Malaika Arora Khan, the dancing queen
An hour and she hasn’t touched the salad bowl! You’d expect Bollywood’s enduring pin-up and item queen to be a tad high maintenance. But she isn’t. Not entirely. It’s 5 pm and Malaika Arora Khan, endlessly leggy in a mini romper, high ponytail and beige wedges, is relaxing a five-star Mumbai hotel café.
A week earlier, out at an event, she was rocking a buttercup yellow peplum tube top with cobalt blue pants. Just days before, she was a ravishing desi girl in a Laila Motwane lehenga. But it’s unlikely you’ll catch her in such diva-esque avatars when she’s dropping off her son to a birthday party like she was today. Mommy duty done, Malaika gets down to ordering a sandwich: smoked chicken with multigrain bread. After it arrives, there is a brief examination of the bread, which is eventually dumped. Peeling open the sandwich – “Sorry, I’m using my hands” – she picks out the chicken and occasionally dips a chip into coleslaw. “I’ve this slight OCD thing about food. You’re not sure where things are coming from.”
Malaika herself comes from a solid background in dance. She’s been “dancing since the age of four”, learning ballet from Mumbai’s legendary Firoza Lali, and later Bharatnatyam. Her mother, she says, would have loved her to continue with a career in ballet, which would have involved going to Russia and working with a company. But by the 1990s, MTV landed in India and signed her on, modelling assignments with photographers like Farrokh Chothia and the late Prabuddha Dasgupta came her way as did her first music video (for Bally Sagoo’s Gur Naal Ishq Mitha). None of this was part of the dream. Of the Arora siblings, younger sister Amrita was always the one who was interested in films and “cut out for it”, Malaika says.
Train to fame Malaika’s career as a VJ and model was cruising smoothly when it got an unexpected jolt – a jig with Shah Rukh Khan on top of a (moving!) train in Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se, when she was only 22. Chaiyya Chaiyya was a luminous precursor to what would become de rigueur a decade later – the item song that threatened to eclipse the entire movie. “Malaika was my discovery,” says Farah Khan, who choreographed the song. “Mickey Contractor recommended her. We were petrified that she couldn’t pull it off. But her body language blew me away. She has always had the ability to look sexy without being vulgar.” Today, 14 years later, Malaika recalls the six-day shoot.
“It was draining and tiring. We had to go back and forth on the same stretch of track. Our ankles were strapped for safety; I was shackled and bruised! After a point, I told them to take it off; I’d rather fall than dance hanging upside down from the train!” Chaiyya Chaiyya got her instant nationwide acceptance and gave Bollywood an unusual gift: someone who looked like a million bucks, danced like a dream and astonishingly, had no interest in an acting career. “Acting has never excited me,” Malaika admits.
The ‘item girl’ career, on the other hand, suited her perfectly. She wasn’t required to be on set for four months at a stretch. And she didn’t need an entourage. “Even when I was modelling, I never had a mom sitting on my head and a bunch of people waiting on me. I’ve always been independent. I’ll do my thing and go.” Designer and friend Wendell Rodricks, whose biography Green Room features a smouldering Malaika on the cover, recalls the impact of Chaiyya Chaiyya. “It pulled the rug from under our feet,” he says. “Here she was, almost unknown, on a train gyrating like she was on terra firma. Through tunnels and hillsides, climbs and descents, she held up fabulously, against Shah Rukh.” Not that he expected otherwise. “Malaika is a natural flirt. She works a camera like no one else I know. As a model on ramp, she can reduce a seven-foot-tall diva to a pygmy. It is in her DNA. I jive with her and the room stops to look. She knows poise, rhythm and movement better than anyone I know.”
Surely being termed an item girl must feel strange, tawdry even?
Malaika detangles another piece of chicken from the banished bread (that salad long forgotten) and shrugs. “I don’t wake up every morning thinking about it. The tag is something that the media has given me. People tend to give it a lot of connotations, sometimes a little derogatory. I’ve always thought of what I do as a special song, something that brings a different flavour to the film. At the end of t
he day, you’re looking great, dancing to really upbeat number, wearing great clothes and all the attention is on you. Who wouldn’t want that? It’s a huge compliment when people tell me they go to a film because of my song.”
Home, and family, is her rock. “A lot of my confidence comes from Arbaaz,” she says of the man she married at 23. “He’s very chilled out, but you have to know what your limits are. He never breathes down my neck.” And in return, Malaika breathes down no one’s neck at work. No fuss. No tantrums, say the people who work with her.
Karan Johar, her Kaal producer, and co-judge on reality show India’s Got Talent is full of praise. “She is a through professional; ready on the dot as we set to roll. It is fun working with her. She comes with a different outlook on talent and is candid in her comments. As a director, I look at the overall performance, Malaika on the other hand looks at the most minute details. It makes the environment fun.” Sole sisters Malaika’ rise in the industry is paralleled and partnered by that of Farah Khan who’s choreographed almost all of her hit songs – including Chaiyya Chaiyya, Munni and Anarkali. The filmmaker is dismissive of the hoopla over item girls.
“Malaika is like Helen. She’s not an actress. But she’s an accomplished dancer. She is extremely uninhibited. We share a trust; she knows I won’t present her in an unflattering light.” And with trust is also a solid work ethic for both the choreographer and her graceful muse. “Spontaneity is nonsense; it just means you’re disorganised,” says Farah. Malaika doesn’t like to spend countless days rehearsing. “Most songs today take average of five days to shoot. We rehearse on an average of three to four days for one song. Once I get a feel of the song – whether it’s rustic, clubby, jazzy – I get into makeup and costume, you’re good to go.”
The queen’s regime Even as she wraps up her evening snack, conversation naturally veers around to her fabulous figure – it hasn’t changed much since she got on top of that train all those years ago, despite a baby. It can’t be easy. “I try and work out as much as I can. When I’m working or travelling, it’s tough, but when I’m at home that time and space is sacred. I do yoga every day. I have a simple mantra: eat right and work out; you’ll never have a weight issue. I never starve or binge. No smoking or drinking. I never say no to any food.” Her trainer Zareen Watson says Malaika is genetically blessed with great metabolism.
“She’s what I call a sensible eater.” Malaika, however confesses to love cooking. “My biggest high when visiting a new place is trying out the local cuisine. But I don’t eat rubbish, no junk food like pizzas and burgers. Even if I occasionally have dessert or wine, I go sweat it out.” Judging by her precise division of that sandwich, you’d have difficulty imagining her as the easy eater. She presses her cause further. “I have to have rice every day. I’m a sucker for South Indian food. Anything hot and spicy is right up my alley, the hotter and spicier, the better. I love biryanis! Why do you think I married Arbaaz?”
Now that Anarkali has bloomed all over the airwaves, Malaika plans to take the next few months easy. “I’d love to a full-out dance song, with hip hop. Or a Broadway musical, like Chicago.” And there’s no doubt she’d nail it too. Jhalak Dikhla Ja choreographer Shampa Sonthalia says she’d love to choreograph a jazz routine for Malaika. “She’d kill it!” Until that happens, the item queen’s playing it cool.
Moves like Farah: Most of Malaika’s dances have been choreographed by Farah Khan, from Chaiyya Chaiyya to Munni Badnam.
Sexiest women: “Jennifer Lopez, Deepika Padukone, Sharon Stone, Helen aunty and Kareena Kapoor”.
This story appeared in the Brunch Quarterly, the new lifestyle magazine from Hindustan Times. Out on stands now.
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