Its all in the eyes. You look at them alive with life and know why the nation was glued to television sets for seven long years as Tulsi Virani, the often oppressed but always righteous daughter-in-law of Indian soap, ruled the Indian home.
Even now, Smriti Iranis eyes do the talking. She has asked for cold coffee, after making some enquiries about doughnuts. She hasnt had breakfast, she says. Since its 1pm, I ask her if skipping breakfast has anything to do with her added kilos. She rolls her eyes. Actually, it is nice when your weight becomes a national obsession, she says, referring to media reports on why slim Tulsi let herself go after bidding goodbye to Ekta Kapoors television saga Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi.
A svelte figure, however, is not on her must-have list. I made a choice to be a political activist. I made a choice to be a working mother. It was not important to maintain myself. I can make do with barbs about being overweight but I cant accept the fact that the time I spend grooming could be given to my political office or my family, she says.
Tulsi Virani is dead. Long live Smriti Zubin Irani. The 34-year-old actress is now a full-time politician. She is a national secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In June she was appointed the president of its womens wing.
Since then life has been a whirlwind. She has been travelling to the partys headquarters in Delhi so often that Smriti has decided to move to the capital her old hometown. Both my husband and I have roots in Delhi, she says.
But Mumbai is the city that introduced her to stardom. She still remembers visiting the city for the first time when she was 17. We did the whole Mumbai panorama right from Kamala Nehru Park, the Boot House and Gateway to finally Queens Necklace. I announced to my shocked cousins, You mark my words, one day this city will know me. They thought the citys magic had mesmerised me and made me woolly-headed, Smriti says with a full-throated laugh.
Even she wouldnt have known how prophetic her words were. After all, Smriti then Malhotra had lived an ordinary life with two sisters, growing up in a middle class family headed by a Bengali mother and a Punjabi father. She cut short her education to start selling beauty products on Delhis streets when she was 16 later going on to finish her studies through a correspondence course.
Life took a new turn when she auditioned for a beauty contest and made it to the finals. She didnt win the crown, but stayed back in Mumbai for work since she wanted to repay the money she had borrowed from her father for the pageant. She tried unsuccessfully for the job of an air hostess. She worked in a fast food restaurant waiting tables and sweeping floors. And whenever she could, she went for an audition. Then, soon after shed been selected to host a TV show, Oo La La, Ekta Kapoors mother, Shobha, noticed her. And Tulsi Virani was born.
I know I will forever be known as Tulsi, she says. Between 2000 and 2007, the soap became a national obsession and Tulsi the topic of conversation. But Smriti was sceptical even when a friend told her that her role was the talk of the town. Then one day she was at Mumbai airport, travelling abroad for the first time, suitably attired in a business suit. My mother was on the phone telling me to keep my bag locked when there was this announcement for me. I went to the airline counter with a lot to trepidation hoping nothing had gone wrong with my luggage. And then I got a shock when this official asked: Are you Tulsi? There are 25 people out here who want your autograph.
Another time, an excited Ekta Kapoor called her up in the morning to tell her that she had been mentioned in a newspaper article on Afghanistan by Shashi Tharoor, then in the United Nations. Ekta, who never called before 12, rang up at 9.30 ecstatic that Tulsis character had gone beyond television, she recalls.
During the making of the series, Smriti married Zubin Irani, who is in the plastic business and runs a chikoo farm. They have two children, and Zubin has a daughter from his ex-wife, Mona, a model co-ordinator. From Zubin I learnt patience, forgiveness. I learnt to be single-minded in my determination. When I had my first child, I wanted to give up working. He said, Have I given up because I have had a child? Why should you? Every woman should be lucky enough to marry a man like Zubin. I dont know why I gloat about it, but I am lucky.
She has a streak of sindoor in her hair and keeps a fast on karva chauth when women pray for their husbands. I fast from the previous night as I am very superstitious about this.
Mona, she adds, is close to the family. Once Mona and I were sitting together when this reporter called and asked me something about her. She thought there would be fireworks. I handed over the phone to Mona. The reporter got the shock of her life. She laughs but I find that the eyes are quiet. Life gets complicated only if you want it to be complicated. Every problem has a solution.
She has picked up this outlook from her husband, she stresses. My stability taking what comes my way with a pinch of salt and a smile comes from my husband.
From her parents she says she has inherited her hardworking capabilities. That she could do what she wanted to do was a belief she picked up from her mothers father who worked with Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, a group that reconverts Hindus who have adopted other religions. Her mother was with the Jan Sangh, which gave birth to the BJP. She couldnt believe it when I made it to the national executive of the BJP. She was so happy.
But will she continue to grow in the party? After all, most actors from Mumbai have failed as politicians. But none of them were in active organisational politics, she retorts. I have been trained by the BJP in Maharashtra for the last eight years. I have been to over 80 per cent of the assembly constituencies in Maharashtra, and that is no small feat considering that there are 288 seats.
She is defensive when I mention the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat. When you talk about controversies isnt the Congress scarred with the 1984 Sikh riots? I can tell you of 20 other incidents connected to the Congress. For me the BJP is a platform where men and women are treated equally and if you work sincerely and have talent it will not only appreciate it but bring you forward.
Speaking of equality, its the Congress that has a woman at its helm, I point out. For me there is a woman at the helm in the BJP and that is Sushma Swaraj. I would rather judge Sonia Gandhi politically than personally. There are certain areas where Sonia Gandhi has let women down like the condition of women officers in the army and I feel extremely charged about that.
She is equally charged about making sure that her children opt for Marathi instead of French in school. I want them to learn the language of the state, she says. That apart, Smriti has Maharashtrian roots too. Her fathers mother was from Sholapur. We are adulterated to the core, she laughs. My love for parathas is a standing joke in the family. I can prepare Bengali maachh, Punjabi parathas, Gujarati thepla and Parsi mutton.
Smriti says she ensures that her children are taken care of even when she is travelling. When she is out, her husband and in-laws are there for them. The kids know little about their mothers celebrity status. We are a non-TV family. I dont have a single DVD of Kyunki... I would rather document my childrens development or document my marriage.
The actress-politician, however, is thankful that she succeeded when many others didnt. For me what was extraordinary was that so many people struggle, but how many make it? Everybody does not become a Tulsi. I had found a family in the entire world.
But the only time she felt shed arrived was when she went to Taj Hotel in Delhi. My mother was with the housekeeping section of Taj Mansingh. That was the time when we were struggling financially and she took up the job as she had no other option. Since she got discounted food, she would get me this club sandwich which had a funny orange toothpick kind of a thing on it. Many years later, when I achieved fame, I went back to the hotel with my mother and the family and I said, let us order club sandwiches. That was the only time I felt a sense of accomplishment.
I get a sense of regret when she talks about her busy life. She juggles her activities so that she can do justice to everything her marriage, her family and her political career. But I have no social life and no friends, no time for outings. The only person I shortchange is me.
Once again the eyes are doing all the talking.