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July 31, 1998


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The girl next door

Sharmila Taliculam

Neha in Kareeb. Click for bigger pic!
You've seen plenty of newcomers lurking around Bollywood, insouciant attitudes betrayed by those anxious looks around. Their mousy, brown hair, their experienced faces oversmoothened by an excess of cosmetics, their lips reddened, eyebrows plucked, lashes touched, bodies bleached off-white...

And then you meet Neha. Young, delicate, fresh in the nicest possible way, showing the effects of vanishing gawkiness and the faintest remnants of childishness, you might have warmed immediately to the Kareeb hadn't she been a little tetchy at the outset. But the fault, if any, accrues to Vidhu Vinod Chopra.

He hid the girl from the press till the film's release. And then suddenly hauled her out and told her to go forth and publicise. Little wonder, then, that the girl's irritable, Can be more a little disconcerting, such a drastic change in job profiles.

Two whole days of telling the media about her hopes, feelings, aspirations, her wonderful boss, Sir Vinod Chopra, blah, blah, blah has got her down.

She comes in, a tall, thin, bespectacled girl, most her hair tied back tightly and two locks in front help in place with little green clips that match her Lucknowi salwar kameez. She drags her feet and hunches a little. No signs of any ramp training.

She was tired, certainly, because she wanted to know how long the next interview would take. And she cribbed that she was kept busy with these interviews all day and couldn't call her make up man for the next.

Our photographer was told to stuff it. Company -- that's Vinod Chopra Production -- policy had it that she shouldn't be photographed without make-up, which, in Bollywood parlance would mean photographing the foundation and hoping the contours reflected what was below.

But Neha actually looks far better without the warpaint on. She has a fresh, real peaches and cream complexion that might have prompted Chopra to take on this highland lass -- originally from Himachal Pradesh -- as his heroine.

Once we settle down though, Neha reveals herself a talkative, chirpy young girl. Again, refreshingly real.

Neha was born Shabana Raza in Delhi. She lived and studied there in innocuous anonymity till Saurab Shukla, a family friend, saw her at a party. Saurab, who was to play the father of Birju (Bobby Deol) in Kareeb, asked Neha, who was just in her first year, Arts, then if she would like to play the lead role in a film.

She thought the offer was a joke. And no, she didn't know who Vidhu Vinod Chopra was. She had to be reminded that he was the director of 1942 - A Love Story for her to catch on that this was the big league talking. It was thrilling and flattering, and so, once she finished a two-month stint at acting school that Vir Chopra recommended she visited Bombay for an audition.

Neha with Bobby Deol in Kareeb. Click for bigger pic!
"None of us (in her family) thought whether I should be doing it or not. It was just an audition at that time and I thought that if I do this then maybe I can tell my grandchildren of this audition at least." She knew she didn't have a chance since many experienced actresses were also being considered for the role. And since she wasn't a film buff and hadn't even acted in a school play, she fancied her chances as good as that of her bowling out Sachin Tendulkar. Anyway, she was more into reading as her spectacles testified.

"In college, there was this group who would discuss plays and characters and adapt earlier plays to modern times. I did feel that maybe I was missing on something. But it wasn't so bad that I wanted to join them. I didn't give it that much thought".

And so when Vir Chopra asked her to join an acting and a dancing school before the audition, she was surprised. But go she did. And for two months, she learnt acting and got to know Bombay. After that she appeared for the screen test. What apparently worked in her favour was her confidence before the camera.

"I was selected because I was not conscious in front of the camera at all. Of course, I didn't know that then. I was having a ball."

She was picked and the name Neha foisted on her. The screen name also stuck to her because everybody in the unit also insisted on calling her that to get her comfortable with the character. She guessed she could live with it.

Neha shifts from pensive introspection to garrulous effusiveness, from seriousness to laughter, within moments. She also uses her hands a great deal to make her point.

Still young in the profession, she says the industry is not as bad as it sounds. She says that in the early phase, she quite enjoyed meeting people, and learning how to act and dance.

"I think God put me in the right place. Because how many times does something like this happen and to how many people? It was definitely divine intervention before I took some stupid step that I would have regretted later".

But Neha already has some knowledge of what could lie ahead. So she structures her sentences carefully, avoiding controversy with some skill.

"I was aware of what everybody said about the industry. I'm a well-brought up child..." She says she wasn't very worried because she is a very positive person. "And the kind of person you are reflects on the people around you. I know what I am all about and I trust myself."

But Neha has also been lucky. Few heroines can expect an important role in a film that eschews vulgarity and violence. She says she is game for the song and dance kind of role too, but that isn't said with a great deal of confidence.

Neha with Bobby Deol in Kareeb. Click for bigger pic!
But she says she is quite certain about the kind of role she wants.

"I am passionate about this as I am about everything I do. I want a role where a character gets enough breathing space to grow from a seedling to a seed, to a sapling, to a bud, a flower and then to wilt."

Part of her success she attributes to director Chopra. But she is yet gullible enough to feel that all good directors will be reasonable enough to show her off without having her expose.

"Sir (Vinod Chopra) believed in realism and a girl from Himachal Pradesh influenced by Punjab has to wear salwar kameezes. So the question of wearing anything else doesn't arise..."

And she feels that even if absurdities abound in the industry, the right touch can made them look credible. She cites Amitabh Bachchan as the king of absurdities in the sense that he made unbelievable roles look real. "As for me, who knows, I might be the queen of absurdities."

Neha is at a stage where she is discovering herself. She didn't want to be an actress, but she is one. She doesn't know whether she will be comfortable doing absurd scenes and dances in films, but she wants to give it a try. You slowly perceive that the limelight is getting to her. Neha is getting addicted to fame.

And so Neha roams the crossroads. And that shows up when she attenuates her earlier stand about Bollywood. With caveats.

"I have not been exposed to this industry and I don't really know how it works. But all of us are human and it's not as if I am this goody type and the rest are bad. Everybody has their shortcomings and I am ready to face and accept them. I like to look at the goodness and ignore the bad."

For now, Neha is happy her fresh good looks in Kareeb was appreciated. And suddenly, for one termed an ordinary girl, it's very pleasant to be called pretty.

Better, her acting hasn't come in for flak. Signs maybe of something bigger.

"Yeah, looking into the mirror, I thought I was bad. But I know people think that I'm good looking and it sort of feels nice." And she shows unmistakeable signs of embarrassment. She is unused to this, it is clear.

What about the way she was kept out of the promos of the film? Does she feel a little resentful about that?

"To tell you honestly, my job was to act. And I like to keep to my job... I just hope people wish I get good roles and that I act well. Nothing else matters."

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