There’s a flurry of activity, a heightened sense of excitement and hushed whispers early in the morning at a Mumbai film studio. Preparations for the shoot of the reality show Khatron Ke Khiladi are going on at a brisk pace, but several members of the crew are hovering around the entrance, awaiting the arrival of an A-lister.
Sure enough, minutes later, a grey Mercedes pulls up near the studio gates before coming to a smooth stop next to a vanity van parked in the lawns of the studio.
A silence descends on the crowd as the door opens and out steps Bollywood star Kareena Kapoor Khan. Dressed in a black striped blazer, a pair of blue wide-legged jeans and a printed tee, the award-winning actress looks dazzling in the bright Mumbai sun, her short ponytail bobbing as she walks to her vanity van to get ready for the shoot.
Smiling to the small crowd that is milling around, she quickly disappears into the van as the crew returns to work.
‘You can meet her now,’ whispers an assistant, chaperoning me for the interview.
Seated cross-legged on a plush sofa, the Ki & Ka star appears deep in thought, popping a few almonds and pistachios into her mouth from a bowl in her lap.
‘Can I have some anjeer [dry figs]?’ she asks an assistant softly, before flashing a welcome smile in my direction.
Arjun Kapoor, her co-star in Ki & Ka, is hosting the TV show, and she is in the studio for a special episode – part of promotions for the film, which released in UAE cinemas yesterday. A romcom by R Balki of Paa and Shamitabh fame, it tells the story of a couple and how their relationship challenges stereotypical gender roles in Indian society.
How does it feel to work with a younger actor, I ask her, reminding the 35-year-old that Arjun had remarked in a recent interview that he was just 15 when Kareena debuted in J P Dutta’s Refugee back in 2000.
‘Arjun may have been 15,’ says, Kareena, aka Bebo, rolling her blue eyes with a hint of mock sarcasm. ‘But I wasn’t that old either. I was only 18 when I started working in it.’
Then, as though to pacify herself, she adds: ‘I’ve had a lot more screen time than he has though; Arjun was launched after me. I started very early; he started at 26, which is actually quite old for an actor.’
Since her debut 15 years ago, Kareena has dabbled in all kinds of cinema and is considered one of the industry’s most bankable actors. The 35-year-old star has shared screen space with Bollywood’s biggest actors like Aamir and Salman Khan in films that have broken box-office records.
The beautiful Bajrangi Bhaijaan actress is however quick to point out that the comfort level they share makes it easier for them to do a film together. In Ki & Ka, Kareena portrays an ambitious, career-oriented working woman while Arjun is a househusband doing all the household chores, including cooking.
‘The chemistry between us is great because I’ve known him for a very long time,’ she says. ‘I worked with his father [producer Boney Kapoor] in three films and my family knows his family well. Arjun and I are very good friends, in fact, closest of friends. Of the 100 guests at my wedding, Arjun was one – that’s the kind of relationship we share.’
Kareena and Arjun’s off-screen chemistry was evident when Arjun cooked a scrumptious omelette for her this Women’s Day. Impressed by his culinary skills, the actress had jocularly remarked, ‘After watching the amount of work Arjun does, I guess I’ll leave Saif and marry him’.
Following a five-year courtship, Kareena wed Saif Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi, in 2012. She claims that marriage has widened her horizons.
Kareena, who tied the knot with Saif Ali Khan – son of the late Indian cricketer Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi and veteran actor Sharmila Tagore – in 2012 after dating him for five years, says her only condition for marrying Saif was that ‘I’d work all my life and earn money and my husband will always be around to support me’.
While she claims marriage hasn’t brought much change in her life, she admits that it has widened her horizons. ‘Saif is a voracious reader and he introduced me to books in a big way. While he loves history and the arts, I prefer crime fiction and pop fiction. Yes, I do enjoy reading now.’
Not only does the actress, one of the highest-paid in Bollywood at Rs80 million (about Dh4.4 million) a movie, read more, but she’s also an author, having co-written a memoir, The Style Diary of A Bollywood Diva, in 2013 with fashion journalist Rochelle Pinto. It offers insights into her style mantra and has plenty of tips on everything from diet to yoga.
A passionate weight and diet watcher, Kareena also collaborated with nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar on two books. Don’t Lose Your Mind, Lose Your Weight focuses on the principles of healthy eating, which she followed up with Women & The Weight Loss Tamasha. The svelte superstar was part of a documentary with Diwekar as well – Indian Food Wisdom and The Art of Eating Right.
‘I believe in eating the right way and in a balanced manner,’ she says. ‘I’m not much of a meat eater as I was a vegetarian for a long time, but if my dietician insists I have some meat, I will for lunch but never for dinner.’
And what’s her favourite meal?
‘You won’t believe but it’s dal and rice. I also love paneer in any form!’ But she does admit that she enjoys the occasional street food when out on a shoot or a holiday.
‘Once, Saif and I were in Lucknow and we found some lovely kachoris (stuffed deep-fried Indian snack) at a streetside stall, which, after checking with my dietician, I quickly dug into,’ she says.
Kareena is close not only to her parents and Karisma (below), but also to Saif’s son Ibrahim from his previous marriage as well as to his sister Soha and her husband Kunal Khemu.
Hailing from one of Bollywood’s most prominent families – she’s the granddaughter of legendary actor Raj Kapoor, daughter of actors Randhir and Babita and younger sister to Karisma aka Lolo – Kareena emphasises that as a couple, Saif and she bring out the best in each other. ‘We are very private and protective about the time we spend together. I try to maintain a good work-life balance. That’s the way I’ve always been. That has not changed after marriage,’ she says.
Kareena makes it clear that her husband is different from the typical stars in the industry.
‘Saif is not into the whole Bollywood scene,’ she says. ‘He likes meeting people from the industry, but it’s not high up on his list; he doesn’t make conscious plans to socialise with the industry. If he makes friends then they last; he has to have a real connection with that person or enjoy his or her company.’
Would she like Saif as a househusband in real life? ‘Not really!’ she says. ‘The good thing about our relationship is that both of us are working and fiercely independent individuals. He’s busy with his films and I am busy with mine.
‘Currently he is shooting in Arunachal Pradesh [for Rangoon] and I’m promoting my film here. He doesn’t question me, discuss my films... We don’t discuss work.
‘He never insists on seeing my movies. In fact, he doesn’t have a say in anything in my life other than in loving me!’
Over the years, Kareena has garnered a reputation for calling a spade a spade, and while the edge has softened, her candidness remains just as apparent. And having acted in over 50 films and bagging an armload of awards, her take on the current crop of award functions is naturally frank.
‘Earlier there was just one award, given by a film publication, which was considered to be the academy award [in Bollywood],’ she says. ‘Now, there’s an award function happening almost everywhere. It has become, very sadly, a televised racket.
‘As long as there are rewards, I don’t care much for awards.’
For Kareena, the best reward is feeling fulfilled after making a good film. ‘I’ve enjoyed doing a mix of roles, commercial as well as different ones like in Omkara and Chameli,’ she says. ‘Now, after over 15 years in cinema, I’m only interested in doing good films.’
So what’s her strategy when choosing a script? ‘There’s no strategy as such,’ she says. ‘The story should excite me. It’s not that I want to do five films at a time. I’m happy to do just one or two films. The length of my role doesn’t worry me either. If I feel I’ll enjoy doing it, I’ll accept the film.’
One film she was quick to sign up for is Udta Punjab, slated for release in June. Co-starring Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Diljit Dosanjh, and directed by Abhisek Chaubey of Ishqiya fame, it’s a neo-noir thriller about substance abuse in Punjab. And the professional she is, Kareena was fine with working alongside Shahid Kapoor, her ex.
‘I have no problem working with anyone as long as I am excited about my role,’ she says. ‘It was the media that spread the news that we didn’t want to work with each other. I’ve never ever bothered about who my co-star is. In fact, I have said no to many bigger stars.
‘I look at where my mind is at that point of time. If I want to do a film, I will.’
Family-oriented almost to a fault, Kareena is known for her loyalty. ‘I’m a very responsible person and proud of that,’ she says. ‘I’m always available for my family.’
Kareena has been extremely supportive of Karisma who is in the midst of a messy divorce with Sanjay Kapur. ‘I have great regard for my sister and I’m very protective about her,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to comment on the matter as I value her privacy.
‘My opinion here doesn’t matter. It’s a personal issue and I don’t like intruding on someone’s space because I don’t want anyone to intrude on mine. I don’t judge, nor do I like being judged.’