In a gazebo, amidst green lemonade and hearty laughter, Shilpa Shetty changes my mind. About her. Bollywood celebrities tend to evoke strong reactions in people. You might love someone; you might, just as easily, hate someone else. Shilpa Shetty, more often than not, surfs on the fringes of these popularity pie charts. On one level, she has never evoked much feeling. She was just always... around. Actually, she was mostly around controversy, but that is a norm rather than the exception in our film industry. There are two things about her, however, that set her apart. One, she is a survivor. Two, she’s always had a great body.
A 17-year-old Shilpa was first seen in 1993 as a debutante running around a tree with Shah Rukh Khan in the blockbuster Baazigar. The 36-year-old Shilpa, sitting in her palatial bungalow on Juhu beach in a relaxed T-shirt and comfy pants, lets out a peal of laughter, “I wore a yellow, polka-dotted, frilly dress in Baazigar! Wait, it wasn’t even a dress. It was a frock. And at that time I thought that dress was the coolest and that I was the cat’s whiskers. I don’t understand what I was thinking.” Whatever reservations you might have about Shilpa pretty much disappear once you hear her laugh, and mostly at herself. Ask her what she’s most or least proud of in her 18-year-long career in and around the film industry, and she promptly answers the second part of the question first. “What I’m not proud of is some of my earlier work, and definitely some of the clothes I used to wear. I just switch off the TV when I see myself on it sometimes. I think I’ve done pretty well for myself, considering the kind of work I did. I saw some of my old movies recently and I was like, ‘Oh my God, how did people tolerate me!’
“But what I am proud of is the fact that I’m totally self-made. I did not hail from a film background. I come from a non-Hindi speaking, Mangalorean business family and I did not enter the industry thinking that I’d make a career out of it. The fact that I lasted so long is a huge compliment to someone like me.” Although her character in Baazigar was bumped off midway through the film, it earned her a nomination for Filmfare Best Supporting Actress, and planted her in the public consciousness. She followed it up with some forgettable and a few noteworthy performances. It isn’t a particularly sparkling career graph, but what no one can deny is that where other actresses have come and gone, Shilpa has somehow stuck around, wading through polka-dots, frizzy hair, sex-symbol tags, industry link-ups, round-the-tree jiving, comedies, dramas, multi-starrers, flops and hits. Till Big Brother happened.
“I think I might have survived this long because I don’t take myself so seriously,” she laughs again. “Also, I think what helped and what’s important is for people to have respect for you. Somewhere with all my years of work, I know from the kind of reaction I get from people, that they do have some respect for me. Even if I was a sex symbol, I did it with dignity. That wasn’t the image I wanted and I know when you have a glamorous persona, there is only that much you are expected to do. But I tried to break even that tag with films like Phir Milenge, Rishtey, Dus or Life In A… Metro. It was an uphill task for me, but I think I did pretty well for myself within the given parameters, or at least as well as I could do.” Another surprise is hearing her talk about fame. “I’m not going to be a hypocrite and say it’s not one of the reasons you get addicted to this line of work. It is, or it definitely has been for me. It’s such a beautiful feeling to be recognised by people you don’t know. That totally is a high. I wanted to be recognised and I knew the only way to get that would be to do good work. That’s what drove me always. I think any human being given the opportunity to be famous, would take it. To get famous doing something you love is just a double blessing. I don’t understand these people who say ‘Oh, now that I’m famous I can’t have bhelpuri on the street.’ I want to shake them and ask them, did they become actors because they wanted to be able to have bhelpuri on the street?” Another hearty guffaw.
Shilpa the actress might like to poke fun at herself, but Shilpa the entrepreneur means business. Since winning Big Brother in 2007, she has become a household name even in the UK. Somewhere down the line, her family genes kicked in, and she diverted her attention to building herself as a health and fitness brand, propelled by the publicity garnered by her controversial yet ultimately triumphant stint on the international reality show. In the past couple of years, she’s opened Iosis, a chain of medi salon-spas around Mumbai, made a yoga DVD, and most recently launched Shilpa’s Gourmet Creations in London, a range of vegetarian, ready-to-eat meals. She says, “I’m doing stuff that I always wanted to do in life, but earlier I didn’t have that power. Maybe monetarily I was set, but in terms of the stature to make people believe in me, I didn’t have that. Only recently, a lot of avenues opened up for me.” She’s not vegetarian herself but her gourmet meals boast under-10 per cent fat, which brings us to the topic of her fitness. Good genes play a part but Shilpa is particular about what she eats. “It’s a myth that healthy food doesn’t taste good. Another habit many people form in the effort to lose weight is to follow diets that make their body crave food most of the day. I think you just need to understand what your body wants and work around it and bring in long-term discipline. I have an evil sweet tooth. I don’t indulge myself daily, but I don’t deny myself either. I have smaller portions or simply substitute white sugar with Demerara sugar. And it makes the most difference perhaps that I don’t smoke or drink in this day and age, so by default I am in bed early every day.”
But she admits that she’s become more health-conscious only in the past two years. “I am at my healthiest now. After the age of 30, especially for women, you have to make sure you have the right vitamins. Our bodies do so much, our lifestyles are so hectic, so it’s all the more essential to be aware of your body’s needs as you grow older.” It helps, of course, that she has a state-of-the-art gym on the ground floor of her multi-storey house, which we crossed to reach the back lawn that houses the air-conditioned glass gazebo. On the way were also a one-piece driftwood elephant picked up from Spain, a beagle puppy, an enormous jade Buddha hand, pricey artwork, and what could be a 108” LCD TV, or at least it looks that big. Shilpa doesn’t deny that she’s leading the Cinderella life. Having made a million pounds herself from Big Brother, two years ago she married millionaire NRI businessman Raj Kundra, who figured in the 2004 list of Richest British Asians. “As children, my parents really taught us the value of money,” she says. “I’m not saying it isn’t important. I’m aware of what money can do. I know people change because of money. For me, I wanted to earn money because I never at any point wanted to not be able to afford medical care for someone who fell ill in my family. I wanted so much that I’d be able to give that person the best medical care. So the relevance of money for me is different. But I am, of course, not complaining. I love the luxuries and comfort that come with it.” One of the luxuries is that she gets to hobnob with the crème de la crème. So what does she say to Prince Charles whenever she meets him, in the capacity of being a part of his charity? She pauses a while and says, “I think we’ve spoken about Indian food.” She does drop one name: her favourite is Queen Rania of Jordan. “She’s so down-to-earth, so beautiful, so lovely. I don’t know if I can say we became friends, but we exchanged numbers, she invited me for her 40th birthday. I admire her for the work she does.” Incidentally, her house also shares a wall with Lalit Modi’s. “When Raj and I bought this property, we didn’t realise he lived right next door. Now he doesn’t, of course.” About the cricket scandal that rocked the nation, as an owner of the IPL team Rajasthan Royals, she says, “We still don’t understand it. Everybody’s money is in, and it’s in for good. It’s really sad that in a place like India there is no guarantee of investment. It doesn’t really paint a good picture of our country. Cricket is not just a business; we’re all very passionate about the game. Raj and I are at matches not just because there is money invested, but because we love the game.”