It should'nt come as a surprise. Bollywood’s reigning item girl Koena Mitra says she is a trained contemporary dancer. She insists that dance was the only thing she ever did apart from academics. “I have been dancing ever since I can remember,” she laughs.
“Being from a typical Bengali household, a cultural activity besides academics was a must. For me it was dance. I went to school. And I learnt dance. These are the only two things I ever did,” she says.
But dance as a career wasn’t her first option. “I trained under Mamta Shankar and somewhere down the line I felt that if I just danced for the rest of my life, I would always remain under the shadow of some big name. And I was too proud for that,” she says.
Gifted with a great body and and good looks, Koena decided to make a name for herself in the glamour world. She entered and won the Gladrags Supermodel contest. That was the beginning. She walked the ramp and did music videos till Ram Gopal Varma spotted her and asked her to do the item number Khullam khulla in Road.
Koena had her first taste of success but couldn’t really savour it. “I was too young,” she explains. “Just about 17. Things happened overnight for me. It was too early, too fast. I decided to go back to Kolkata.” Back home for two years, Koena stuck to ramp walking and doing videos besides completing college. And then film director Sanjay Gupta asked her to come back to Mumbai.
“It wasn’t just another item number, he also offered me a role. I was getting the chance to act. It was a good opportunity and I took it up,” she says.
Koena sizzled in the Saki Saki number in Gupta’s film Musafir and Bollywood discovered its latest, hottest item girl.
But though Koena basked in the item number’s glory, she wasn’t too happy. She claims the song became too “big” and overshadowed her work in the film. “It cast me in the mould of an item girl. Not that I regret doing it, but I would have preferred it if people had also noticed my acting,” she rues.
Acting, she claims, is her natural calling. What about the dancing and modeling then? “They were just steps to realise my bigger dream – of becoming an actress,” she says.
But the lady with the drop dead gorgeous body isn’t interested in “art cinema type” acting. “I don’t want to do zabardasti ka acting, where I go around without makeup. I find that very superficial,” she says. But when every other big actress is experimenting with serious roles, why is Koena so averse to them?
“It’s kind of bizarre, you know. I feel good acting has nothing to do with serious roles. In fact, it is all a state of mind. It is a perception that needs to change. Critics only seem to appreciate someone who comes on screen without makeup. I feel it is just a mindset. Why can’t you do great acting and look sexy at the same time?” she asks.
So does she like the sex symbol tag? “Who wouldn’t? Also, I am beautiful. I don’t really need to try hard to look sexy. I am quite a natural you see,” she winks.
Talking of looks brings us to the Riya Sen controversy. She is quick to dismiss it as “unimportant”. “I am looking forward to better things in life. I want my directors to experiment and give me different roles. In fact, it has already started. My next film Anamika has me in a completely different role. No songs, no dances, just acting.”
So is it goodbye to the song-and-dance routine? “Definitely not. When all big actresses are dying to do item numbers, am I mad to let them go when they come so easily to me?” she chuckles.
She also grew up in Kolkata, but unlike the other Bengali bombshell, Riya comes with the advantage of a solid pedigree. She is the granddaughter of legendary Bengali film actress Suchitra Sen and daughter of Moon Moon Sen. “And it isn’t just filmi, I also have a royal background. My father belongs to the royal family of Tripura,” she adds.
“Now that is quite a lethal combination, isn’t it?” No wonder then, the Barbie doll-like Riya says she takes films as just another profession and nothing more.
“It isn’t like a life and death situation for me and I really won’t kill to remain here or get films. And neither would there be a change in my lifestyle or status if I didn’t do films. People just generally recognise our family and that will remain unchanged,” she asserts.
So is Riya content to rest on her family’s laurels? “Definitely not. All that I mean is that showbiz is not the be-all and end-all for me. Though I am well aware of my background, I don’t flaunt it. I never got a star daughter break in the industry and neither will I ever resort to cheap gimmicks to stay on,” she states firmly.
But she hasn’t really been away from controversies, right? Like the, er, “hot” MMS tape with actor Ashmit Patel or the more recent, much reported catfight between her and Koena on the sets of Apna Sapna Money Money.
“Oh please, I don’t know why people talk of Ashmit. I haven’t spoken either with him or about him for two years. But some or the other weird report keeps coming out. I don’t wish to speak about the issue,” she pouts.
As for the Koena story, Riya dismisses it as “ridiculous” and the people associated with it as “irrelevant.” She would rather talk about other aspects of Apna Sapna Money Money – like her completely new avatar in the film. Riya feels it gave her a whole new look.
“Quite opposite to the sexy image that I have, Subhashji (Ghai) presented me covered from head to toe, in full sleeve salwar kameezes. It was a risk but the audience loved it. Moreover, the film concentrated on my acting and everybody appreciated it. Even my biggest critic, my mom, loved me in the film,” she says.
So is she making a conscious effort to move away from her glamorous image? “No, I wouldn’t say that. Of course I want to do good films and good acting but I am not uncomfortable with my sexy image. Though I won’t deny that earlier I did feel a little stifled. But it was my sister who showed me the brighter side.
"She told me that I was naturally glamorous and sexy. Good looks are in my genes. I have this baby doll image and she said I should cash in on it rather than sulk about it. So I took her advice,” she laughs.
Having started acting with her mother at the age of six and done her first music video at 16, Riya feels she began too young and got cast into a specific mould. Now, after having “cashed in on” on her ‘babe’ image, she is all set to break the mould.
“Earlier, after each film or video, people would tell me, ‘you looked good’. Now after Apna Sapna Money Money, everybody said, ‘you acted well’. And that is how it’s going to be now,” she promises.
Is she as different from sister Raima in real life as they are in reel life? “On the contrary, we are like Siamese twins, we walk, talk, behave and mostly dress alike too. I guess it is just the kind of films that each of us got that shaped our contradictory images. I am sure if I had a Daman or a Chokher Bali to my name, people would have taken me seriously as an actress.”
Who had a facelift?
The two Bengali babes hit the headlines recently for their alleged catfight during the shooting of Apna Sapna Money Money. Both apparently accused each other of having had a face lift or some sort of cosmetic procedure.
While Koena says she was misquoted, Riya says, “I don’t want to talk about it and give it any credence.”
According to Koena, “Yes, there were some strange reports, but it was all media-created. Or maybe it was the work of people who have no other work and want publicity. And to think of it, this gossip started after we had finished shooting for the film,” she retorts.
So, is she on good terms with Riya? “Of course we are. We don’t meet often and neither do we have the same group of friends but we were always very polite on the sets.
"We would often sit and have lunch together. I won’t deny that controversies do change relationships but I am sure there isn’t any misunderstanding with her,” asserts Koena. Why didn’t she clarify her stand? “I didn’t wish to. I couldn’t take the risk of being misquoted again,” she says.
As for Riya, she claims to be equally at sea about the controversy. “I think it was some people’s way of cashing in on my celebrity status,” she says. “I maintained my silence all through on this issue.”
But wouldn’t it have been better to clarify the misunderstanding? “What’s the need? And there are no misunderstandings. I just don’t wish to retaliate. In this industry, if you are known, a thousand people try to pull you down.”
As a matter of interest, both Koena and Riya claim they are too young and beautiful to need any kind of cosmetic procedure.