Off The Beaten Track
Poonam Dhillon's journey to stardom and past politics.
She was all of 15 and a half, when she entered the Miss Young India beauty contest and life was never the same again for Poonam Dhillon. The gapuchi gapuchi gam gam gal from Trishul, a movie that catapulted her to instant stardom, Poonam Dhillon is cerebral, and fun to talk to. In an exclusive interview with Little India’s Kavita Chhibber, Poonam Dhillon talks about her life, her foray into theater and what has been her passion for years.
What are the early memories of childhood?
My father was in the air force, so we were typical armed forces family, moving from place to place. I have another brother and a sister. My mom decided at one point that she was not going to move any more because our education would be affected. She decided to stay on in Chandigarh and made the sacrifice of staying away from my father who was posted out to other places before finally retransferring to Chandigarh. My mother passed away when my son was barely 6 months old and I miss telling her today how much I appreciate her for all that she did for us. There were times we’d argue with her and she would say, “You’ll understand when you have your own kids.” Now I do, but she isn’t there for me to tell her.
I still marvel at how she took care of us without much help. Of course we also decided that she could do that because we were rather angelic! I think she taught me the importance of family values and religion and she also told us there was nothing more precious than receiving a good education. Both my brother and sister are physicians, and in spite of joining films at 16, I continued school and finished my undergrad studies. I now want to do my masters and get a PhD once my kids who are 12 and 9 are a little older. I believe a lot in the power of prayer and I’m ritualistic that way, thanks to my mom who insisted we go to the gurudwara and my kids too have to say their prayers at night before they sleep. I think unlike my parents I’m physically more demonstrative in showing my affection to my kids. We hug and kiss a lot and my 12-year-old who is almost as tall as me will still come and sit in my lap and hug me.
Then came the beauty contest and with it came Trishul?
It’s so amazing when I see the beauty contests today and how they are staged at such grand levels. At that time I didn’t even possess a sari and had to borrow from my aunt. I was clueless about lipstick and mascara, while today my 9-year-old puts on lip-gloss and knows all about shimmer and shine. Yash Chopra saw my picture somewhere and talked to famous playwright Balwant Gargi who knew us.
The whole family unanimously said no. I think there were barely 3-4 Hindi films that I had seen in my life-Guddi, Mera Naam Joker and later Mili, and of course every year on children’s day they showed us Dosti in school. I said I have no interest in films and I can’t take time off from my studies.
They said it’s being shot in Delhi in January and I was required to shoot just for a few days, which could be done during my winter break. My friends egged me on and at 15-16 friends are important you know! So I decided okay just this one time.
Do you remember the first day of the shoot?
Poor Yash Chopra! I don’t think he was used to dealing with rank rookies like me. I think the best thing was that I was totally clueless about the caliber of actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjeev Kumar, who I worked with in Trishul, so I was neither intimidated nor awe struck.
I was also very quiet, because we were taught not to speak before our elders. I see my kids piping in with their opinion for everything today, but those days while our parents did discuss certain major decisions with us, we never spoke when they were entertaining friends. When I look back at the film I laugh. I was so inhibited and so clueless, going about so stiffly in that bathing suit singing gapuchi gapuchi gam gam! But I guess they needed a sweet innocent looking young girl and somehow the role suited my age and innocence. I was a quick learner and one thing I learnt in the film industry was to play dumb. It was the best way to avoid people coming on to me and very convenient to ignore their conversations that were edged with double meanings. Any way the movie was done and I thought I was done too.
But then came Noorie and that was a blockbuster!
It was the same story with Noorie too. I didn’t want to do the film because Trishul was a one time thing for me. I had never looked at it as a launching pad for a film career. I know that every top heroine had wanted to do it and they said we are giving you something that every actress wants to do and you are turning us down. Again they promised it will be shot for a month in Jammu and Kashmir and so I agreed. I guess the role really suited me. I was nominated for Best Actress. In those days Filmfare Awards were the only awards, unlike the avalanche we have now and there were only three nominees. I think Jaya Bachchan won it that year, but it was still an honor. I actually started learning about film acting much later from the well known south Indian director Bharathi Raja with whom I did a film called Red Rose. You know how the South Indians actresses were always on the heavier side. Bharathi Raja took one look at my skinny body and would say “that girl’ and then burst into Tamil and I would keep wondering what was he saying against me! But in spite of the language barriers we got along very well. He worked on my body language and taught me how to use facial expressions.
When did you really become comfortable in your own skin as an actress?
I think when I did Savere wali gadi. It was a remake of a big South Indian hit and I did it again under Bharathi Raja’s direction. The film didn’t do as well in the North because there were certain cultural traditions that were understood only in the South and North Indians couldn’t identify with it. But I think I really started understanding acting. Soni Mahiwal was another film I loved doing. I think my true understanding of talent came when I did a couple of pictures with Kamal Hassan and Sanjeev Kumar. Kamal Hassan was the embodiment of passion, dedication, amazing talent and hard work. He was such a wonderful dancer, but would work on it for hours. And here I was – I had not even learnt how to dance, unlike him, and would wrap it after three practices. He inspired me to work harder.
Sanjeev Kumar was so shy and humble in real life and then you saw him in front of the camera and he was completely transformed. I know he didn’t receive the stardom that he deserved, but I think the respect he commanded as an actor was unparalleled. Just watching him perform was an inspiration. He was very fond of eating good food and drinking, but his sense of humor was out of this world. He kept us laughing for hours on the sets.
Rishi Kapoor was another terrific actor. He was very natural and his sense of comic timing was incredible. I think as I matured in age it hreflected in my acting. As a 16-year-old who had not experienced any thing major in life, to be asked to emote pain and sorrow and romantic feelings and that too in front of a whole film unit and at times before 500-700 people on an outdoor shoot was tough business. I don’t think even your facial muscles are equipped to depict such a wide gamut of feelings at 16. The way a child cries for example is very different compared to the way a grown up woman would cry. But as I said I was a quick learner and often I would shyly offer some suggestion and received a very positive response from most directors.
Do you believe in method acting or are you instinctive actress?. There are two schools of thoughts about that. Waheeda Rehman is instinctive, Today most actors prefer method acting?
I think there has to be a method to the madness we call acting. During Waheedaji’s time there was a select number of films which they could concentrate on. Today Bollywod is like a conveyer belt churning out films. You have to be selective. I remember I had to do a rape scene with Amrish Puri. He was the kind of person who never imposed himself on you or made you feel uncomfortable in anyway, but as we went through the scene I was caught off guard and started thinking what if I had to go through something like that in real life. The trauma was so much that I was sobbing long after the scene ended. If you start doing that with every film, you’ll be a mental wreck. So I think one has to decide which film one gives more of oneself in, and which film one doesn’t. These days I see people playing the same roles again and again. How many times are you going to let yourself go? You have to be more restrained.
How has the film industry changed in the last couple of decades? Have there been any changes in the role of the woman as an actress over the years?
When I came in most films were action oriented and the women really didn’t have much to do. In my case a Noorie, a Sohni Mahiwal, Red Rose and Teri Kasam came along, so I got to do romantic roles. The fact remained that heroine oriented films were not saleable commercially, no matter how big a star the actress was. If there was a heroine oriented role, it was made by the so called art film makers. Today Rani Mukherji can do a non romantic role like she did in Veer Zara and Black and not be called arty.
I do see a pleasant change where there are roles of substance for women over 30 and 40, but to expect something like Miss Congeniality 2 where the film revolves around Sandra Bullock, to happen in Bollywood would be naïve. Also there are some films that are being made where we are totally aping the West and not doing a good job. A movie like Ajnabi dealing with wife swapping is still seen in poor taste.
The best thing that has happened in the film industry today is that the script is the hero. If you have a powerful script, your film will do well. Also people have become very professional and dedicated, unlike the times when people made the film as they went along.
I also think the kind of camaraderie we had is missing. I’m still friends with Rati Agnihotri, Padmini Kolhapure for example. Now it’s all so jet set. We also got married at a young age, because we started at a young age. Today the girls who come in have already been groomed and have been working before they join films and they are so professional. Their world is a global world really.
Yes I accepted work on television when my son was a little over one year old. I initially liked the fact that I didn’t have to work long hours and go for outdoor shoots, but television has its pitfalls also, where the focus is on quantity and not quality. Also if you miss a day they cannot afford to reshoot. They will end up editing that scene from the serial. So it’s all about deadlines and input and output, not about good work. Many actors are using it as a stepping stone to get exposure and build a resume and moving on to music videos and then to films. So that was a bit tough for me. I do selective work, so that way I can do what I like.
I was approached by friends to do theater many times, but I kept saying no because I felt I had no theatre background, what if I forget my lines before a live audience. It was really fear of the unknown, but then I saw some other actors getting into it without having a prior background, and decided to do The Perfect Husband. I really liked the people involved, because they are very professional and dedicated. In spite of having done so many shows we have rehearsed every single day. After the first show I knew it was going to be well received, so it’s turned out be an all-round pleasant experience.
Tell me about the book you are writing on relationships. How did that come about?
I think after I got divorced my personal experience made me curious to find out what it is that women want in a relationship. Whenever two people are in a relationship with the intention of getting married, they obviously presume they will live happily ever after. No one goes into a marriage saying ah well let me give it a shot for four months and then I’ll dump it. So what goes wrong? I had a questionnaire online on my site, but it was being accessed by women abroad who were mostly career women, and so their take on life and relationships is not likely to be the same as women who live in India. I ‘m now in the second phase of my research where I’m either interviewing those women or sending them a form by mail.
My own perspective on it is that it’s never the big things that break a relationship, but little things that become hard to live with on a day-to-day basis. Also we are fed western notions of chemistry, compatibility, equality, which may not translate well in an Indian household, where women have to deal with in-laws living with them, the concept of a joint family, which is not prevalent in the West. I think men and women have to learn how to compromise and be sensitive to these little things in life. For example if a man goes to a restaurant and without asking his wife starts ordering the food, it shows disrespect to her. A lot of the time when you give your partner the respect they deserve by taking their feelings and opinion into consideration they will most likely end up doing what you would have wanted in the first place, but a lot of people just don’t get it.
I also see a lot of women not leaving abusive relationships, because they are financially dependent on their men, or afraid of public opinion, or they feel a known devil is better than an unknown one. They will probably have to compromise again and besides the guy is the father of their kids and he then begins to look, not that bad in their eyes. It’s also a very scary thing to get out of a marriage and start over again. Life is a compromise, but it should be happy compromise.
Like other stars you decided to dabble in politics, first joining Congress and then switching to BJP. How has the experience been?
Pretty disappointing. I have always been involved with social causes and worked through various NGOs and I thought since each time we have a project we need to get a clearance fr m some minister, it would be beneficial to be politically active. I was naïve in presuming that if I got politically involved it would open doors for the NGOS, but in reality, the stars are used as the glamorous symbols for the parties and nothing beyond that. I don’t think I can be a mute symbol. I realize now that politics is a full time project and you have to have a passion for it. Unless you demand things in return they will just use you and discard you once their purpose of winning is served. So I have withdrawn myself from both parties. Once my children are a bit older, may be I will get involved again, but it won’t be on a part time basis.
You have done a lot of work for Tsunami relief. Tell me about that. Vivek Oberoi got a lot of bad press for adopting a village with media claiming he wanted publicity. It must have been very hurtful since he was there covered with mud doing hands on work for days.
Yes Vivek told me in hindsight he would have been better off just handing someone a check and washing his hands off the whole thing. I think it’s a pity that celebrities should have to go through this. Vivek is a big star and a well known person. Does he need any more publicity really?
I faced the same thing when I was trying to organize relief work and the media decided they wanted to do a negative piece. I saw this chat show on television where they talked about how celebrities espouse a cause and who does it really benefit? The cause or the celebrities? What we sacrifice in terms of other commitments is so much more than the temporary attention we get from the media, a lot of whom don’t do their homework and have no clue about what’s going around.
I had taken two months off from December to teach my kids since their final exams were in March. I didn’t teach them even for a day, because what started as a text message of appeal to help escalated into a huge project as donations started pouring in. We were able to help people in Sri Lanka and in India and apart from sending the basic necessities we managed to procure 20 boats and fishing nets for the fishermen to give them their livelihood back.
I have an NGO called Madad-the helping hand and we work through it. I think I barely slept three hours for days. We had an Indo Pak fusion concert to raise funds. Many of my friends who had already donated crores to the Prime Minister’s fund still came through for me.
I personally visited the village we had adopted to see what they really needed, plus it was nice to see the relief supplies getting to them in person. It was a lot of work, stress and at one point I was so exhausted I thought I was going to lose my mental balance trying to juggle so many things at one time, since I had to personally oversee so much.
So what is in the works right now? I heard you are planning to direct a film?
I’m looking at scripts now both from acting point of view and also for directing a film, which is really an immediate goal. I am also open to more theater if the people and the play strikes a chord, but I’m focused on doing quality work. That has never changed.