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February 15, 2000


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'I want to be an all-rounder'

Vasundhara Das She looks completely different from what she looks like on screen in Hey! Ram. For that matter, Vasundhara Das, 22, also looks very different from the schoolgirl I used to know, following her parents around to departmental stores or social gatherings.

"I am still plump, but nowhere like the way I used to be," says Vasundhara, lolling around in a sofa in her house in Malleswaram in Bangalore. "After I finished college, I went on diets, exercised like crazy and became very slim." Her mother Nirmala, home from work for an ever-increasing lunch break, watches her only child with a fond smile, reluctant to tear herself away from the daughter whose work keeps her out of Bangalore constantly now.

The young woman before me is an intelligent and warm person, poised on the brink of an exciting career in showbiz. Her first playback song, Shak-a-laka baby, composed by A R Rahman for the mega film Mudalvan, has made it to the top of the charts.

Her first movie, Hey! Ram, in which she co-stars with the great Kamal Haasan, will hit the screens across the country this week.

Yet, one gets glimpses of a young girl trying to come to terms with a life that has suddenly become very public and complex. Excerpts from Vasundhara's conversation with M D Riti.

. What was your experience of working with Kamal Haasan?

It was scary at first. I have not seen too many of his films, but I knew that he was reputed to be one of the finest actors in India. For the first 10 days, it was like a new world to me. He was very patient with me and gave me time to get comfortable with my role. On the first day, I just had to sleep. On the second day, I had to lip-synch for a song. Only later did he make me speak dialogues.

How do you like the fact that the Indian viewers' first introduction to you, courtesy the TV promos of Hey! Ram, are through some rather steamy scenes?

It is embarrassing that the first scene in your first film everyone sees is this big smooch. When people ask me about it, I just brush it off and make it seem like a big joke.

Did you know exactly what you were required to do in those scenes when Kamal offered you the role?

Vasundhara Das with Kamal Haasan in Hey! Ram He did tell me everything about the role right at the time of my screentest. He also told me that if I refused to do those scenes, he would find someone else to play the heroine as the steamy scenes are an important part of the story.

The first thing I did was call home and tell my parents everything he said. I asked them whether they would like to talk to him about this. Kamal himself had asked me to think over all the implications seriously before I accepted.

However, my family and I decided that this was a good opportunity for me to start a singing career through acting in a film. Being in the entertainment business was what I had always wanted to do. We also decided we could trust Kamal to do those scenes aesthetically. We put our faith in him and were not disappointed. He handled it very well, very professionally. I put everything in perspective in my own mind, so I was fine.

But as a young woman from a conservative family, and not being a seasoned performer, did you find it awkward or difficult to do those scenes?

It did feel funny to be in such a position. But like I said, I had psyched myself into it, by telling myself repeatedly that it was just another day's work that had to be done for the film to move on and my career to get ahead. It had to be done. And since it was handled well, that was okay.

Did Kamal tell you what he saw in you or why he chose you for the film?

When he hired me, the rest of the cast was finalised. He was looking for someone who looked a little like Hema Malini, who plays the heroine's mother in the film. He wanted someone with an Iyengar nose, with the front lobe a little lower than the nostrils, as mine is. He also agreed rather sheepishly later that my eyes were the same colour as his daughter's, and that made him feel warm towards me.

Did he want someone very young too? You look much younger than him on screen...

Yes, that is in the story too -- that I have to be much younger than him.

When did Shak-a-laka baby happen?

Vasundhara Das Almost a month after the shooting got over. Doing that song was the break I had waited for a long time. I desperately wanted A R Rahman to call me to do a song, but I knew that one has to be patient at such times and wait for things to happen.

He called me for a trial, and said that if it didn't work out the way he wanted, I would just have to turn back and go home. I was a little scared myself, because I did not know whether I would be able to handle Tamil lyrics. But there were so many people to help me out with all that. It turned out to be a great beginning in playback singing.

After Shak-a-laka baby and Hey! Ram, what next?

I did another song called Pathikichi for A R Rahman after that, for the film Rhythm. It is a melodious number, with much more singing involved. I am quite happy with my performance in that song. The film is yet to be released.

I am putting acting on hold till my work on the new album I am doing for Magnasound is over. That should be done by April. By then, Hey! Ram would have run for a while, and I would be able to see how I look and sound in the film.

Meanwhile, I gather you are doing other kinds of showbiz work, such as compering and performing in shows...

Vasundhara Das Yes, the one thing I like about the entertainment business is that it allows you to be versatile. You can be a singer, a dancer, an actress, whatever. I want to be an all-rounder in showbiz for a while. I decided on all this only after the film, because till then, I did not think I could do any of this. I am now discovering myself, trying to find out what I can do well.

So, do you want to be a singer first, or an actress, or both?

Right now, I am hoping that I can do both because of the fantastic breaks that I have got in acting and singing. I want both careers to develop together. Ideally, I would like to sing my own songs in the films I act in, and also bring out music albums. I want the music career to be a long-term one, because the acting career may not be so.

Music will be my first priority now, and acting my second. At this stage, both are merging well.

Don't you plan to try modelling as a third career option?

Modelling could be relaxing and fun, because one doesn't have to remember dialogues. But it's certainly not a priority. If it comes my way, I might do it.

Marriage is also not a priority now, I gather? You are not looking for a Nene to whisk you off to the US...

No way. That will have to wait. I am in no hurry. And I certainly would not want to go away to the US now. There is far too much at stake for me here, professionally. Besides, my parents have only me, and I have only them. It would not be fair for me to go too far away from them.

Do you like living out of suitcases, as you appear to be doing now, shuttling between Bombay, Madras, Bangalore and wherever else?

It's getting tiring, but I don't have the time to concentrate on important issues like keeping a healthy routine. I need to settle down in one place, but I don't yet know which one.

How did you get started in music?

Music started really early for me. I began learning Hindustani classical music when I was barely six. My grandmother was extremely interested in it, and she encouraged me to take music more seriously than she herself was able to in her life. She was a student of Gandharva Mahavidyalay of Delhi when she was a child, so she began teaching me herself. I learnt with her for a few years. Of course, at that time I was most reluctant and kept running away, missing my classes with her.

As the years went by, I went through three teachers and finally settled down with my present teacher, Parameshwar Hegde, who was a disciple of Basavaraj Rajguru. After I got into college, I realised I liked Hindustani music. I also began singing in my college choir -- that helped me broaden my music horizon vastly. Now I love and understand music very well, and still try to take lessons from my guru when I am in town.

Interestingly, until I reached high school, I was never interested in even listening to western music. Then, after a holiday in the US, I suddenly heard a lot of it, fell madly in love with Elvis Presley and what have you. I also always enjoyed listening to ghazals and wanted to sing them myself.

Did you seriously intend to make music your career?

Yes, right from the time I was in the sixth standard! I wanted to be a professional singer, but I was not sure where I would be able to fit in. My parents frequently organised baithaks for local talent at home. First, I wanted to be a pop singer. Later, I enjoyed being in the college choir, and used to sing solo at student festivals. I was realistic enough to know that I might never make it as a singer, but I kept hoping I could.

Vasundhara Das However, my mom kept telling me that I must have an alternative career to fall back on. I am so glad that she did that. I graduated in Economics and Statistics, wanted to do an MBA, but never got around to it as my music career took off.

Did you just take a train to Madras one fine day and make the rounds of studios and music companies? How did Kamal Haasan and Rahman find you?

I was sitting around for a long time waiting for things to happen, meeting people in the music business in Bangalore. After seven long months, I realised that nothing whatsoever was moving. Time was running out. I had given myself a year, from 1998 to 1999, to prove myself in the artistic field.

I decided to go for a makeover, get into shape. I was really plump. I went through a few diet programmes, new exercise routines and started feeling good about myself. When you look nice, you feel nice and come across as more confident. After I lost all that weight, I went to Madras, intending to stay for just a few days with an uncle. My mom wanted me to stop pursuing a career in music and get back on track with my fallback career options. So it was my last-ditch attempt.

I took three days to get used to the city, then walked into the Magnasound office in Madras and met Madhav Das, who is one of the top guys there. I just said to him, 'I want to sing.' He told me his producer was down from Canada and he would arrange for me to meet him. I met this producer, Praveen, the next day, and sang a Whitney Houston number for him. He was very impressed and told me to come back the next day.

Later, he told me that he met me only because he was intrigued by the fact I could sing in Spanish. I had learnt the language when I was in college, just out of interest. We also discovered we both liked rhythm and blues, and decided to get down to work. We wrote a song together, composed it and recorded it in his house. To my surprise, the recording was brilliant, it was studio quality. The song was great. So we did another song in three hours the next day, and a third on the third day. Soon, we had two songs in English and one in Spanish on a demo tape.

Then we decided to do an album together. Meanwhile, he also took me to meet Rahman whom he knew well since they used to play together in a band in college. I don't know what Rahman really thought of my voice because I did not hear from him then. But three days later, Mani Ratnam's office called to ask me whether I was interested in acting career!

I was simply stunned, because just before that Pravin and I had been joking about this possibility. Pravin asked me whether I wanted to act in films, and I said yes, but only if I was asked by Mani Ratnam! I did a test for him, but I was not at all serious about it. He too, concluded that it was not the right time to sign me up.

How could you have not been serious about doing a screentest for Mani Ratnam? Anyone in your place would obviously have given it her best would have been the break of a lifetime!

Vasundhara Das Actually, I just did not think I was capable of being an actress. The prospect of a Mani Ratnam film was too sudden and too big for me to handle. I think I came across as a hesitant and unsure person. He told me that I might have a future in films, but that I would have to come to my next screentest in the right frame of mind. He told me to go and get some experience, and then come back to see him.

I went back home rather depressed, feeling terrible that I had blown my one big chance away. I concluded that I was not cut out for an acting career. But by the time I reached home in Bangalore, Kamal Haasan's office had called and left a message with mom asking me to return to Madras at once for a screentest for Hey! Ram.

At the time, I was quite disheartened. I thought I had just found out I was not fit to be an actress. But then, I had nothing to lose by doing just one more screentest. So back I went to Madras. To my surprise, I got the role. It was mainly the thought -- that doing a role in a Kamal Haasan film might do wonders for my uncertain music career -- that made me accept the offer.

An experiment with truth
The Kamal Haasan chat

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