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Mad about Mandira

By Sukanya Verma
March 17, 2003 18:02 IST
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ew Zealand is two wickets down against Australia on Tuesday March 11 as I walk into Raj Kaushal and Mandira Bedi's three-storeyed home RaMa ('Ra' for Raj and 'Ma' for Mandira).

I dodge the security guard, a couple of attendants, two ferocious dogs, a kind receptionist and an assistant before I finally run into the man himself.

Raj, 32, a filmmaker who heads his advertising agency, Fuel, is Mandira's husband.

Mandira, of course, is the highly visible, much written-about (two features in the Sunday Express yesterday; she is on the latest Outlook cover; plus there is the daily Mandirameter in Mid-Day), much-discussed (she shares discussion space in most Indian homes with Sachin Tendulkar these days) co-anchor on SET MAX's Extraa Innings, which precedes and follows each match aired on the World Cup television channel in India.

Mandira initially made waves with a brief role in Aditya Chopra's blockbuster Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and her popular long-running television serial, Shanti. She is also making a comeback as her negative namesake in the superhit soap, Kyunki... Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi...

Her stint as the co-host of Extraa Innings -- a chance assignment based on a trip to Sri Lanka to watch the Championship Trophy (where she was spotted in the audience by Sony) and, later, a casual conversation at the Sony office that turned into an impromptu, but highly successful, interview -- has turned Mandira into an overnight sensation. Be it her vivacious exuberance over each Indian victory, her child-like curiosity about the game or her eye-catching wardrobe, Mandira has been making her presence felt despite the regular carping of critics.

Raj defends his better half: "Give her a break, yaar. Why the heck are you [the media] on her case? Take it easy. Her job is not to be an expert on cricket. Who the hell said Mandira Bedi is an expert on cricket? She did not claim that. She is present as the co-anchor of the entire show. Charu Sharma [the male host] is the one who talks cricket. He is the one who talks to the guest experts. Mandira is adding an extra element to the show."

"Understand one thing," he explains, "she is asking the questions an average woman in India would [ask]. I personally think Mandira knows more cricket than I do. She has done her homework damn well. She is not supposed to sit there and cast judgment over people. She is only there to raise questions a normal Indian would like to have an answer to."

Raj feels Mandira's career has been reborn with Extraa Innings. He admits she stepped into uncharted territory by agreeing to do the show.

"Sports is a male-dominated area," he says, "and cricket is the only sport the country plays really. Having a woman comment on it is taboo. It was a very smart move on SET MAX's part; they wanted to talk to the women audience also. It has paid off.

"It has been a lot of hard work [for Mandira]. For someone who comes from a industry that involves a lot of takes and retakes, coming live on camera amidst five men who are talking hardcore cricket and standing your own is commendable. I am not only proud of her; I am in awe to see how she is pulling it off."

Raj and Mandira have been married for four years.

Raj, who knew he found his dream woman after just three meetings, can't stop singing her praises. "She is honest, full of beans and has had a great upbringing. With some people I feel beauty is time-bound. But if you are beautiful from inside and beautiful outside, it adds so much to your character. I knew I wanted babies from this girl.”

Raj met her for the first time at producer Nitin Manmohan's Neha Arts office. He was then assisting director Mukul Anand (Hum, Khuda Gawah). Anand had tied up with Manmohan and Zee TV to form a company called Neha MAD Zee that would produce television serials.

Raj was part of the group making the casting decisions. Mandira had been signed to host the music countdown show, Philips Top 10.

His eyes light up as he recalls, "She was wearing a red and white striped T-shirt and khaki pants. I had seen her in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, but I never really noticed her till then. The next time we met it was Mukul's place. That's where I really interacted with her. I realised she had met my sister when she did her summer training at Lintas [one of India's top ad agencies] where my sister was an art director. Suddenly, the world became very small."

The Leo wooed the Arian with passion. On their third date Kaushal proposed. 'Listen,' he told her, 'I am looking at marriage. If you are not, let's not take this any further. I don't want to waste your time.'

They were married on February 14, 1999.

Almost immediately Kaushal signed his first feature film Pyaar Mein Kabhi Kabhi, introducing Dino Morea, Rinke Khanna, Sanjay Suri and a host of other newcomers. "It happened by chance. We had a shoestring budget of Rs 80 lakhs. So we got our friends together and decided, 'Chalo yaar, film banate hain [OK guys, let's make a film].' We didn't want to prove a point to anyone," he says.

The film wasn't a success, but its music, composed by Vishal-Shekhar, was. Raj and Mandira even wrote a song, Dil se mere door na jaana, for PMKK.

Raj chuckles at the memory: "We didn't have money to pay a lyricist and we had to record the song soon. The situation of the song was simple -- it was about two people in love missing each other. I didn't like the lyrics we had. And Mandira was upset because we weren't spending enough time together. So she and I just sat down and wrote the lyrics for fun. It was like, 'Kaafia likte hain, yaar [Let's pen a verse]'. When I eventually showed it to Vishal-Shekhar, they liked it very much. It turned out very well."

After a short pause, he smiles again, "It's our favourite song."

Raj says the reactions to Mandira's performance on Extraa Innings have been overwhelming. He believes if India does well in this World Cup cricket is going to be hot property till the next World Cup. And the only woman who is going to be remembered and associated with cricket is Mandira. "She has no idea what a huge mantle she is going to be carrying on her shoulders," he predicts.

Reacting to columnist Shobhaa De's remark in The Times of India supplement Bombay Times -- De felt Mandira clicks with the female audience owing to her good dress sense -- Raj said, "I thought she was very nice. Compared to what she would normally put together she has been extremely nice to Mandira. I respect the fact that she [Shobha] actually tried to understand her position. The media always blasts [celebrities]. I always tell Mandira not to get fazed by it. Right now, if India wasn't doing well, they [the media] would be doing a lot of Mandira-bashing."

There have been suggestions that Mandira's presence has been lucky for the Indian team. "Thank you," grins Raj. "India is a country of superstition. If you put it like that, I'll say, 'Damn good way to go, wife'."

Raj, who is just back from a busy schedule in Delhi, has been shooting non-stop for the new Slice (beverage) and Rin (detergent) commercials. When does that leave him with time to catch up with Mandira and World Cup?

He grins sheepishly and admits he was busy shooting in Langkwai, Malaysia, when he should have been with Mandira in South Africa to celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary.

"That's the bone of contention right now," he admits.

Raj, in fact, cancelled his trip to South Africa three times. He has now booked his tickets for March 17, 19 and 20. The World Cup gets over on March 23 but she is on standby till March 25. Raj says, "Both of us are coming back on March 29. She has threatened me -- 'If you don't come and get me, I am going to my Mom's house.' "

Having stayed away from home for more than a month-and-a-half Mandira now yearns to return home. Her SMS to Raj says it all, 'I want lots and lots of bhel puri, bikaneri sev and vada pav.'

And, need we add, the World Cup?


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Sukanya Verma