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November 12, 1999

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'I am a smart girl'

Nethra Raghuraman: Can the Supermodel click on the Big Screen? Nethra Raghuraman first made waves when she won the Femina Look of the Year title in 1997. The earthy damsel now plans to make a sudden impact on Bollywood with her sensuous debut in Govind Nihalani's Thakshak. Nethra will follow that song and dance routine with the lead performance in adfilm-maker Mahesh Mathai's debut feature, Bhopal Express.

The supermodel discusses her chances at the turnstiles with Sukanya Verma.

How did you get into modeling?

Modeling started with the Look of the Year, which I won in 1997. Before that I was in Baroda, in college, studying.

I was born with this height (she is 5 feet, 9 inches tall) which gave me a lot of trouble in school. I was trying to make use of this height and the only thing I could come up with was modeling. I saw this ad which was looking for models. I decided to give it a shot. I called them up, went for an audition and the moment I walked in I knew I would get through. And I did, for which my dad almost threw me out of the house. One more show, he said, and he would kick me out. And what do you know? Another show happened and I had to beg him for -- like months.

How did the Femina Look of the Year happen?

I applied for the heck of it. I was fascinated with the idea of coming to Bombay and knowing what Bombay was all about.

Nethra Raghuraman I applied and forgot about it. I was shocked when I got a preliminary call. I saw the girls in the contest and told my mom there was no chance of me getting through. I just did not feel fit for the contest. My family and I were supposed to go out of town. After I checked out the competition I was all the more keen to leave town. But destiny had other things in mind. Three days later I got a call saying I was in the top 14. And I was like 'Oh shit! Me in that contest with those girls.' But I was somehow convinced to go ahead with it.

What made you feel that those girls were better than you?

Let me put it this way: I am from Baroda. It may definitely be better than Coimbatore or Madras where one dresses in a pavada, (a kind of petticoat). At least I always dressed in jeans and T-shirts. My best formals would not even apply to my worst casuals today. I did not know the head and tail of make-up. I had never seen heels in my life, I saw heeled footwear for the first time in Bombay. Compared to what I was, those girls were bloody good. I was unnerved. After 42 days of torture -- considering we had to work out like maniacs and in spite of all the bitchiness, infighting and hardships -- I still won.

How did you cope with all the tension?

I think I just blanked out. (Laughs). You just take everything that comes to you one at a time. If your dresses are not up to mark, then I was like 'too bad, help me for this is what I have.' If they gave me the right outfit, great, if no too bad. After a point I just did not care. I just wanted to finish the contest and go home. On the day of the show I was so relieved and kept mumbling to myself, 'This is it.' Then I won and my first reaction was, 'I can't go home tomorrow.' After a few days, I went home, continued with my studies, completed my graduation. It was not all that bad. I do have nice memories.

What were your experiences after your won?

After you win, you have to go abroad, I went to Nice and Milan and worked for about a month. Initially, it was not happening because I was new to the country. Milan is not a place to work, it is very hard and dry. It is like they suck everything out of you and dump you. It is a tough place to be in, but it was good exposure for me. I was quite jittery initially as it was my first outing in an alien country. I mean if you leave your house and go to some boarding school and study, you still know what to expect. But here you don't even know what is happening. Then as time passes you learn to cope.

I have always taken everything in life as a learning experience. If you are a good person there is god and if there is god, he takes care of everything.

What were the results of the international competition?

Nethra Raghuraman I came in the top 40, which is no big deal by any account. People expected me to be in the top four. But there is no point in discussing post-mortems. Actually, the only thing on my mind was getting back home. I was not comfortable with the idea of being in an alien country. Can you believe I was in Nice and I hated every moment of it? I wasn't used to being fussed around, followed around and people commenting on me.

I was in Nice this year and I loved every moment of it. I was holding on to the lamp post and crying out aloud, "I don't wanna leave." (Laughs). I made a lot of friends, some of them whom I am still in touch with.

Before you entered the film industry, you were supposed to do a television serial called Cats with Madhu Sapre and Namrata Baruwa as your co-stars. What happened to it?

Doordarshan was producing the serial, and UTV kept us on hold for a year, I think. At the end of the year the three of us just completely diverted. The three of us were so much into modeling. I was also doing films, so it just did not seem to be happening. Unfortunately, the serial was hyped, before they even started shooting. They had the promotional pictures out, which was a wrong thing to do, because every day we used to get calls asking when is the serial starting?

After a point we just did not care and one by one, we all backed out of the project.

What attracted you to doing a serial?

Cats was a different concept. It did border on Charlie's Angels. Nafisa Joseph, Malini and Karminder Kaur are now doing the roles. They have shot the pilot, but the story has changed from what it was initially.

The concept was basically very strong and I have always agreed to do subjects which are conceptually strong. The money factor was also a major tempting point. (Smiles.)

How did you bag the role in Thakshak?

Cats was being publicised. A picture of the three of us popping out of a lorry appeared in a newspaper. It was an idiotic picture because we shot in haste and the discomfort was quite evident. I am surprised that that picture caught Govindji's eye. He saw my picture and tracked me down. Those days I had a pager. He paged me. Since I was out of town my friend left a message saying Govindji had called. I thought it was some joke and ignored it.

I was like Govindji calling me? It is like next to impossible. I got 3, 4 calls and I kept thinking it was a joke. Then I laid my hands on his mobile number and called him in the middle of the night. To my shock, his servant picked up the phone and said, "Saheb isn't at home." I was like 'Oh no, what have I done?' Then I mustered up some strength, called him and apologised for not calling back earlier. I met him, he told me the story and I was in.

What is your role in Thakshak like?

Nethra Raghuraman It is not a very extensive or well-defined role. It is the character of a club singer-cum-dancer.

She is not doing this to save an ailing mother or father or some crap like that. She does it because she is good at it. She is a singer, which is not looked upon as a good career. The character is that of a very headstrong girl who knows exactly what she wants. She is seeing Rahul Bose and when she realises the kind of guy he is, she backs out of the relationship. There is no dream sequence or running around trees. The love angle in the film is entirely between Tabu and Ajay Devgan.

With Tabu in the film, don't you think you will be sidelined?

I was least interested in films. I was happy modeling. I did not have any illusions about my acting prowess. I have two-and-a-half songs in the film, since one song has been edited out. It wasn't as if I was told that I am going to be the next diva of Hindi cinema. I was told right from the beginning that my role would be brief.

I have no false ideas about who this film revolves around. Because even when the hype began, I have been shouting my lungs out that, "It's not my film." I have told my mom not to blink while watching the film, because if you blink you will miss me.

My whole and soul in this film is Govindji. If someone else had approached me I would not even have thought of doing it. There are a few people in this industry that I greatly admire. Gulzarsaab, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani. I have loved Govindji's work; I have seen all his films. So when I got the chance to work with him, I did not think of anything else. I wasn't even expecting as much footage I have in the film.

I just admire him. He is a tremendous human being.

He hasn't projected me in the film as a sex object. I am not in the film doing any choli type songs. If at all there were steps that were crude, he would himself ask for a change.

Tabu, I have no scenes with. Devgan and I have two scenes and he is an amazing person. He was really helpful. I remember once I got stuck with my scene and I just wouldn't get it right. Govindji, being the perfectionist that he is, kept taking retakes, Ajay had to go somewhere that day, but he was so patient with me and constantly supportive of me. These things really help at times, you know. Rahul (Bose) was equally sweet.

Tell us about Mahesh Mathai's Bhopal Express.

Bhopal Express is about the Bhopal gas tragedy. The story completely revolves around that tragedy. It is a 24-hour story. I am opposite K K Menon who plays the main lead.

Nethra Raghuraman in Bhopal Express It is an out and out non-commercial film. It is not art, but it is not commercial either. It is a realistic film. I am sans make up throughout the film. I am clad in sarees and salwar kameezes. There is no aspect of glamour in my character. I am like that in reality also. I am a very simple and down to earth girl. I am happy that way. There were some really good scenes I had in the film which have been edited out in the version which will be shown in India. They will be retained in the foreign version.

What other films are you doing?

Nothing, apart from these two. I got offers for some arty films, which I just refused. There are some films in the pipeline, but nothing concrete yet.

Models can't actů What are your views on the cliché?

It's not that models can't act, it's actors who can or cannot act. Acting is putting yourself in one's place and enacting a reaction to the situation. You will not see a Twinkle Khanna act the way an Aishwarya Rai does or Aishwarya the way Sushmita Sen does. Everyone does it differently. Any human being on this earth can act, and we all do. When you lie to your mom what are you doing? Acting.

I think Pooja Batra, Aishwarya, are very good actresses. What happens is that if you are a model you get stereotyped into giving those stiff poses, so all you need to do when you enter films is loosen up. But everyone learns and grows up. Look at Aishwarya, people didn't think she could act and look at her now post-Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. She is the most happening actress around.

Had you not been in films what would you be pursuing today?

I was always good at studies. I might sound immodest, but I am a smart girl. I was doing industrial psychology in college and I graduated with honours. I topped my college. I would have most probably continued studying and ended up doing a Ph D.

Tell me about your background.

My family has nothing to do with films. We are Iyer Brahmins. My family is full of MBAs, doctors, engineers. People are like running and gunning after them for posts.

Everyone in my family is tops in their field. And there is me who doesn't understand computers. I understand the Internet, but that is it.

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