Nargis Fakhri is an anomaly in Bollywood. In a world where many stars are said to lead a goldfish existence – constantly scrutinised, but all alone in a glass bowl, thinking that’s the extent of the world – Nargis is a refreshing change.
When she was drawing the winning ticket in a raffle draw for the Damas jewellery millionaire promotion for Diwali at the Damas headquarters last month and the entry had to be disqualified because the contact number written on it was illegible, Nargis was very sympathetic. “Oh my, the poor guy! What rotten luck,” she said to the motley crowd that had gathered, more to gaze at her than to see who the winner would be.
When the next entry passed muster and the ticket holder was declared the winner of Dh1 million worth of jewellery and watches from Damas, she smiled and said earnestly, “That’s life; sometimes it’s the luck of the draw.” As if on cue, Damas retail director Kevin Ryan announced a surprise gift for Nargis – a beautiful gold necklace set that she proceeded to display to the audience with almost schoolgirlish glee.
When talking about it afterwards, the 34-year-old Bollywood star says happily, “I believe I am the luckiest girl in the world! Yes, it happens a lot, even big things! It’s nice, I appreciate it.”
She’s also refreshingly honest about her celebrity status. Later, when she is away from the frenzied masses, she lets slip that she’s actually nervous in a crowd, but will say and do things that make people think she’s a very outgoing person. “I am actually very shy,” she confesses. Then there’s the glint of humour that’s always visible in her eyes behind the glamorous front.
And she’s very loyal, too. As the face of the Damas she keeps trying to plug the brand at every opportunity. For example: “I love jewellery and I love being a part of the Damas family, it’s a lovely brand, very elegant, feminine… It helps me to look like a lovely lady.” But then her real persona can’t help popping up. Almost in the same breath, she confides conspiratorially, “But deep down, I am a little tomboy trapped in an elegant lady’s body.” With Nargis, the different sides – childlike and mature, the diplomat and the outspoken – come in one slim elegant package.
All these discrepancies make sense when you realise she’s not your typical Bollywood-aspirant non-resident Indian.
In fact, she’s not even Indian. She’s part Czech (from her mother, Marie) and part Pakistani (from her father, Mohammad), and all-American – she grew up in Brooklyn, New York. So Bollywood had no place in her life. She wasn’t even aware of its existence until three years ago when filmmaker Imtiaz Ali approached her for what was to be her debut film, Rockstar, a 2011 blockbuster that co-starred Ranbir Kapoor.
Nargis’s priorities were different back then. She just wanted to get out of the tough neighbourhood she’d been raised in.
“I didn’t grow up with Bollywood films. I did see movies, but I really didn’t live in a fantasy world,” she says, as a hairdresser prepares her for a photo shoot. “My dream was to travel, to get out of my neighbourhood. That’s it. Small dream, but at that time it was very big. I never imagined that all this would happen.”
As a child she was more inspired by anything related to travel, adventure and science, she says. “What really interested me was watching the National Geographic or Discovery channel,” says Nargis. “The fantasy world of films was not really something that attracted me. But now look at what I am doing!”
Travel is an important aspect of Nargis’s life, and it’s what brought her to this juncture. “Actually my mom inspired me to travel,” she says. “She grew up in Europe and her dream was to travel. Unfortunately, she didn’t get to travel as much as she wanted. She had many dreams that she couldn’t realise. She always used to talk about the places she wanted to visit, show us on the maps the country she was born in, and the countries she’d visited. It left an impression on me and my younger sister, Aliya.”
As she grew up and the desire to escape her violent neighbourhood took root, Nargis found her salvation in modelling. “I was really tall and skinny. Everyone would say I should be a model,” she says. “I realised that I had to make a living to get to travel. My mom insisted on me finishing college – a degree in psychology and fine arts. After I did that, I started modelling in 2005, which gave me the opportunity to visit places and stay away from home for long periods. I would choose places on the map that looked interesting and then I’d see if they had agencies and send my portfolio there. Even if they didn’t want me I’d go over if I loved the place, and once they met me they would fall in love and I’d get the job!
“I would stay for a minimum of three months in every country I visited. Sometimes up to a year.”
She was and still is fiercely independent. “I lived alone, still do,” she says. “My mom instilled in us a confidence to live our lives according to our wishes, independently.
“Those were good learning experiences – and better than any university could teach you. I learnt new cultures, new languages and I found that life is what you make of it.”
In 2010 she got the offer that was to change her life – through a random email sent to her inbox. Even though she had never been to India, her face was widely recognisable there because of her modelling work. “I think the director Imtiaz Ali saw my face there, either on a billboard or online, and wanted to cast me.”
Her face and her name have always pegged her as a South Asian. “By the way, I didn’t like my name growing up,” she says in a stage whisper. This is the real Nargis – totally upfront, frank, and in Bollywoodspeak, bindaas (loosely translated as “one with no hang-ups”). She tells me how, growing up in Brooklyn, other children would tease her by calling her something that sounded similar to her name, but was in fact a rude body part in Spanish.
“In fact, everyone made fun of me!” she says. “And after all those years of heartache [because of] my name, it paid off finally! There was always a plan, I guess!”
It’s obvious that Nargis has an unusual thought process and keeps going off at odd tangents mid-sentence. But she’s focused, and just as suddenly jumps back on track, catching you unaware.
“I kept receiving emails inviting me to an audition,” she resumes her story. “I had this conversation with this young lady back and forth, until they realised that I lived in Europe, I was not an actress, and didn’t speak the language. They had assumed from my picture and name that I was Indian and lived in India. Then she asked if I would like to meet the director in Prague in the Czech Republic, which is my mother’s hometown. I was in Copenhagen, which is not very far off. I thought, ‘What the heck, I’ll go visit Prague, and meet him too. If he’s weird, I’ll just run away!’”
This was where her instincts paid off. Nargis says she relies a lot on people’s auras. “I always go by people’s energy on the first meeting,” she enthuses. “So when I met Imtiaz Ali in Prague, I was blown away; his energy was just fantastic! I sat and listened to his story, and what a story! After our second meeting he asked me if I’d like to take a chance and come to audition in India after some tuition and acting classes – he never said I had the job.”
Nargis was given two months to learn a new language, a task that was almost impossible in that time period, and also to understand an alien culture. But her instinct said yes, and her tenacity stood by her.
Nargis auditioned successfully at the end of the two months. “I had to do a monologue in Hindi!” she giggles. “Well, I guess he felt that I could pull it off because I got the job. And then my whole life turned upside down!”
Suddenly Nargis comes back to the present and realises that she’s here to promote the jewellery brand and without missing a beat she continues, “And here I am today wearing Damas jewellery, which is so beautiful, from the Legacy collection! You must buy this for your wife/daughter/sister!”
Seeing my face, she collapses in a fit of contagious giggles.
Nargis uses her hands a lot when she talks. She’s hampered in this interview as she has to sit still for most of it because she is having her hair done. She keeps asking her secretary and me if its OK to be doing both at the same time, hoping that one of us would get the message. But since time is of the essence, she gives in sportingly. Despite her discomfort, she is chirpy and animated.
Nargis can’t seem to come to grips with her celebrity status, and keeps saying readers would hardly be interested in what she has to say. She’s surprised to hear that there are many expatriates from the Subcontinent who are die-hard fans of Bollywood and some of them even harbour dreams of making it big in B-Town, and will hang on her every word. She’s astounded.
“It was not my dream, it happened to me by accident. When I hear that it helps me be a little more grateful. Because sometimes I take what I’ve been given for granted. Though this was not my dream, I see it as the one that will help me fulfil my other dreams. It brings me back to the reality that I am one of the lucky ones.”
While being a star and gaining fame does not really interest her, Nargis is focusing on how she can use her celebrity status to do some good, and give back to the world.
“What I want to do is interact with people on a more holistic plane,” she says vaguely. “I don’t know how, right now. I am seeing that I can be a role model, so you can be someone who is positive, giving information that’s valuable. I am very active on Twitter, and tweet on health and taking care of yourself.”
On a more concrete platform, Nargis is also signing on as the face of some public causes. She’s the spokesperson for India’s Save The Tiger campaign. “I am very passionate about the environment,” she explains. “I think we live in a world today where we forget Mother Nature and the basics.”
Nargis also extended a helping hand to the victims of the recent floods in Kashmir, India. “I was moved by their plight, and decided to try to raise funds for the victims,” she says. “I think it’s fantastic that I can do all that, or at least bring awareness, whether I put in my own money or my time. These are the things that make me feel good about what I am doing. It makes me think of the power I have, and how I can use it in the best way for the betterment of humanity.”
Suddenly she catches herself, and exclaims, “Gosh, it’s so boring, nobody wants to know all that about me!” She turns to her secretary and says, “He’s going to write my biography!” and then laughs uproariously. It’s obvious she’s trying to cover up her embarrassment at talking about herself.
So, what’s her advice to Bollywood aspirants as one who’s made it after the initial negative reviews for her debut performance in Rockstar?
“I think it’s not only Bollywood, it’s also Hollywood, and even the corporate world where people are climbing on top of each other in the mad race to get to the top,” she says.
“There’s a lot of negativity everywhere. But through that you have to find the light, and your way through it. It was tough for me.”
It’s not only about criticism… “I guess for me it was tougher because it was all alien to me. It was almost a culture shock. I was also alone, no friends, no family. And I think the most important thing for people is to have a sense of belonging. It was a huge learning process for me. But I am still here, so I’ve found my way. And I could do it because of introspection, being alone, and being OK with being alone.”
Nargis has in the meantime done two more Bollywood films – Madras Café and Main Tera Hero – and the reviewers have been kinder.
She’s also just completed her first Hollywood film Spy, which has her co-starring with Jude Law and Jason Statham.
“It was fantastic… Very different from Bollywood,” she says. “Also, the Hollywood actors were very different. One of my favourite things was getting ready in the make-up van where there were five of us – Jason Statham, Rose Bryne, Fifty Cent and Miranda Hart and me – sitting next [to each other] and getting our hair and make-up done together, which you’d never find in Bollywood. They are very famous, but very down to earth, fun and sweet. And the scheduling! Everyone was on time. If I was even five minutes late coming down from my room to my pick-up I’d get a phone call!”
So will she quit Bollywood for Hollywood if Spy succeeds? “No, I wouldn’t want to because I think there’s something about Bollywood that I really love, that Hollywood doesn’t have and will never have. It has that masala; that spice that’s indescribable – the music, the colours, the cultures, it’s all very exotic and fascinating.
And when I’m away I miss it – I have a love-hate relationship with it! It just sucks you in – you love it as there’s something beautiful about it.”
As we finish talking, her secretary, who doesn’t seem happy I’ve been monopolising her, attempts to shepherd her to the next interview, forgetting our photo shoot. But Nargis doesn’t, and like a true professional asks our photographer where and how he wants her to pose. Hardly Bollywood-star behaviour, I point out. “Not there yet, never will be!” she replies.