The Fabulous Life of Neelam: Actress opens up on her Bollywood career, returning in front of the camera
'What if people hated me?' was Neelam Kothari's first thought on being offered to be a part of Netflix reality series, The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives. In this interview, the actress discusses her illustrious Bollywood career and staying relevant through the years.
At 16, Neelam Kothari stepped onto a movie set for the first time. Even before she faced the camera, she knew she had found her calling. “When you are sitting in the make-up chair, moments before you face the camera, there is a lot of buzz around you and, at the same time, it is all very quiet and focused,” she explains. Fast-forward about thirty-five years and the former actress turned jewellery designer and now reality star experienced that same heady rush and sense of anticipation when she started shooting for Netflix’s The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives.
Since the reality series dropped, Neelam has been inundated with compliments (and, flowers from former co-star Jackie Shroff and his wife Ayesha). A new fan raving about the show interrupted our telephonic interview from Neelam’s office in Mumbai. “I had thought nobody would remember me or my films. Out of sight and out of mind, right? But surprisingly, I have young people messaging to tell me that their mums were fans and that because of the show, they have now discovered me.” Interestingly, the 51-year-old almost didn’t sign up for the show.
When the idea of having a camera crew follow her and her friends of twenty years – Maheep Kapoor (wife of actor Sanjay Kapoor), Seema Khan (wife of Sohail Khan) and Bhavana Pandey (wife of Chunky Pandey and mother of Ananya Pandey) – came her way, Neelam didn’t think it was the best idea. “I had always played a character. But on the show, I had to be myself. What if people hated me?” It was her husband and fellow actor Sameer Soni who gave her a little nudge. “He told me I was taking myself too seriously,” she remembers with a laugh. The couple’s only concern was regulating how much their 8-year-old daughter Ahana was exposed to the shoot. “We just made sure that the portions in our house were shot while she was in school.”
Neelam’s journey under the arc lights started when she was only a few years older than her daughter today. Born into a Gujarati-Iranian home, she spent her formative years in Hong Kong and then in Bangkok where her father supplied jewels to high-end stores like Fred Leighton and Celline in New York and sold jewellery through auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s. During a holiday in Bombay (now Mumbai), Neelam was invited for Srishti Behl’s (nee Arya, currently Director – International Original Film India for Netflix) birthday party. Director Ramesh Behl thought his daughter’s friend had the perfect look for his forthcoming film Jawaani (1984) that also marked the debut of introduce Karan Shah, Tina Munim’s nephew.
While the Kotharis weren’t ecstatic at their daughter’s choice, it was Neelam’s grandmother who supported her decision. “My mum had to move to Bombay along with me while my dad was in Bangkok. It was a big decision for our family.” Neelam’s filming experience was limited to the brief ‘screen test’ Behl had her do. “I didn’t have to do much, just talk a little and look left and right.” She had no acting experience and didn’t speak Hindi at all.
It was only when she signed the film that she realised how much work went into making film. “I had to learn everything from scratch starting with Hindi. Five different Hindi tutors quit saying that I’d never learn.” Having learnt ballet for years, dancing was one department that Neelam was confident about but that was until she was shown the choreography. “Filmy dancing was tough. In those days, they didn’t have proper studios for dance rehearsals. We’d use halls that had tiled flooring. My feet would bleed because I’d be rehearsing from morning to night. And, then there were acting classes. It was all very, very hard.”
Jawani sank without a trace but Neelam had signed two films with another debutant – Govinda. The release of Love 86 and Ilzam within weeks in February 1986 set the box office on fire. The audience and filmmakers loved the stark contrast of the Virar ka chokra being paired with an ‘anglicised doll’ so much that the duo quickly became a hit onscreen pair. Neelam and Govinda did 14 films together even though they “conversed mostly in sign language because he only spoke Hindi and I only spoke English”.
Hit films like Paap Ki Duniya and Ghar Ka Chirag had Neelam working along with Chunky Pandey, whose wife Bhavana is on The Fabulous Life… “I remember meeting her at Manish’s (Malhotra) home where she had come for her wedding outfit trial. I met Seema at Bhavana-Chunky’s wedding in Delhi. Gauri (Khan, interior designer and Shah Rukh Khan’s wife) was a big factor in bringing us all together. I met Maheep at Gauri’s place. It’s crazy how all our lives are interconnected. Even if we lost touch over these years, it doesn’t take much to bring us together.” In recent years, she’s found herself gravitating towards Bhavana as her daughter Ananya prepared for her big Bollywood debut. “Bhavana wanted to know how my mother handled the lows in my career. She had questions like ‘did she leave me alone or did she pamper me?’”
The Fabulous Lives… marks Neelam’s return to showbiz after almost two decades. After 40-odd films, she decided that it was time to wipe the greasepaint off for good. Though she did have a short-lived union with businessman Rishi Sethia soon after, Neelam insists that her decision to stop working ‘wasn’t because of marriage’. “I told myself that my shelf life is over. It was a very tough decision. It wasn't easy to let go but I just had to put a full stop.” Though the much delayed Kasam (2001) is listed as her last film, Sooraj Barjatya’s family opus Hum Saath Saath Hain is the last film she shot for. “Again, that was a film I was not willing to do because I told Soorajji that I've quit and I don't want to act anymore. He was very keen that I do it. He had actually approached me earlier for Maine Pyar Kiya. So I gave in and agreed to do the film.” The film was another colossal hit but it’s mostly remembered for the Black Buck controversy the film’s stars got embroiled in.
Even before her last day on a film set, Neelam had already started her transition to designing jewellery. One of the earliest commissions she got was for an emerald and diamond bridal set. “By the time HSSH released, I had already been designing for a few years. Initially, people didn’t take me seriously. They didn’t know what to make of this actress who was suddenly dealing in jewels. That’s where my background helped and I managed to make a brand for myself.” Even as she sets Burma rubies and rose-cut diamonds into intricate pieces of jewellery and her business grows, Neelam often finds herself wondering if she should return to showbiz. “I guess I just haven’t gotten the right kind of offer yet. It doesn’t have to be an author-backed role but just something interesting.” Until then there’s always another season of The Fabulous Lives...
(All images from Twitter)
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