You can’t get luckier than Asin and Anushka who made their Hindi film debuts with two of the industry’s biggest superstars. Twin encounters...by
'It was nice to have people react to me as an unknown person'
The first thing I learn about actress Asin is that her name is pronounced Aa-sin and not A-seen. “It means without sin. It is a fusion of Sanskrit and English and truly represents modern India,” says the young star of Tamil and Telugu films who has made quite a debut in Hindi films with Ghajini. This brings me to the second thing I learn about the 23 year old – the Aamir Khan starrer might have been her first Hindi film, but it’s the eighteenth of her career.
Born and raised in Kochi, Kerala, Asin Thottumkal began modelling when she was just 14. Almost 50 ads later, films were a natural progression. She made her debut in a Malayalam film Narendaran Makan when she was 16. Since then she has co-starred opposite some of the biggest names of Southern cinema including Kamal Haasan, Venkatesh, Nagarjuna, Surya and Vikram. Which brings me to the third thing I learn about Asin: still a student when she began acting, the BA in English Literature got by with attending college for only seven days in the first year, and four days in the second year.
So when Asin describes herself as “god’s favourite child”, you are almost compelled to accept the cliché. “The shift to Bollywood was not a conscious move. I played the part of Kalpana in the original Tamil version of Ghajini and was asked to reprise the role in the Hindi film by director Murugadoss. It was a dream project for a launch,” says Asin. On the film being a blockbuster hit, Asin says, “I don’t feel any different. I am happy the film has done well and that the team’s efforts have been fruitful.”
Ask her how it feels to be a big star in the South, but comparably less recognised in the North, and she replies, “It was exciting. Coming to Mumbai was an opportunity to start afresh and it was nice to have people react to me as an unknown person. I enjoyed the anonymity. But now people do recognise me. Even if they cannot recall my name they say ‘there’s the Ghajini girl’.”
While there are things she loves about her new home, there are elements she is unable to adjust to. “I love Mumbai’s liveliness and pot pourri of cultures. On the negative side, pollution gets to me – whether it is smell, smoke or congestion,” she says.
She’s as happy with roles that require her to dance around trees as performance-oriented roles. The self-taught actress comes from a family of academicians. Her father was a businessman who has now dedicated himself to managing Asin’s career and her mother has retired from medical practice to manage their home – whether in Kochi, Chennai or Mumbai. “I am an only child, but not a spoilt brat. My parents have been completely supportive. Only after my fifth film did I decide to take acting up as a career.”
In an incredibly competitive industry, often defined by camps, lineage and nepotism, Asin is working with top stars on highly coveted projects. (Currently, she’s shooting for Vipul Shah’s London Dreams opposite Salman Khan and Ajay Devgan). Surprisingly, she claims not to have encountered any egos or camps. “People have been very supportive and good to work with. It has been fabulous working with Aamir, Salman and Ajay.”
Now that’s an understatement.
'Shah Rukh Khan is a great actor and conducts himself well'
As Anushka Sharma walks into the lounge at Yash Raj Studios, I am struck by how tall, thin and young she is. We meet a month after the release of her debut film Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. As she begins to speak, I realise that she is a surprisingly level-headed 20 year old, quite unlike her character, Taaniji.
After more than a dozen years in Bangalore, Anushka moved to Mumbai in 2007 to further her already-successful modelling career. Mummy Sharma came too while Papa Sharma continues to serve in the Indian army, posted in Rajasthan. “I am very close to my parents and my brother. In fact, on a recent visit to Rajasthan, my parents were saying ‘now that you have gone, we have nothing to talk about’. We share everything and, for the last year, everything has revolved around me and Rab Ne…” says Anushka who is pursuing an economics / sociology degree via correspondence.
She has been staying in army accommodation in Mumbai’s suburb of Malad for the last 18 months but has had little opportunity to acquaint herself with the city. “Even before I settled in I was swished into this film. I was so busy that I did not have time to get to know Mumbai. Also, if you are not going to college, then where do you meet people?” she says. While modelling was her passion, her interest has shifted towards acting now. “The best part of acting was facing the camera,” she explains. “Even though film is a director’s vision, an actor has enough scope to contribute.”
Rab Ne… is considered a hit film and has provided a much needed boost to Yash Raj Films. Anushka has another two films with them “but the contract allows me the scope to consider outside films if I get a good project – something that would build me as an actress,” she says.
A debut film with Shah Rukh Khan as a co-star, Aditya Chopra as director and Yash Raj as a banner would be any newcomer’s dream, but not Anushka’s. “It would be a dream debut if you dreamt about doing a film. I had no such dream. I was modelling and enjoying it. I was 18 when I came to Mumbai and had no idea what lay ahead. At first I asked my agency not to send my pictures for film roles, but then I realised I was being childish and decided to keep an open mind.”
However, she recently experienced the results of celebrity when her family was driving to Rajasthan. “We stopped in small towns but I could not get out and eat at the dhabas. This is something I have lost, and I am only one film old. It was sad that my family had to eat in the car because of me,” she says, a little ruefully.
Anushka was only seven when Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge released. Twelve years later she plays leading lady to Shah Rukh Khan. “He is a great actor and conducts himself well. He has the reputation of being a good guy. I was so happy working with him.” Ask her how it felt to be reviewed by audiences and critics and she says, “It felt strange that everything about me was being judged. Models don’t get judged like that.
Fortunately many of those who had reservations about the film appreciated me. I had been warned about the scrutiny
and when it happened, I felt like a newlywed bride being quizzed by relatives at a mooh dikhai. It has prepared me for my wedding!”