Cover story: Katrina Kaif finally opens up
She’s a hubba hubba incarnate. But there’s more to her than meets the eye. Katrina breaks her stoic silence on everything you’ve ever wondered about her
Here’s what happens in this article: I meet Katrina Kaif over three days in two cities in less than a week. Much does not go as either of us expects. On the first day, we mainly talk about why no one thinks she’s got a brain. On the second, we halt a Jet Airways plane that’s ready for take-off, and she shares her insecurities with me in the cosy confines of its J Class cabin. On the third, she invites me to her home (which she shares with Ranbir Kapoor) and reminisces about her days as a model and thrusting her breasts into Gulshan Grover’s face. Her parting words to me on the second day as we get out of a crowded airport coach: “Shit, I’ve said too much.”
The first thought when you lay eyes on Katrina is: “That’s a lovely sight.” The second: “She must be a bitch.” Hers isn’t a grand, gracious, self-important aura possessed by most Bollywood stars; but a furtive, steely, don’t-approach me coolness that presents itself matter-of-factly to anyone within selfie-taking distance. She’s certain about her ideas and puts them across firmly. But in general, she would prefer not to put them across at all. In fact, she would prefer for there to be no people in the room at all. “We have to remind her to make eye contact with people,” a member of her mostly female team tells me.
We are in Goa at the Alila Diwa resort shooting the images for this cover story with a Danish photographer, her Swedish assistant and a South African make-up artist – talent specifically requested by Katrina. Dressed in an androgynous suit, suggestive lingerie peeping out from under her lapels, with dahlia-shade lips and big anime eyes, she looks like some neo-noir femme fatale en route to her next kill. But her body language suggests otherwise. She keeps her head low, looks at nobody and nothing except the camera.And when the shoot pauses, and her hair is being fixed, she quickly retreats to the back of the large suite, facing the wall, her back towards me and the rest of the crew.
Katrina Kaif is a fiercely private person. A quality that can easily be mistaken for arrogance in her line of work. But the more you observe her, the more it seems like she’s trying hard to protect some particularly fragile part of herself.
Four hours into the shoot, she finally looks at me. Mainly because I’ve sat down next to her while she eats her lunch. In front of her is a bowl of grilled fish and assorted vegetables, which she prefers to consume with her fingers. “I know the conversation about me is rarely about my work,” she tells me. “I was recently invited to a conclave which brought together some of the country’s most brilliant young minds, but all anybody could ask me about was my ex-boyfriend. I don’t think people consider me intelligent.”
It’s strange, I tell her. The fact that people think she has climbed her way to the top without a brain.
“It’s not impossible,” she says, “The minutes between cut and action, you don’t need to use your brain – also, you shouldn’t ask questions like ‘Is this logical?’ or ‘Does this dialogue make sense?’ The less you can tap into this side, the better it’ll be for you. But after the shot is done it’s all about using your brain. It’s about people management. It’s the only way to make it in an industry that’s so haphazard and highly strung.”
But she hasn’t had many films to talk about recently, I remind her. Her last semi-hit (Bang Bang) released almost a year-and-a-half ago. She looks at me sharply, and for a moment it seems I may have offended her. “I’ve had to deal with a lot of delays,” she agrees. “Like, Dhoom 3 was essentially Aamir Khan and Aditya Chopra taking the decisions. I may have screamed and stormed around the office but it wasn’t of much use.”
Katrina is a double-digit exponent of good-lookingness, but more petite than you’d expect: She doesn’t eat up a door frame the way Deepika Padukone might. She flicks back her perfectly messed-up hair and licks her lips, which have the bright, clear-coat finish of a sportscar. She may look exceptionally young and dewy, but Katrina belongs to a previous generation. She isn’t part of the new breed of actresses and celebutantes, notorious for being beautiful and having fun, for treating fame like a beach vacation full of shells to find and then Instagram. She doesn’t take selfies or feature in Dubsmash videos. She isn’t on Twitter. Fame for her is serious, something she’s worked hard for, and she can’t seem to come to terms with how it can be left naked online, for anyone to dissect.
“It’s easy to get a break in this business, but to maintain your momentum you have to be one of two things – crazy talented; or you have to work your butt off… like me.”
She gets a call and her voice drops slightly. “I’m at work, baby. Yes, Goa.” She hangs up the phone. It’s Ranbir Kapoor, whom she’s been in a relationship with for about four years.
“The industry’s not an easy place, but the hardest thing is to be the partner of an actor. Actors are selfish,” she continues, “They may have beautiful attributes, but for the large part, they’re megalomaniacal. As most successful people in the world usually are.”
It’s time to shoot on the beach, which is practically deserted at this hour. Then one of her shapely legs hits the sand and mayhem ensues. There are people everywhere, all at once, perching on bicycles and motorbikes, fast multiplying, running towards the spot where security guards are holding up shields on either side of her: shack owners, locals, honeymooning couples, even curious Russians pointing, smiling, delighted. The camera phones strobe around her like a Ferris wheel. This annoys her, but just barely. She gives it ten minutes, and then, just like that, she’s inside a robe running away from the throng.
The next time we meet, I’m racing towards a deserted Jet Airways check-in counter at Dabolim airport, waving my ticket. The tight-lipped woman in uniform stares at me incredulously: the flight to Mumbai is ready for take-off. The counter shut half an hour ago. “I’m with Katrina Kaif…” I pant and point at the movie star’s emerging figure dressed in distressed jeans and a checked shirt. She’s back in “walls-up” mode, standing a fair distance away from us, face deep in her phone, completely transformed from the pouting, fearless goddess on the beach.
Ten minutes later, the aerobridge that had been detached is being reconnected to the flight. And five minutes later we’re taking off. “Shah Rukh taught me this trick. He always arrives twenty minutes before a flight, to avoid the crowds and lines.” We’re seated strategically in the last row of the Business Class section. Katrina takes her seat right back and curls into a feline position, her legs drawn close to her chest. The sun has set and as the cabin crew switch off the lights for take-off, we’re plunged into darkness, save for the twinkling, fading lights of the town below us. I don’t know if it’s the dark, or the rhythmic purr of the engines or the fact that we’re literally in transit, but Katrina is in a meditative mood.
“I am a very responsive person. So, if my partner gives me what I need, I can be the best girlfriend you can wish for.” This isn’t tough to believe.
“See, men and women, they’re different. Women give birth to babies and men don’t. We can’t say ‘oh equality on all levels, we’re all the same’. No, our biological needs and bodies are different. Men have been the hunters and the philanderers. Being with an actor has its own set of issues, but the basic differences arise because men are men. Cheaters will cheat anywhere.
“It all comes down to the cards you’ve been dealt. The person you’ve chosen, or haven’t chosen, because your heart chose him for you. Look around us, marriages and relationships are in trouble everywhere. The lucky ones are able to find selfless love that transcends ego and insecurity.” And is she one of the lucky ones? She’s silent for a moment and looks directly at me. Even through the darkness, I can feel her gaze – this time really looking at me.
“The back of my head wants to believe that I am. But the front of my head says be careful.” She’s silent again, for a moment. “I don’t think I can make such claims, because were it selfless love, then I wouldn’t feel the need to assert myself as much in the relationship. I would be more tolerant. I don’t want to be tolerant. I don’t want to accept it, I want to fight. I want to get what I think I deserve.
“My greatest fear is that if and when I get married and I’m standing at the altar or the mandap, he may not love me completely. That he may not know his mind well enough to be making those commitments. The anticipation of heartbreak is my only fear.” There’s a fleeting, vulnerable quality in her voice and it seems to come from somewhere inside her that was established early and deeply.
We both know where the conversation is headed, yet she seems unprepared when I voice the question. What does she think about Ranbir working on his most recent film with ex-girlfriend Deepika Padukone, the trailers of which promise a tantalizing lip lock, among other things?
There’s a long pause (from now on all pauses are long). “I can’t enforce my will on the people in my life. Their choices are their own. I may not be happy with them but I hope that as they mature or evolve, their choices will change.” She doesn’t say more.
I ask her about her father, who left her mother and seven siblings when she was six. “I didn’t have a father figure and I’ve often wondered if that has affected my relationship with men. I haven’t really scrutinized this with a therapist, so I’m not sure. But when I think about my daughter and the qualities I want her to possess, I envision a big role played by her father, in instilling a strong sense of self. That’s important to me.”
Up close, Katrina is affable. She’s hard-working and focused about the things she wants. She’s an eager learner and has the ability to look stunning but appear completely non-threatening too. She’s also able to say something disarmingly smart or wise but make it sound wide-eyed and innocuous. Qualities that probably worked in her favour when she landed in India at the age of 17 (the 13th country she had called home by then) and which endeared her to two older, experienced men soon after she debuted in Kaizad Gustad’s Boom, who played an important role in shaping her life. Salman Khan, whom she met and fell in love with when she was 18, saw her through from anonymity to stardom, and Akshay Kumar, who starred in some of her biggest hits, and taught her all about the business of Bollywood. She may have been criticized for being arm candy and a glamorous supplement in movies, but there’s no denying the magnitude of her celebrity. Katrina Kaif is as A-list as it gets.
A fact that she seems to have forgotten as she strolls out of the plane casually once it lands, chattering about boy problems and stepping into the coach which will take us to the domestic airport.
“The base of my relationship with Salman was correct, it was true. Which is why we’re still able to be friends.” Around us it seems to me as though everybody hanging on to the handles in the coach has leaned in towards us, straining to listen, disbelieving of their luck. “But he lives in a parallel universe, always making these jokes about me publicly which get the media really kicked. Like, the comment he made on Kapil’s show when he saw my picture on a packet of crackers. ‘She is of no use to me.’” She rolls her eyes. “I called him and yelled at him. I can do that, it’s the sort of equation we have.” And he said ‘Okay, sorry, I’ll apologize to the media’. I told him to do no such thing and maintain a dignified silence if that’s possible.” She laughs.
And that’s when she tells me, “Shit, I think I’ve said too much.”
In her earliest memory of India, she’s wearing tiny shorts and a tee and standing in a little white room at Famous Studios in south Mumbai holding up a chalk board with her number on it. She’s on her daily auditioning rounds. A bored assistant gives her a cue, she turns to her side and shows her profile. She’s up for anything: fashion shows, events, appearances – but she’s really hoping for a TV commercial because that would mean more money. Later that night she heads out from her rented flat near Rizvi College in Bandra to Olive with her friends: show choreographer Alison Kanuga, fashion model Niketan Madhok and designer Rocky S. She likes partying, she gets a lot of attention and she knows it’s the best way to network. She throws back a shot and decides to stay until the money lasts, and then, if nothing happens, move on to the next country.
“Why don’t you come over on Friday? If you’re free,” reads Katrina’s text message. And so I make my way to her three-level Bandra residence for our final meeting, not too far from Salman Khan’s home. She’s down with the flu but this turns out to be our most upbeat encounter.
“I’m not as close to Ranbir’s family as I’d like,” she says, flopped on a couch in one of the many sitting areas, dressed in track pants and a vest with no make-up. “But I’d like to hang out with them more. Family would be a defining factor when I make the decision to marry.”
Without the weird enforced intimacy of the flight – the close seats, the drinks, the dim lights – our meeting feels more business-like. Around her a staff of about seven people are hovering, bringing her things she doesn’t seem to know she needs. One announces the arrival of Nitya Mehra, the assistant director of Life Of Pi, who’s here for a script reading. “Sandhya,” she says to her assistant, “please sit with her, na? Just engage.”
And then to me, “I feel like I have a lot of wisdom, experience and a lot of knowledge to pass on.” She’s joking, but only half. “But Ranbir doesn’t seem to want any of it, he thinks he’s doing just fine in his career on his own.”
But whether the people around her recognize it or not, the story of Katrina Kaif is extraordinary. Home-schooled and dragged around the world by her mom’s peripatetic lifestyle, she had no money or connections in India. She was fortuitously born with dark hair – that was it. She learnt the Devanagari script, auditioned tirelessly, changed her name, worked hard on her body, Indianized her look, fine-tuned her image, taught herself things she wasn’t privy to – knowledge that most of her contemporaries had inherited. And then quietly, when the others were clambering for meatier roles or declining to do just a song, became a commanding force. The Katrina Effect is a palpable energy that follows her everywhere she goes and lingers long after she’s left. And here, on ground zero, I’m engulfed by the charm, the wounded fragility, the hustling enterprise, and the silent force that is Katrina. And it takes me a few days to shake it off.
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