When Malaika Arora was amiably sipping a cup of south Indian filter coffee after releasing my sister, Lakshmi Narayan’s new book Bonsai Kitten in Mumbai, an actor’s relative quietly asked me, “So how much did Malaika charge you to do this?” A bit crossed at this question, I told her the truth: she charged nothing to release the book. “But you must have slipped her a little something,” the inquisition persisted. No, I didn’t, and Malaika didn’t expect it either, was my terse reply.
It is such a poor comment on relationships that no longer does anybody accept that a celebrity will do something without charging a fee for it. It was the unvarnished truth that Malaika and her sister, Amrita Arora (who had just delivered her second baby), along with English Vinglish director, Gauri Shinde, had graciously done the honours without expecting anything in return. They had all come absolutely on time, posed for the cameras, done their bit on the stage with professional ease and, after just a cup of coffee, had exited with no fuss at all. Yes, co-ordinating celebrity dates can be a nightmare and yes, they do, justifiably, charge a hefty fee for commercial appearances. But they also respect relationships and I know umpteen cases when Malaika Arora has gone out of her way to do things for people without sticking them with a bill at the end of it.
But the feeling that she won’t put a foot out of her car until she is paid for it, persists about her and most other celebrities. In fact, one Ms Know-all from the fashion world caused a bit of panic by whispering that Malaika had walked the ramp for a very dear friend of hers, a renowned fashion designer, and then surprised him with a bill for Rs 80,000 for her make-up, hair and sundry expenses. But having dealt with Malaika on more than one occasion, I can vouch for it that she is too straightforward to spring an undecided bill on any friend. As she puts it, “If it is a professional commitment, I simply don’t take the conversation forward but put my manager in front to deal with it.”
While she is a complete professional on one hand, she is also, unexpectedly, very warm as a person. To put out the rumour that she won’t move a muscle unless she’s paid for it, doesn’t do her justice at all.
Of course, in these very commercial times, sports and film celebrities do understandably tend to rake in whatever they can while the going’s good. When we were doing interviews for a TV channel, Zeenat Aman (whom I’ve known for years) had once asked me how much she would be paid for it. “Show me the money,” she had said without inhibition. Walking the ramp and appearing at events (including weddings and funerals) are routes to make money, and it works well even long after retirement from the studios. “One day you’ll be paying stars to talk to you,” Anil Kapoor had teased me years ago. The time isn’t far, I guess.
Zeenat’s straight talking was welcome because she is an extremely likeable person, warm, generous and giving. To the extent that when TV channels suddenly showed an interest in her personal life last week (because she has a young, new man in her life), I refused to give any bytes because the scandalous tones of TV shows are a total turn-off.
Zeenat herself was not perturbed. “Nothing due to happen for the longest time. Boys always priority,” she messaged me, refuting the story that she had already married this married man.
One isn’t sure why there are eyebrows shooting up about this new man. Age and marital status have never come into play with Zeenat’s relationships. And she has always been unapologetically open about it. When she fell in love with a much older Dev Anand, he was a much-married family man. When she had a brief relationship with villain Pran’s son, he was married too. When she had her young neighbour tail her from Mumbai during the Bangalore shoot of Shalimar, he was the quintessential toy boy. When she fell in love with, and married Sanjay Khan quietly, he was the father of three with the fourth (son, Zayed Khan) on his way. Mazhar was younger than her; the partner she had all these years after Mazhar was also her junior. She hid none of these.
So why is everybody shocked this time around? Only because she is 60-plus?
Bharathi S. Pradhan is editor, The Film Street Journal