We have heard of artists suffering for their art, but Bollywood actress Mallika Sherawat takes it to a whole new level. In her latest film, a snake-saga called Hisss, the notorious "kissing queen" — a tag she earned after she shared 17 kisses with her co-star in her 2003 flick Khwahish — is directing all her onscreen sexual energy towards a reptile.
So how was it locking lips with a slimy creature? was our first question when tabloid! tracked her down in Mumbai.
"Here is a confession: that kiss with the snake was by far my best onscreen. He made for a great co-star," says Sherawat, laughing.
Actually filming the said scene, however, was not all fun and games.
"We were in the jungles of Kerala shooting in the muddy waters and I had this rubbery, slimy snake in my hand. As I geared up for the passionate scene, I remember Jennifer [Lynch, director] screaming from the sidelines: ‘Come on Mallika, imagine you're the snake in the movie and you are holding your lover in your hands. Kiss the damn snake!'".
But getting passionate onscreen is not an alien concept for Sherawat, whose biggest hit in her seven-year-career remains Murder, the racy Bollywood spin-off of Richard Gere starrer Unfaithful.
So is there more to Hisss than Sherawat's snake encounters?
"Bollywood hasn't had a big naagin [snake woman] movie for the last 24 years. And the naagin of Hisss is ruthless. She swallows her victims whole and makes her prey beg for mercy. Plus, we have captured the transformation from a human to a snake very well," says Sherawat.
The film revolves around a naagin, popular in Indian folklore, whose mate is captured from the jungles of India. She transforms into a woman and ventures into the city in desperate search for her mate.
Snake-centric films were a popular Bollywood staple in the '70s and the '90s. Legendary actress Sridevi, perhaps is most well known for snake woman acts in hits such as Naagin (1986) and its sequel Nigahein (1989).
"I don't think anybody should or can take her place. Sridevi will always be that iconic naagin. She is a legend and I am a huge fan of hers," says Sherawat.
Hisss, she adds, will bring something new to the table with its slick production values.
"In previous snake films, first they show the heroine and then you suddenly see a shot of the snake. It's up to the audience to imagine the rest. Everybody is left thinking: ‘how she become a snake so swiftly?' Also, the naagin in Hisss doesn't wear all those glamorous clothes and just dance."
Her last comment couldn't have summed up the premise of Bollywood snake sagas better. The hackneyed plot is often dominated by scenes of snake mates dancing together in the rain, an evil snake charmer, a hunter who shoots down one of the snake mates, and the surviving snake wreaking vengeance on the evil parties.
But producer Govind Menon claims the biggest strength of Hisss is the special effects and the graphics. Made on a budget of $5 million (Dh18.36 million), Menon has roped in Hollywood experts to lend authenticity to the plot.
"We did the entire post-production and editing in Hollywood. We roped in the best of the talents like Tony Ciconne to edit the film and special-effects creator Robert Kurtzman of Evil Dead fame. Though it took longer than usual, I am happy with the final product."
Hisss began shooting in August 2008 and was completed in February last year.
"We took over a year for post-production. By Bollywood standards, it may be a long time because they finish editing in two months, but we wanted to meet international standards. A year is not that long in Hollywood."
Sherawat, whose last release was the 2008 romantic comedy and box-office disaster Maan Gaye Mughal-e-Azam, is not fazed by the delay. She made the most of that gestation period by hitting the film festival circuit, including in Cannes and Toronto, showcasing her film. If anything, that experience was a major confidence-booster, says the actress.
"The trailers alone created such a buzz. Everybody, including David Lynch and Johny Depp , were fascinated when they saw the trailers. It was all so encouraging. Even the DOP [Director of photography] of Titanic emailed me saying that he was intrigued by the trailers and would love to watch the film," she says.
"I am not one of those actors who feel insecure if they don't see themselves on screen. Such delays are part and parcel of an actor's life. I have learnt to live with it."
She is currently shooting for the comedy Dhamaal 2 and is working on an international project called Love, Barack. For the last couple of years, she has been shuttling between Mumbai and Los Angeles. Her prolonged absence from the glitzy social circuit has also raised questions about her plans to quit Bollywood.
"You can take Mallika out of India but you can't take India out of Mallika. I can never say goodbye to Bollywood. Right now, I am in talks to do a movie with Mr Amitabh Bachchan. I want some creative changes made to my script before I say yes to it."
So will we see her take on roles that draw less on her smouldering sensuality?
"See I don't seek that sexy image, it's the media who has created that image. My biggest strength is when ordinary people are willing to shell out their hard-earned money to watch a film of mine. That's my biggest draw."
Mallika Sherawat's incessant tweets about Hisss is hard-selling at its best. tabloid! gives you a round-up:
October 17: "I just saw 1st copy of Hisss!! I love love love it! Hope u do too... its for U all with all my heart:):"
October 15: "Just hung out with 12 saperas (snake charmers), gonna bring em to the Wave theater in Noida for the press meet! Will post vid+pics later:)"
October 14: "Oh. My. Goddess!! I just had the most incredible experience at the ancient snake temple in Mannarasala. I feel so blessed! Prayed4 every1:)" "OMG! I'm on trial for being naked in Hisss on Aap Ki Adalat!"
October 11: "ok for those that don't know: HISSS is a sound a snake makes before ssShe swallows u whole;) heheh."
Did you know?
Hisss will be screened at the upcoming Doha Tribeca Film Festival. "I can't wait to see the reactions from the festival-goers. Also I had Shaikha Al Mayassa Bint Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani's [Chairperson of Qatar Museums Authority Board of Trustees] support from the beginning. She is also interested in global cinema."