The Enchantress of Kochi
It’s the age of Asinnocence. Bollywood is under the spell of a doe-eyed siren who breezed in unannounced from the south of the Vindhyas last year and stole the show with her sensational debut in Ghajini, the mother of all blockbusters. Her sugar-and-spice freshness has everyone talking. Critics have given her an A for acting. She’s the flavour du jour.
On a sunny February morning rife with the promise of spring, Asin poses for the Verve cover shoot. Whisper-hued dresses in the prettiest peaches, roses, ivories and lavenders vie for her attention as she dons the avatar of a modern day angel. Gracefully languid on a couch in a diamante-embellished white shift by Monisha Jaising, she’s a vision of ethereal sexiness. A powder-blue animal print dress that gently skims her lush curves is next, followed by a gorgeous stone-beige pleated georgette gown. A jeans-and-tee girl off camera, Asin brings each softly-glam look to life like a dream. “She totally transforms in front of the camera. Amazing.” remarks ace lensman Jatin Kampani between shots.
Lovely as a backwaters lotus with come-hither eyes that pack in the headiness of a potent Southern Comfort, Asin Thottumkal is beautiful in a conventional yet exotic sort of way. Oval face, arched eyebrows, chiselled nose and a generous, pout-friendly mouth that makes our make-up artist exclaim, ‘What lips!’
With a businessman dad and a surgeon mum, Asin was an unlikely candidate for the arc lights. It was her striking features that propelled the Kochi-born lass into modelling at the age of 14. Her first film, Sathyan Anthikkad’s Narendra Makan Jayakanthan Vaka, followed at 15. She did it for a lark but still thought she’d sit for the civil services exam. Films were, as she puts it, an extension of her “extra curricular activities”. Then the acting bug bit.
Natural exuberance and inherent talent combine to create an unstudied, spontaneous approach to the craft. Acting school’s not for Asin. Her mentors have been her directors and co-actors. Working with behemoth Kamal Haasan in Dasavatharam — she played the wife of an Iyengar priest as well as a modern Iyengar girl — and a cast and crew from all over the world taught her the final nuances of filmmaking. ‘No actor before Kamal Haasan has played 10 roles in a single film. The technical know how that comes from a film like that is fantastic.”
A protean, chameleon-like ability to adapt to different situations and roles is what has enabled the actress to lead her cinema gypsy life, working and living between diverse film industries and cultures. Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, and now Hindi. Having a flair for languages helps. The sultry Malayalee picked up Tamil, Telugu and Kannada after she joined films. As for Hindi, her north Indian friends at Naval Public School in Kerala exposed her to the language and how it’s spoken.
Playing Kalpana, the funball with a heart of gold and derring-do to boot, was a dream Bollywood debut for the 23-year-old who declined several plum offers before Aamir Khan made the famous phone call to her in her Chennai hotel room in late 2005 asking her whether she spoke Hindi. She told him she did and to her surprised delight, found herself cast as Kalpana all over again. “I loved the graph of Kalpana’s character. Besides, to star opposite Aamir Khan in my very first Hindi film was irresistible. People don’t get that opportunity in their entire careers.”
Seventeen films old and winner of two South FilmFare actress awards for her performances in 2003 Telugu hit Amma Nanna O Tamil Ammayi and Tamil Ghajini and the state award for Shivamani co-starring Nagarjuna, Asin is witnessing the remake of her stardom after the thundering success of her Hindi debut. “It’s like watching the rerun of a film,” she smiles, insisting her life is much the same post-Ghajini. “The only difference is that people have started to recognise me here. I have seen enough success before to not get carried away. My feet are firmly planted on the ground.”
Following close on the heels of Vidya Balan, Asin embodies the recent resurgence in the trend of south Indian actresses finding success in Bollywood. The south influence in Hindi cinema is a hallowed tradition — Vyjayanthimala in the ’50s and ’60s, Hema Malini and Rekha in the ’70s and ’80s, Jaya Prada and Sridevi in the ’80s and many others subsequently.
What sets Asin apart is the scale of her ambition. Determined not to lose her enormous fan base in the south, she wants the best of both worlds. “I don’t think any other actress in recent times has had a presence in both the north and the south. An actress who is popular down south does not have much influence in Bollywood. And a Bollywood actress is just not considered ‘one of us’. I could be both.” She cites the success of Hindi Ghajini in the south as a perfect example. “Let’s be frank. In the south, people are not as enthusiastic about Hindi movies as their own. For the first time, a Hindi film outshone the performance of regional language films.”
Having shifted base to Mumbai a year ago, the actor admits that south films and Bollywood are poles apart. The recent link up with London Dreams co-star Salman Khan is her first taste of the filmi grapevine. “I used to feel there can’t be smoke without fire. Having gone through it first hand, I know it’s possible. I have been accused of many crimes. A TV channel even put up a show called Sins of Asin!” Rumours aside, she’s clearly fond of the bratty Khan. “Salman is a very relaxed and chilled out guy with no pretentions. What you see is what you get. That’s great in an industry which survives on creating images and personas.”
Ghajini has set a high benchmark and the lady is being very selective about what she signs next. \Keen to strike the right balance between commercial and art-house cinema, she has green-lighted one film of each genre so far. Vipul Shah’s London Dreams, which she has just finished shooing, features her in the solo female lead opposite Salman Khan and Ajay Devgan. She plays the dancer of a music band and the common love interest of the two heroes. The other is Walt Disney’s The 19th Step directed by Bharat Bala in which she shares screen space with Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano and, again, Kamal Haasan.
Currently she’s busy with endorsements — Mirinda, Clinic All Clear, and Tata Sky with Aamir Khan. As for movies, she’s pretty much open to everything except overtly sexual roles. “If there were a female lead in Taare Zameen Par, I would have loved to do it.” Offers are pouring in but the lady is happy to wait for the right stuff, read meaty roles and quality banners. “I don’t believe in rushing into roles. Making hay while the sun shines is not my policy.”
The same wait-for-the-best principle applies to her love life. “I haven’t found the right guy. It’s very tough to find someone who makes my cut. Dignity of character is what I value most besides intelligence. I don’t have a fixed notion of tall, dark and handsome. I’d like to keep an open mind and be surprised.” Too practical to be a romantic, Asin does confess to becoming all weepy-eyed reading Romeo and Juliet as a little girl (she would steal The Complete Works of William Shakespeare from her father’s library while he was asleep).
Love can wait. Right now it’s just work. The perfectionist believes complacency spells the death knell for an actor. “I’m my worst critic. Given the opportunity to do Ghajini one more time, I’d jump at it. There’s so much I could have done better. I’m never satisfied. I’m insatiable. That’s what keeps me going.”
She’ll go far. With that no-holds-barred spirit to buoy her, this angel will soar.
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