As she steps into Mumbai’s JW Marriott, Katrina Kaif creates quite a flutter, a regular occurrence each time she is in vicinity. When she was shooting for her new movie, Bharat, outside Mumbai, crowds would run amok there as well on hearing that she was on location. Even after 15 years, the Indian audience’s love affair with Kaif continues unabated. Her stardom, however, is hard earned and in a sharp contrast to her calamitous debut in Boom. Many moons ago, Kaif, with her stilted Hindi dialogue delivery and her ‘foreign’ antecedents, was dismissed by trade pundits as a guest artiste in the Hindi film industry—a mere shooting star. The prediction could not have been further off the mark.
The only other foreigner to enjoy the same box-office success would have to be Mary Ann Evans, better known as Hunterwali or Fearless Nadia. Of Australian origin, Nadia joined a dancing troupe and circus before she arrived at the action-heroine formula and made a name for herself in the movies. In contrast, Kaif, part-British, started out with the more predictable route to stardom—a modelling career. Given her classic good looks, it made perfect sense. She followed it up with the aforementioned film debut and subsequent projects, playing the hero’s picture-perfect love interest with a limited screen time and supported by an ensemble cast. While the haters hated, she rapidly built upan enviable career. Since 2005, Kaif has had two to three releases practically every year, with at least one or more films turning into a box-office hit.
If the early part of her career was about smart and safe choices, her recent forays have been far riskier with films like Jagga Jasoos, Thugs of Hindostan and Zero that fell short of grand numbers. Kaif was playing characters that went beyond the predictable brief of the beauteous love interest—Jagga Jasoos featured her in a comic avatar while Zero and Thugs of Hindostan were pivotal yet supporting roles. Contrary to expectations, both the perceptible shift and her efforts were noticed. Her outing as Babita, a neurotic film star in Zero, won her praise and award nominations but didn’t capture the collective imagination of the audience like some of her earlier films did.
Does it then mean that even in the bold new era of storytelling, the dependence of talented female actors on their male counterparts continues? Does it mean that the audience likes to watch heroines in general and Kaif, in particular, merely as extensions of the hero’s entourage?
Kaif makes a pertinent observation, “I never saw it as dependence on heroes. I think you have to be supremely confident of yourself to know that you will stand out even with someone who is a megastar in their own right. I have faith, also hope and belief that I will be able to hold my own in this film with Salman (Khan). In Tiger Zinda Hai, I got some of the best feedback for the action scenes I did. In Zero, a film with Shah Rukh Khan, a megastar, I probably got the best feedback of my whole career as Babita. Are my co-stars male superstars? To me, they are just really good actors. And, I, too, come to set to work as an actor whether it is Shah Rukh Khan or Salman or Aditya Roy Kapur.”
After the recent lull, with Bharat, a big-budget Eid 2019 release, things seem to have come full circle for Kaif. She teams up yet again with friends Salman Khan and director Ali Abbas Zafar. Hopes are pinned on the film and the troika like never before. It is well known that Priyanka Chopra Jonas was first approached to play Kumud in Bharat. But, when her last-minute wedding plans threw a spanner in the works, Zafar’s first choice for the part was Kaif. The role has remained as it was originally written and the team is upbeat about Kaif’s turn as an earthy, Indian character, a far cry from her salad days when her lack of familiarity with Hindi was a stumbling block. Says a confident Kaif, “In Bharat, I have hope and belief that you will walk away talking about Kumud, the character I play.” And it’s true. Kaif as Kumud Raina, a simple government employment officer is a revelation.
I quiz her on her initial thoughts about the role? Furrowing her brow for a fleeting second, she adds, “When I read the script, I called up Ali (Abbas Zafar) and told him that I was genuinely surprised at how strong and real the girl’s character is. But I took it up as a challenge. I said I want to get this right—the dialect, the kind of look, etc.”
Today it is perhaps easier for Kaif to get into the character than it was when she landed a film like Raajneeti, which had dialogues in the heartland Hindi— dense and heavy. With her range of experience, Kaif has devised her own method to better her performance. “Today I can say that my approach—I like to call it my approach rather than method—is very different from what it used to be. What I used to do was depend a lot on the director, be very present and yes, carry a certain exuberance and joy for life to the set, and this energy would translate on to the screen. I tried to feel things as honestly as I could. Now in the last year or so, to further my growth as an actor, I actively kept seeking tricks I could add to my bag. I came in contact with some really wonderful teachers and different techniques, which I apply to what I do. Now it’s a slightly different approach of breaking down the characters and then translating that learning when I come on the set,” says Kaif.
My memories of Kaif from her early days in the industry are of an actor both sharp and intuitive about her choice of films as well as her image as a public figure. Despite being new, Kaif didn’t hold back in sharing her point of view but was astute enough to step back at the appropriate moment. On the sets of Yuvvraaj, where she had to twirl and pirouette along a winding staircase in a song, she asked director Subhash Ghai if she should opt for a more subtle approach. A rather amused Ghai brushed off the suggestion and Kaif did as she was told. For a while, Kaif was nothing more than a pretty face. A leading actress, in a private conversation with me, employed her famous eye-roll as she dismissed Kaif as merely a popular face—hardly someone who would qualify as an actor.
However, Zafar thought differently when, as an assistant director, he met Kaif on the sets of New York. He felt Kaif’s ability to entertain the audience had not been tapped adequately. He wrote a part for her in his first film, Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, a role which rested on her petite shoulders. “The first thing an actor or a star needs to have is the ability to make the audience feel that the person can entertain them. Katrina has a tremendous screen presence and following. With her life experience and films like New York, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Zero, etc, she has only become much better as an artiste,” says Zafar.
For quite some time, Kaif’s success was attributed to Salman Khan whom she was dating a long ago. His patronage, insiders insisted, had opened many doors for her. Neither of the two has been a supporter of this theory, though Kaif has always expressed her gratitude to Khan for his guidance and belief in her. These theories were debunked when the actress went on to establish her own creative credentials—be it her long-standing collaboration with Akshay Kumar or directors like Vipul Shah among others with whom she delivered hits like Namastey London and Singh is Kinng.
With her star ascending, the scope of her roles expanded and she was working with established filmmakers like Yash Chopra, Abbas-Mustan, Rajkumar Santoshi and Anees Bazmee. But, she kept looking out for directors with stories that challenged her. She collaborated with Kabir Khan in New York and Ek Tha Tiger, Zafar in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan and Tiger Zinda Hai, with Prakash Jha in Raajneeti and Zoya Akhtar in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. Contrary to expectations, she expanded her portfolio to both mass-oriented and multiplex films.
“I have just tried to be true to what I was hearing at that time. Like with Ali, I sensed that in his script there was a lot of potential, which gave me scope to have a side which was not seen before. With Kabir, New York was an unusual genre, ahead of its time when it came out in 2009 and I just loved it. As you pointed out, every time I have tried to take a risk or what could be termed as risky, it has always turned out to be the best for me,” says Kaif.
Of her ever-evolving choice of films and roles, she says, “There are smaller, more realistic more artistic films and then there are larger scale, big commercial films, where everyone is presented to look glossy and beautiful and I have done both. I have done a lot of that because of the sheer nature of our audience and like it or hate it, in India songs are a huge part of our culture… you see Madhuri ji and people still call her the Dhak girl or Ek Do Teen girl. She has done incredible work and I am not comparing (myself) with her, but songs have a life of their own. In my films, there have been huge songs, massively popular songs. It’s an easy recall in the audience mind when they see you in Sheila Ki Jawani or Swag Se Swagat or Mashallah and that’s good. Today I am at a place where I have ticked that box and now what gives me satisfaction in a different way is a role like in Bharat.”
What next—issue based or female-led features or web-series and talk shows like her colleagues? “I think I am doing what’s right for me, without following anyone else’s path. Or, trying to put myself in a cookie-cutter mould of what X is doing or what Y is doing. That’s never really worked for me. Now it’s been 15 years or more that I have been in the film industry and in that journey, there have been ups and downs and I am fortunate that there have been more highs than lows.”
Whatever her future choices, Kaif’s is among the rare sagas that will keep the audience glued for a while.
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