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Interview: Shobhaa Dé

By 9 March 2012 No Comment

shobaa de at karachi literature festival

Photo Courtesy: Tapu Javeri

The collective triumphs and successes of the alluring Shobhaa Dé shout a life well-lived. Model, writer, editor, columnist and life guru she has gathered innumerable accolades along the way. Now, at 64, she is still a show-stopper at fashion shows and dons the necessary accoutrements of high fashion with natural ease. Blessed with compelling charm she is a persuasive and expressive narrator of stories, especially her own. On a recent trip to Pakistan, she spoke candidly to Newsline about things that matter to her the most.

Successful author, columnist, opinion-maker, often you’re branded a socialite. Do you care about image and labels?

Actually, I’m pretty on top of my life. Labels are what lazy people create and stick on other people. I’ve always carved my own path and walked on it, had fun and done what I wanted to do, pretty much on my own terms, so it no longer bothers me. It’s just that sometimes I wish some of the journos would do their homework a little more.

Your milieu is urban India, your hometown is Mumbai. You say you’re a liberal Mumbai girl. How would you describe cosmopolitan broadmindedness in one sentence?

To be inclusive and accepting of differences, to me, that is really a cosmopolitan mind that respects other opinions, is comfortable with dissent, is challenging stereotypes, and, in a word, it would be an openness – an openness to life itself and a lack of narrow-minded judgemental attitudes that are polarising so many parts of the world.

You’ve always been provocative and daring, but you struck a nerve with traditionalists. What is the perfect balance between traditional culture and modern values?

I would say that the balance comes if you adopt the best disciplines from other cultures, be it western or eastern, or our own subcontinental culture. It’s like being at a gourmet meal and being in a position to get the choicest entrée that you desire, or your palette desires. One should try and combine the best choices in one’s own life without losing out on one’s essential self and the core of who you are, your identity. I’ve lived my life, but my identity was one thing that there was never any self doubt about, and I think that has really helped me to maintain a sense of equilibrium.

I struck a balance between the modern and traditional – that was a very conscious decision. Rebelling against something for the sake of rebellion is a part of growing up; I’m sure I must have done some really stupid things as a teenager, but I never lost sight of the bigger picture even then. It was never about bucking the system to an extent that it would be dangerous to myself or would compromise my family.

In the past decade or so, one has seen a globalised India and an economic boom that has fuelled massive social change in a young India. What do you think has been lost along the way?

Perspective. In this mad scramble to go global and to aspire to all the symbols of wealth and consumerism, we have lost perspective. To not allow oneself to be consumed by materialism is, I think, the biggest challenge for this generation. They are in such a tearing hurry but they don’t know where they are actually headed; they want more and more and more.

Career women in media or in finance are unable to find that wonderful balance where they can also stop and smell the flowers, instead of just hurtling from one goal post to the next.

In your books you speak of issues which are often considered very personal: Spouses, the truth about marriage, how to deal with menopause. You advise all age-groups on how to live and love. What is your fount of knowledge?

What a tough question you are asking me. I don’t know, it can’t really be explained. I believe almost all of us, especially women, are extraordinarily intuitive and they live on a different plane. I know I may sound batty saying it, but they do. Because of the requirements of our society, where women don’t always have a level playing field, we have devices which help us to cope with crisis and with different situations which cannot be explained logically. So where does my knowledge come from? If I get an answer or if I see something intuitively, I cannot in very logical, scientific, precise terms say where I got it from, or whether I picked it up from such and such library. It is there, I cannot explain it. It cannot be deconstructed.

Many parallels have been drawn between the two glam girls of the literary world, Shobhaa De and Jackie Collins, who both base their novels on the lifestyles of the super-rich and famous. Please comment.

I cannot tell you how sick I am of this glam stamp. I refuse to be apologetic and explain my appearance. The glam girl thing is something that has always been levelled against me. This is how I have always looked; had I looked differently or had my background been different, it would be another story. I refuse to conform to the khaddi-wearing journalist type stereotype and I refuse to be anything other than who I am. Jackie Collins was a very long time ago. This question is irrelevant now, a lot has happened since then. Years ago, a Time magazine writer decided to stereotype me as the glamorous writer from India. Well, it’s the world I know, I cannot suddenly write about rural realities. Do the rich not deserve to be chronicled, are their lives that unimportant? This is a world that I completely understand so I can write about it better than most other people who may not be a part of it.

Showbiz is about vicarious thrills, you say, especially via commercial, mainstream and celebrated cinema. What do you have to say about the Stardust-isation of the media?

Today if I were tell you that ‘Brand Bollywood’ is the biggest brand out of India, – it wouldn’t be untrue. It has happened, whether we like it or not. It’s the power of cinema but it’s also the power of marketing. I’ve seen Bollywood change and get corporatised; movie stars have become very sure of their own positioning in the market, and are going about it the way Hollywood stars have gone about it for the past twenty years – they have agents and business managers who leverage their brands. This is all new, just see how the press devours Bollywood – even a scrap of it – you throw them a morsel and they come running. It could be anything, it could be the World Economic Forum even; unless there is a Bollywood element, you don’t get the press.

The super fantastic success and the obsessive interest in Bollywood has led to the Stardust-isation of the media. It’s easiest to put a picture of Shahrukh Khan on the front page – even a mainstream paper like the Times of India will do this. All in the hope that, perhaps, the reader may read the serious stuff.

What is the state of Bollywood today? Is it mediocre?

Not at all. Bolllywood has some extremely smart people, they’re doing business in the millions and producing technically world class films. I hope, personally, that Bollywood never changes, and nor the Bollywood formula of boy meets girl, which is essentially based on fantasy and wish-fulfillment and aspirations.

Today they turn it on its head and present it differently but at the core it’s the same story. Parallel, experimental, smaller, indie films are breaking a lot of rules, speaking in a completely new language and finding their own audience – that’s thanks to the multiplex. Now we see mature audiences who can pick and choose; if they don’t want to watch a Dabangg they don’t have to. They can watch Bol.

Can you comment on hypocrisy in Indian society, a place where in cinema the pelvic thrust is acceptable while an innocent lip-to-lip is not?

The lip-to-lip has now become kosher, you can show it and they do. But a lot of the movie stars themselves don’t mind the pelvic thrust, they do mind kissing their co-stars. I don’t know whether this is because kissing is seen as essentially part of western culture. The pelvic thrust is derived from folk traditions and folk dances that have always been very raunchy. The lyrics have a lot of double entendre, a play on words, so it doesn’t somehow shock us as much as it has been part of a film tradition, even regional cinema tradition, for the longest time. Even Katrina Kaif’s new number Chikni Chameli is based on a Marathi folk song about a chicken that ran away. It’s a conscious decision on her part to change her image and if she does a very successful item song like that, chances are she’ll earn crores of rupees from it because she’ll be invited to perform at live shows.

shobaa de at karachi literature festival

Photo Courtesy: Tapu Javeri

I don’t see that as hypocrisy, no.

Are you one of those people who blame Pakistan whenever an act of terrorism takes place in India?

No, I think it’s lazy reporting which is reckless and dangerous. Unless it’s been established beyond any doubt where they came from, as in the case of the 26/11 bombings. Even in Pakistan, I would not hesitate to say this. But I certainly wouldn’t say that all our troubles and every terror attack in India is because of Pakistan.

What’s the best way, in your opinion, to give peace a chance?

Dialogue and more dialogue. Much more can be achieved through dialogue, cultural exchanges and re-establishing a healthy trade relationship, than finger-pointing and playing the blame game, which is counter-productive. Unfortunately politicians manipulate public opinion and presume to speak for a whole nation.

How would you describe your evolution from Socialite Evenings to Shobhaa at Sixty?

A writer’s mind is not static, there are bound to be changes in what one is writing. Socialite Evenings was my first book and I still love and adore it. It was so from the heart, it’s from the gut, and so unselfconscious with all its raw edges, but I couldn’t have remained stuck in that, and I couldn’t have remained stuck as the editor of Stardust, that was 40 years ago, even though people still associate me with it. I still continue to model a lot, believe it or not, at my age it’s very flattering. I’ve been asked to be a show-stopper at fashion shows and if it’s a charity-linked event, I’ve done it. I don’t wish to to remain at point A, my writing is a reflection of all that I have lived, and experienced and enjoyed. The change is evident in every book. It would be kind of boring to write the same old book a hundred times over.

You’ve been a successful daughter, wife, mother, sister, friend, citizen – do you have any regrets?

None at all. Sometimes I joke and say I’m like Dev Anand, I’m a person who lives completely and totally in the present. One has no control over the future, the past is over, and the only thing that one can live is ‘the now.’ And you try and live it the best way you can. I don’t see any point in regret. If there is something that you can undo or a hurt you’ve caused then, yes, by all means fix it. But I have no time to expend on negative energy. I would rather use that energy for something else, something that’s positive and now, and maybe for tomorrow.

This interview was originally published in the March 2012 issue of Newsline. Watch out for the latest issue of Newsline at newsstands across Pakistan.

Amna R. Ali is an assistant editor at Newsline.


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