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|September 15, 1999||
Pyar to hona hi tha
As it happened, he flung it dangerously close to co-star Shalini, close enough to inflict a skin wound. Ajit panicked. But Shalini, throughout, remained calm. Ajit was to say later it was this cool, composed manner of hers that first attracted him to her, made him take notice of her.
Shalini's father Babu said later that it was a good omen -- though one wonders whether too many romances have begun with one party throwing a knife at another and drawing blood, albeit accidentally.
Then again, these are not ordinary people we are talking about here. Take, first, Shalini, object of Ajit's undisguised adoration. It was director Fazil who discovered her, from several hundred aspirants, and cast her in his Ente Mammattikuttiammakku.
The film centred around a couple who, in a tragic boat accident, lose their only child. They decide to adopt, and Shalini -- then an elfin, endearing child of around three years -- thus enters the household and soon becomes its pivot. The story takes a twist when the child's original parents, who had abandoned her due to adverse economic circumstances and who are now doing well, return to claim the child.
The film, riding largely on a brilliant performance by Shalini as the child, became a superhit. And Malayalam cinema witnessed a new trend -- of stories being written specifically with the precocious child star in mind.
Movie-makers who worked with Shalini, the child star, say the most startling aspect about the tyke was that even at that young age, she appeared to have a near-perfect grasp of camera angles, and was not above marching up to the cameraman on the sets and suggesting he should shoot her in a particular fashion.
Around that time, manufacturers of school notebooks found a good ploy to market their wares -- they adorned book covers with stills of the child star, from her movies. Suddenly, it was as if school kids in Kerala couldn't get through notebooks fast enough.
Then came the hibernation, as Shalini outgrew the child star status. An interest in academics carried her through this period. She did her schooling at the Presentation Convent, Church Park, in Madras, then went on to college with commerce as her subject and wanted to do an MCA in computers as her ultimate goal.
'I didn't want to do the usual correspondence courses,' she had said at the time. 'I didn't see any reason to miss out on all the fun of college life.'
During this period, it was kid sister Shyamalee who stole the limelight when, following her debut in the Mani Rathnam film Anjali, she rapidly rose to be the premiere child star in the business. Brother Robert, an older version of Shyamalee, does some modelling.
Shalini returned to the limelight through her participation, some three years ago, in the Miss Madras contest. Though she made the shortlist of 10, the highest honour eluded her.
However, it marked her return to greasepaint. Fazil, the director who had discovered her as a child star, now signed on the grown-up Shalini for the starring role in Aniyathi Pravu, opposite the rising young star, Kunchako Boban.
Fazil then remade the film in Tamil, as Kaadhalukku Mariyadhai -- this time pairing her opposite Vijay -- and came up with another bumper hit. Interestingly, Priyadarshan directed the Hindi version of the film, Doli Sajake Rakhna, starring Nagma's sister Jyotika and Akshaye Khanna, but it bombed at the box office.
Shalini then went on to build on her growing reputation with a good performance in Kali Oonjal where she played Mammootty's kid sister. This, in turn, led Mani Rathnam to sign her on for the under-production Alai Paayudhe opposite Bombay-based television star Madhavan (of Ghar Jamai fame).
Her successes turned her into a big star. "Fan mail comes by the hundreds, from both Kerala and Tamil Nadu," says Shalini, who is based in Madras. "Some of them talk of my performances, and that is interesting, sometimes you learn things from these mails. But a lot of them are love letters, and I find those very unsettling."
And then came Amarkalam shooting for which began in January this year. It was here that she met, and fell for her co-star Ajit.
"In June sometime, he told me he loved me and wanted to marry me," she recalls. "I wasn't shocked or anything, I guess I'd realised by then, I had nice feelings towards him in my own mind. But I've always been a daddy's girl, so I asked him to talk to my parents. Before he could come home, though, I told my parents about him and they were very happy for me. Then the two sets of parents met, and fixed it all up."
A smiling Ajit adds, "I guess she must have felt something for me. Because when I went to her home to talk to her parents about us, I found she had already done all the spadework."
Unlike his lady love, Ajit himself had an unremarkable entry into showbiz, debuting in the eminently forgettable Telugu film, Premapusthakam, Then came the Tamil film Amaravati, an average grosser which, however, brought him some modelling assignments.
The second in a family of three brothers, (his mother is Sindhi, father a Malayali), Ajit was the odd one out. So while his brothers concentrated on academics, Ajit's turn-on was motorbikes, his dream to become a star of the race tracks.
That dream, however, was shattered when, while practising at the Sholavaram race track outside Madras, he was involved in an accident that left him with a broken vertebra, among other problems. "I lost all sensation in my legs, that was incredibly frightening," recalls Ajit.
Then followed a long period of surgery and physical rehabilitation. Devout to the core, Ajit embarked on a pilgrimage to Tirupati, walking the many hundreds of miles from his home in Madras to the shrine in Tirupati as part of a vow.
Once he regained his mobility, Ajit went on to play a small role in the Suresh Menon production Paasa Malargal where the star cast was headed by Arvind Swamy and Menon's wife, Revathi. Then came the role of a terminally ill youngster in Pavithra followed by his first real break in the Mani Rathnam production Aasai directed by Vasanth.
After that came Kaadhal Kottai the Ahathiyan-directed film -- co-starring him with Devyani and Heera Rajagopal -- which won the National Award for best Tamil film.
This period also saw the escalation of a romance with Heera which, to put it mildly, turned out to be turbulent.
Just when it looked as though Ajit would take the top slot, he virtually abdicated. For starters, he turned down -- for undisclosed reasons -- the lead role in Mani Rathnam's next production, Nerukku Ner. The role was grabbed by Vijay, and the film turned out to be a big grosser.
From then on, there was no looking back for Vijay. And for Ajit, it seemed, there was no looking forward, as he stumbled from one flop to another. There was, Kalloori Vaasal co-starring Prashanth and Pooja Bhatt. There was Kaadhal Mannan and Ullasam ABCL's first and, as it turned out, only foray into Tamil films, co-starring him with Sridevi's cousin Maheswari with the J D and Jerry team directing.
The films didn't do well at the box office. It did worse for Ajit himself, as all the dancing and fighting involved in their making, caused problems for his back again, and led to a further round of corrective surgery in the US.
During this period, his romance with Heera also went bust, and Ajit was as low as it was possible to get.
Then, just when he least expected it, came the turnaround. Initially, his comeback films -- Thorarum co-starring Devyani and Heera (a repeat of the Kaadhal Kottai team) and Uyire Unakkaga directed by Sushma -- flopped.
But then came Unnai Thedi, with director Sundar C, which proved to be a big hit, followed by Unnidathil Ennai Koduthen (where Ajit played second lead to Karthik), and the Raj Kapoor-directed Aanandha Poonkatre co-starring Meena and Maalavika.
Fortune began to smile -- if only tentatively -- again. And then, earlier this year, came Vaalee a film directed by debutante Surya, co-starring Simran.
The film was about two brothers -- both intelligent, good looking, capable scions and heirs of a business empire. With one essential difference: one brother was born dumb. Both fall for the same girl and the dumb one loses out, as he has always lost out in all important matters, to his younger sibling.
"I didn't curse God when I learnt I was born dumb," the character was to write, in a memorable scene. "But when I learnt that I had lost the girl I wanted to my brother, that was when I began hating God."
That film saw a brilliant performance by Ajit, in the role of the dumb brother who sets out to attain his sister-in-law at all costs. The film turned out to be a blockbuster, and Ajit had finally arrived -- again.
That performance saw him land a role in Kandukonden Kandukonden, the under-production Rajiv Menon film with Mammootty heading the star-cast. His co-star is Tabu while Abbas and Aishwarya Rai make the other lead pair.
Good friend Sharan, meanwhile, offered him the role of a tapori in Amarkalam opposite Shalini. Shooting began -- and the rest is the stuff romantic novels are made of.
"My state of mind, for quite a while, has been unsettled," says Ajit. "There was the problem with my back, the break-up of my earlier relationship, my films were flopping... I was very unsettled. My life has been a bit like a river -- starting small, tumbling over rocks, finally growing as it nears the plains, all the time searching for a peaceful end in the big ocean..."
That mindset was what attracted him to Shalini in the first place. As he puts it, "She is only 20, but she has this aura of calm composure. On the sets, she is quiet, very hardworking, very respectful to her seniors... and with all that, she has this very endearing smile..."
Ajit fell. Hard. "I'd marry her tomorrow, if I could, but she wants to finish her commitments (another film with Fazil for one, a star-show in Dubai in December, with Mammootty and Mohanlal, for another) first, so we'll wait till the end of the year," he says.
Ajit is clear he doesn't want Shalini to continue in movies after marriage. Not for any chauvinistic reasons, he quickly adds, but because both of them want to have several kids, and he wants his wife to take care of their upbringing, rather than entrusting it to nannies while she went off on shoots.
Shalini is not complaining either -- a husband and family, for her, takes precedence over acting. "It is not like I wanted to be a star, or that movies are a big dream," she explains. "I'd rather continue my studies, marry Ajit, have children, watch them grow up..."
Ajit, meanwhile, is aware his life is about to change again. "A friend once showed me a poem," he recalls. "In it, the girl is described, by a friend, as beautiful. She replies, 'I am not beautiful -- it is my lover's vision of me that is beautiful.' I think I am like that. I am not personally a very good or handsome or wonderful guy, but Shalini's vision of me is. And from now on, I am going to be the Ajit that Shalini visualises -- a calm, composed human being at peace with himself and his world.'
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