I have never really fancied the concept of item numbers in Bollywood films. Before you dub me a prude, let me explain that the only reason I don't fancy such frivolous exercises is because they dilute the plot and annoy the serious movie buff. Besides, it would take the industry eons to find someone who could bring the same aesthetic sensuousness to the dance form as yesteryear ‘item girls' Cuckoo and Helen.
That said, there's certainly something enchanting about Katrina Kaif's Sheila Ki Jawani in the recent Farah Khan film, Tees Maar Khan. In all fairness, her lithe figure, coupled with some fluid dance moves and an angelic face, brought a fresh appeal to the otherwise unnecessary (in my opinion) distraction in the film.
Naturally, when I chanced upon the opportunity to speak to Kaif, the dance number was at the back of my mind. It was a photo call for Tees Maar Khan and I reached my destination a little before 3pm (the scheduled time). As a celebrity, I assumed she wouldn't turn up for another two hours.
To my surprise, Kaif made an appearance at 3.10pm to be precise. She looked regal in an off-white half-shoulder knee-length dress, complemented by magenta peep-toe heels and drop earrings. The moment she entered everyone knew she meant business. Photographers jostled to get the best picture and she obliged with effortless charm.
"Bahar lehna hain? (Do you want some pictures outside?)," she asked the lensmen in chaste Hindi. I think it's fair to say that most of Dubai's media world understands English, so I failed to fathom why Kaif chose to speak in Hindi - a language that she's struggling to learn and perfect for years. Clearly, she wanted to make a point.
Kaif welcomed me warmly while sipping tea, but the photographer diverted her attention. She seemed quite conscious about the way she was being shot. "Bhaisaab, aap inke saath hain? Itna tak kincho (Brother, are you with her? Please limit yourself to a close-up)." She directed him. Yes, her diction was not perfect, but there were no grammatical flaws in the language. I was impressed!
You've played varied roles, have you come full circle after this movie, I ask her. "I think it's very important to constantly try and re-invent yourself in little ways that you can. It need not be super drastic. I heard the version from Farah; I heard the songs; I heard about the looks for the song; and everything was clear right from the beginning."
Kaif says she had a vision of her own in mind, of how she wanted this done. So she went through a lot of training for the look to be that way. "Farah wanted it to be a very glamorous and talked-about look. She had this very innovative idea that makes you Indian with kitsch Western dressing. Akki Narula did a very good job. The look has come out like the way we wanted," she says.
The fitness training definitely wasn't as easy as Kaif had hoped for - she had to do a lot of Pilates. There were a lot of short cholis (tops) that she had to sport and so any kind of compromise was inevitable. "I had to look very fit for that particular look. I am not a big fan of the gym so it was not much of fun for me," she says.
Fitness was just one part of the whole process, she says. The dance regime was gruesome too. She had to undergo about eight days of rehearsals for Sheila Ki Jawani. There was a belly dancer on board to teach her different kinds of movements. Finally, the task of creating the perfect costumes took even longer.
"Farah and Akki worked really hard on designing something really different. She wanted something that would make a statement, and I think a lot of research went into it. We went through market research to find the fabrics, cut them up, and add borders. They're pretty innovative."
I went on to ask her whether being good looking is a hindrance in getting different kinds of roles. "It was Salman Khan who said that," she laughs. I was a bit surprised as I wasn't going to ask her any questions on the actor, and if reports were to be believed to be true, not so long ago she wasn't particularly comfortable talking about him.
Either way, I brushed it off by saying I didn't know about it. "Yeah, it was Salman. Maybe somebody else said it too, but he always says that. I don't entirely agree to be honest. If people like you in any manner, they like your work, dancing, acting and looks - then you should be happy. Imagine if you complain because people like the way you look - you'll come off sounding really ungrateful.
"So if somebody likes your look or compliments you on it, I think you should be happy about it. I wouldn't complain if someone came up and said, ‘oh you look nice.' I'm not going to slap their face and say, ‘No I don't'. I don't think you should look for reasons to complain." Doesn't she face the fear of being typecast? "If anyone thinks I am being typecast, then I am the only one to be blamed because I choose my roles. I get offered a wide variety of roles. Luckily I am in a position to get offered a choice, but I choose what I want. So if somewhere people are saying I am sticking to certain roles, then only I am to be blamed. I accept that responsibility. I try real hard to keep a balance. In Rajneeti I play a politician in cotton sarees. In Tees Maar Khan, I am playing an item girl in cut-up sarees. Rajneeti was my last release and it was a serious non-glamorous role," she says.
I tell her that she looked very glamorous in Rajneeti. "If you think I looked glamorous I can't help it," she laughs. "I was supposed to be come off looking serious. However, if people still felt I looked glamourous, I think it's sweet. There was no glamour - it was very realistic. All those costumes in Rajneeti would have cost some 200,000 rupees, which is nothing actually."
So was she pleased to be back with Akshay Kumar after a long time? "No, I was crying," she says, a tad sarcastic. "He's a sweetheart and I think we've come a long way in terms of understanding each other, not only in terms of the work, but in the space we give each other. We're used to the quirks now and that sort of comes with time. It's been five years since we're working together and whenever we are offered a role together we always look for something new," she says.
Now that she's done an ‘item number', does she think people will take that side of her very seriously? "Not yet. If you sit down and analyse every single thing that you do. Everything can have a plus and a minus point. If an actress plays a role, which is very serious and intense, thousands will have opinions and advice. If you do something glamorous, they might say it's not respectable for women. If you do comedy, they'll say she is not experimenting. I feel one should just follow your instinct."
What is her creative process like? "It depends on what I'm doing. If I am playing a dancer, then my preparation will go on in that direction - flexibility, the movements and the finesse. If it's something like Rajneeti, then I have to look at the nuances of a politician - speeches, mood of the character, etc. In a movie like New York, I was myself. At times there are aspects you can't change - like you said, ‘I look glamourous', so even as an actor you can't change that," she says
I finally bring up the touchy topic of her diction. "I am not affected at all," she says. "Fact is a fact. English is my first language. Hindi is something that I've been learning for the last six years. I've had really great teachers who have worked hard with me, I have friends who speak the language very well and the audience too has been very supportive. The fact that they watch and enjoy the film is proof that they're used to that certain manner. They can always recognise a genuine attempt," she says.
Confidence, poise and attitude, that's Kaif for you.