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November 22, 2000

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    Pooja Batra Not that she lets 'little' matters like her height get to her. Because, for her, the height issue is passe.

    And because she is here to act. Make no mistake.

    She'd jump at the chance to work with Mani Ratnam, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shyam Benegal and Priyadarshan.

    And Salman Khan, according to her, is "a complete gentleman."

    Sukanya Verma met up with the actress with the mile-wide smile to learn some more home truths. Excerpts:

    Even after hits like Virasat and Bhai, you refrained from going on a film-signing spree. Why?

    I agree that's the norm. But I will not agree to working in a film unless it excites me. I have refused some very good ones. But I refuse to have any regrets.

    For instance?

    I really can't say. Those films went on to become big hits. But at that moment, I didn't like them. *laughs*

    Why the long gap between Kahin Pyaar Na Ho Jaye and Haseena Maan Jayegi?

    Well, offers did come my way, but I didn't want to do those films. I wasn't interested. I thought it was better to sit at home and chill out rather than doing bad films.

    I did jump at the offers I was receiving down South with good directors. I accepted them -- I wanted the experience.

    And the films that I did work in turned out well. I've been lucky that way.

    Tell us about your experiences down South.

    Pooja Batra It was great. I did one film in Tamil with Sarath Kumar, one in Telugu with Dasari Narayana Rao and two films in Malayalam.

    Recently, I had a guest appearance in Rajeev Menon's Kandukondain Kandukondain.

    It's not like I planned a career down South. I just felt like doing what felt right. I didn't feel like accepting a Hindi film offer with a bad director or a poor script.

    I got an enthusiastic response down South. That's encouraging. So I will continue doing films there.

    Salman Khan is known to be a difficult actor to work with. Did you feel so at any point during the making of Kahin Pyaar Na Ho Jaaye?

    I think he is very sweet person and a thorough professional. He never threw attitude at me.

    And he is a complete gentleman as far as ladies are concerned.

    I know people say nasty things about him, but I don't have any reason to believe any of them are true.

    How was it shooting for Kahin Pyaar Na Ho Jaaye?

    You won't believe this but throughout the making of the film, we never thought we were shooting. It was like, "Let's try this in another take," "Let's see if we can do this differently."

    Pooja Batra We'd finish the shot, but we would still be experimenting.

    And the director would yell, "Stop! I got my take." *laughs*

    What made you accept Kahin Pyaar Na Ho Jaaye?

    Well, it is something like Veronica's character from Archie comics.

    She is a buddhu (dumb) girl, who pretends to be smart and can handle every situation.

    Basically, it's about a girl who is staying in Bombay and trying her best to enter films. She keeps going for a Yash Chopra and Subhash Ghai screen test, only to keep failing.

    But she is convinced she'll make it big. She is also a bit like Phoebe in the TV sitcom Friends. She's in her own world.

    The film covers the relationships between six people -- Rani (Mukherji), Salman (Khan), Jackie (Shroff), Kashmira Shah, Mohnish Behl and myself.

    It's about how we help the people who are important to us, in their times of need.

    It was completed in less than a year, which is quite a feat since the film has such a huge star cast.

    Why haven't you worked in more single-heroine films?

    Pooja Batra Those that came my way were too female-oriented. I didn't want to do those kinds of roles.

    I don't believe in distinguishing between single-heroine films or those that have more than one female protagonist.

    Basically, everyone's here to act.

    What is the point in playing a lead role in a three-hour that has nothing more substantial to offer than wearing makeup and dancing around?

    I'd rather do something that is meaningful even if it were a five-minute appearance. What matters is that I am remembered after the film is over.

    Do you regret any career moves?

    Yes. Lots of them.

    But I'm not the kind to talk about them. I'd rather let bygones be bygones.

    Your height! Has it been an impediment to your career?

    No, not really. I have a worked with a lot of people. I am acting with Chi Chi (Govinda) again, in Yahoo. I am working with Salman, too. They're considered short...

    Now, the height issue is passť. Whenever somebody asks me this, I always tell them that all I have to do is not wear heels and go on the sets.

    The other heroines who are about 5' 5 have to wear three-four-inch block heels. I am saved the expenditure of these shoes. *grins*

    There was always Sunil Shetty, Jackie Shroff and Sanjay Dutt who are taller than I am. Now there is a flood of tall men with Hrithik Roshan and Abhishek Bachchan.

    Which directors would you like to work with?

    Well, Mani Ratnam, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shyam Benegal and Priyadarshan.

    Would you have any qualms about approaching them for a role?

    If I think the role is worth it and the director is someone I hold in high regard, I have no hassles.

    Why let ego come in the way of work?

    Which are the films are you looking forward to working on?

    I am excited about Dil Ne Phir Yaad Kiya, which will release later this year. It is a dilemma between a married wife and a woman who covets her husband. The wife thinks her husband is having an affair with this other girl. How she gets him back forms the crux of the film.

    I play the wife and Tabu is the other girl. It's an interesting film with good songs.

    And it is the second time I am working with Tabu. I really respect her for her work.

    Also, I have a cameo appearance in Rahul Rawail's Kuch Khatti Kuch Meethi, with Kajol and Sunil Shetty. I think it should be released by January.

    Your forthcoming film, Khajuraho is the topic of much discussion. What is your role in the film?

    Pooja Batra All I know is that Khajuraho is about women who have been brought up in an entirely different atmosphere.

    I play a girl born and brought up abroad and married to a foreigner. She comes to India to see the country and the changes within her form the backbone of my role.

    I can't say much until I start shooting for the film, which will be around the end of January.

    Is it true that you are slated to play Priyanka Gandhi in a film?

    My character was on the lines of the real character of Priyanka, where they gave her character as a reference.

    The film, Midnight Princess, is an international project. But it will not be released here. I had also worked on a film with Gopi Desai for NFDC earlier, which was an Indo-Canadian venture that didn't release here.

    Is there any particular role you would like to play?

    There are many roles close to my heart. I'd like to portray some of the characters played by Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi and Madhuri Dixit.

    You were Miss India-International a few years ago. How, in your opinion, has the beauty pageant scene changed?

    There have definitely been many changes! When I participated in the Miss India pageant, it wasn't really carried out at a professional level.

    For instance, we weren't trained nor were our clothes sponsored, our gums and smiles weren't done. *smiles*

    We were completely on our own.

    I remember Namrata Shirodkar, Karminder Kaur and I won the Femina Miss India crowns in 1995. I had gone to Japan for the Miss International Pageant where I was in Tokyo for a month. There were 75 contestants and I stood among the first 12.

    Changes have happened in Femina Miss India Contest since. So Sush (Sushmita Sen), Ash (Aishwarya Rai) everybody got the required training since although Namrata, Karminder and I did well in our respective pageants, we did not do well enough. And the training did pay off eventually! *smiles*

    How would you describe the transition from a carefree Pune girl to an independent woman in Bombay?

    It has been an experience. It has meant a lot of hard work and I have gained a lot of confidence. I couldn't have done any of it without the support of my family.

    You know, I would commute from Pune to Bombay to do fashion shows, because the money was better here. I would stay with Lubna Adam, the model-turned-choreographer. Those were tiring, but memorable, years.

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