells me excitedly.

It’s easy to figure why Jem fascinates Shruti. Straddling the girly exuberance of a 22-year-old with her prodigious musical talent, she can relate to Jem’s inherent duality. Shruti loves to chill out with friends, work out, watch movies and party till she gets sore on her Choos. But her phenomenal pedigree, inherited good looks and strikingly original compositions far outweigh the ‘ordinary’ elements of her life.

The multifaceted artiste — she writes her own songs, sings, plays the piano and tabla — has performed at big-ticket venues like Whiskey A Go Go in Los Angeles and Hard Rock Café in Mumbai. Rolling Stone India’s debut issue featured her as the new artiste to watch for. Acclaimed world musician Susheela Raman, with whom Shruti gigged in Chennai earlier this year, told this writer that Shruti has the makings of a major international star with an attitude to boot. All this before the launch of her debut album.

On this day rock star Shruti Haasan takes centre stage as she oozes star quality at the Verve photo shoot. The 5 feet 8 inch beauty — she wins our vote for the new Miss Legs in showbiz — does full justice to the funky shorts, natty waistcoats, bomber jackets and chunky chains sourced for her by our stylists. Shruti’s tattoos — her name inked in Devanagari script — and her trademark black nail paint bring a unique touch of personal style. Make-up ace Brendon works on an edgily pretty look. The dewy youthfulness of Shruti’s skin is offset by the drama of her sexily slanted eyes. The hair is jaggedly tiered. A mike and a guitar add the final touch.

Watching her svelte frame arch against a giant set of speakers, I realise there’s something inevitable about Shruti’s stardom. Kamal Haasan and Saarika’s daughter, whose name means music in Sanskrit, sung her first song for the legendary Illaiyaraaja for her father’s film Thevar Magan when she was all of six. Shruti believes she landed at the recording studio by accident and just happened to sing that day. “Or maybe it was dad trying to initiate me into music.” A distinct possibility since ‘dad’ was instrumental in Shruti singing tracks for his Chachi 420 and Hey! Ram and continues to be “both her strongest supporter and biggest critic”.

Shruti, who discovered Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and The Who early thanks to her father, is grateful for growing up in an environment where her talent was nurtured at every stage. She recalls how mom Saarika urged her to learn Indian classical when she was deep into heavy metal. And though the decision to go to LA to study music at Musicians Institute was her own, “it would never have been possible without dad firmly believing in it. Today she also shares a special bond with Kamal Haasan’s companion, Gautami, whom she describes as an “amazingly wonderful person”.

Wary of labels, the pretty artiste prefers the umbrella term ‘alternative’ to describe her eclectic music. “There’s bits of a lot of things, like a nice salad. I’d call it alternative rock with Indian influences and some industrial rhythmic.”  For the most part, she likes to think of music as an emotional and cathartic experience. “Music is like my blind spot. It’s my healing place,” says the intense musician who lists Tori Amos, Madonna, NIN, Nick Drake and Messhugah as her favourites.

Happily, for all the brooding angst and heartbreak that imbue her rich lyrics, Shruti’s personality radiates positivity and spunk. Rebellion is a positive thing — “it means rebelling against your limitations”. Darkness is a good place — “you don’t see the light till you see the darkness.” And “no matter what things will be good”. By her own admission, she has this “disease” of trying to like something in everything. “It just makes my life easier.”

The four English tracks she has up on her MySpace page stand out for their subtlety and freshness and Shruti’s powerful singing,  which recalls Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann. As I catch some of Shruti’s recent compositions on her iTunes, I realise her music has evolved since her return from the US, revealing more pronounced Indian influences. My favourite is the ambient Asathoma which resounds with the power of shlokas. But Shruti’s partial to Biraj, a Hindustani classical song she made her own with lyrics in English. “For me Biraj is the journey of coming back home. Home isn’t just a place. It’s the earth. It’s the way India smells and sounds.”

Aware of the global potential of her music, Shruti is definitely looking at an audience beyond the Indian market. “Maybe I’ll be the first musical export to the international music world,” she laughs. So what made her return to India? “I think it’s lovely for me to come back home and start here. Take Johnny Cash’s example. Everybody thought he was the best thing to happen to music. But he went home and till the very end his dad thought he was crappy. I believe no matter where you go in life, you’ve got to start at home. I want Indians to say, ‘We love that Shruti is from India.’ Somehow that makes a huge difference to me.”

More than half way through her first album, Shruti wants her music-making to be an organic journey. “I don’t want to rush a good thing. For me a debut isn’t about showing people I can sing. I’ve always been doing that in my bedroom and in front of my bathroom mirror. So an official launch doesn’t count a lot. But I’ll always be really humble to the people who listen to my music.”

There’s more to her life than music. Shruti was to make her cinematic debut in a Tamil film co-starring R Madhavan but opted out due to “creative differences”. Now the budding actor, who loved both Om Shanti Om as well as Being Cyrus, is excited by the heady possibilities of Bollywood. Loath to choose between music and acting, she says “I just have a strong motivation to do good work. People tell me I’ll sober down with age. I don’t know. Maybe I will. At the moment I don’t feel the need to belong somewhere. And I don’t feel the need to scream from a rooftop, ‘Hey, I’m different.’”

Different she is. Kamal Haasan’s geeky-cool daughter gives out a new-age vibe that signals fresh choices and expressions. Undaunted by her iconic pedigree or the ways of showbiz, Shruti is wild because she is unafraid to be herself. Right now she’s just in her “creative bubble” spending her days writing, watching DVDs, trawling cyberspace for new music on insomniac nights and jamming with her band Shruti Haasan and the Extramentals.  Excited about performing at Hard Rock Café and Blue Frog in the coming days, Shruti’s open to collaborating with anybody and everybody. “No holds barred.”

The Kafka-loving songwriter who believes “my mind is my greatest lover” can’t relate to straightforward relationships. “What’s a boyfriend, really? I think I scare men. Or maybe I’m just boring.” Nonetheless, honesty and a “kick-ass sense of humour” are desirable male attributes. And a great date “would not be a walk on the beach in the moonlight or a horse-driven carriage. I guess it would be something unique and a whole lot of fun!”

What does love mean to her? “Love is a place. Everyone’s trying to get there. Some of us live there and don’t know it. Some of us have been there and forgotten about it. I think I live in Loveland with my family and the love they give me.”

Now that’s a line both Jem and Jerrica would approve of.

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