‘I told Modi, I am working very hard. But my skin colour has completely changed’ : Hema Malini

Posted on: April 28, 2014

Polling in Mathura is over, and its Lok Sabha candidate Hema Malini is now busy campaigning for Bharatiya Janata Party leader Arun Jaitley in Amritsar. But she tells Sonia Sarkar she has plans for the western UP city

The cheeks — still seemingly soft after all years — should be patented. After all, they have been likened to the silkiest of roads, and by a man who would know all about potholes. When Lalu Prasad talked of making Bihar’s infamous roads as smooth as actress Hema Malini’s cheeks, he coined a metaphor that entered the lexicon of political hyperbole.

Years later, the actress smiles when the topic of Mathura’s roads turns up, and I recall Lalu’s famous words. “I, myself, have to do that now for Mathura,” she laughs.

Hema is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for the Lok Sabha elections from the west Uttar Pradesh city of Mathura, pitted against its sitting MP Jayant Chaudhary of the Rashtriya Lok Dal. Mathura has voted, and Hema has left the city that she wishes to adopt — and fervently hopes will adopt her. She will now be seen in Amritsar, campaigning for her party leader Arun Jaitley.

But she’ll be back, she promises. And the roads will be dealt with. “The roads are really horrible. My back is paining because I have been travelling on these bumpy roads,” she says. “Is it not possible to make roads for the entire constituency in five years? One can take funds from the central government for this.”

The actress, who was a member of Rajya Sabha till 2012, is fighting for a Lok Sabha seat for the first time. And rumour has it that she’s not happy.

She moves around in a white Audi with an orange umbrella and a lotus in her hand. The men, women and children of Daulatpur village in Mathura run for a glimpse or even a touch of their screen idol. But she doesn’t smile much, and hardly ever stops to address the people.

The buzz is that she was unwilling to fight the election from the city. Someone whispers that there was a time when she wanted to withdraw her nomination and return to Mumbai. Is that true, I ask her. “No, not at all,” she replies.

Three years ago, she elaborates, the BJP had asked her if she would be interested in fighting the 2014 elections, and she’d turned down the offer. “But this time, when they approached me again, I said yes because [BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra] Modiji is here,” the 65-year-old actress says.

Modi campaigned for her in Mathura, and reassured her when she voiced her “nervousness” about the election result. “Modiji came to give me an assurance. Whenever I told him, ‘I don’t think I can do it,’ he said: ‘Don’t worry, we are all there with you’.”

The party, local BJP leaders maintain, decided to field the trained Bharatanatyam and Odissi dancer from Mathura because she has often performed the role of Krishna admirers Radha and Meera, and Mathura is believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god.

“I have been visiting Mathura for the past 20 years for my cultural shows. People of Brajbhoomi are not new to me,” Hema Malini stresses.

I ask her about the resentment on the ground. Hadn’t local BJP leaders demanded that the ticket be given to someone who had worked in the area?

Hema admits that there was discontent, but holds that’s a story of the past. “In the beginning, they were unhappy that they didn’t get the ticket. But now that I am contesting, they are supporting me,” she says, gently moving her slender neck from the left to the right to relax the neck muscles.

“If I were a ‘kharoos’ (ill-tempered) person, they would have got irritated. But I am very calm. I told them, if I win, we all have to work together.”

The workers don’t describe her as ‘kharoos’, but hold that she is inaccessible. Indeed, workers from remote villages have gathered at the lobby of the hotel where she has been put up hoping to meet her. She greets them smilingly when they put a garland around her neck and take photographs. But when they approach her with their demands – for water, electricity and the construction of cow shelters in their villages — she directs them to her poll manager.

Unlike many other actor turned politicians, she is not keen to pose with her fans for photographs. When a middle-aged couple wants to click a photograph with her, she unsmilingly obliges them. But when the photograph doesn’t turn out to be perfect and they request her for another click, she walks out, saying, “no more.” She enters her room and bangs the door shut.

The actress knows the importance of keeping fit and looking good. She is impeccably dressed — in a saffron sari with a red border — and perfectly made up. The eyes are kohl-rimmed, and tinged with a light red eye shadow. Two gold chains hang around her neck, one holding a Krishna pendant. Rhombus-shaped diamond tops sparkle from her ears.

Even in this busy election schedule, she maintains her routine. She wakes up at 5.30am and does yoga for nearly an hour. A vegetarian, she has a low-fat diet consisting of fruits and salads for breakfast, and chapatti, sabzi and dal for lunch and dinner. “But I prefer curd rice in this heat,” she says.

Born into a Tamil-speaking Iyengar family, Hema Malini was brought up in Chennai. She started her film career at the age of 19 by playing the role of a dancer in a Telugu film, Pandava Vanavasam. She made her debut in Bollywood with the 1968 film Sapnon ka Saudagar. After the 1970 hit film Johny Mera Naam, there was no looking back for her as she acted in blockbusters such as Seeta Aur Geeta, Lal Patthar, Sholay, Satte Pe Satta and Naseeb. In 1979, she married the already-married Dharmendra, her co-star in more than 35 films.

Politics beckoned in the late Nineties. She had formed links with the BJP when she campaigned in 1996 for her co-actor Vinod Khanna, who contested on a BJP ticket from Gurdaspur. He introduced her to senior BJP leaders Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani. “I know all of them very well,” she says.

Right now, though, she is close to Modi. Even during the busy poll schedule, she says he often calls her up. “The other day, when he called to ask how my campaigning was going, I told him, I am working very hard. But my skin colour has completely changed while roaming in this scorching sun. To this, he said, So you have become a typical south Indian now,” she says.

Isn’t that a bit stereotypical, I demur.

“Oh, he was joking,” she quickly adds.

With her south Indian roots, Hindi is not her strength — despite the numerous Hindi films she has acted in. She starts her speeches with a few stock Hindi lines such as “Main Bhagwan Krishan ki bhakt hoon (I am a Krishna devotee)” but in a few minutes switches to English. The crowd, happy to just look at her, is not really troubled by that.

Her rallies are quite spectacular. Last week, her daughters, actress Esha Deol and director Ahana, campaigned for her with their husbands. She is also accompanied by her elder brother and two sisters-in-law.

But Hema admits that she doesn’t like “unnecessarily hobnobbing” with people. “I maintain a distance from everyone except my family,” she says.

She doesn’t like to entertain the media for long either. When I ask to be allowed to travel with her for a longer interview, her aide tells me that it will “upset” her.

Personal questions bother her too. She is particularly annoyed when I ask about a complaint made to the Election Commission by an Aam Aadmi Party supporter who claimed that she’d converted to Islam when she married Dharmendra but did not mention this in her affidavit.

“What nonsense! Why should I convert,” she snaps. “Moreover, why should I give any clarification to anyone? I am married to Dharmendraji, I have two children and they are married. That is enough,” she adds. She sends a message through her aide later, urging me not to write about her marriage and religion.

Speaking of Dharmendra, where is he? The BJP wanted the actor, a Jat from Punjab, to campaign for his wife because they believed his caste would sway the 3.5 lakh Jat voters in the constituency.

“He is not well,” she replies. “He has problems with his legs.”

Hema, however, stresses that she doesn’t want to bring in caste angles in the poll. “For me, everyone is a Brajbasi,” she asserts.

Her fans will be waiting to hear her speak, but her record so far is not encouraging. According to PRS Legislative Research, a think tank based in Delhi, Hema Malini had the lowest attendance of 36 per cent among all Karnataka MPs in Rajya Sabha from June 2009 to April 2012. But she participated in six debates.

“I never advertise my work. That doesn’t mean that I have done nothing in the Rajya Sabha,” she says.

Will Sholay’s chatterbox Basanti speak up in the Lok Sabha? Mum’s the word.

 (This is the longish version of the story that appeared in The Telegraph on April 27, 2014)


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