The woman sitting across from me wears her celebrity lightly. She’s open and friendly and perhaps the warmest person I know. And yet, many in the film fraternity harbour the misconception that she is distant, even snooty. And as I meet the pretty Gauri Khan at my new office in Andheri, Mumbai, I realise to my horror that I had made the same mistake when I first met her...
Flashback to 1994, when we were shooting Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge in Switzerland. Gauri was there with a friend, and Shah Rukh (Khan) introduced us. I thought both she and her friend were very aloof. Then, just because I could speak French, Shah Rukh appointed me as the person to take them around for a day in Rougemont in the French part of Switzerland. Gauri obviously didn’t believe that somebody from a Hindi film crew was cool enough to speak French, and kind of sniggered at the idea. But things got a bit better once we bought the train tickets and I was able to manoeuvre them through that day. We landed up getting along really well and by the end, I was quite a favourite of hers. In fact, we grew to becoming really close on that trip.
When we came back to Mumbai, she followed up with me and I became her first friend from the industry, an industry that she had otherwise stayed away from because she was wary of the people in it. The Delhi girl who used to dance with Shiamak Davar had thought that film industry people were not her cup of coffee. I kind of broke that mindset for her. In fact, I think that the foundation of my friendship with Gauri lies in the fact that I made her love the people in the movies, people who are actually really great. She grew to realise that, and today, all her strong equations are from within the film fraternity. I’ve seen her evolve from being an apparently aloof girl to now actively belonging to her husband’s world. I’ve seen her rooting for his films and being stressed and jittery pre-release just like any movie industry person’s family member would be. But in the last decade, she’s also come into her own in a whole new way.
My Name is Khan
It took me an entire month to get Gauri to agree to be on the cover of Vogue’s second issue in India in January 2008. She didn’t see why she should just because she was Shah Rukh Khan’s (SRK) wife and a mother, however fulfilled she felt in those roles. But today, the self-confessed woman of few words is ready to let the world in, if only for a glimpse into her work life.
With Gauri Khan Designs, her design store in Mumbai, and a flourishing home decor practice having taken off over the last five years, she’s comfortable in the place she’s in. From never wanting to be on a magazine cover to now doing full interviews. “When I avoided interviews, it was mainly because I didn’t want to speak only about my personal life,” says Gauri. “Today, I have something to share about my life which is connected to my work and I’m happy to share my journey.”
Gauri is wary of ‘the first lady of Indian cinema’ tag. Very aware that there could be a perception that SRK’s wife is getting all this work because she’s SRK’s wife. “I’m sure I will reach a position in my life where people will understand it’s not about being Mrs Shah Rukh Khan, but about the work I do. It may take a few years but I’m ready to wait. I want people to know we mean business.”
She means business
The consummate professional dreams big. In 2017, she plans to expand from her 1,000 sq ft store in Raghuvanshi Mills, Lower Parel, and unveil what will be the flagship property of her brand. “Shah Rukh was driving one night and he spotted this property in Juhu and said, ‘I’m going to get this place for you’. I would, of course, like to grow with time and make sure that my business is doing the kind of numbers to warrant moving into a larger space. And I think we managed pretty well in the last three years. On my own, I would not have been able to decide to expand so quickly. Shah Rukh helped me make that decision.”
She then divulges something even I didn’t know! “Shah Rukh himself, if he wasn’t an actor, would probably have liked to become an architect or interior designer,” says Gauri. “He’s totally into buying property, building and decorating… very passionate about it. I have no doubt that if he was given any space, especially an office, he would make the swankiest one ever, much better than I ever could! Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the time to do this, but he does have the vision.”
The mega project in Juhu promises to be an address known to all for luxury and design. I ask Gauri how she envisages using it. “Over the years, I’ve experienced a huge vacuum in the design industry in our country, especially when it comes to world-class furniture and accessories. I hope to fill that void. There will be two parts to the new store. One part will have Gauri Khan Designs, which will all be ‘made in India’ products – furniture, accessories, lamps, rugs, etc. Our country is very rich in heritage and handcrafted objects. The craftsmen in India are fantastic and I want to showcase their talents. For the other half of the store, after evaluating the business, we thought that Roberto Cavalli Homes would be a great brand to associate with. So that will be exciting for our clients. We are in talks with two other brands as well. I’m personally designing the store to present all these brands perfectly.”
Actor Ranbir Kapoor, whose house Gauri is doing up, says, “Gauri is the guru of style. I’ve never worked with someone so aesthetically driven, so professional and so absolutely on the ball about everything.” When I remind her of this, Gauri says, “Since you brought up Ranbir’s name, I have to say that getting to do his home as a turnkey project, both architecturally as well as on the interiors, is a game changer for Red architects and myself.”
That quiet confidence stems from her knowing that her natural sense of style and aesthetics is being appreciated. But people have been recognising her eye for design for a long time. Even 15 years ago, our friend Kaajal Anand asked her to collaborate on a luxury interiors store called Yantra in Mumbai, along with Avanti and Yash Birla. But Gauri didn’t feel ready for it then.
It was only when the Khans started building Mannat that she recognised her true potential. “The project – yes, I call it that even though it’s my own house! – took us about five years, as we had issues with permissions and paperwork,” says Gauri. “We were working with Red architects’ Kaif and his assistant Jyoti. I realised I enjoyed every part of working on the house, whether it was doing the furniture or wall textures or space planning and layouts… I got fully involved with it and learned a lot from them. I even tried to get into the technical part of it, learned whatever I could when they came on site visits, from the civil work to electricals to air-conditioning. When I travelled, everything about my travel somehow got connected to my home. I took pictures. I enjoyed the whole process.”
When she finally opened the doors of the finished and fabulous Mannat to family and friends, the rave reviews made her think about considering this her calling. “Everybody reacted to my aesthetic (not to take the credit away from Kaif), the style and also the scale of the house, which you don’t find in Mumbai. They also loved how I had treated it architecturally, a heritage property with high ceilings. It all just came together,” she recalls with satisfaction. Which is why she was amenable to the idea of showcasing her design sense at her friend Sussanne Khan’s The Charcoal Project. Gauri explains, “Interior design wasn’t something I rushed into. It has taken me a long time to realise, five years with Mannat and five years in the business.”
The complete woman
It’s also a platform for her to express herself, I surmise. She’s expressing much more emotion through this work than she ever has. Only her nearest and dearest are usually privy to such expression. She’s introverted and takes a while to open up. But when she does, she is full of love and has all the warmth in the world to give.
Gauri has been a constant mother figure to the three kids – Aryan (18), Suhana (16) and AbRam (3) – and even to Shah Rukh at times. She has a very strong maternal instinct. Her family has always been her biggest motivation: their happiness, their success, their evolution as people. Over the years I’ve known her, I’ve seen her evolve beautifully from the young wife who wore the hippest clothes and partied with Shah Rukh, to being a responsible, 24/7 mother. The kids are hugely dependent on her: she’s provided security, sensibility, and sensitivity, and continues to be the Rock of Gibraltar in that house, as well as its heartbeat.
To me, she’s a solid friend. She has been there for me whenever I’ve been in an emotional crisis. I have always had sibling love for her and I feel she’s family in many ways. Her most enduring and endearing quality is that she is free of drama. She has a great tendency to do everything, not letting people realise that she’s doing so much. When she did up her entire house, I didn’t even know it was happening. Raising her kids has happened seamlessly. Her decision to educate Aryan and Suhana out of the country, that decision, the paperwork, everything, happened without any fuss. She deals with salacious rumours about Shah Rukh in the same way, with her innate strength.
She is there for us quietly, seamlessly and without ‘burdening’ anyone with her presence by making them feel obligated to her. She sometimes may not have the words to say it, sometimes may not have the actions to prove it, but her presence has always been spectacularly soothing in every dramatic or crisis-laden situation in my life. Every time my mother’s been in and out of the hospital with major back and spinal injuries, whether it was the morning, afternoon or evening, Gauri was there. I would ask her, “Why are you still here…go home!” and she would say, “What am I doing? I just want to be here.” That quiet strength is what defines her.
But by no means is she dull. In fact, she’s hysterically funny. The analogies that she draws in situations, the way she words certain things, she’s very funny. Her true personality is something only her inner circle and her closest people know. Her children are always laughing at the things she says and Shah Rukh always finds her hysterical.
As we crack up once again after one of our usual ‘analysis’ of someone we know, I marvel at how spot on she is in her observations. She has a certain way of putting things in perspective that no one else I know does. When I ask her the last question on my list, the touchy topic of being a ‘star wife’, Gauri comes into her own. She emphasises, “The term just drives me nuts. It sounds very strange to me. If only people can treat me as a normal human being, take me as a woman of today instead of tagging me as a star wife. I’m not pitching myself with anybody and nor am I overly ambitious. All I need is to wake up in the morning, go to the gym, feel healthy, get to work, be creative, come back home to the kids. I want to do very good work. I may not become a world-renowned designer as I haven’t started in my 20s. But it’s never too late to do anything in life and when I design a space, I want it to be the best home or office they’ve seen. When people walk into my new store, they have to say it’s the best store they’ve seen. Whatever I touch has to turn to gold or look good. I have a goal, something to look forward to. It’s fulfilling and I feel like a complete woman today.”
Karan Johar is an Indian film director, producer, writer, screenwriter, actor and television personality. An Unsuitable Boy, his recently released autobiography, was co-authored by former Brunch editor Poonam Saxena. Offering a rare peek into his journey so far, the book created quite a stir and topped bestseller lists.
From HT Brunch, March 26, 2017
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