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December 11, 1999
Love at first sight
A Ganesh Nadar
She schooled in Ethiopia, graduated in Mysore, earned a doctorate in marketing and has given two hit Kannada films in as many years. That's Chandni for you.
She came for the interview dressed in baggy jeans and a bright red tee shirt and she looked good. A very pretty, petite girl. Despite starring in both A and AK-47, the hits of 1998 and 1999 respectively, she is not, at the fag end of the millennium, busy on the sets. "I have signed two movies, one of which is in Hindi, but aren't they supposed to announce it?"
In A she acted opposite Upendra (who had directed both Om and this film). In the bilingual AK-47, she paired opposite Shivraj Kumar in the Kannada version and Sai Kumar in the Telugu version. The other credits in the movie include Girish Karnad and Om Puri.
"Besides being accomplished actors, both of them are very nice people," says Chandni. "I used to watch Girish Karnad practising for 10 minutes before the shot. If an actor of his experience practised, why not me? After all, this was only my second movie. I decided to practise more intensely."
Her first brush with filmdom came when she participated in the Miss India World beauty pageant. Chandni represented Ethiopia and was crowned Miss Photogenic '97. One of the judges for the beauty pageant happened to be Dev Anand.
The award gave her the impetus to circulate her portfolio. The result? It reached a Kannada film-maker who liked the way she looked. Though he had no role for her, he did mention her to fellow director Upendra. Who took a while to realise that he was not looking at the portfolios of two different girls.
When that realisation dawned, he promptly called her in New York and offered Chandni her first break as heroine.
"A was a role of lifetime," she says. "I played a quiet girl, a mentally retarded girl and an arrogant actress." It also resulted in overnight stardom and a realistion that she had found her calling.
The movie generated a lot of attention, which began with its rather unusual name. Then there was the subject matter, which dealt with the love affair between a director and his heroine and the dreaded casting couch. And the movie had some rather revealing moments as well.
"An artiste may be required to do a cabaret scene if the script demands it. Why should she be condemned for that? Why don't people realise that it is not easy to face the camera and do such a scene when 200 pairs of eyes are watching you? Instead, they look down at actresses and talk derogatorily about them; that's bad. It's a classic case of men who can't get it and women who couldn't make it."
At the same time, Chandni insists she will not do "vulgar motions for a dance or use skin to become popular. Yes, in A, I did wear revealing clothes for the part of the arrogant actress. But they were not vulgar." In fact, she refused to a Malayalam film opposite a big star because of the clothes she didn't have to wear.
AK-47 -- which included the infamous don Dawood Ibrahim in its canvas -- also courted controversy. Chandni played a widow in the film.
"I want to be a 'regular Indian actress," she explains. "You have to act well, dance gracefully, look beautiful, dress nicely -- that is, be a complete actress." Or a complete entertainer? "Both. I can play a Smita Patil kind of rustic role and a Westernised Brooke Shield as well."
Is education an asset in this profession? "Well! It has given me confidence." As has her rather unusual lifestyle. Her father is a professor and her mother works for the United Nations. She was born and brought up in Ethiopia and has travelled all over Africa.
After school, she returned to India to graduate in commerce from the Mysore University. A good student, she topped the stream and was presented a gold medal by the then finance minister, Dr Manmohan Singh. Chandni then went on to do her masters in food and agriculture marketing, for which she visited some rural villages in Karnataka. And, in the hiatus between A and AK-47, she earned her Ph D in food and marketing.
Chandni enjoys travelling and has been to the US and Europe. "I have interacted with people of many cultures," she says, "but I am a typical Indian girl at home." And she loves to cook -- Indian, Italian, South Indian, she knows them all.
Her Ethiopian school did not have any kind of extracurricular activity, so she went all out to make up for her loss when she joined college in India. Beauty pageants, dancing, choreography, cooking, debating, tennis -- she participated in everything. And honed her elocution skills to such an extent that she was asked to compere the Screen Videocon Awards.
She rates Rekha as her all-time favourite heroine. "She has defied all odds," Chandni explains her choice. "She can hold her own, in looks and performance, against any of the current heroines. She is ageless." Which is why Chandni was in seventh heaven when she finally met Rekha at the Screen Videocon Awards. What adds to the memory of the event was Rekha's compliment, "You have compered very well."
Another dream come true was her chance meeting with her favourite hero, Amitabh Bachchan. "Whether the movie is a hit or a flop, his performance is always good. I met him recently," she grins happily, "at a festival in Hyderabad. He was surrounded by so many people, all of whom were speaking to him. I mustered up my courage and went and stood by his side. He didn't notice. I nudged him a couple of times and kept saying, 'Mr Amitabh Bachchan, Mr Amitabh Bachchan.' He finally noticed me and looked at me from his imposing height; I must have been upto his arm. I mumbled, 'I am an actress, I think you are a great actor.' He said, 'I too am pleased to meet you.'
The hero she would like to work with? "I don't mind acting with anyone as long as I feel comfortable with him. As long as he doesn't look down upon me and understands that an actress is also important."
Upendra, naturally, occupies her favourite director slot. "Look at his instinct. He offered me a role on two still pictures only. There was no screen test. He hadn't even met me."
She strongly believes that "the innate goodness of a person matters if one is to succeed. An honest and professional approach helps, as does sincerity, honesty and straightforwardness. Self-confidence and perseverance round off the ingredients. Top it off with God's blessings, hard work and a clean heart."
Most of all, though, she's happy. "Acting is fun, I love it. God has been very kind to me. I depend on Him a lot. If you depend on Him, He will not let you down."
As to what she would like to do in the future? "Act... act....act."
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