Brazil was playing Mexico in the World Cup 2018. But I was meeting Mallika Sherawat at the time on Monday evening. She’s made her digital debut in a web series by ZEE5 called The Story. In it, celebs talk about their worst nightmares or favourite fantasies. And open up about incidents that are bizarre, humorous or terrifying. Mallika, being Mallika, chose to show the dark side of her fame. Her episode is on a mad and obsessive Haryana stalker. He made threatening calls to Mallika in 2010 and wanted to kill her for dressing the way she did and bringing shame to his state. The actress, who made a spectacular debut in Bollywood with Khwahish in 2003 that had 17 kisses and steamy bikini scenes, is a Jat from Haryana herself. She wasn’t having any of it. She got the Mumbai Police to arrest the stalker and put him behind bars. Mallika talks about her terror in The Story.
I was waiting to interview Mallika at her Versova high-rise. And hoping to catch the match after that. She was at Govinda’s restaurant in the Hare Krishna Temple at Juhu. “Having hot samoosas,” she told me gleefully and without any guilt when she breezed in half hour late. “Each one is 800 calories. I wanted to gorge on two! But had only one. They are the most amazing samoosas on the planet!” I wasn’t paying attention. Just staring. I had gone expecting the sex symbol and seductress. Oozing oomph. But there was no such person. The web series debutante, at 41, is a bright and witty actress. Friendly and warm. Unintentionally funny. Bubbling with energy and articulate replies. And dressed simply in denims and a pastel sleeveless shirt. The tight dresses showcasing her voluptuous figure are for Cannes. Time magazine says Mallika is the hottest paparazzi magnet on the French Riviera. But she’s also the toast of LA, the American President’s guest of honour at White House dinners, and the fantasy of the Backstreet Boys and Bruno Mars.
Every story does not have to have a moral. But I would definitely like to convey the benefits of self defence.
Why is there so much of excitement about you on The Story?
Excitement? Is there? Maybe because this is a real life incident. I lived the terror and horror. And I thought this was the right time to shoot this episode.
Swara Bhaskar, who is outspoken and was recently in the news because of Veere De Wedding, is also in The Story with an episode on an ex-flame. But the noise is all about you.
Is it? I don’t know why, but thank you! I love Swara’s episode. I guess I’m lucky. Really lucky. Mine is a true life incident, really...
I don’t know how truthful everybody has been. But I’ve been absolutely honest. The incident I shot for was terrible, but true.
Do you intentionally set out to make news? Or it happens to you?
What are you saying! News doesn’t happen to me. I have been out of the news for the longest time.
Out of cinema for the longest time but always in the news...
That’s true! Am I being missed? That’s good. Now you realise my importance!
How do you manage that?
I don’t manage anything, really.
Yeah, how does a Bollywood actress not making films get invited to work in Hollywood, receive an American film award that earlier went to Salma Hayek, Halle Berry and Monica Bellucci, become an honorary citizen of LA and sit alongside the American President at White House dinners, walk the red carpet at Cannes, become friends with Jackie Chan, join the likes of Miley Cyrus, Kim Kardashian, Victoria Beckham and Paris Hilton to get a milkshake in Hollywood named after her?
The West loves me. The White House loves me. What can I say?
Loves you for what?
Loves me for my boldness, my frankness, my openness. For what I represent. The journey of a small town girl and how I made it. I guess there are lot of factors to it.
You want to be the voice of women who don’t have one. And talk about human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children. What happens when you do? How strong is that voice in India?
I don’t know these days if anything at all makes an impact on India. What’s happening with women is really so depressing. But I’m trying my best in whatever capacity I can. There is this organisation Free A Girl that I’m a brand ambassador of and we have opened an initiative in India called School for Justice where we rescue, rehabilitate and educate victims of child prostitution and tie up with law colleges to actually get them a law degree, then make them interns in a law office and give them their lives back. We give them dignity. And their confidence back. Right now we have 18 girls and in our own small way we are doing our best.
What happened to your stalker? In the West, you would only have got a restraining order prohibiting him from approaching you...
Luckily action was taken. The Mumbai Police were very helpful. I lodged a complaint. They did the needful in all honesty. They caught him and put him in jail. But it’s the horror of living the experience and after that the insecurity. Always looking over your shoulder. Life is not the same after that. I still feel extremely terrified.
You want to adapt and act in the American TV series The Good Wife that is a political and legal drama featuring a strong female lead because your role has contradiction, emotional range and surprise?
Yes, like all human beings the character of The Good Wife has her flaws. She’s not black or white. She’s not like a vamp or a sati savitri. There is a little bit of grey in between too. She tries to do the right things but cannot always do the right things. She makes mistakes, accepts them and moves on. And like all of us, she’s constantly evolving and growing and full of the contradictions all of us are. She’s very reflective of that.
So where’s the surprise?
The surprise is that I’m doing it. You didn’t expect me to be the Good Wife, definitely!
You are still recognised as a sex symbol here more than an actress.
Even now? Noooo! I thought that I had left that tag behind. Now there are so many younger actress that have come and taken over the mantle, thank God!
Overnight with Khwahish, in which you did kissing and bikini scenes, you became both – a fallen woman and a star. True?
Overnight because of Murder – not because of the kissing scenes but the film which had that kind of content. I think it kind of resonated with Indian audiences in a way. There were so many judgements on me. “She does scenes like this.” “She wears a bikini.” “She dresses in short skirts.” In India, we have this judgemental attitude towards women. The victim lady mentality which exists even today. I have faced and lived all of that.
But today, bikinis and kissing are par for the course...
I think the Internet has a lot to do with that. And the thinking has evolved a lot more than it was during the time I started out.
Did you face the casting couch?
All the time!
Wasn’t that more exciting content for The Story?
No, because it was not important to me. I didn’t give in. The stalker resonated with me more, I don’t know why. But I’ve been thrown out film projects because I didn’t give in to the actor or didn’t give in to the director. I lost so many big films because of that. That’s a part of the profession I think.
Why do you love LA more than Mumbai?
I was misquoted! I never said that. I absolutely love Mumbai. I love India. I have a little problem with what’s happening with the mentality regarding women and what’s happening to the children of this country like all of you do. But other than that I love this country and I love Mumbai! This city has given me everything.
When asked how do you manage to look so hot, you replied that’s because you live like the Dalai Lama!
I do! I live like him in the sense that my real life is very different from my image projected on screen. I am a vegan, I don’t eat meat, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t do drugs. I go to bed early, I wake up – I love to wake up early, I am a morning person!
That sounds utterly boring!
Very boring! That’s why I said I live like the Dalai Lama. But I look good, don’t I?
This time at Cannes, you want from the catwalk to a cage!
My activism is very important to me and I don’t care about the reaction. Me and the organisation Free A Girl made a strong point – that this is how little girls are being treated. They are being caged. That cage in Cannes was representative of a room in a brothel in India. That is how they are kept locked up, these little girls, and we have to do something about it. That’s why I did it, to bring global attention to the issue. I stayed locked up in that cage for 12 hours. It wasn’t just for a photo. I lived in that cage for 12 hours. I have a video – yes, 12 hours! I feel very strongly about this horrifying crime of forced child prostitution.
What’s your moral in The Story?
Every story does not have to have a moral. But I would definitely like to convey the benefits of self defence. It’s very important for women to learn a little bit of self defence. I think you can really go a long way and save yourself a lot of trouble. Especially if you take public transport and work late at night. Self defence will help you.