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Starry Encounters

By Lavina Melwani Email By Lavina Melwani
July 2013
Starry Encounters

Lavina Melwani muses about the allure of glitterati-filled press events that transform superstars of the silver screen into chatty buddies.

 

Left: Star Power: Barbara Mori and Hrithik Roshan in Kites.

 

Imagine sitting across the table from the iconic Amitabh Bachchan as he tells you—and only you—in his rich baritone about his daily life. Imagine the one-and-only Madhuri Dixit chatting with you about who does the cooking in her family, as her husband, Sriram Nene, gamely shoots a picture of her and you together. Imagine the wonderful A.R. Rahman actually bringing you a glass of orange juice when he hears you are fasting that day.

Yes, all this actually happened to me!

Indeed, of all the aspects of a journalist’s life, perhaps the most surreal and seductive are the press days, interviews, conferences, or junkets organized by various studios and production houses to publicize their new films. For a few hours, superstars become your new best friends, looking you in the eye and answering your most ridiculous questions with a warm smile.

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Meeting the Superstar: Writer Lavina Melwani with the diva Madhuri Dixit. The photograph was shot by Madhuri’s husband, Sriram Nene. © Lavina Melwani

Stars who are usually kept away from ordinary mortals like you and me are suddenly sitting inches away at a press roundtable or in a one-on-one interview. To the star, you are no longer a nameless blur or a random fan but someone with a name and an affiliation, almost a person in your own right.

Sometimes at press events, stars honor the most outrageous requests for a recitation of a famous dialogue or a poem, churning it out almost on demand. Sometimes they’ll even share some intimate detail of their childhood or of their youth with you. They are indeed your new best friends—at least till the press junket ends!

Journalists are really fans at heart. They may try to curb that instinct but don’t always succeed. Almost every reporter wants a picture with the Khans or the big Bollywood actresses. And when it’s someone as big a superstar as Amitabh Bachchan, autographs and book signings and photos are almost mandatory. I even know of a few reporters who have actually touched Amitabh Bachchan’s feet and asked for his blessings! One photojournalist wrote on Facebook ecstatically that when he bowed down for blessings, “Bachchanji kissed my forehead!”

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The stars come calling: Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol at NASDAQ in New York.

I remember the first time I actually saw superstar Shah Rukh Khan in the flesh, at the press conference for Ashoka, many years ago. It was truly surreal, seeing that well-known face in real time. It was as if a demi-god had descended from the big screen and entered the world of humans. He seemed smaller than he appeared on screen, he was chatting in English fluently, and you realized that of course, he was a regular human being, too! Most of the reporters were acting like frenzied fans, which they all probably were.

Some of these press do’s are held in grand five-star hotels or sleek boutique hotels with a fancy hospitality suite set up and everything smooth and nice to make it a pleasant event for stars and press alike. Depending on the caliber of the stars, the press junkets often have long check-in lines, especially since media outlets have proliferated over the past decade.

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Left: Stars at the London premiere of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Some events are like Indian weddings with a huge brunch buffet and even goodie bags to take home! At the press conference for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, reporters took home a chunky gift bag containing a white bathrobe with the insignia of the imaginary hotel that Dev Patel’s character ran in the movie.

Several of the stars met with the press at the conference held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel—a far cry from the crumbling Best Exotic Marigold Hotel of the film! It was almost intimidating to see so much distinguished star power gathered in one room but they were all surprisingly down-to-earth and chatty. Judi Dench, Penelope Wilton, and Tom Wilkinson were there along with the acclaimed director John Madden.

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Dame Judi Dench: Bewitched by India.

Dame Judi Dench confided, “My character says ‘India is an assault on the senses’ and I never had a desire to go to India but within 24 hours I was completely, completely fascinated and bewitched by the country. The beauty of the people I thought was astounding—the color, the noise, the smell—everything about it is completely staggering.”

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Right: Star Power: Barbara Mori and Hrithik Roshan in Kites.

Another fun press day I recall was with Hrithik Roshan, the Mexican star Barbara Mori, producer Rakesh Roshan, composer Rajesh Roshan, and director Anurag Basu for Kites at the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel. The sizzling Kites posters with Hrithik and Barbara locked in an embrace were everywhere and the two seemed to have stepped right out of them and joined us at the table.

Hrithik, the heartthrob of millions, was suddenly sitting opposite us and talking very intelligently and calmly about films, life, and family. We were about six reporters sitting at a round table. He also showed how considerate and down-to-earth he was, asking all the scribes, “Do you want me to keep all your tape recorders here?” When I hesitated to hand mine over to him, saying I needed to keep an eye on it in case the battery died out, he extended his hand and said, “Yeah, sure! I’ll keep a check on that!”

I found that endearing, considering that he had a lot on his mind—a huge multimillion dollar film about to be released worldwide in two different versions, thousands of fans waiting on him, and the global media about to give their verdict on Kites—and he was going to keep an eye on my rusty little digital tape recorder to see if the battery sputtered out!

 “It’s a job—you finish a job, you leave your job in the studios, and you come home, just like an ordinary person.” I asked him how he’d like to be remembered and he said simply, quietly,  “As a good human being.”

When Amitabh Bachchan was here for a major retrospective at the Lincoln Center in New York, the place was overrun with desis, from retired grandparents to college kids to taxi drivers. The press folks were extremely lucky to get 15-minute interviews with the Big B himself, and were like a huge star-struck tribe. It was intimidating to have the time with him—what do you ask this superstar when probably every question under the sun has already been asked? What came through in my chat with him was the universal aspect—the craving for doing one’s work, working hard to do a good job, and the fact that family and grandchildren are the greatest joy.

What came across was the human being at the core, and that in spite of the seeming glamour and adulation, life is still about waking up, going to work, and coming home to family and dinner. Bachchan looked me in the eye and said, “It’s a job—you finish a job, you leave your job in the studios, and you come home, just like an ordinary person.” I asked him how he’d like to be remembered and he said simply, quietly, “As a good human being.”

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The Three Deols of Bollywood: Dharmendra with his two sons Bobby and Sunny.

 

My latest encounter with the stars was at the press conference for Yamala Pagla Deewana 2 put together quickly by the organizers in a matter of two days at the elegant restaurant Junoon. Yet every press person had turned up—and so had every fan who knew about the event. After all, it was a chance to meet not one, not two, but three bona fide Bollywood stars! Dharmendra and his two sons, Sunny and Bobby Deol.

This was a crowded festive bash for press, sponsors and their guests, and everyone was having a field day. The exuberant fans were quoting Punjabi poetry at the mike and even asking questions so that Bobby Deol felt compelled to ask, “Are you from the press?” In the media room set up for interviews, guests had rushed in to get their pictures with the stars. At the end of the day, everyone took home glittering red and silver goodie bags containing CDs of the movie’s music.

What is the power of the press, I mused as I left the event—why do the stars give access to the press? The answer of course is that for the stars, the press is a stand-in for millions of fans. Through the articles the journalists write, fans connect with the stars, and so the press has power only because of the fans it can reach. Quite a humbling thought!

In the end, whether it’s the multibillion dollar Indian film industry, the Bollywood superstars, or members of the press, they all exist due to the simple fact that unknown, ordinary people spend their hard-earned money to dream, to be entertained for a few hours in a dark space. All the magic happens because of the fans and their filmi passion. It is their devotion that has brought Indian cinema to its 100th successful year. May their tribe strengthen and increase!


Lavina Melwani is a New York-based writer for several international publications who blogs at Lassi with Lavina: www.lassiwithlavina.com.

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