Well, well, well, I’ve got news! I am here – alive and kicking! At 28, with 10 years of experience under my belt in Bollywood, and perhaps a few added ounces of weight, I can say with confidence: no actor with ‘self-proclaimed clout’ has the gall or guts to throw me out anywhere.
From being totally involved in yoga and traversing through Ladakh… I was on a self-exploratory trip these last two years. And today, I’m more at ease with myself than I’ve ever been in the last 10 years. Life has indeed come
a full circle.
I was just 18 when I made tentative inroads into the modelling world. A typical young, slightly confused teenager, I didn’t really know which direction destiny was actually taking me. But I was content taking each moment as it came… with
no goal in mind. Somehow, someone up there put all the pieces
together and made things happen. Perhaps to understand my journey, let me begin from my childhood…
I was born in a small, multi-cultural, picturesque city
called Jamshedpur which is in Jharkhand. My dad
Sapan Dutta was an LIC (Life Insurance Corporation)
officer and my mum Shikha, a housewife. I have
a younger sister Ishita who, incidentally, has made her debut
in Telugu films.
I was born prematurely at seven months and the doctors had actually given up on me. But my mum refused
to let go and I think her ‘never say die’ spirit has rubbed
on to me. So I hung on to life and shocked everybody
by bouncing back. In fact, even today, I continue to shock everybody by bouncing back each time people supposedly finish me off. And I guess, I’ll continue to do so – so get ready for a lot of shocks! Ha ha!
As a child, I remember being sick always. Perhaps that’s why my parents, especially my mum, have always been overly protective. I think for the first 11 years of my life,
I was really sick and would pick up every virus in town. But strangely enough, after that, touchwood, I’ve never been ill.
LIFE REVOLVED AROUND STUDIES
Jamshedpur is a small town ranked very high in academics. But there isn’t a social life to speak of – life totally revolves around education. So once in a while, the entire family would visit the cinema or go off on a holiday to a hill station. Perhaps that ignited my love for the hills.
Life was a set routine, almost like a timetable - we’d
go to bed by 10 p.m. and wake up at 6 a.m. And I was this nerdy kid who would spend all her time studying and when free, daydreaming.
I studied at DBMS School and was very good in studies. I was always the school topper. I wasn’t even interested in extra-curricular activities. Frankly, looking back
at my school days, I can’t really remember any
striking anecdotes besides just studying and studying some more.
PUJAS AND MORE
As a kid, however, I was a little strange - I loved being
on my own and didn’t make friends easily. My mum would egg me on to make friends in our building. But I always felt that I never fitted in, so invariably I had no friends.
However, I loved playing with the servants’ kids and would come home with lice to the exasperation
of my ever-suffering mother! She must have tried
everything in the book to get me away from them, but
I would run back to play with them.
My parents then made a decision to move away from that locality to a more elite place. But moving to a new place, away from my exciting gang of servant kids, was a pain. And I was so miserable in the beginning that
I wept buckets. It seemed like something I would never come out of. I was always a drama queen. And I grew out of that phase too
I passed out of school with flying colours. And to pursue further studies, I moved to Pune, and enrolled myself
in BMCC College of Commerce. Frankly, I didn’t miss home at all – in fact, I was ecstatic to be out of the suffocating, over-protective home ambience. There, I actually got into the groove and started finding myself.
I was always good at studies so the academic part in college wasn’t really a problem. In college, many students took
up modelling for some extra pocket money. So when somebody asked me if I was interested, I didn’t say no.
In front of the camera, I was very confident and oozed sex appeal. In no time, I created a buzz in Pune and was touted as one of the hottest models in town. I did major ad campaigns and print work.
I also did everything in a very professional manner –
I would go there, do my work, ask for my cheque
in a very matter-of-fact manner and return. My interactions
with people were absolutely limited and totally cut
Well, for a new, slightly wet behind the ears model,
I could have met a lot of not-so-nice people. But
I truly believe that life is fair – it doles out what you truly deserve. Or perhaps I walk around with blinkers, and so have never noticed any hanky-panky. So this way, I never faced any bad experience, perhaps because my interactions with people, especially men, were
Even when I’m asked about the casting couch in the film industry, my answer remains the same. I won’t say it doesn’t exist, but I didn’t face it. Simply because
I was never in a tearing hurry to reach the top. Yes, there were inferences or innuendos, but I refused to see this seamier underbelly of the film industry. Besides, I truly believe nobody will put out crores just for a roll in the hay. If you fit the bill, are talented and personable, you get work or else you’re shown the door. Nobody will put his film at risk. There is a lot of money at stake. And
if you are really desperate and take the casting couch route,
it still doesn’t mean you’ll get the role. The casting couch can be a bitter pill for some – only because despite going that way, it may still achieve nothing!
Coming back to my beginnings, being touted as the next
‘IT’ girl in the glamour world got me slightly swollen-headed. So I enrolled for the Miss India pageant, and was sure
it would be a cakewalk. I told all and sundry that I would be killing the competition at the pageant.
But just as I was busy gloating like crazy, my words came tumbling down to haunt me… and thud! I fell flat on my face. I was rejected outright… that too in the preliminary round of the competition! My world just fell apart, right at the seams. I’ve always been a melodramatic person and
I took this rejection really, really badly. I felt life was this dark void and I just couldn’t show my face to anybody. Thankfully, the 12th standard exams had just got over;
so I left Pune and ran away to Jamshedpur to lick
I was absolutely devastated and just couldn’t believe that they had actually ‘REJECTED’ me. The facade
of confidence that I had built as a model crumbled and I was back to being that weird kid that didn’t belong. I cried and sulked for several months until good sense finally prevailed, and then returned to Pune… in a more chastened, humble avatar.
I was in the 1st year of B Com in college and now all I wanted to do was concentrate on my studies as education was always my comfort zone. This was where I fared the best, so I took refuge in it once again. Yes, once in a while I did model, but I completely shut myself away from everybody. The rejection had hit me so hard that it felt as if I had this gaping hole in my heart that would never be filled.
Also, since earlier I was so full of myself and had gloated so much about the pageant, I found that a lot
of other models were making snide and bitchy comments about me – some behind my back, others to my face.
For an introvert and a sensitive soul like me, I was obviously hurt several times over. I found that people for no reason were pulling me down. I was called arrogant and standoffish, and targeted cruelly. I wanted to scream and shout that for God’s sake, I am just an introvert, and all I did was mind my business. Why were people after me?
Perhaps to run away again, I moved to the hub of the glamour world – Mumbai. There again, I went for numerous auditions. And I got my first remix video – Saiyan Dil Mein Aana Re. They had already selected four girls – Drashti Dhami, Nicolette Bird, Reznaan and somebody else who was supposed to feature in it. But one girl dropped out and I got selected. This remix album was touted
as the first girl band - we weren’t actually singing but
we were dancing in this video. And it went viral, almost like
a national anthem.
We became a craze and I, due to my commerce
background, also moonlighted as a manager. Though I was barely 19, I was soon negotiating contracts, venues, remuneration etc like a professional. And we were on
a roll. We had many shows in the pipeline and made lots
of money. And I moved from my crappy paying guest
arrangement with six girls - where every day there would be a fight - to a bigger paying guest accommodation where
I stayed alone. This was like a status symbol and I was
on top of the world.
As a girl band, we were travelling and performing at top venues and even abroad. We had tours all across the country and contracts for various prestigious places abroad too. But since I am this weird girl, invariably when the going is good, I am the one to throw pebbles that cause shock ripples in my life...
My next move was to quietly re-enter the Miss India pageant. I was a year older, and a little wiser – so this time, I didn’t tell anybody about it. Strangely, I got through without any problems. And surprise, surprise, I even bagged the coveted Miss India title! I was ecstatic! But honestly, here again there was a bit of mixed emotions… as I was already committed to our stage shows in the US – and
we had even received the remuneration. As the reigning Miss India, I would have to go for the Miss Universe
pageant in Ecuador. I was in a total mess.
Luckily, what happened again was sheer luck. Our girl band which comprised four members went through a bit
of a shake-up in the middle as one of the girls opted out - so we ended up becoming a girl band of three members. The US tour that we were supposed
to go for had three girls in the contract. Luckily, the fourth girl who had opted out came to our rescue. So although
I went for the first two shows, she finished the rest
of the tour.
At the Miss Universe pageant in Ecuador, I managed
to pip the competition and be amongst the top 10 finalists. But after I returned home, it was as if the floodgates had opened up! I was flooded with offers from Bollywood.
I was barely 19 and I picked Chocolate as my debut film. But almost simultaneously, I got an offer from a young director Aditya Dutta for a film called Aashiq Banaya Aapne. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t very impressed by Aditya. He was just one year older than I – and
I thought, my God, this guy is too young to direct me. Even the script seemed very run-of-the-mill. So I refused. But Aditya insisted that he wanted me in the film.
He came back to me and said, ‘You must hear the songs – they are sung by Himesh Reshammiya and will
be surefire hits’. I heard them. I was just not impressed
by the nasal songs. But at the end, my secretary convinced me by saying they’d pay me well.
At that point, I was staying at a PG, and every day when
I would walk into the building, the watchman would whistle at me and sing ‘Saiyan Dil Mein Aana Re’. It irritated me no end and I even complained umpteen times to the secretary of the building. But nothing was done until the watchman did the same to the secretary’s daughter. And he was sacked on the spot! That day, I decided I’d buy my own flat. So I took up this film and bought a small flat with the money. The film went on to become a huge hit!
After that there was no looking back. I got more films and I was touted as the next biggest sex symbol in the film industry. At 20, I was neck deep in work – in fact, this schedule went on for eight long years without any respite. And I didn’t realize that I was becoming a total bore.
In fact, even my social life was affected by this.
MY LOVE LIFE
In my 28 years, I have had two very serious relationships. One was with an engineer and a part-time model.
We started dating each other from our college days.
In fact, I even thought I’d marry and settle down with him.
He had always been my support system. When I came to Mumbai, he followed me and we were always together. I did think he was my soulmate. However, he wanted
to get married but by then, I was getting a lot of film offers. It reached a point when we were always at loggerheads about this and then I decided I wouldn’t join films and instead marry him. He said it was entirely my decision, but didn’t want me to wake up one day and rue the fact that I had chucked a flourishing career for marriage. Totally confused, I went to Mount Mary Church and prayed like never before. That night, I had a vision of what my life would be 10 years from then – and I didn’t like what
I saw! And the next day, I took up Chocolate and
my guy and I broke up. It was extremely traumatic
for both of us. He got married to somebody else within the year.
Then, while doing Aashiq Banaya Aapne, I started dating director Aditya Dutta. We had a lot of things in common and really enjoyed each other’s company. So my life was divided into working like crazy and spending time with Adi. This relationship too was intense and very serious. Of course, I had never confirmed or denied that we were going around as these personal details hurt a heroine’s chances in the film industry. Adi and I lasted for two years and then we broke up as I had become very busy with my films and was running around like a robot shooting. After this, I actually had no personal life to talk about –
I was doing films back-to-back, earning good money, but yet not enjoying life.
Getting back to my films… Like I said before, after the amazing response to Ashique Banaya Apne, I was touted as the hottest newbie, the next No 1 heroine, the actor to watch out for and what not! But strangely enough, my career just didn’t take off. I did a series of films like Veerabhadra, Bhagam Bhag, Raqeeb, Dhol, Speed… but they didn’t exactly make any great waves at the box office. Perhaps because I was an absolute novice -
I didn’t have any filmi background or a Godfather to guide
me. Also I was a little preoccupied with my personal life and Adi. Not that I wasn’t professional, but perhaps
I didn’t make the right decisions. Also, the secretaries
I kept to manage my career were terrible. The first secretary was extremely pricey and refused good films which
I didn’t even know about. I got to know from Govinda once that I had refused good films with him. And I sacked the man. The second one too seemed more preoccupied with the other stars he was handling and I got step-fatherly treatment. In fact, photographer Rakesh Shrestha once told me that
I was in the running for the heroine’s role in Krish, opposite Hrithik Roshan. But, there are some established heroines who’d do anything to step onto the toes of a newbie. I was eased out and Priyanka Chopra went on to get the role. Anyway, my secretary got the sack for his inactive role in all this. The third was Prakash Jaju, who was Priyanka Chopra’s ex-secretary. The man was actually quite good. But he had personal problems as he had fallen out with Priyanka, and then there was this huge legal mess he was in.
At the same time, I got embroiled in a controversy on the sets of Horn Ok. What happened was really stupid - veteran actor Nana Patekar tried to act fresh with me and I dared to stand up for myself. And it became a huge controversy. He couldn’t handle his ego bruised and he created
a huge tamasha. A political party stepped in unnecessarily and caused a lot of chaos. My car was vandalized and
my dad who was inside the car was absolutely traumatized. Supposedly, the man was so irate; he told everybody he’d get me out of the industry. Somebody like choreographer Ganesh Acharya too stepped into the fray for some odd reason and said that he’d never want to work with me – ha – as if I would want to work with him! This ridiculous controversy went on for three whole days where you had news channels on an overdrive, reporters flocking
to my house, and these people giving silly bytes on how they’d never want to see me again and I’d be out of the film industry.
What I’d like to say is that when no man has helped make my career, how can any man break my career? You can scream and shout from the rooftop and say you have clout but actually, besides a bruised ego, you really have nothing. During this controversy, thanks to the goodwill I had in this industry, I had people like Boney Kapoor, Ashtavinayak and a few others offering me films on those three days with no questions asked. And by the way,
if the man was so powerful, it’s strange that the film Horn Ok never got to see the light of day. Yes, there were a few ripples in my life - my secretary Prakash Jaju got scared and told me he couldn’t handle my affairs any more. Though I was totally calm during the controversy, I had severe post-traumatic stress. I was absolutely disgusted and really shaken up by the turn of events. I just didn’t want to step into another Bollywood film set ever.
I needed time to recover from this. But again in 2010,
I did Apartment, Rama The Saviour and a Tamil film.
So trust me, nobody has that much clout to throw anybody out of the industry. This industry is very huge and there’s a lot of work for everybody. Yes, I made my choices but they weren’t out of fear.
It was then that I got to see the true colour of Bollywood too. Actors and actresses who I thought I was close to started shunning me or openly bitching about me. They were calling me names in print. Suddenly, it all became too much. I noticed that producers too were trying to create a buzz for their films at the cost of my reputation. They were trying to incite me to say things and I was being pushed around. And I was absolutely disgusted by all this.Yes, I have had my share of negativity before. I was always an introvert but I was friends with one or two actors and actresses. At least I thought we were great friends but it turned out to be a total sham. I remember I was hanging out with this actress friend and I casually told her that this director had called me for an audition. Later in the day, when I met the director, he told me that this actress friend had called him up and trashed me totally. She said I was unprofessional and was a pain to work with. I was shocked! That’s when I realized that in this industry there are no real friends.
So I decided to take a break from all the negativity. I decided to do a short course in filmmaking in the US from the New York Film Academy. It was the most rejuvenating break I’ve ever had. I just shed the facade of the last 10 years, and was happy to be me for the next two or three months. But the US is expensive and I returned home.
I had also put on a little weight, and to tell you the truth, I have always been obsessed with my weight. When I was 19, and actually had a wow figure, I used to go on all sorts of diets simply because I thought I was fat. Throughout my film career, my weight was a major issue for me. But strangely, now that I have put on a noticeable amount of weight, I’m actually okay with it.
But to cut a long story short… A friend of mine suggested I go and check out the Isha Yoga Centre in Kerala – perhaps the asanas I learnt there would help me lose weight. I went to Kerala to do a short course of 10 or 15 days at the Isha Foundation, but I was so impressed that I stayed on for three months. I was like a person possessed and did all the courses that the Foundation offered one after another. I really thought I would achieve eternal bliss. There I lived like everybody else. In fact, once I even travelled to another place in Coimbatore for an Isha Yoga Conference in a state bus. I remember, when they told me that I had to travel like all the other volunteers, I made a face. But it was actually fun. I wore an ordinary salwar kameez, had a dupatta on my head and had spectacles on, and I jostled my way into the state bus. We arrived early at the grounds and some of my volunteer friends decided we’d go and try out the street food. I tagged along and we first went to a gola stall – and I was a little worked up and asked how hygienic it was, whether it was made of bottled water etc. Everybody, of course, totally ignored me. Actually, it was the hangover of being a very sickly kid, so the first thing that came to my mind was: oh no, I’m going to get sick. However, I tried it out and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Do remember, as a star, we are always accompanied by our entourage – managers, publicists, secretaries etc – and
in the bargain, we get completely isolated from meeting other people. This was the first time in a long, long time that I was interacting with people on the street. And you won’t believe this, but I was so engrossed in chatting with the gola man that I found the other volunteers had left, leaving me all alone. Paranoia set in BIG Time. I was suddenly petrified that I’d be noticed and mobbed. But nothing like this happened. Nobody paid any attention to me and I went back safely to the grounds where the conference was happening.
BACK TO THE US
In the meantime, after three months at the ashram, I returned to the US. There is a group of NRI Indians like Pooja Batra and her ex-husband Sunny Ahluwalia who have a lot of contacts in Hollywood. A production company – the same one which made reality shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians – was making a reality show which showed Indian actors struggling in Hollywood. They saw my photographs and liked me, and I was almost short-listed for this show. But I suddenly craved going back to the ashram. So I just returned to India. This time, I came home and told my mum and dad that I was going to the ashram for a year now. My parents are used to me. They didn’t say NO, though they were obviously worried. In fact, the friend who introduced me to the ashram would always tell me that she was petrified that my parents would really scream at her someday. But thankfully, they didn’t. But they freaked out when I told them I was going away to the ashram for a long time.
But it didn’t bother me, I still returned to the ashram. But this time, I wasn’t a visitor, I was an inmate, and that’s when reality hit me hard. I was assigned duties like gardening and cooking. In Mumbai, I would sit in one place and order my maid to paint my nails. If she took leave, it was like a personal catastrophe for me. Unlike the time when I was a visitor, where I could sit under a tree and while away my time, this time I had to be cooking and cleaning. I left the ashram in five days and returned home. But you won’t believe what actually triggered off my return – it was a craving for Chinese food! I know it sounds a little daft, but that’s exactly what it was!
Of course, my tryst with spirituality was a little toned down after that but I did do a short Art Of Living course, and then travelled to Ladakh. My parents by now were calmer. They realized I was doing random things and hoped I’d grow out of the phase. Of course, when I went bald, my mother went berserk. She started making me feel very insecure. I was told that a heroine’s shelf life is very short and having worked so hard for my stardom, I was giving it all up for my self-exploratory trips. That actually got
to me a bit. Occasionally, I would call up my secretary and ask him to get me films, shows or other things. But then almost immediately, I knew I wasn’t ready for it. My parents and I share a love-hate volatile relationship. Like typical parents, they keep pressing the wrong buttons in me and infuriating the daylights out of me. But I love them, and they need to realise that. But I will not compromise on my self-exploratory journey.
A TRIP TO LADAKH
So I went on a backpacking expedition to Ladakh all on my own. It was an amazing experience. It actually started with me becoming bald. I had this long, silky hair from childhood. But it was almost akin to a facade and I wanted to shave it off. So I became totally bald.
It actually made me feel much lighter and happier. After going bald, I got adventurous and took off to Ladakh. This was almost a surreal experience where I stayed at the homes of ordinary people and traversed through the hills and felt one with nature. In fact, I even found
a Buddhist monastery and learnt to chant with the Buddhist monks. It was exhilarating! However, in a few weeks,
my hair started growing back and I found that people were starting to recognize me. And when it got embarrassing,
I returned home.
SEX IN BOLLYWOOD, SEX IN THE ASHRAM?
Mahesh Bhatt had once said that there’s no difference
in human nature - there’s sex in the ashrams just like in Bollywood. I agree that human nature is the same.
But I feel there should be even more sex happening.
If people stopped getting obsessed by other people’s sex lives and concentrated on their own, perhaps they would be happier.
But I understand what Mahesh Bhatt meant by this comment. It is a fact that human nature is the same everywhere – whether in Bollywood or in the serene ashrams of the Himalayas. In Bollywood, the crab mentality
is prevalent and you’ll find everybody ready to pull the next person down. But much to my surprise, I found this mentality even
in the ashram. In Bollywood, your fellow actors grab your legs and pull you down so that you don’t make it to the top. In the ashram too, there are yogis and sanyasis who have been around for years, but will still pull you down so that they can get the coveted position next to the guru.
Please note, I am not running down the ashram.
In fact, this was the process that started me on my journey
of self-realization. It gave me a lot! But I realized there
is no such thing as instant bliss or enlightenment. Perhaps I was not meant to be in this stream of consciousness.
On the other hand, I remember asking a yogi at the ashram what if he never gets enlightenment, and he answered, ‘In that case, I shall sacrifice some more births of mine for the guru’. So you see, it just means perhaps I am not as large-hearted as him. And I realized I’d never achieve nirvana or enlightenment this way.
But yes, I did realize that this was who I was and understand myself better now than I did in the last 10 years. A lot
of people strangely enough look at me weirdly or ask me
if I am going the Parveen Babi way. Please, I am not losing
my marbles nor am I suffering from any problems. I have
great respect for Parveen Babi but the poor lady had
an illness. I am absolutely sane, thank you very much!
I just went on a self-realization journey.
Now, I’ve come back home and I’m starting my film career again, perhaps from scratch. Incidentally, my little sister Ishita too has joined films. She has done a Telugu film and is also looking for good films in Bollywood. So I guess both of us will be starting together. I don’t think there will be any sibling rivalry. I don’t really know about the future, but I don’t think we’d be warring over some film role.
I went on a self-exploratory journey and in the process, good, bad or ugly, discovered the answers within myself. Today, I am more at peace with myself. Thankfully,
I have made some wise investments, so I don’t really have to worry about money. And I’ve always got good offers. From reality shows (Bigg Boss and Jhalak Dikhlaa Jaa are offered to me practically every year), to South Indian films, to small independent films, you name it… I keep getting them all. I also got approached by a few corporate houses to join them in some capacity – either kick start some business in collaboration with them or occupy
a post – they said that the brand that I have built over the years can be tapped by them just in case I’m looking
at moving away from films. I graciously told them that I’m only 28 and it’s too early to look at those options…
At the same time, a leading political party in my hometown even offered me an election ticket… I turned it down very respectfully. It’s been a comedy circus!
...All this in the last two years when people didn’t know what the hell was going on with me. Ah yes, and I forgot… umpteen marriage proposals! Friends and family were frantically trying to fix me up with some guy or the other. Gosh, imagine battling all this while trying to achieve enlightenment and
following the guru around like a love-struck puppy!
I am speaking about all this now because I’ve realised that my silence is often confused for apathy, and also
to further assert that my choices have been through choice, not compulsion – I was drawn to the spiritual path.
But yes, now I want to do some good work. Let’s see what falls into my lap and what I do next. I am open to marriage and kids too. Life is very bountiful and has always been nice to me. I hope it continues to be so.
By Sumita Chakraborty