The Siren Who Stayed Away

Sometimes I am terribly eager-beaver about an interview and then I screw up the writing. Here is Chitrangada Singh.

WHEN CHITRANGADA first appeared on our horizons in 2005, she was set to make herself a thinking person’s pin-up. What could make a jholawala’s heart beat faster than a movie about politics, sex and sexual politics set in the 70s in Delhi University? In the same way that Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi slowly became a cult film, Chitrangada too acquired devotees. Often one wonders why the characters on screen are so desperately in love but with Chitrangada playing the fascinating Geeta Rao, all reckless passion seemed plausible. She was instantly named the next Smita Patil, a bottle-imp waiting to be handed to any Bollywood actress two shades darker than Casper.

For a girl whose previous work was just a handful of ads and a music video for Gulzar’s Sunset Point, she made great headway even within her first film. “I began by talking to her as if she was a child actor and ended by treating her as if she was Naseeruddin Shah,” said Hazaaron director Sudhir Mishra A few months later, while people were still raving, her next film Kal: Yesterday and Tomorrow (directed by Ruchi Narain) was released. The trailers looked hip but soon, news broke that Chitrangada was retiring from the movies. Wails rose in unison across the country. Her non-appearance at the premiere of Kal seemed to confirm the rumour. Her premature departure was explained variously and wildly: her husband was a Rajput prince; her husband’s feudal family didn’t want her acting; her golfer husband was torturing her.

A billboard appeared in Juhu, purportedly advertising Kal but actually bemoaning the departure of Chitrangada Singh. Among a bunch of blurbs was Madhur Bhandarkar saying, “I will cast her if she comes back.” Kal, the story of a girl who has to figure out whether her former lover killed his wife did badly (as reviewer Raja Sen said ‘It’s hard to figure any man leaving Chitrangda for another woman’). Slowly, she disappeared into the mists from which she had emerged. In December 2007, the faintest of whispers sounded that Chitrangada was coming back. And suddenly, she was doing a mess of movies. But what of the husband? It was assumed that since a heir had been produced, she could follow her own star.

With this Gothic tale and the ghost of Smita Patil in the background, her light, cheerful voice on the phone is a bit of a surprise. That she lives in an expensive highrise in Gurgaon, Delhi, and is just back from Mauritius, where she has been shooting her new film Sorry Bhai with Onir, is now public information. She is slender, fine-boned, with an economy of movement that is in striking contrast to the wildly gesticulating, much-prized, vivacity of actors building their public personae. But it is her face that allows you to excuse all those breathless reviews that called her sultry. All of us ordinary purveyors of cinema understand that beauty is the stuff cinema is made of. We also know enough as consumers to assume that the prettiest casts go with the lightest of cinematic fare, popcorn.

But the impact of beauty lives on in dessicated words such as knockout and bomb; every generation has a movie star who makes us blink dizzily when we emerge out of movie halls. Chitrangada Singh may well be a reminder to a jaded generation of the atavistic punch of beauty. She has been asked often enough about her comeback. “I had a lot of time off to weigh my options. I had just started thinking about acting again when I began getting calls. Onir came to Delhi. I read his script and signed within an hour.” She has already made it clear that her baby son Zoraavar wasn’t the reason.

She chooses her words carefully but not primly. “In Bollywood, when you make choices, there are a hundred people to tell you that you were wrong. I didn’t like that at all. I didn’t care how big the hero or the director was. I wanted to like my roles. I didn’t know then that you couldn’t be so honest. You can’t just say ‘My role is not good enough.’” Chitrangada adds, “But at that point the people I were working with, for Kal… I had differences of opinions with them. Then when I didn’t participate in the publicity, people started saying that my husband was torturing me. I decided to pack up. I was being stubborn. I thought, if I made any statements, someone would retaliate and it would snowball. Suddenly it seemed that the things you had heard were true. People are selfish and will manipulate you.”

But Vishal Bhardwaj and Ashutosh Gowarikar were offering to create scripts for her when she quit. “You know, all that caught up with me later. After I quit. I didn’t understand the equity I’d built up. I saw that billboard and then the enormity of my decision hit me. And fame. Perhaps I’d been impulsive. But at the time I wanted to protect my peace of mind.” When she begins talking of her husband, the faintly ludicrous nature of the old rumours hits you. Chitrangada (Tina to family) has known her much-maligned husband Jyoti Randhawa since she was 14.

Like her, Randhawa comes from an army family in Meerut and was her older brother Digvijay’s friend. Randhawa, currently India’s top-ranked golfer, has reportedly made roughly a million dollars on a recent Asian tour alone but it has taken decades. Hardly the wicked Rajput prince of the Chitrangada Tales. “We became friends when I was at Lady Irwin College in Delhi. His family were my local guardians.” “I was already married when I went to audition for Hazaaron. Then I did Kal. I am back now. It should be clear that Jyoti had nothing to do with my decision.” She says with the tone of one resigned to repeating at least this one story of her life.

She shares with Jyoti a pleasure in the outdoors life. She talks of weekends spent fishing and skeet-shooting. “Sports teaches you toughness — to go out there and test yourself, day after day. It’s a clean way of life.” It is part of Chitrangada’s charm that the soft-spoken, fresh-air devotee will also admit that she was quite star-struck in Bollywood.“Of course, there’s insecurity. There are thousands trying for the same prize. The glamour is addictive and you fight to stay,” she says. Now directors are falling over themselves again. “I watched Hazaaron and thought she was an amazing actress. She was one of the names we had thought of even before we knew she was coming back,” says Onir about his romantic comedy Sorry Bhai where he cast her opposite Sanjay Suri and Sharman Joshi. Something about her makes directors feel like she would do justice to their obsessions. In a giddy, lightheaded way, Onir confides,“I decided to make her character a film buff. When we were doing her ‘house’ for Sorry Bhai , I put all my DVDs on her shelves.”

Mishra agrees, “Hazaaron was a tribute to all the Geetas I had known in my life. I owed it to them to have a brilliant Geeta Rao or they would have left me for dead. I knew the moment I saw her at the screen test that she was right. The screen test itself was pretty bad.” There’s a temptation to tie up this narrative with a prediction of wild success. It’s not very improbable in an industry desperate for good actors. Mishra says, “I don’t think she realises her own capacities. She has incredible emotional range, and in a soft sort of way, without any self-congratulation. She can go as far as you can take her. It challenges a director. I have never seen it before.”

In October, Mishra begins shooting his version of Devdas. She plays Chandramukhi.“When she quit I too had hoped that she wouldn’t, but the thing I ask people is this. If she had stayed what movie is it that she was supposed to have done?” demands Mishra. But in the short time she has been away, the industry has made marked shifts that make a Chitrangada necessary. If she was not here she would have to be invented.


I thought it was lovely. I'll bet she did too.

May 2, 2008 at 9:46 PM  

If we knew then that it was Desi Boyz she was coming back to, wouldn't we have wished she'd stayed away, after all? Torturing husband , or not. Sigh!

April 21, 2012 at 5:46 PM  

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