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Mallika exposed: These are the true lies

Posted: May 10, 2004 at 1219 hrs IST

When Reema Lamba decided she wanted to make it in Bollywood, she knew she would need a new look, a new name and a new story. unwraps the packaging.

Mukesh Kumar Lamba is a puzzled man. ‘‘I don’t know why my daughter keeps saying she’s from a middle class, small-town family,’’ he says. ‘‘Ours is a top Jat family. When we asked her, she said, ‘Papa, filmon mein yeh sab kehna padta hai achchi publicity ke liye’.’’ Lamba is the father of actress Mallika Sherawat—formerly Reema Lamba—heroine of 2004’s first Hindi film hit Murder, an ex-model with so much body-baring derring-do and so much studied shock value in her words that CNN has hailed her as a youth icon and Newsweek featured her in an article on The New Bollywood within less than a year of her debut as a leading lady.

Lamba senior seems mildly amused when we mention that his daughter has also said that he is so furious with her career choice that he no longer talks to her. ‘‘I stayed with her for two nights in Mumbai in December, and except for these past six months when she’s been very busy, she has been visiting us in Delhi every 2-3 months,’’ he says. ‘‘I guess I have to understand when she says she needs to say these things to get media attention.’’

His confusion finds an echo in Rohtak, the city in Haryana that Mallika says is her home. At the 781-seater Bangar cinema complex, the graffiti on the wall outside announces, ‘‘Haryana ki heroine Mallika Sherawat’’. But owner Raj Sharma appears flummoxed by Mallika’s oft-repeated claim that she belongs to Rohtak. ‘‘Do you think... maybe... perhaps she was born here?” he offers helpfully. ‘‘But... I’d heard that her father is from Hissar and that she’s lived most of her life in Delhi.’’

Perhaps, we suggest, Rohtak is denying its daughter because it disapproves of her revealing clothing and her willingness to lock lips with her male co-stars? But Sharma is hardly a prude, his list of ‘‘famous people from Rohtak’’ includes ‘‘Pamela Bordes who was from a village that was in Rohtak district before it was made a part of Jhajjar’’. He adds with a chuckle, ‘‘Mallika ne to sirf box office hilaya hai. Pamela ne to sarkare hila di thi. (Mallika has just shaken the box office. Pamela shook governments.)”

In an industry that’s mostly about packaging, the journey from Reema Lamba to Mallika Sherawat had to be planned right down to the last detail. The name was the first to go. Mallika has often stated that she changed her first name to avoid confusion with contemporaries like Raima Sen, Reema Sen and Rimi Sen. Friends say she opted for the uncommon surname Sherawat (a modification of her mother’s maiden name Sehrawat) for its distinctive sound and not, as Mallika later said, because of her strained relationship with her father and his relatives.

Of course, there’s more to making it as an actress today than acquiring a new name. Though no one ever admits a visit to the plastic surgeon, skinny female models and beauty contest winners become mysteriously endowed when they heave their way into Bollywood.

The meticulously-conceived PR package behind Mallika’s career moves is born from the aggressive competition that marks The New Bollywood. Kareena Kapoor, despite her spunk and surname, is still a struggler. Even the gorgeous Aishwarya Rai has had only two big hits in the 10 years since she became Miss World. Into this scenario enters a whole new crop of young girls willing to do anything to get by. If one-time top ramp model Bipasha Basu’s USP is her overwhelmingly erotic persona, former Miss Universe Lara Dutta and former Miss World Priyanka Chopra ride on their perfectly toned bodies. How then could a Mallika Sherawat—a moderately successful Delhi model—break into Bollywood? She needed a new identity that people could identify with. Mallika’s game plan—to create a story of a single woman out to make it against all odds—has certainly worked.

Says Mahesh Bhatt, the producer of her second film, Murder: “Viewers find it refreshing that though she’s from middle class, small-town India, she’s come off the trees, she’s bold, is not shackled by middle-class values, is unashamedly ambitious, and is unapologetic about wanting publicity.”

Viewers are not meant to be bothered by reality though. Mallika Sherawat was born Reema Lamba about 28 years ago. Her father, a senior Haryana government official, was posted at the time in the town of Narwana in Jind district of Haryana. The Lambas are distantly related to the former BJP MLA from Hansi, PK Chowdhry, grandson of the late 19th century Jat millionaire and philanthropist Chowdhry Chhajjuram.

Reema was about seven when her dad was transferred to Delhi in end-1983. She remained in the Capital till she moved to Mumbai about five years back. The future actress studied at the prestigious Delhi Public School (DPS), Mathura Road, from Class 3-12.

It was a privileged existence. The sprawling government bungalow that her parents still occupy on North End Road in the Capital’s Civil Lines area is just a stone’s throw from the Lieutenant Governor’s residence. When her father was transferred out of Delhi for a few years in between, Reema, her mother Santosh and brother Vikram moved to a house they own not too far away in the same locality. The parents are now back in the North End Road bungalow.

Reema passed out of DPS in 1994. Senior school teacher Lalit Mathur remembers her as a ‘‘flamboyant, bold, sharp, outspoken girl’’. There is surprise, even hurt, at the fact that she has never mentioned DPS in interviews. ‘‘The way she went on and on about being a small-town girl from Rohtak, for a moment we wondered if we were remembering the wrong girl,’’ says another teacher, Anju Behuria. ‘‘I even read somewhere that she said her mother beat her when she wore lipstick for the first time in Class 10. Sounds odd because we all know that no Indian parent would send a child to a co-ed school if they were that conservative. Maybe Reema says things like this because she wants to say she’s made it against all odds.’’ Anju Dheman, her twelfth grade teacher, recalls: ‘‘Her repartee was always amazing. Sometimes, when she replied to a question, you knew she would be lying, but she would lie with confidence.’’

After DPS, Reema moved on to Miranda House in Delhi University, during which time she also worked briefly as an air hostess. She got married soon after college to a boy of her choice, Jet Airways pilot Captain Karan Singh Gill. Glamour photographers recall that Reema Gill, as she was known then, would avoid any mention of her husband, even deny being married. Post-divorce, Captain Gill has remarried and lives a quiet life in Delhi. Says Bhatt, ‘‘I’ve told Mallika that she should let the world know about her marriage, because people will find out anyway.’’ PR strategists believe that this is particularly sound advice since the actress has often condemned her contemporaries in the film industry for being hypocrites, while she positions herself as an open, frank woman of today.

‘‘I’m satisfied that she’s a professional,’’ says Mallika’s father. He’s been a busy man this past year, pacifying angry relatives when Mallika has said in interviews, ‘‘I come from a place where women are kept in the backyard along with cattle’’; that her parents ‘‘fled from Rohtak’’ because relatives disapproved of her career choice; and again, ‘‘In my family, no woman has even held a job.’’ Her maternal aunt Kaushal Dhanda, a university lecturer in Rohtak, remarks wryly, ‘‘I don’t know about cattle, but in general, women everywhere are less likely to be suppressed if they are economically independent. The rest depends on the family, the husband and other factors.’’ Sunehri Sehrawat, the actress’ maternal grandmother, says: ‘‘I’ve not seen her films, but I think it’s good enough that a daughter is standing on her own two feet.’’ Says Lamba senior: ‘‘When Mallika says silly things in interviews in Mumbai, it’s hard for me to explain to members of my family that this is one of the compromises she is making for her job. But still, she is my daughter. What can I do?’’

In the New Bollywood, there’s more off-screen masala than most scriptwriters can dream up.


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