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April 14, 1998


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The reluctant sex symbol

V S Srinivasan

Mamta Kulkarni. Click for bigger pic!
The first time she swam into public consciousness, Mamta Kulkarni was topless. In glorious colour, hands splayed across her bare chest, globs of fat peeking from between the fingers, she looked challengingly up from the Stardust cover. And ever since, controversies have been Mamta's stepping stones to success.

And, naturally, the roles she got thereafter had her doing some very bold numbers -- Chudiya Bajaoongi, Prem Gun Gaoongi to Meri Choli Mein Khatmal Ghus Gaya and, among the oddest, Rama Rama, in which, clad merely in a top, she seeks a lost kurta button. A change, it appears, from that topless image.

Ask Mamta about these roles and she stoutly denies she wanted to be a sex symbol. "I have signed only a couple of movies in which there were steamy sequences, but they were not vulgar," she asserts, adding, not very convincingly, that she is a very different person today.

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What makes Mamta look different from her contemporaries is her childlike prettiness -- an effect heightened by the puppy fat and dimples -- topped with eyes that can look singularly wary and a face that is innocent of complex thought. What endears herself especially to directors though is her willingness to skimp on clothing.

Mamta has this thing different from other actresses who shocked their way into the limelight -- she has endured in a way others couldn't hope to, despite some marked debility in the acting department.

When we met her, Mamta was covered from neck to ankle with only head, hands and feet showing. Her chest was decorously covered. That makes it difficult to recognise her sometimes. And she sounded strange, very, very different from her interviews in the fanzines.

"I was looking sensuous and sexy in those films, but definitely not vulgar. It is basically because of that photograph that people have dubbed me as a sex symbol. Even in the annual poll of many magazines, fans have selected me as the sexiest person in the industry," she sighs. That, apparently, is the price one pays for success.

"I never wanted to become a sex symbol. I just became one. People started writing horrible things about me and time and again... I have gone off press," she says, the last bit sounding a trifle gauche.

She has agreed to this interview, making it a condition that we don't ask her about her being thrown out of China Gate and her alleged marriage to fight master-turned-actor Tinu Verma. But these are undeniable aspects of Mamta's life, though once these issues no longer hold centrestage, she denies they ever happened.

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Women's organisations have taken her to court and stars have refused to ever work with her. But she seems unaffected by the cold shoulders, the contempt. And, if her interview in fanzines are any yardstick, the lady leads a bohemian life.

She drew sharp attention to herself when she accused China Gate director Raj Santoshi of sexual harassment and, later, when the whole thing blew over, claimed she'd been misquoted. That annoyed the press. Throughout there was this dark rumour that it was an underworld don who negotiated the rapprochement. Soon after came reports of her alleged "marriage" with fight master Tinu Verma.

"It is all over. Please let us not talk about it at all. I have changed. I have films like Naseeb coming up, apart from China Gate. Let us talk about them," she urges. And so proceeds to talk about her sizzling Koi Jaye to Le Aaye number in Ghaatak.

"The best part is that I've choreographed the whole song myself. That was a great achievement for me. I was very happy doing that. There was no choreographer and I had to do it myself... That was one of the best things about the film. Agreed, that the film did not run only because of that song, but it did give it a boost," she says.

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We backtrack to that unerasable photograph and ask her about other actresses who stripped for the glossies. There was Pooja Bhatt, doing a more demure version of Demi Moore, getting herself body-painting in her underclothing with the photographer playing voyeur. Followed by Varsha Usgaonkar, Farheen and Trishna. Mamta's voice gets slightly harder as she discusses the competition.

"When I started the trend, it was nice, it was something different. I dared to do it and people appreciated my photograph because it was shot aesthetically. I do not want to name anybody but the other voluptuous photographs that followed did not look that good because the people who posed lacked the charm and innocence..."

"My innocent face helped my photograph look decent," she says earnestly, offering Trishna's toughness by comparison.

Mamta's films Aashiq Awaara and Tirangaa had the cash registers ringing but her debut, Mera Dil Tere Liye flopped in Hindi. But slowly she carved out a niche for herself in Bollywood, where success is the greatest leveller.

And actors like Aamir Khan who refused to act with her earlier, actually recommended her to the producer of Baazi. Meanwhile, Mera Dil Tere Liye, renamed Nanban in Tamil did well down south.

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"It broke all box office records there and it also got me a temple," grins Mamta. "They even sent me an invitation from them to attend the inauguration. But I refused because my parents told me it was not auspicious for a person to have a temple in one's name. The I read in the Sunday magazine that the temple had finally been built," she beams.

Mamta has reason to feel proud. Another temple, built for actress Khushboo, was demolished after the latter's marriage to the married Prabhu, son of the legendary Sivaji Ganesan. But the storm raised by Mamta's alleged marriage to Tinu Verma has apparently left her temple standing.

Mamta was more shy in her childhood. But she never lacked ambition or will. For when she felt she ought to get in touch with Rajiv Gandhi, of whom she was a fan, she wrote to him.

"I was very impressed by him and thought that he looked so handsome. I adored him and wrote that I had collected a lot of his photographs and wanted him to autograph them. I had also asked him why he was visiting England when the country had ruled us for so many years. Everybody at home made fun of me and told me I would never get a reply.

"They got a jolt when the postman knocked to tell them there was a letter from the prime minister's office. Rajivji had even sent an autographed photograph along with the letter. I was overjoyed and took the letter and the photograph to my school principal who could not believe his eyes either. Everybody in school was overjoyed. I still have that letter framed in my house," she says proudly.

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A believer in the clout the stars wield on puny humankind, she is certain that those born on the day she did are something special.

I share my birthday, April 20, with Adolf Hitler. But I am not like him. Yes, I am ambitious too, but in a nice way. I have been doing a good deed on every birthday. The last time, I went to an old age home. A nun showed me around. I was appalled by the problems of these elderly people, discarded by their children.

"The nun thought that it was a filmi visit and didn't expect anything. But I was moved by their plight and tore out a cheque for Rs 20,000. The shocked nun thanked me but I felt that I had just done my duty.

"It is nice to be important but it is also important to be nice," she says. Now she surprises you.

"I am not at all materialistic. This has been possible only because of the various books on philosophy and spiritually I have read. It gives me a lot of mental relief and has made me change my opinion of life... Life is just a unit test. The bigger exam comes when you go up and face God." An odd mix of the aggressive and the phlegmatic.

If she hadn't been an actress, she would have turned politician, she says.

"Once, in standard two, my teacher asked me as to what I wanted to become when I grew up. All the students replied they wanted to become doctors or something else. But I said that I wanted to become a politician, because I have always liked being up there and addressing so many people."

Dashed ambitions dealt with, what are her future plans?

"I want to achieve everything, and want to be successful in it too. After fifty, I will retire and do something for society."

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