THE KARAN JOHAR INTERVIEW: SHOBHAA DE
SELL: She’s got India’s most outspoken mouth and she’s not afraid to use it. Best selling author and columnist Shobhaa De talks about why good-looking men are the most boring, why Mumbai socialites make her laugh, and why real men don’t cheat on their wives.
Shobhaa De and I have been bumping into each other at parties and events for over a decade, and when we chat, it’s invariably an energizing conversation. She has a perspective that’s youthful, and is always brilliantly honest and brave. She’s the kind of person you either adore or loathe, but there’s no way you can ignore her. She’s out there with her comments, and has an opinion on everything. I love that about her because people without opinions scare me. It’s also why she’s one of the most feared commentators in the country. She isn’t afraid about taking anyone on, and speaking her mind. The interview took place in my office and ended up being an absorbing discussion about modern marriages in India, Bollywood and society in general. I had interviewed Shobhaa for my television show in the past, but I thought she was a little guarded in front of the camera. At the end of the day, Shobhaa’s domain is the world of print, and the GQ interview format allows us to exist in the space she most thrives in. There’s no question that her piquant personality comes across in this conversation.
Karan Johar: Your opinion on John Abraham’s butt, Shobhaa?
Shobhaa De: I’m waiting to see it in your film [Dostana]. There’s a lot of anticipation. There is a lot riding on his butt, let’s put it that way. And I am sure he knows it, too.
Who else’s butt excites you? Do you think men in India have nice-looking butts?
Are there interesting men in India to start with? We’ll get to their butts later.
You tell me, you’re the authority.
Frankly, the answer is no. In fact, men don’t interest me, generally speaking.
A good conversation stimulates you more?
But it’s hard to come by. And frighteningly good-looking men are generally pretty boring because it’s all about them and how wonderful they are. It’s a kind of narcissism. I’m sure it goes both ways – I’m sure men find that about women as well. But I’ve met a lot of smashing women, really gorgeous women who are not boring, not one-dimensional, not full of themselves. Most good-looking men are all about “Aren’t I the prettiest?”
We associate vanity very strongly with women.
Men are much more vain.
Maybe the ones who are really good-looking stand out much more because they’re rarer.
That only happens for homo sapiens. Whether it’s four-legged creatures or birds, it’s always the male of the species that’s much better-looking because the courtship rituals are very different, and I don’t see why that doesn’t work for us. It should, actually. Men should just be trying that much harder to grab our attention and, in this century, to be able to grab an interesting woman’s attention takes much more than a great-looking butt. So I hope John knows that.
You’re a columnist, an author, an opinion-maker. Have you ever taken off these hats and found out who you really are?
I’ve always known who I am, and I’m all of this. I can’t separate myself and don’t see the need to. It’s like I’ve been marinated in a certain discipline and it’s been mine for over 40 years. I must have emerged from my mother’s womb with a pen in my hand because I’ve always written for self-expression. I found my diaries from when I was 12 and 14 – tiny little plastic diaries – and all the entries are always an opinion. It’s never about, “Oh, that boy didn’t wish me today”, or “I’m crying because my sister pinched my cheeks”.
So not the regular day-to-day girly problems.
Not at all. First of all, the diaries are not girly – the entries are very gender-neutral. Generally it’s an observation, it’s about something I’ve seen on the street or a movie or a person I’ve met . They are acutely observed comments. So it was always there. I don’t think there is any other me. This is it. I cannot be separated from my writing. Don’t wish to be…
Are you saying you were born opinionated?
Yeah, I think my entire family was. Maybe the rest of them don’t get paid for their opinions but when we all get together…
Sounds like a very scary evening.
It’s the best! It’s the most fun because it’s always about bouncing observations, bouncing comments off each other. It’s a very articulate family, and now I see it in my children and that’s getting… well, it’s like there are too many of us with all these opinions going back and forth – but it keeps us on our toes.
Do you sometimes feel compelled to be opinionated about things?
Do you let something just pass by without having a thought about it?
Very rarely. Everything registers.
Do you have to deliver an opinion on every occasion?
It’s not that I have to deliver. I do deliver. There’s no compulsion.
But do you get stuck in a loop, because that’s what’s expected of you?
I never perform, I don’t have to. I don’t need to pander. I say what I passionately feel at that moment if I feel like saying it …. or I don’t. In the presence of a much older person I would hold back an opinion because I think it’s very rude to challenge someone who is much older, even if I disagree violently.
Can you be objective?
There is no such thing as complete objectivity. All opinion is subjective by definition. A writer aims for objectivity to the extent that it’s possible. I don’t think absolute objectivity is either possible or desirable.
Sometimes the people you write about are the people you meet on a daily basis. How tough is that?
It’s not tough at all. People know what I stand for. I think over the years I have made it perfectly clear that my space as a columnist is sacred to me and I will not compromise –take it or leave it. If they don’t want to be my friends after that, it’s fine. I will not short change my readers or my credibility to favour a friend. If I’ve been unduly judgmental about or harsh to someone, and if at a later stage I’ve seen a different side to that person or seen quality being delivered, I have never hesitated in setting the record straight. My pen is not for sale!!
There’s so much focus on fashion and couture in the media today, it’s become a kind of mania. What’s your reaction to it?
I think what passes for Western fashion in India is a monumental joke. I think they’ve got it so wrong. It’s pathetically derivative. It’s nothing but borrowed high-street fashion with a bit of zardozi on it, and we grandly call it ‘fusion’. More confusion!
So are you silently laughing on the front row of a fashion show?
I stopped going ! But I’m laughing all the time when I see them in the papers. I was travelling to Delhi yesterday, and next to me was this very chic Japanese lady. We were looking through Mumbai Mirror and the coverage of one of those interchangeable Fashion Weeks. We stared at all these painted-up, Botox-ed, horrifying socialites with bows in their hair. And she said, “Why are these women all wearing teenage clubwear?” An 18-year-old girl clubbing in London or Paris would wear that stuff, not a 40-plus socialite.
Which 40-plus socialites are you talking about?
She was referring to pictures of Queenie Dhody, Malaika Arora and Nandita Mahtani. It was shocking how strangely dressed they were at that event. It may have been the top label du jour, but they did look comical. The exaggerated clown’s make-up, the lenses, the bleached hair, the artificiality of it all, with the clutch being held up in a certain way, so that the photographers can catch the brand. It is acutely embarrassing. It is tragic, and I wonder what happens when some of these perennial party girls go home and actually see themselves without all of that.
Maybe they think they’re looking lovely. Have you ever thought of that?
Of course they think they’re looking lovely. BUT does the rest of the world agree??
So who do you think is genuinely stylish?
You cannot be a stylish person if you’re a label slave. It’s not possible.
You believe that?
Absolutely. The silliest red carpet question is , “ Who are you wearing?”I believe style is about individuality and about having the courage to go against the tide and highlight your own personality, not represent someone else’s version of what they believe a fashionable woman or man should be.
So who is genuinely stylish in this country?
I don’t even like her, but I would say Sonia Gandhi. She has exquisite taste. She gets it right every time. She knows how to dress for the occasion; she knows how to glam up in a way that is completely appropriate for her position. She’s discreet. It’s this whole thing of less is more; we don’t understand that at all. We think more is more.
I’ve read your columns, and I think you genuinely believe that no one in Bollywood really gets their style right, on-screen or off.
They got it right in the Thirties, Forties, Fifties and Sixties. Those brocade cholis with just a hint of cleavage. It was just wonderful, classic diva dressing. The minute the girls got into frocks, it was the end because they can’t carry them off. Even if they turn size zero or minus or whatever, they cannot get it right.
I’m going to list a few names. Give me just one word.
We’re doing rapid fire now? Do I get a hamper at the end of the day?
You get a hug.
I’ll settle for a hamper and a hug.
Okay. I am just going to say the name and you give me your first thought, your general impression. So if I say Katrina Kaif, you would say…
English rose – and as boring.
No sex appeal whatsoever.
Overrated and very average-looking. Any young girl from Brigade Road in Bangalore could give her a run for her money.
Hot. She has it. She’s magic on screen. Four generations of talent showing.
Very hot. Very intelligent eyes and a body language that is assertive and very today. She’s today’s girl.
He needs to trim his eyebrows, to start with. He’s a cutie, but without the mammu factor I don’t know whether he would have catapulted into the Rs 11 crore bracket with just that one film, which was okay. He registered because of the hype, but he could as easily un-register. He’s not the kind of personality that you say, “Oh wow, here’s a talent.” I’m not falling over backwards.
Technically, no looks. He looks goofy but because he’s so confident, so laid back and so easy in front of the camera I think the girls respond to him big time.
So who has impressed you recently in the world of entertainment?
Frankly, after Hrithik Roshan, no one. When he’s on screen, no one else exists.
Your daughter is getting married in December. Do you think there is a faithful man left in this world?
I know I am married to one, and for me that’s good enough. My father told me something which has stayed with me all my married life. He said it’s not a question of temptation. He said it was not that he did not find another woman (apart from my mother) attractive – that’s not possible – but even when he did have the opportunity and his wife would never have known, he believed his commitment to her was more important than whatever he was going to share with a stranger – that defined character… it also defined commitment to marriage. Any relationship outside marriage is not an option. I remind my children - if that is your level of commitment, then get into marriage. Otherwise, forget it.
And in the current scenario, do you think it’s impossible?
I don’t think so at all. I think it’s very possible. I think a lot of young people, particularly my daughter’s age group, have seen too many marriages collapsing around them. I hope and pray that she remains committed to marriage because I think that’s what it’s all about. It’s about believing enough in marriage to say, “OK, this is for me.”
It’s a battle sometimes.
It is. There are always going to be terrible patches, as there are with any close relationship, but I think the C-word is what the new generation needs to rediscover. And if you don’t believe strongly enough you don’t need to marry. In my time, society pressurized girls in particular to marry. It was the norm. No longer.
But you know many people believe that sexual infidelity doesn’t have to be considered infidelity.
What other kind of infidelity is there?
Love. Falling in love outside your marriage.
No. If you’re in love with your partner, then the question of cheating on your partner does not arise, whether it’s sexually, financially or emotionally. To me it’s 100 per cent – it’s all or nothing, and that’s the only way it can be.
And you’re not being over-optimistic believing that?
Perhaps I am.
But I know men who genuinely love their wives and still…
That’s not genuine love.
So you think if you can cheat on your wife sexually, that means that there is something lacking in your relationship?
Definitely. Well, you don’t care enough about that person. You don’t respect that person. The key word is respect. It’s not about being found out or not being found out, it’s about not wanting to do it in the first place.
What about the urge of the moment?
That’s about character. Of course you’re going to be attracted to someone or the other in your life, but what you do with that attraction is what separates the men from the boys.
Okay, say 10 men have the opportunity to cheat. Out of 10, how many wouldn’t take the bait?
Would not? One in ten. I’m being optimistic!
That’s the fidelity ratio?
Yes, it is. But we’re talking about a very elite class.
But it could be rampant in the middle class, the working class…
It’s happening there as well because the day women stepped out of their homes and into the work place the dynamics of family changed in India. After all, men are not having it off with another male colleague….well…. most of the time.
Well, of course they are.
They are, but most of the time I would say it’s with a female colleague. Women did not exist in the work place earlier.
But what’s your opinion of women who hang on with bad marriages because they feel they can’t leave their comfort zone?
I have very little respect for women like that because I think it’s a very selfish thing to do. You and I must know at least 200 women who hang in there because of the perks of being married to who they’re married to, and the comforts they’ve become accustomed to. My sympathy is often with guys who have found true love and want to move on honourably. They want to settle their wives, marry the ‘other woman’ and live the life that they feel they are missing out on.
But they have a sort of guilt hanging over them.
No. There’s a petty little woman at home who says ‘I will not give you a divorce’. Often, There are grown children who are begging their mother, saying, “Come on, you’re just being such a bitch… He’s going to be looking after you and us. It’s not about the money, it’s certainly not about us because we’re OK with dad taking an independent decision on this, so what are you being such a… female dog about?” But that’s how it is. And I think that’s horrible. Spiteful and nasty.
When you’re at a party, watching people mingling, air-kissing, chatting, the wives interested in others’ husbands, the husbands interested in others’ wives, the lovers floating around, gay men in denial, gay men married… This is pretty much the society we’re living in. When you see this happening, what do you think?
Thank God it’s there ! How boring life would be without these colourful creatures. It has never really touched or affected me. This whole nonsense of taking sides. I say I’m on the side of God and my family, and that’s where it begins and ends. I think what’s happening in our society right now is what F Scott Fitzgerald captured in The Great Gatsby. We need someone like him to chronicle this moment. It’s really about too much new money and decadence… and a very low level of moral standards in every aspect of life, whether it’s towards your spouse, your kids, or money or your colleagues or your business associates.
The fantastic thing is that we can stare at these people, go back and have a good laugh.
Or a good cry sometimes…
The two key words are entertainment and indifference to the social scene…?.
I have always been very detached. I’ve been the eternal insider who’s the ultimate outsider, so it’s suited me very well.
Remember guys, you asked for it. I hope it amuses you on a desperately dull and searingly hot sunday. One more joota attack . This time on Manmohan Singh in A'Bad. Sensibly, the P.M. ignored the shoe thrower.... so should we all.