Mumbai: It was 2001. Twinkle Khanna was at Juhu's Hotel Sea Princess, waiting to get into the skin of Tina (add 'Baba' to that and you get the nickname her father gave her, incidentally). It's the character she played in Govinda-Sanjay Dutt starrer, Jodi No. 1. While Dutt, on his ninth take, tried to gingerly match steps with his dream dancer colleague, Twinkle sat in a corner. Monica Bedi, not yet infamous, was busy with the make-up boy. (Also Read: Twinkle Khanna Answers a Crucial Question: What do Indian Men Want?)
I was a rookie on that set, I tell her in 2015, banished to a film unit on a punishment assignment. I remember her bored. "Really?" she says, twisting her flame-hued hair in a chord before it suddenly unfurls like a corde lisse move.
"But I had fun on that set. I'd already decided I was quitting films, so there was no pressure. And Govinda, I was genuinely fond of." She nudges the plate of aloo tikki closer to a teacup that holds masala chai to rival what the Gujaratis fondly call Bhatt-ni-cha. Not a five-star executive suite or the conference room of a production house, Khanna meets me at home. It's one of many decisions, I am to realise, that have her stand apart from 'the industry'.
The duplex, kissing a raging monsoon sea, sits on the other side of a cobalt wooden gate. The front door is far from celebrity-shielding. All glass, it offers unhindered access to the family she holds precious, and the art she collects. It's also the cocoon that Khanna dips into - sometimes, bares - in the lines of her satirical, semi-fictional newspaper columns.
Taking potshots at government policy, public hypocrisy, choice in luxury bags, even at herself, she has raced to publishing potential in less than two years. On Tuesday, she will release her first book, Mrs Funnybones, structured on her columns. It's another 200-odd pages of a partial peep into the design entrepreneur, serial columnist, occasional society lady and full-time mother's life.
"Excuse me for a minute," she says, taking her two-year-old daughter from the nanny's arms. Letting her stay curled into her lap, she speaks into the phone's voice recorder. The child is running a fever, and battling nausea, but takes a fancy to the cookies lined up like soldiers before me. "Should I let her?" Khanna asks, getting me twitchy over a call about a two-year-old's health. I nod. It's extending access into her innermost world - perhaps in return for direct, private opinion on her frank question, "why lovely, Parsi girls like you take so long to marry"?
Forthrightness, she seems to delight in. And those who wish to survive in her universe, better do too.
Aamir Khan, she has known for years. She has thought of him as both, terrific performer and short man. When she was being put under during her last pregnancy, the doctor asked her to imagine a scene involving someone she likes. "Later, he told me I was shrieking about Aamir, and his height," she laughs.
Both, the doctor and the superstar are special guests at Tuesday's book launch.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
Q. It's an odd question to start with, but legitimate given the curiosity. Some people are wondering, does Twinkle write her own column?
A. I don't (laughs). Okay, three things. I don't blame them. My name is Twinkle. That's the first obstacle I face when I wish that people see me as smart. Second, I am from Bollywood. And I am a woman. Do people think women from Bollywood aren't smart? I don't let it bother me. I write and tweet exactly the way I speak, so anyone who has met me knows this is me writing. I'm too old to prove myself. And what would the purpose of this be? I have been trying to run away from the spotlight for 15 years because I was trying to get famous then, and have succeeded now? Sounds like a bad PR plan.
Q. How did you discover you could write?
A. The last time I wrote before the column gig happened, was in my teens. I had half a book, and a bunch of morbid poems about earthworms and death. I am a voracious reader, like my mother. Two years ago, an editor I know well, said, you crack lame jokes and read incessantly. Why not try a humour column? I kicked that one off, and another paper came, saying, shift the column. Now, I write for both.
Q. Is there pressure in being a national columnist?
A. I had a job, and my family; I had enough to do. When you are born in the glare of spotlight, you don't seek it. I have been married for what...15 years. There was no game plan. When opportunities came, I said, yes, but it wasn't a career move. I am happy writing. It has taken over my yoga practice. I disappear inside my own head, which is wonderful. That's what they call mindlessness.
Q. And you work on your writing?
A. I never submit the first draft. Sometimes, I let it sit for two weeks.
Q. And when did you realise it's working, that you are kicking up a buzz?
A. When my mother approved. Earlier, I'd call her up, excited, and discuss an idea and she'd say, "Well, but I visited your home the other day, and there were fingerprints on your glass lights". When her friends came to her to say they like what I write, she got excited. And yes, when Akshay went out to promote his films, and people asked him about Mrs Funnybones, he came back saying, "It's all about you" (giggles). When I started, I would read all my columns out to my son, and he'd give me 'marks'.
Q. Was the format - part current affairs/part peek into a celeb's semi-fictional life - well considered?
A. There are lots of issues that I need to thread together in one piece. The diary format makes that possible. Also, most of us suffer from ADD. This way, it's easier to write and read than if ploughing through a long, deep piece. I did do a long one on menstruation, and another on miscarriage, though. I am a feminist by default because I grew up in a home of working women. So, in fact, having to mould myself to suit a traditional family set-up was more challenging. I started working when I was 16. I don't know any other way of life.
Q. How much of the column is real?
A. The characters are exaggerated caricatures. It's satire, but most of it stems from what I see around me, and the stuff that's said. When I was writing the book, my editor said, write more about Bollywood. I can't. I am in the midst of this crazy hurricane, but it's not something that interests me.
Q. Do you find that odd?
A. No. My kids, who have movie star parents and grandparents, are normal too. The father is pretty normal, so my son sees all sides to life. He will experience a private jet but we also fly economy.
Q. So, does the man of the house really swing the mudgal around his head at dawn and did the cousin actually go for a mata ki chowki when she was chumming, and cause the idol's dupatta to fall on a diya, and go boom!
A. Yes. I could show you Akshay's wooden instruments.
Q. What does he think of your writing?
A. He reads all of it because he has to cleanse it, edit out the offensive bits. He is the let's-not-have-a-morcha-outside-our-home checker. Even with the last piece (BJP's porn ban), he suggested I remove the word 'lotus'.
Q. Did that bother you?
A. No. Because my problem has always been what not to say. The good thing about writing is that you can rework it. Sometimes, it's just a matter of one word.
Q. Mrs Funnybones is nothing like man of the house. He likes beetroot juice, she, waffles.
A. Yes. Akshay and I are different. He doesn't like books; I do. I barely see movies; he sees them all the time. He is strong and fit, and could have been an athlete if not a movie star. I'm not. Our backgrounds are different. But somehow, we agree on how we see the world, what's right and wrong. It has taken us time to get here, of course. Initially, the differences were bothersome.
Q. And you seem fine portraying yourself thus. You are okay napping in the balcony when your kids are nagging you for food.
A. You are asking me this on a day when I haven't slept the previous night because I was up with my daughter, who was throwing up. There is the perfect mother, which I am not. And there is the good-enough mother, which I am. I don't make a daily, colour-coded schedule chart for the kids, like some moms in the school's chat group do. I told them, just send me a copy, please. When my son was younger, I was working a lot - doing 11 projects a year. And he grew okay with it. Once, he had to go dressed as Ook and Gluk to school, and I forgot. I slipped him into my brown off-shoulder dress, tied a belt, and set him off. The rest of the kids were professionally dressed. I asked him if they wondered if he was wearing his mother's dress, and he said, "I don't care". That was great.
Q. What's the feedback to the columns?
A. I got flak for writing about Aarushi, a book that discussed how a court case that went haywire after the murder of Aarushi Talwar. Readers felt I was sensationalising a young girl's death. And then again, for the fat women column. In my head, I am fat, so I was considering myself one of them. But they didn't see me like that.
Q. What about the industry?
A. Earlier, they thought I was rude and blunt. Now, they see my writing as funny and cool. Once, I went up to this very famous, older actress, who was looking lovely, and said, "You are looking gorgeous. Do you sleep with your head hanging off your bed?" She was horrified. Usually, Akshay keeps me in check. I've been outspoken since I was little. It was a disadvantage in Bollywood. Not that I didn't get work because of it. That happened because I am a bad actress.
Q. You name names in the column, like, Neelam, who was carrying the Louis Vuitton bag to the Pali Hill hawkers protest. Are you careful about who you pick?
A. I called her to say so. When you write, you get to refine your thoughts, so all's well.
Q. The blurb to the book says your brain missed being bludgeoned to pea-size by Bollywood. Was it really a bloody waste of time?
A. It didn't teach me to act. But, I had fun. I met the man I would make a family with. If I had skipped that segment, I wouldn't have missed much, though. I would've been a chartered accountant somewhere. I was a math geek, who aced every numbers exam.
Q. Often, you speak of society ladies as 'them'. And then, the next month, you are in Vogue in a Roberto Cavalli. How do you make peace with the contradiction?
A. I go into that world, but pop back out. Earlier, I'd rebel. I'd say, why do I have to get my hair done, wear brands to be at a party? Then I decided, let me do it and have fun. I have made peace with being 'appropriate'. But I am not prisoner to it. A day at a shoot is a holiday for me. A chance to get made up, get a few extra pictures with my kids. I am the most reluctant model. I can offer three expressions - sparkling smile, Japanese zombie, and hostage look. If I got one cover in a year, I'd be grateful.
Q. And you'd be concerned if the calls stopped coming?
A. Maybe if I got nothing in three years. It hasn't happened yet. If it does, I'll know I am getting old.
Q. You've dedicated the book to your father. Did he share your interest in writing?
A. I saw a Facebook post by his friend, Neena Arora, that said that although he never got my macabre poems, he read them. And I was like, wow! He thought I was too blunt, sharp, temperamental. Exactly like him, actually. We are born on the same day.
Q. You get your humour from him?
A. From my maternal grandparents, and aunts. We crack up at the oddest things.
Q. In your writing, a tight spot suddenly dissolves into a comic moment. Like with the police complaint over unbuttoning Akshay's jeans on ramp. Is that how you tackle life's struggles, too?
A. I don't take too many things too seriously.
Q. Will the next book be a funny?
A. I've started writing it. They are short stories based on women, some funny, some not.