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RED HOT

Koel Purie is very pretty, very talented and very ambitious though not in a way which puts people off. Among the current crop of talented Asian actresses who have made London their headquarters, Koel is certainly the one to watch. Barely three years after leaving the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London, she seems to be the girl every director wants. She has been in the movie, American Daylight, a BBC drama documentary called Dirty War, and two of her new films, White Noise and Nazar, are due to be released shortly. She is a busy, busy girl. And to her great credit, she has not played the 'Do you know who I am' card, which she could have done as the daughter of Aroon Purie, editor-proprietor of India Today.

In fact, when people discover she is Aroon Purie's little girl, they are that much more impressed. She could easily have joined India Today or the family TV network at 21 and thrown her weight around by 22. But going into journalism was the last thing on her mind. 'I had no such temptation,' she says firmly. 'I did a short stint reading the news, an election special, on Doordarshan. But that was not because it was the news but because I was going to be in front of the camera.'

She is chatting in her London flat which is 10 minutes' walk from Tottenham Court Road, an area full of dishonest Indian electronics salesmen who spend time cheating their customers. But with nice shops and restaurants in the area, it is an excellent location for a young actress.

Koel (born Delhi, November 25, 1978), is an actress in a hurry. Her current philosophy is: have red suitcase (her trademark), will travel. So much in her apartment is red ' her overcoat, her clothes, her sofa. No doubt, watching her astonishing climb from nowhere to the near number one spot, her jealous rivals probably see red as well. At the moment, filmy heaven ' or rather Hollywood ' can wait for a moment. 'Where I would like to be eventually is to be able to balance LA, London and India. I think LA will have to wait for another year or so,' she reveals.

In one way, Koel is different from all the other actresses who are fighting for the best roles which come up on the India/Bollywood circuit. Most actresses in India would find it difficult to get work in the UK because they do not know how Britain works. In any case, their English accents might be considered 'too Indian'. Meanwhile, British Asians, born and brought up in London or Birmingham, mostly cannot speak fluent Hindi or require voice coaches if required to do 'Indian English'. However, Koel, a product of Delhi's Modern School who came to London at 17 to do her A-levels before going to read politics, philosophy and economics at York University and then receiving three years of rigorous training at RADA can justifiably claim to belong to both worlds.

A couple of months ago, in the BBC drama Dirty War, which depicted what might happen in London if terrorists detonated a small nuclear device in the capital, Koel played a British Muslim police officer, Detective Constable Sameena Habibullah. Viewers got the idea she was Muslim because she sipped only orange juice in a pub while her male colleagues had beer but during raids, she was the one who led from the front. She felt a little uncomfortable she was not allowed to use make-up during the shooting, but acknowledges: 'There was this niggling thing of, 'Okay, I am playing this hard-hitting cop but why can't I have a little mascara' Who is going to be watch me if I am so ugly minus my make-up' The director (Dan Percival) knew exactly what he wanted.'

However, in the Bobby Bedi-produced American Daylight, which premiered last month at the London Film Festival and was shown recently in the International Film Festival of India in Goa, she does a fake American accent when playing Sue, an operator in an Indian call centre, but reverts to the Indian-accented Sujata outside the office. While her spoken English, she claims, is 'RP' (received pronunciation), her Hindi is fluent, Koel adds proudly. 'My Hindi is from Delhi, it's completely clean. I speak it better than most people in Bombay. Bombay Hindi to anyone from anywhere in Delhi grates on the ears. It's really bad. The trouble with British Asian girls wanting to make it big in Bollywood is that they don't understand Bollywood fully, while I have grown up in Delhi and I have grown up watching Amitabh Bachchan. No one knows this about me, but Hindi is perhaps my first language.'

The difference between London and Mumbai is bigger than language or accents. It is one of the whole acting style. While shooting with Ashmit Patel for Mahesh Bhatt's Hindi-language thriller, Nazar, directed by his wife Soni Razdan, Koel's RADA training came to the rescue. 'Bollywood is completely different from every instinct that I know and consider good acting,' she admits. 'I am not saying that it is bad acting, but it is completely different from every instinct that comes naturally to me and so I have to fit in with what they want, otherwise I will look I am in a documentary and they are in this heightened musical. I can't be doing my own thing.'

When she was at RADA, the going was sometimes so tough that she frequently felt like quitting her course. 'Now, I thank God I went to RADA, especially when I am a bit stuck.' The moral is that when in Bollywood, she acts as required by the Hindi film industry, jettisoning the BBC baggage. 'You have to adapt otherwise you won't look right in the film. You will look like you are in a different film from everyone else. If I want to be part of the medium I want to be fully part of it and I want to be good in it.' She recognises Bollywood, too, is changing. 'Someone like me is not considered unconventional. No one says, 'No, you are not traditional looking enough.' Those boundaries have been broken. Also, for the first time what you wear in films is wearable clothes off films. If you are a poor villager you may still look pretty, but you are not in hotpants with a DKNY blouse.'

Koel's parents, Aroon and Rekha Purie, did not place a ban on her becoming an actress but they were lukewarm to the idea. Journalism she had already ruled out on the principle that any child who is told to 'eat up your greens because it is good for you' makes sure it is the last thing it eats. 'As a child I was a bit of a rebel,' says Koel, who was made hockey captain at school, only because she could intimidate other girls into attending practice.

'Had my dad not been a journalist perhaps that would have interested me. I have a good relationship with my father, but because I was encouraged to take an interest in the news, I shut it off. It was my rebellion.'

She felt the prevailing mood in the 90s was that 'Bollywood was looked down upon, that acting was mindless and there was no skill involved'. Her parents woke up when she got into RADA. 'When I was slightly older I had the confidence to say, 'Your dreams can be your dreams but this is my dream and unless I follow it, I am not going to be able to be happy.' For a girl who did not read her first book till she was 12 ' it was Alex Haley's Roots ' she has also become a 'voracious reader'. She has been reading the last 30 pages of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake a page at a time as 'I don't want to finish it'.

She found Salman Rushdie's Midnight Children 'magical' and her current favourite is Siddharth Sanghvi's The Last Song of Dusk. 'It is the only book which I have closed and reread immediately.' Although she insists she is 'not political', there is one political event she remembers with a shudder from 1984 when she was six. 'Our calm headmistress came running into our class at 11 'clock, gasping, 'Indira Gandhi has been shot.' The whole class of noisy children fell silent. There was the chill ' something terrible had happened. After that I remember school being off for two months. I have Sikh cousins who then moved in with us. Mrs Gandhi's assassination and the various communal riots in India have influenced Koel's thinking. Today, she does not like having to say she is 'Hindu Punjabi'. 'I am not religious,' she asserts. 'I refuse to be put into a box of any kind.'

Travel to many countries has given her a liberal outlook, especially on matters of religion. She worries that even young people in India are getting polarised about how they feel about their religion. I consciously want to avoid that. I am very happy to celebrate my roots as a Punjabi and say this is what my culture and my language have given me, but I have no desire to be put into a box, which says, 'You pray to such- and-such a God and therefore you cannot do this.' She adds: 'Even educated people working in high corporate jobs, the supposedly urban, middleclass, liberal thinking people are becoming polarised which scares me. I have fallen out with a lot of my friends over that and I won't back down.'

She has certainly come a long way very quickly since she turned up three years ago at the London Film Festival with Rahul Bose who had cast her in Everybody Says I'm Fine! She will soon be seen with him in the English-language film, White Noise, in which she displaced Tabu as the female lead. She is pleased she got the part. 'Tabu walked out of White Noise and it landed on my lap. I don't know how from Tabu they went to me, but they did. People might say I am rubbish in the role, but no one will say they can imagine Tabu playing this woman-oriented role because I have made it completely my own.'

Her dad might find it a little difficult to give her a good write-up in India Today, but perhaps he should not discriminate against her simply because she is his daughter. It is good for Koel that she has had exposure to the demanding British stage as well, having done Desdemona in a slightly Indianised version of Othello. When her father saw her in the role in Leicester, 'he was in tears,' recalls his daughter.

Closer Look At Her
• Name: Koel Purie
• Daughter of: Rekha and Aroon Purie, the editor-proprietor of India Today
• Born: November 25, 1978 in Delhi
• Red’s the colour: Her apartment is done up in red. Her overcoat, her clothes, her sofa and her trademark red suitcase, all red.
• Profession: Acting
• Headquarters: London
• Qualification: A Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) degree.
• Short takes on the institutes she has been to:
Delhi’s Modern School — “Full of ruffians, no discipline, academic side zero”; York University (to read politics, philoso phy and economics) — “Best three years of my life”; RADA — “Best drama school in the world with 3,000 applications for 30 places”
• Filmography: American Daylight (2004); Roger Christian
Road To Ladakh by Ashvin Kumar (2003); Everybody Says I’m Fine! by Rahul Bose (2001)
• Forthcoming movies: White Noise by Vinta Nanda; Nazar by Soni Razdan
• Television: Indian Dream (2003); Dirty War (A BBC drama); As If, The Vice, Holby City (Guest appearances)
• Theatre: Othello. She played
Desdemona at the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester Square, UK
• Also done: Produced and acted in a Hindi soap, Aaj Ki Nari
Anchored a travel show, Great Escape
Newsreader on India Decides Election Special
She has also assisted Deepa Mehta in Earth

 

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