“These live interviews are a pain. These anchors go on and on with their propaganda and I’m left...” complained Urmila Matondkar to her publicist after an interview with TV anchor Deepak Chaurasia of India News.
Matondkar, who was meeting journalists on Thursday after joining the Congress, had just had an argument with Chaurasia over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement that India had shot down a low-earth orbit satellite in space.
The actor-turned-politician said she was proud of the scientists behind the mission but that this “wasn’t the way” it should’ve been handled, suggesting that the scientists should’ve been in the limelight, not Modi.
Chaurasia’s response was an all-too-familiar one: “How can you talk like that about the PM?”
“We’ve a new vocabulary,” Matondkar told this writer, appearing slightly unsettled by the encounter. “A vocabulary of hate. Still getting used to this.”
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Matondkar may not have much time to get used to unfiltered reactions coming her way—there is strong buzz that she will be the Congress’s candidate from the Mumbai North constituency in the Lok Sabha election.
After years of speaking lines that were scripted by someone else, she will also have to adjust to the controversies and headlines that one off-the-cuff remark may produce.
Matondkar, who made her debut as a child actor in 1980, is best known for films such as Ram Gopal Varma’s Rangeela, Satya, Kaun and Bhoot, and Sriram Raghavan’s neo-noir thriller Ek Haseena Thi. But the assured performer, who was an outsider in the industry, never quite got her due in clique-driven Bollywood.
Her performance in the 2001 thriller Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya, where she played an obsessed lover (like a gender-reversed Darr), was wildly unpredictable and impressive, with Rediff praising “the maniacal gleam” in Matondkar’s eyes as she descends into madness. The Hindu called her “the creation of the era of globalisation”. A review by Ziya Us Salam said, “Helter tops. Hot pants. Short hair. Curvaceous figure. Trembling lips. Sizzling beauty. She is the embodiment of feminity packed afresh in the new millennium.”
However, by the mid-2000s, roles had thinned down for the actor who had a striking screen presence and often delivered electric performances.
A promising star was reduced to making cameo appearances in films such as Life Mein Hungama Hai and Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag.
Matondkar’s team also seems to be adjusting to their new roles of campaign managers. She is still managed by a celebrity PR team and not a politically-savvy one, as revealed by the curious choice of location for her first round of media interviews.
“It’s my film team that’s extending their courtesy, this isn’t even their job. We are all quite ill-experienced here,” Matondkar said candidly.
The venue is a hip watering hole in Bandra, the kind of shabby-chic bar elder millennials go to when everything else in the city is shut. Its high-ceilings and dark-hued decor, with muted golds and reds, are Gatsbyesque but without the finesse of the Fitzgerald universe.
Several TV cameras and journalists form a huddle across the room while six men in grey suits encircle Matondkar. More than protection, the security blanket appears to be a statement, a visual cue to her politician status.
She’s now a neta. When she talks to news anchors sitting in Delhi studios, her Hindi is heavy, with lots of jan tantra and samvidhan thrown in.
“Earlier, we had planned to meet at Khar Gymkhana but then we decided to do it here,” said one of her team members.
“Why is she even doing this, she’s only a bali ka bakra (a scapegoat),” ruminated a veteran journalist who’s covered Maharashtra politics for nearly three decades. “Cut the misogyny,” a newspaper reporter interrupts. “A fading star turning politician... they can’t do without the attention, can they?” quips another senior journalist.
Matondkar’s husband, Mohsin Akhtar Mir, a Kashmiri Muslim from a prosperous business family, disagrees with the scapegoat label.
“She’s always had a strong political voice. Why not raise it?”
When I asked him why Congress, he said, “Look at what this government has done, it’s turned us against each other. It’s divided us based on religion and caste. That’s not what governments are elected to do.”
Matondkar echoed Mir’s sentiment, making it clear that she’s taking aim at the Modi-led BJP for mainstreaming hate and enforcing toxic Hindutva politics.
“His megalomaniacal approach is quite objectionable. People are afraid to call him out because the media is pretty much under them,” she said.
If Matondkar gets the Congress ticket from Mumbai North, she will be taking on Gopal Shetty, the current MP from the BJP, who enjoys sizeable popularity despite some serious land-grabbing accusations.
“For us, it isn’t about winning or losing. She’s here to stay because her voice matters and at times like these, you need to raise your voice,” said Mir.
Matondkar, who didn’t answer questions on what her policies would be (“I honestly don’t have a game plan”), said that the bigoted politicians from the ruling party have “brought us down” to fighting over trivial issues.
“Anything you say is met with a ‘go to Pakistan, go to Pakistan’. What is going on? People are entering houses and bashing others up,” she said, in an apparent reference to the Muslim family in Gurgaon who were attacked by sword-wielding Hindu goons.
Then, lowering her voice, she said, “Soooo many farmers are killing themselves, you tell me, is that even normal? Question that. Who are you to question my patriotism? Who are you to tell me what meat I should be eating? Who are you to tell me what my religion stands for?”
Matondkar is prepared for the prejudice she will have to deal with for being a woman, and more so, an actor.
“People are going to say ‘oh she’s such a bimbette, oh she’s so this, so that’. But it’s fine. Time and my talks will tell how far I go.”
While it’s a new innings for Matondkar, her partner isn’t hopeful of any support from Bollywood. “They are too scared.”
Mir is right. Very few people dare to speak truth to power in the industry and often actively court favours from politicians through their movies or public appearances. A battery of Bollywood stars recently visited Modi for a meet-and-greet. Stars such as Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt have even called themselves ‘apolitical,’ or ‘politically apathetic.’
But Matondkar refused to criticise her peers for their silence on key issues, calling the industry a “fragile target”.
″When you’ve crores at stake, of course you will do what is required, of course you will bend and bow... If you get a call from the Prime Minister, of course you will show up. Not just out of courtesy but also out of fear,” she said.
Matondkar pauses for a second.
Several people huddle around her and out of nowhere, a news camera is plonked close to her face, the flashlight eerily illuminating the relatively dim corner of the bar.
“Madam ke bytes chahiye,” said the reporter. “Studio se live.”
After being in the shadows for years, Matondkar is once again in front of the arclights.
For a split second, she basks in the glow. Then, turning towards me, she says with a smile, “Isn’t it like just like another role?”