Katrina Kaif, reluctant celebrity, could be the Joan Crawford of our times

Abhishek Srivastava

May,04 2017 10:01:07 IST

A recent TV series from the US has gotten me hooked. Not because it’s pacey, and edgy like Breaking Bad or entertaining like Modern Family. No. I love watching Feud because it’s about old Hollywood glamour — true stories of rivalries, broken hearts and lonely lives that can put fiction to shame.

Feud, created by Ryan Murphy, Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam, has an impressive cast — Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford, Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis, Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner, Judy Davis as poison pen mistress Hedda Hopper and Alfred Molina as cult filmmaker Bob Aldrich. Between them and with walk-on parts by the likes of Catherine Zeta Jones and Cathy Bates, this series puts big-ticket films behind and launches into the melodrama of real life with complete sincerity. Throw in great production values and what you have is a brilliant watch.

The crux of Feud is the legendary rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford that spanned over thirty years of their careers and peaked after they acted together in the cult psychological thriller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Spawning a sub genre in the fifties called Hagspoiltation, Guignol or psycho biddy, Crawford and Davis were played like a fiddle by columnists and studio bosses. Although both ended up lonely, deserted by their kids and alcoholics in their twilight years, it’s Crawford’s life — always insistent on remaining a larger-than-life star — that gave me a sneaky feeling of resemblance to someone we know today.

It took some chewing to make the connection — and a towel picture did it. Crawford, in many ways, resembles the Katrina Kaif of today, and I will let my imagination loose to suggest that she would have made the choices Kaif makes, had she reigned in the 21st century era of ‘evolving’ Hindi cinema.

Joan Crawford (AP Photo); Katrina Kaif in a photo shoot for Harper's Bazaar (Image via Facebook)

Joan Crawford (AP Photo); Katrina Kaif in a photo shoot for Harper's Bazaar (Image via Facebook)

One can sense the number of eyebrows one has raised and angry tweets getting typed by this stage of this piece; I will ask you to hold your peace.

In terms of cinematic achievement, no there is no comparison. Crawford is ranked sixth in the American Film Institute’s list of all time great female actors (her biggest rival Bette Davis towers at number 2). Her career spanned 45 years. She was fortunate to have flourished and grown in an era where women got to play actual parts — that of working women who laboured hard and found love and romance in the end; and grey characters unapologetic about their not so good intentions.

Kaif doesn’t figure anywhere amidst this scheme of things.

But in the repeated attempts by Crawford to gain recognition as a performer during her lifetime, in her rejection of Hollywood royalty as a suitable daughter-in-law, in her struggle to find a break and then, find acceptance, she might well have laid the path down for the gorgeous Katrina Kaif here in Bollywood today.

Even as shenanigans of Hollywood achievement keep Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone in the limelight, and Anushka Sharma holds steady with box office successes and Virat Kohli, Kaif slips in a visually pleasing feat — being the only Indian celebrity to feature in Mario Testino’s celebrated towel series of photographs. In doing so, she joins the likes of Justin Beiber, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Kristen Stewart to name a few. But this receives just cursory attention in the press.

Katrina Kaif is first Bollywood actress to be featured in photographer Mario Testino's 'towel series'

Katrina’s reluctance to put herself ‘out there’ all the time seems to have cost her the constant newsworthiness that most of her contemporaries carry. Just like Joan Crawford’s later years, when she could only make news for looking like a ‘hag’ or acting in a silly movie. Each time Crawford attempted to get attention, her stories would appear only with reference to her rivalry with Bette Davis; more or less in a pitying or mocking tone. Despite changing times, Crawford refused to bow down to certain demands of public life; having done a publicity circuit for her horror film Strait-Jacket in her later years of struggle, Crawford was traumatised enough to take up alcohol as a permanent roommate. The public pandering made her feel humiliated and small.

Somewhere, this resonates with my perception of Katrina Kaif. Sure, she is on Instagram and Facebook today. In every candid picture sans make up, she only goes on to reiterate that paint and brush don’t always come to her rescue. Her social media outings are also attempts at presenting a goofy, funny personality, one that can be related to.

Yet, one can sense a certain hesitation — in exposing herself too much to the outside world. In various interviews and conversations, Kaif always came across as slightly reserved when the cameras were rolling. Off camera though, she chats like any other young woman — only the radiant beauty sometimes makes it hard to hear all that she says.

This reluctance — to be completely out there — seems to emerge from her firm belief that stars shouldn’t be heard and seen all the time. Notice how she was always awkward when photographed with Ranbir Kapoor — like she wanted to hide away. Ironically, it’s her relationships with her leading men that make it to maximum reams of newsprint and digital text.

Everything else always seems to take a backseat.

Crawford had a similar relationship with Hollywood press. A close friend of celebrity columnist Hedda Hopper, the diva couldn’t escape scrutiny over her four marriages — particularly the first high profile one to Douglas Fairbanks Junior. Joan’s background as a chorus girl and dancer at nightclubs and humble origins disqualified her from being accepted by her mother-in-law, the reigning queen of the Silent Pictures era, Mary Pickford. And the press lapped it up.

Notice a similarity here? Kaif’s relationship with Ranbir Kapoor, on the path to commitment, hit a huge roadblock — disapproval of parents, particularly mom Neetu Kapoor. Despite multiple denials, this remains the worst kept secret of the Kapoor khandaan. And Katrina’s comment in an interview to Rajeev Masand post-break up sums it up all, “When I have nothing good to say about someone, I prefer not to say anything at all.”

The very public break up and consequent media scrutiny proved one thing — this was a young woman who was suffering heart break, in the very public eye. Crawford found herself in that spot often enough. In fact, her marriage to Franchot Tone, the Oscar nominated actor for Mutiny on the Bounty, turned vile and abusive over time — with both engaging in a never ending blame game. Six years later, Crawford became good friends with Tone. Reminiscent of Kaif’s relationship with Salman Khan, ain’t it? Though the two weren’t married, Salman and Katrina stayed together for a very long time, and Khan moved mountains for her, before acrimony built up. Today, they are friends and Katrina will star in his next big ticket flick, Tiger Zinda Hai, also meant to resurrect her career.

On the films front too, Katrina Kaif’s story so far resembles Crawford’s. Kaif rose from success to success since her second film Maine Pyar Kyun Kiya and became a permanent desktop screen saver for millions of men. Her acting skills were never applauded, with good reason. She craved an award but that hasn’t come her way so far. Even a non-glamorous turn like Rajneeti didn’t do the trick. Crawford was often dismissed as a showgirl and glamour girl during her lifetime. Her cinematic work was revisited much after her death — with acknowledgment of her contribution to creating the Hollywood legend. Even after having won an Academy Award for Best Actress with Mildred Pierce, Crawford struggled to be taken seriously as an actor. Davis always beat her to this.

And yes, at the end of the thirties, Crawford along with eight other stars, were labeled ‘box office poison’ in an open letter by the exhibitors association. She bounced back, and five years later, won the Oscar.

Will the same happen with Katrina? The last few years haven’t been kind on her. Her equity as a popular Bollywood diva has waned. But her upcoming projects — Jagga Jasoos and Tiger Zinda Hai — hold tremendous promise. She looks fitter than ever, and seems to have worked on her appearance harder than before.

And given her candour about how Bollywood functions — where in Koffee with Karan she stated that no one ever tells the truth on his show so there is no point in paying heed to it — signals that she has woken up to the dire need of communicating with fans and the world now. The lonely diva in an ivory tower no longer appeals to audiences.

And finally the end. Crawford died a tragic lonely death — with only her long standing maid and a fan in attendance on her final day. Her funeral and memorial service were well attended. But her fall out with adopted daughter Christina was the stuff of a much sought after novel, Mommie Dearest. Today, the screen legend who survived the silent era so magnificently, is remembered as a star who set a benchmark in glamour and performance.

Referring to any such tragedy for Kaif will be downright wrong. What one hopes to see is a genuine transformation onscreen. Kaif, who has come to Mumbai and made the city her home, is a reluctant celebrity. She isn’t keen to be spotted, clicked or talked about all the time. She has been in two relationships with men from the movies, and moved beyond them. With two awaited films under her belt, she has survived. With a focus on acting better, and working on roles that will be remembered, Katrina Kaif might just be able to carve out her niche — as the original Bollywood diva of her generation. Will we see that happen? ​

Updated Date: May 04, 2017 11:42 AM