The Tribune - Spectrum

, March 10, 2002

Playing Tulsi and Sita with elan

Smriti Malhotra-Irani

25-year-old Smriti Malhotra-Irani says she will not fuss about acting a 40-plus mother in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, currently one of the top television serials of India. "I have to stand by Ekta Kapoor and Balaji Telefilms because they gave me my successful career," she says. Side by side, she will also perform the role of Sita in Ravi Chopraís Ramayana on Zee TV, says Vimla Patil

SMRITI Malhotra-Irani, aka Tulsi of KKSBKBT, is literally a contradiction in terms. On the one hand, she presents herself with confidence, talks in controlled language and a heightened awareness of what it takes to be a style icon. "I have a long way to go before I can call myself a stylish woman who knows how to dress, how to talk and how to carry success naturally. I am a bit unfinished right now and my forthrightness probably comes in the way of the type of delicate behaviour which is a carefully cultivated art in our industry today," she says.

Yet, on the other hand, she also says that she is a loner, a recluse, a woman who is too outspoken to indulge in the fine art of personal public relations. "Iím in an industry which is notorious for its proverbial casting couch. But I think a woman who has her head firmly on her shoulders can keep her distance and succeed in this industry. If a man makes a pass at me, Iíd sock him in the face. It is no use grumbling in the make-up room or the ladies room about men putting arms around a woman at the drop of a hat. If one doesnít like it, one must nip such behaviour in the bud.


"My proudest achievement is that my nieces, my step-daughter, Chanelle and younger girls in my family want to be like me. I have a successful career and some amount of fame at 25. Yet, I hold my family and home as my first priority. People ask me how I can act in KKSBKBT, which promotes the Pati Parmeshwar culture. It is easy for me to do this kind of role because Zubin Irani, my husband, is my Parmeshwar. He comes first in all my priorities. But I am his Parmeshwar too. I come first in his life too. People say that after a child is born, a woman puts her husband on the backburner because the baby becomes her world. But Zubin is still the number one person in my life, despite the birth of Zohr, my son, a few months ago. I know that Zohr will leave us when he grows up. We both are for keeps. Zohr is one more link between us."

Smritiís present sure-of-herself avatar, according to her, is new. When she was in her parental home in Delhi, one of three sisters, she was a quiet inconspicuous adolescent. "My parents ó my mother is a Bengali and is related to Tripti Mitra, well-known actress of yesteryears ó thought that my two sisters would work in my fatherís courier business and theyíd marry me off to a nice young man, because of my quiet, non-adventurous, unambitious nature," she reminisces, "All that changed when at 16, I began to work in small plays. I gave up my full-time college career, and took a correspondence course for graduation. At eighteen, I told my father that I wanted to come to Mumbai to work. In 1998, I entered the Miss India contest without the knowledge of anyone in the family. I was nowhere near a beauty. So I was surprised to be short-listed and came to Mumbai to participate in the finals. My father was astounded at my decision to enter the contest. No one believed I could make it to the finals. I borrowed Rs 2 lakh from my father on the condition that I would return it. I came to Mumbai and began preparations to enter the final of the contest with earnestness. I had my contest outfit designed and made by Manish Malhotra. It cost me a bomb. I paid my fares to the training sessions and for my food. Eating out, travelling in Mumbai, taxi fares and living alone cost me a lot of money. Unfortunately, I came up to the last round but did not win. I was one of the final five contestants.

Desperate to pay my loan back, I appeared for the Jet Airways hostess interview. Surprisingly, my sister, who also applied, got the job but I was rejected. Then I took a counter job at McDonalds, serving burgers and swabbing the floors and cleaning tables. But throughout these months of desperation, I kept visiting various agencies, doing auditions and portfolios and leaving my pictures at every TV production company. I was present in the Famous Studio in Mumbai for auditions every day but no one took me seriously.

"Then one day, I was chosen to do the black and white commercial for Whisper. Next, I anchored a show called Filmi Batein for In Mumbai and Etc. channels. Shrey Guleri of Prime Channel saw these appearances on television and called me. As a result, I did some episodes of the show called Bakemanís Oh La La. Shobha Kapoor in turn saw these and she asked me to meet Ekta at Balaji Telefilms. I met her and as time passed, thought nothing was coming through. But one day, I was asked to come over to audition for Tulsiís role in KKSBKBT I was chosen for this role and the rest, as they say, is history. After KKSBKBT became the top soap in India, my career was made.

"Today, Tulsi is one of the most popular TV characters among millions of viewers. Whatever people say about its story being retrograde in womenís lives today. I think Ekta had a novel idea of exploiting the common saas-bahu conflict, which is evident in every family even today. She planned the presentation of this conflict with needle-fine detail. The media business is all about money. Make no mistake about it. It is not a social service. Fortunately, KKSBKBT succeeded stupendously. A rush of similar soaps followed on all channels. But the original has the Ďearly birdí advantage. Once again now, Ekta is experimenting with this serial. On Saturday, February 16, 2002, the story of the soap jump-skipped to a new generation. This is a pioneering concept and Iíll now act as the mother of two grown-up children. They may be the new protagonists of the serial. Iím going to stay on though Iíll have to play a much older woman with a hair bun and more sober clothes. I canlet down Ekta who made me into what Iím today. Iíll be there whenever she needs me. It is a first ever experiment in Indian TV and I hope it is successful!"

Smriti married her childhood friend Zubin Irani in the midst of the serial and soon after, had a baby boy in October 2001. "I was staying in our Dahanu farmhouse to rest after the baby and we did some shooting there to make our episodes on time. I married Zubin because I needed him. I was consulting him, talking to him and meeting him every day. So we said why not marry and be best friends as well as a married couple. Both my parents and his agreed to our marriage and blessed us. I would never dream of marrying against the wishes of my parents because I believe strongly that hurting parents causes unhappiness and destruction for the couple.

Zubin is ten years older than me and was married before to co-ordinator Mona Irani. They have a daughter, Chanelle. People say to me that career success, marriage, and baby ó Iíve done everything at the age of 25! Why not? I have everything that people dream of getting when they are 40. Iím lucky to have Zubin, who is an asset for me. People are surprised that my marriage is so successful despite his earlier divorce. But Iím friends with Mona, his ex-wife and their daughter Chanelle. Their differences are none of my business. My life with him and the two children are my business and I want to do my best."

Smriti was recently asked to audition for the role of Sita in Ravi Chopraís Ramayana for Zee TV. "I jumped at the chance," she enthuses, "I want to do all types of roles. Iíve done Kavita, Aatish and Manju Singhís Jaanam Samjha Karo apart from KKSBKBT. I am proud that I return my fatherís loan within a yearís time. Iím working hard on losing the weight, which I put on after the baby. I will strive to do the role of Sita with dignity, grace and sensitivity, which are the hallmark qualities of the universally-admired heroine of the Ramayana."

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