'If Choli Ke Peeche was vulgar, DK Bose is a sin'
Ila Arun, singer, theatre and film actor, plays a pivotal role as the wife left behind in Pakistan who is suddenly visited by her husband (Om Puri) and the family he has had with his English wife.
Here, she speaks to Patcy N about the film, her acting and singing career, and makes some caustic comments on popular hits like D K Bose, the gharana system in the film industry, and reality shows.
You are part of a film which is a hit. So what made you sign West is West?
I was interested in the film because I have lived in London for a while, but when I went there for the first time, I was very na ve. I had gone from Jaipur and I was the bhenji-type. Also I have seen many Asians -- Indians and Pakistanis -- married to British women and I would wonder whether the man has been honest to the woman, has he told her all about his life back in his country. I could understand their humility and rigidity and inhibitions.
I've seen that British women are more willing to adjust than the Asian men they are married to, even those who come to India and marry Indian men. Take Shashiji's (Kapoor) wife Jennifer. She was his great support.
Eleven years ago when I saw East is East I liked it because it was about the writer Abdul-din Khan's own experience and so it was realistic. Throughout that film George Khan keeps saying 'Don't forget there is Mrs Khan', but she never appeared in the film and I was very curious about her. Eleven years later, they make a sequel and approach me to play the part! It's destiny - the first international film that is offered to me is the role of Mrs Khan.
So, I did not have any second thoughts and grabbed it as it would be my first international film too. Audiences will be curious to know who Mrs Khan is, what type of person she is.
Image: Ila Arun in West is West
'Omji learnt weaving for Sushman and gave all his girlfriends something woven by him'
How different is it playing a Pakistani Muslim woman? Would it be different from playing an Indian Muslim?
No. We are one because we are all women. How different a woman in Uttar Pradesh is from a woman in Punjab, that's how different a woman from India would be to a woman from Pakistan.
I just went to Pakistan for the 100 birth centenary of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I did not know when we had crossed the border because everything was so similar. They also have a Punjab - there were fewer Sardars there, but they all speak in Punjabi. Gulam Ali Khan, Rahat Fateh Ali are all Punjabis.
How was it working with co-star Om Puri with whom you have done some interesting work, like Tamas?
I have worked with Om Puri in many films but I have not acted directly opposite him. In Sushman he was my elder brother-in-law, in Mandi we were all prostitutes and Om Puri was a photographer who is mad for Neena (Gupta). Working with Omji or Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) is a learning experience. Omji is a humble man. In Sushman he played a weaver. While we all stayed in hotels, Omji went to Kunchanapalli village in Andhra Pradesh and stayed with the weavers. He even learnt how to weave and gave all his girlfriends like Shabana and me something woven by him, whether it was a duppatta or handkerchief.
Working with him was a challenge, Omji wanted to help me so he told our producer to change my dialogues from Punjabi to Urdu, but I told him I want to speak Punjabi. Omji said 'are you sure' I said 'yes' so I got a Pakistani coach who trained me in Punjabi.
I was a bit conscious because he is such a big actor, had already played the part of George Khan and got a BAFTA award for it too, so just standing beside him was difficult. But it helped me play my character, because there is awkwardness in our relationship when George Khan returns after 33 years.
Image: A scene from West is West
'I don't have a voice like Shreya's (Ghosal) or Alka's (Yagnik)'
Why aren't you singing any more? Are you to busy with your acting assignments?
I am busy with my other work, that is true. Last year, for six months I was away doing English theatre in London and many other places. I am adapting a few English plays into Hindi for my theatre group Tamasha here in India, plus I was doing this film, so I just wasn't free. But having said that, my album is ready but not released because they want many things now - ringtone and downloadable facilities and so one -- and they also want mainly film music. They are not making much album music.
I don't understand all these download things. I'm not that clued in technically. We don't even know who is selling us and who is buying us. Why should we be sold free of cost? We should get something in return, we should get royalty. I don't need a big break in the industry. I am an established singer, but let's be professional. We should get something in return. It is not only my sad story, it is the same with Daler (Mehndi) or Jagjit Singh.
I don't have a voice like Shreya's (Ghosal) or Alka's (Yagnik). A new voice emerged from the film Lamhe, and that was mine. Then I did some hits songs. Now lower octaves songs do well and I have a powerful earthy voice so nothing is coming my way. Work should come on its own, I will not go and beg them.
Other than film music only bhajans are selling so they ask us to make bhajans of Hanumanji and Durgaji. I will make those also, I have no problem because I am a Durga bhakt, but it should come from within, that I want to make it and not just for the sake of selling an album.
Image: Ila Arun gives a powerful performance in Jodhaa Akbar
'We have zabardast camp system in the industry'
You have done much parallel cinema; what attracted you to those films?
I wanted to act in films that are closer to reality. I think there is no division between commercial and parallel cinema, it depends on how good or bad the work is. There shouldn't be any prejudice against commercial cinema -- I've done good work for it like Jaal.
Today I think that had I begun in commercial films as a heroine I would have been as popular as any glamorous heroine, but back then, I thought that I was not that beautiful and glamorous. Also I couldn't see myself dancing around a tree. I don't regret it anyway.
Actress in those days were very different. They had layers of make-up, some did not know acting but were thin and glamorous, and producers did not look for talent. Once in a while there were talented actresses like Hema Malini. And we had some good actress like Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi who looked very normal off-screen without all that make-up.
One thing I do not like about commercial cinema is that producers take actors from art cinema because they won't forget their dialogues and because they charge less. They should pay us more if we don't forget our dialogues as we save their reels! Plus they called us jholawalas. You forget that jholawala Naseer and Om Puri are big names. Even Shah Rukh Khan started from television and Amitji (Amitabh Bachchan) did English theatre when he started off. Producers may think in terms of commercial and art cinema but an artiste never thinks of all that.
Earlier we had gharanas (particular style or school of music) in classical singing; today we have gharanas in films too. There is the Kapoor gharana, Yash Raj gharana, Shah Rukh gharana. We have zabardast camp system in the industry. I don't know which gharana I belong to. I would prefer the Shyam Benegal gharana (laughs) as talents like Naseer, Shabana, and many more came out of it.
There are very good actress today but they don't want to work outside their 'camp' because there is all this lobbying. It was not like this before.
Image: Ila Arun performs in Mandi, co-starring Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil
'Remixes are like a sugar-coated pill, cheap and they sell'
You have a very distinctive voice which does not sit well with most actresses. Do you think that is why your singing assignments dwindled?
Yes, that is there. We sang songs to elevate the mood -- sad, angry etc. I was listening to Rahat Fateh's songs this morning -- qawwalis are doing well these days, but 99 percent of the songs he sang were for the atmosphere not for any actor to lip sync the song in the movie.
To shake emotions we sing qawwali or folk, we have that much power. Can you lip sync Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan? It is not possible. Talented singers like Reshmaji (of Lambi Judai from Hero fame) and others, you definitely can't call us playback singers.
I listen to Shreya; she has learnt every trait of playback singing. I love her voice -- she has a sweet voice.
When I would meet Kalyanji he would ask singers like Sadhana (Sargam) and Alka to learn expression from me, that feeling should come from within. Kalyanji used to teach Sadhana to bring vibration into her song; playback singing is a skilled art.
What do think about remixes from old movies?
I am not here to give an opinion; it is working that's why they are remixing. Remixes are like a sugar-coated pill, cheap and they sell. The young generation is not bothered what is being played at a discotheque, they are just there to dance. But at least this generation sometimes hums old songs, so to get this generation, we have to climb down a few steps and grab their hands and pull them up.
Image: Ila Arun starred in Shyam Benegal's warm film, Welcome to Sajjanpur
'Lyrics writing is not a specialised job any more'
What do you think about songs like Character Dheela, DK Bose?
If Choli Ke Peeche was vulgar, DK Bose is a sin. So many eve-teasers on bikes would pull off a girl's duppata, saying Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai? Anand Bakshi was a good writer -- he wrote a beautiful answer to that, Choli Main Dil Hai Mera, Yeh Dil Main Doongi Apne Yaar Ko. What is wrong about talking about your heart?
Today, anybody is writing and bakwaas likh rahe hai (they are writing rubbish). It is not a specialised job any more. If they are saying 'DK Bose' repeatedly, knowingly, to make it into an expletive, then they should be ashamed that they are introducing something wrong to the new generation.
Why are you keeping away from television?
I have done some good television. If good things come, I will do it. I have done Tamas, Discovery of India Yatra, Rukmavati Ki Haveli and Lifeline. There are so many saas (mother-in-law) roles, that I could get work easily, but I don't want to do that.
I have appeared in reality shows in a dignified way. I never touched their scripts. I objected and said if it is a reality show why are you giving me a script? Why do you make people fight and cry on television? If tears have to come, they will come automatically, even laughter for that matter. If it is a reality show it should be born then and there. Don't play to the gallery and don't instigate fights. I watched Sanjay (Leela Bhansali on X Factor). He is a genuine person.
Image: Ila Arun was a part of reality singing show Fame Gurukul