(This article, about Hema Malini’s visit to Hong Kong, was published in DNA edition dated April 6, 2006.)
In the mid-1970s in Chennai, where I grew up, I noticed one day that a neighbourhood temple in Mylapore for Hanuman, the Monkey God, was more than ordinarily crowded. Keen to account for this upsurge in piety, I elbowed my way through to the head of the crowd and stumbled upon a truly surreal scene: a stunningly beautiful Hema Malini was standing next to a cage with two chattering monkeys, as tufted, bare-chested temple priests chanted Vedic hymns.
It turned out that the two monkeys were being donated to the temple by Hema Malini’s parents, who were Vaishnavite worshippers, and the star, then at her prime, had been invited to be present at the ceremonious handover. It was a scene straight out of Beauty and the Beast, and despite the “wish-I-were-elsewhere” expression on Hema Malini’s face, that image will endure as the first time ever that I’d seen her in flesh and blood.
More than 30 years later, when I recall this scene to Hema Malini in her swank room at the Holiday Inn in Hong Kong, she throws her head back and laughs. “Yes, I remember,” she says. “My parents used to do a lot of that. My mother, in particular, was very conservative and protective in many ways. She wouldn’t, for instance, allow me to wear jeans: only a sari or a salwar-kameez. That’s how I lived all my years, but now my children – Esha and Ahana – want me to dress fashionably and buy only designer labels.”
Hema Malini and her daughters were in town for a classical dance performance organised by the Jade Group and sponsored by Swiss bank UBS, and the show’s a sell-out. “I dance in the Bharatanatyam style, and Esha and Ahana dance in the Odissi style,” says Hema Malini of the show. “We’re showcasing the guru-sishya parampara (tutor-disciple tradition), which is an essential characteristic of the Indian cultural heritage.”
This isn’t, of course, Hema Malini’s first visit to Hong Kong: she recalls that she was here in 1978-79 with Dharmendra to shoot for a movie directed by Pramod Chakraborty. “The film was called ‘Time Bomb’, but it fizzled out,” she says. “The movie was canned. But I remember some things from that visit: some places in Hong Kong were very dirty, and I recall seeing clothes being put out to dry on clotheslines strung across the roads.”
Since then, of course, Hong Kong has developed dramatically, says Hema Malini and contrasts this with the slow pace of change in Mumbai. That contrast is accentuated by one other fact: she’s a member of Parliament in a vibrant democracy, but as she says there’s a democracy premium built into developmental costs – political opposition leads to delays in project implementation which in turn lead to cost escalations. “Even a small thing that I’ve been trying for the past two years – to redevelop the Juhu beach area and beautify it – has faced so many impediments.” Whereas Hong Kong, even without its grassroots-level democracy, runs supremely efficiently.
Esha saunters in and, eyeing my camera warily, tells her mother in Tamil that she doesn’t want to be photographed just yet. Before she can say anything more ungracious, Hema Malini cuts in: “Avarukku Tamizh theriyum,” (“He knows Tamil”), and all three of us burst out laughing. Esha’s had a rotten night: she’s down with a touch of food poisoning – she suspects the airline food – but gamely agrees to chat. She says that being a confirmed vegetarian disqualifies her from enjoying Hong Kong’s famed seafood delights – “in fact, even the smell of seafood makes me sick” – but there are other aspects of it that she savoured on a holiday a year ago. Such as shopping for Chanel handbags and dancing at the trendy discotheques. “I absolutely love dancing,” she says, and admits to being “frightfully excited” about her upcoming Rock Stars world tour.
Ahana then joins us, and offers glimpses into the kind of films she wants to direct – “not mainstream, very offbeat”. She’s working on the script, and is meanwhile hoping to enrol for a course in film editing. Does she feel the pressure to perform as well as everyone else in her show-biz family has done? “I’ve gotten used to it by now,” she says. “I haven’t anything against Bollywood films – they’re highly entertaining – but my interests clearly lie elsewhere, in alternative films.”
Ten minutes later, we’re at the Star Ferry terminal: Hema Malini and Ahana are going shopping at Marks & Spencer, but first they must navigate the autograph-hunters. The place is normally swarming with Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi peddlers of fake Rolex watches, but today, they’ve sighted Hema Malini, so they string along, pleading for her attention. They’ve come from far to dream big-money dreams, but today they have time only for the original Dream Girl.