“I don’t fit into the Indian fashion scene that’s obsessed with white skin”

  • Neena Haridas
  • Updated: May 30, 2016 14:03 IST
“I don’t fit into the Indian fashion scene that’s obsessed with Bollywood starlets and white skin” (Photo: Italian Marie Claire)

It was a hard, unseasonably hot and sweaty day in Goa. We were working on the trials for a cover shoot. The lanky, thin model was quietly trying on outfit after outfit along with our team of stylists and fashion editors. I stood by the door of the room (even the fans weren’t working that day), leaving the team to deal with it.

As I watched the frenzy, I sensed there were really only two individuals in that humid, overcrowded room: Prabuddha Dasgupta and Lakshmi Menon, our photographer and cover girl. Everything and everyone else were just incidental. With each outfit change, Lakshmi would look at Prabuddha for his nod of approval. There was a comfortable silence of the spoken and unspoken between them as they worked together. Breaking into that private zone with one’s own words felt almost pervert-ish, like peeping through the keyhole while da Vinci worked on his Mona Lisa.

That was four years ago.

Last week I met Lakshmi again. Still lanky and impossibly thin. Goa was still unseasonably hot and sweaty. But the Lakshmi I met was not that girl in the trial room holding her breath for that nod from the man with whom she shared more than a working relationship. This Lakshmi Menon was all grown up, spouting Kafka and Bruce Chatwin while philosophically explaining the concept of life and mortality in a breath.

Her cynicism is palpable even as she tries hard to hide it behind tough statements like, “nothing in life lasts forever”, “mortality is a reality and the sooner we learn that, the easier it gets.” These probably, were words that held her together after she lost her mentor, partner and love Prabuddha to a heart attack four years ago.

“I am private, not a recluse. I can’t talk to everyone, and I have little patience for people who are not interesting.” (Italian Marie Claire)

“You see, shit happens, but life goes on. I am blessed with good friends, I call them my inner circle, who helped me through my period of uncertainty,” she says between long pauses and forlorn gazes at the artworks and photographs on the walls, before quickly turning around and smiling into your eyes.

Sitting behind a laptop in Prabuddha’s house in Assagao, Lakshmi is working on a new project that she says “will change the landscape of this country.”

At 35, Lakshmi is preparing for a new career that she is too cagey to talk about. “I don’t know how this project is going to turn out, but everything has an expiry date, and I know my life in fashion is nearing its end. I do a few editorial shoots now, but I have reduced much of that because I am now completely focussed on my new venture. I still keep my place in New York though I plan to eventually base in Bombay. I come to this house once in a while to make sure the place is fine,” she says, pointing towards an overgrown palm. “These things need tending.” She gives the palm a long hard look and adds, “Sometimes I come here for peace.”

The Malayali girl from Bangalore who put India on the international fashion map is ready to come home after living and working in New York and Paris since Prabuddha discovered her 15 years ago.

“I was studying in Bangalore when a friend introduced me to Prabuddha, saying I was his kind of model. She said my dark skin and lanky figure would appeal to him.” Indeed. He asked her for a casting session which landed her first modelling outing with Deutsche Bank. “But I wasn’t very successful in the Indian mainstream fashion at the time because of... surprise, surprise... my dark skin and thin structure.” Prabuddha probably knew that already. “He told me I did not fit the Indian stereotype and that I must move abroad if I wanted to take fashion as a serious career.”

Lakshmi took his words seriously and then the international fashion world took her seriously when Jean Paul Gaultier saw her work in an Indian magazine, while looking for an Indian model to walk at his Chanel show in Paris in 2006. A show for Jean Paul Gaultier was followed by work on the Hermès catwalk and campaigns for Hermès, Max Mara, Givenchy, H&M, J Crew, Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, and Nordstrom.

The girl that Indian fashion rejected became the toast of global fashion. Lakshmi was first featured in a French Vogue editorial in October 2008, after her Milan show for La Perla, in which she walked for D&G and Givenchy. She then appeared in editorials for American, Spanish, Indian, and French Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, V Magazine, Dazed & Confused, Indian Elle and Allure. She won Vogue’s “This Year’s Model” crown for 2008. She was among Top 10 Newcomers by Style.com and on the Elle cover.

“I care two hoots about people who call me controversial. My life with Prabuddha was the life I chose, and I continue to live my choices.” (Italian Marie Claire)

In December 2008, in “What’s Hot For 2009”, Lucie Greene of the Daily Mail included Lakshmi as “Hot” and predicted that she would attain supermodel status. She featured in the 2011 Pirelli Calendar, photographed by Karl Lagerfeld, the first Indian model to do so.

“I shot with some of the best photographers and magazines across the world. I simply don’t fit into the Indian scene which is still obsessed with Bollywood starlets and white skin. So Prabuddha was right. I was not made for India.”

However, she continued to shoot with him. “Both of us were always travelling but we always found a way to meet and be together and I enjoyed shooting with him because he was both difficult and passionate about work.”

Somewhere between work and being his muse, the relationship grew deeper. Indians don’t go easy on relationships between an older married man and a single young woman, especially if they dare to bare. The hypocrisy of our society makes relationships controversial and vulgar. So much was written and much more whispered. But love seldom cares and neither did Lakshmi and Prabuddha, who looked after his wife and children while simultaneously sharing his special relationship with Lakshmi. For the rest of the world, it seemed unnatural, but eventually the gossip withered.

Says Lakshmi, “I care two hoots about people who call me controversial. That was the life I chose and I continue to live my choices. My parents were always supportive of me, no matter what choices I made. My mother is a schoolteacher and my father was in the armed forces. My dad’s job kept us on the move. They are not like those closed judgemental people you would find in Thrissur, Kerala. They loved and welcomed Prabuddha into their lives as much as into mine. So why should I care about what people think or say about us? Now, my life is about work, friends, relationships.”

Is there new love on the horizon? “If there is one thing I have learnt from my mother, it is that life is about possibilities. Of course, all I learnt from my father is tennis. So I will go with my mother’s wisdom on this one,” she says. “In a way, after Prabuddha I feel a sense of freedom. I feel free mentally. Relationships need a lot of attention and nurturing and caring. At the moment I want to focus entirely on my new project without distraction.”

The last thing this graduate in developmental economics looks is distracted. In fact, her stoic calm and her aggressive need for privacy are distressing. Maybe, being constantly under the spotlight makes her seem distant and vulnerable all at once.

“I am private, not a recluse, though I have been called reclusive. I can’t talk to everyone, and I have little patience for people who are not interesting. There must be something to take away from every conversation. Recently, when I told someone I studied at Bangalore University, they said, “No, I mean where did you really study? You seem to know so much. I had to explain that I read and watch movies.”

Of course, she only watches good movies and reads good books, and her current favourite actor is Matthew McConaughey. “Would you have imagined someone like him actually doing good movies? I used to watch his earlier films and think, ‘this guy has so much talent. Why doesn’t he do good movies?’ There is a very short distance between mediocrity and talent. And often in our greed for money, we settle for mediocrity. I don’t want any more money than is required to facilitate the kind of life that I have made for myself. For me, money is only as good as it is useful – whether it is for the car I want or the relationship I wish to engage in. Beyond that, it is an excess.”

These are wise words, but you know supermodel Lakshmi Menon is a totally different person today for whatever reason when she says, “I wish people would tread softly on this planet”.

She sure does. Now.

The writer is consulting editor with Marie Claire International, Paris, former editor-in-chief Marie Claire, India and editorial director, Artinfo, NY

From HT Brunch, May 29, 2016

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