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Born in Calcutta, reborn in the Cup
Mandira Bedi

Cape Town, March 19: She was born at Woodlands Nursing Home, Calcutta; she is now making waves on the Waterfront, Cape Town. All she wanted to be was a banker like her elder brother; she now has millions of cricket viewers banking on her to spice up the game and enliven the post-match adda.

Clearly, there’s something about Mandira Bedi. But up close, at hand-shaking distance, it’s anything but the in-your-face something that has made her the reigning rage of cricket TV in India.

Is she She' The first thought that crosses your mind when you spy a slender five-foot-something girl, in blue T-shirt, blue denims, blue rubber slippers and black shawl, gulping down a bowl of salad and Diet Coke.

Coming from where people have gone bonkers over Bedi or are mad about Mandira (love, like, lust or loathe her, who can possibly ignore her), it takes a moment to reconcile perception with presence. And then, the quintessential girl next-door (wouldn’t half of India love to move in beside her Bandra home') smiles: “Forgive this, but I’m a food-in-large-quantities-through-the-day-person.”

Mandira, you soon learn, can’t do without food, cricket and films, in that order. And Mandira, you soon realise, has a vivacity, a way with words and a disarming spontaneity, in any order.

“Me, and sexy' Seriously, I just can’t get over the fact that I am being called things like sexy and hot. I look at myself in the mirror and say hello, me and hot' Oh my gawwwd,” she dissolves with laughter into a soft sofa in a room opening on to the serene Victoria Wharf, which has been home for more than a month now.

“I never thought the show (Extraaa Innings) would be so big and that I would be noticed like this. At home, I am a star, hai na'” she asks, large kohl-lined eyes widening. “This has been a rebirth for me, after being an actress for seven years. It’s been simply awwweesome.”

The turning point for the girl who spent the first two years of her life (“let’s just say sometime in the 1970s”), at Raja Santosh Road, Calcutta, where her father was posted with ICI, came at the Champions Trophy last year.

She had gone just to cheer on India and bumped into some Sony bigwigs. Another chance meeting with Sony seniors in Mumbai, a rapid-fire round of 30 cricket questions (what does the MCG stand for, what kind of a spinner is Shane Warne...) two auditions and many anxious weeks of waiting later, Mandira was told that she was “on” (news that drew the loudest and longest “Oh my gaawwwwd” shriek ever heard).

“The best thing was that I was asked to just be myself, someone who felt passionately for Team India and loved the game like everyone else. There was no acting involved,” says the St Xavier’s, Mumbai, graduate who did her post-grad in social communication media, from Sophiya, before facing the cameras for the first time for and as Shanti and becoming a small-screen icon, inspiring long bindis and a no-nonsense bustle.

“A lot of Shanti rubbed off on me, making me a stronger person,” says Mandira, who needed “all that strength and more” to overcome apprehensions of “fumbling my lines on live TV” and “asking stupid questions to cricketing legends”. But now, insists Mandira, while checking out what else there is in the fridge, all inhibitions have been shed and she’s just doing what comes naturally. Does that cover inspiring bets back home on what she’ll show up in on Indian match days'

“I’m amazed when my husband (ad and filmmaker Raj Kaushal, in Mumbai) and my folks (in Delhi) tell me the amount of fuss there is about my clothes. Hey, I’m just wearing noodle-strapped blouses, which I would to any party back home.”

Mandira’s clothesline, too, has a crisp Calcutta connection. Ritu Kumar, who also designed her wedding trousseau four years ago, sent Mandira a whole range of saris when it was decided by Sony that saris is what she must wear the day the boys in blue take the field.

“I always pick my dress on the morning of the match. I go by my gut and just try to add some colour to the cricket,” says Mandira, adding that it was too late to change by the time she realised that the wide-necked navy blue net sari against New Zealand was “a bit too much”, but promises not to repeat the killer combination.

After all, the girl who grew up idolising Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, and now dotes on Sachin Tendulkar and Chris Cairns (“not just for his looks”), does not want to be remembered after the World Cup as “a bimbo in noodle-straps”, but as “a representative of the Indian cricket fan” who helped make TV viewing more entertaining.

“There will always be a small segment of cricket followers for whom a woman cannot have anything to do with the game, but I must live with that,” says Mandira, who feels her greatest compliment has come in the form of the latest Amul line (“My Fair Bedi”) back home. “I’ve grown up on the Amul ads, man, and the last one I remember had Sachin. So...,” drifts off the Woman of the World Cup, the small-screen-big-ground heroine who admires Helen Hunt.

And this, for Mandira Bedi, is as good as it gets.

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