If I had my way, the business of taking offence would be regulated. Under my auspices, to find effrontery and then avail of it, you’d have to go through the necessary paperwork. Submit an application to the ministry, pay the nominal fee, produce notarised records and referrals, be interviewed by a bored officer on a workday morning after waiting for two hours — and then sit tight for however long it takes to hear back.
Twinkle Khanna would be in charge of translating this ministry’s terrifying and ridiculous operations to the public, in the way only she can — with rollicking wordplay, wicked inferences and enough insouciance so even critical thought feels like it could get several Facebook likes. I’m not sure the homemaker, entrepreneur, newspaper columnist, star wife and now author would have time for another day job, but I have it on good authority that a batch of soya chakli from Neelam Foodland in Mumbai could sweeten the deal.
It’s a fairly disgusting morning in South Mumbai when she shoots with ELLE — blotty skies, backed-up traffic and an overall feeling of armpit — but 40-year-old Khanna manages not to get any on her. She’s practically pastel with summer, her milk-and-roses skin flushed ever so slightly and flicks of russet hair firing up her dark, intelligent eyes. You expect aloofness; instead there’s guffaws and theatrical sighing about all this fashion stuff we’re making her do. When the camera comes on, though, she knows just where she wants to take her frothy, marzipan-pink Kenzo to; and her regular-woman’s body obliges, beautifully.
“People always say that the way I look and the way I speak are at complete odds,” she chuckles later, while I interview her on the drive back to the suburbs. I’d have to agree. Those sculpted blowouts and art-gallerist threads don’t automatically suggest a penchant for anatomical humour. But at the bottom of her latest column about Maggi’s heartbreaking deception, which came out the day before, is a penis joke (“We are getting rather tired of being let down by two-minutes noodles, both in the bedroom and in the kitchen as well,” she signs off). I congratulate her for it. “Thanks,” she seems genuinely pleased, and hands me half a paneer sandwich.
Khanna has played her hand in the zeitgeist for the first time in 15 years since she turned off her microphone and receded into the wings of Bollywood. And whether it’s her natural talent, the unexpected quarter it comes from, or the patina of celebrity — or all of the above — it has taken. Her national columns, keenly observed and casually disbursed “semi-fictional social and political satires,” have made her a name to drop the way a career in the movies or being related to movie stars (she is the daughter of Rajesh Khanna and Dimple Kapadia, and married to Akshay Kumar), never did. Surrogacy, freedom of speech, sanitary napkins, Narendra Modi’s sartorial stylings and other deeply concerning subjects are all put through the Twinkle Khanna grinder every other week, and when they reach you, they’ve lost all their graveness, and none of their gravity. The proof is in the fandom. She’s running into admirers everywhere she goes. Everywhere. “I went to get my ovaries checked the other day and after she put the probe inside me, the lady leaned over to say, ‘I really like your column’. I said, ‘That’s wonderful, but um, you could you take this out of me and then we could talk?’”
And next month, we can look forward to more than 500 words at a time, when her first book, Mrs Funnybones, “based and structured on the columns”, comes out. “It’s about how a modern woman looks at India and how India looks right back at her,” she says. Well? What does she see? “A bewildering contradiction,” she answers. “We’re the first Asian country to reach Mars and we’re still looking at the moon for the good health of our husbands.”
Here’s what I like most about Twinkle Khanna, though: she recognises the life-giving properties of silliness (puns are hunted and shot down into sentences; quips come in volleys) and doesn’t worry too much about everything having to mean something. Try to get too ponderous and she’ll kill the romance with monosyllables. I poke for the answer for why, after years of seeing her, we’re only now hearing her. Is it the good kind of midlife crisis? “There’s no reason. I’ve been a voracious reader my whole life. You imbibe so many thoughts and slowly you find what you think within that.” Pinning down those thoughts — almost all to do with big, polarising matters of national interest — pointing them towards the ether and then hitting ‘send’ has got to be scary, especially for a public figure. “No.” See? “I’ve cared so little about what people think of me,” she says. “Perhaps the media doesn’t know it, but everyone in the industry does. I’ve always said whatever I’ve wanted to; I didn’t know how to play with my words before, actually. A lot of people found me rude, but now those same people find me funny. If anything, I’ve tempered with time.”
Littered across her columns are jokes about how “the man of the house” takes her public forthrightness — like a good-natured schoolmarm, apparently, grumbling diligently but glowing with pride. “My husband is very proud of me. He’s the first to read my column when I’m done. He’s removed the word ‘Pakistan’ from at least five of them, and ‘catholic priest’ from the last one,” she says, and adds quickly, “It’s a good thing! Left to my own devices I could get into a lot of trouble.” Penis jokes have his approval, mercifully. “He thought that was funny. He has a great sense of what works, you know,” she says. “When he read the one about the AIB Roast, he said ‘This is going to do well.’”
He was right, to say the least. She wasn’t messing about with that one. No drawn-out puns, sweetly sarcastic musings or mumbled dissent; just neat, focused slicing — into the hypocrisy, short sightedness and danger of penalising performers for a live show she didn’t happen to care much for herself.
I belong to the unpopular minority that believes ‘freedom of speech’ is just as often the war cry of bullies and halfwits, but I also don’t want them to be burnt alive for it. We’re dismissed as weak moderates in these discussions, so I’m pleased to find she’s with me on this. “Freedom of speech has to be absolute, sadly,” she says. “But there is a line to be drawn and that line is defined by, and different for, each individual. That’s what makes the whole thing so hard.” Now more than ever, Khanna has to contend with the fine line between satire, sermonising and sensitivity. “Filters are important. I write so much now that when I speak, I’m always looking for the perfect word. It’s a discipline, to pick your words.”
Much harder, I imagine, when you have to begin at home. I carefully bring up the exactly opposite tenor and thrust of her and her husband’s chosen trades. His big-ticket jamborees, cut and curated to gather maximum mass appeal. Her niche, stylish activism, like bittersweet medicine, meant to redirect attention to stark reality. She’s not even a film buff, she says, unless it’s science fiction or has got her husband in it. Love and caution have got to be the ways to engage with each other’s worlds. “Our ideologies are very different. The things that we talk about are very different,” she agrees. “But we look up to each other for our different abilities. I do point out things in his films that, as a man, he might not pick up on. But he’s then free to do what he wants with that information. It’s the same the other way around.” She makes it sound so easy. “It is easy,” she says. “I’ve been married 14 years and it has taken time and effort to make it this easy.”
At present, Khanna writes two national columns that come out within weeks of each other, and having finished work on the upcoming book a few months ago, she’s already nose-deep in the second, a collection of fictional short stories. “When you’re writing fiction you’re making up something completely from scratch, and you worry about being able to do it again and again,” she says. Ah, the paralysing angst of a writer faced with a blank page, this I understand. She has no idea what I’m talking about. In fact, writing, she fears, is slowly replacing her more than decade-old, daily practice of yoga, the closest thing she has to a spiritual practice. “Yoga has helped calm me because I am a naturally aggressive, hyper person. And now writing, every single day, is having a similar effect. When you’re writing you go away from yourself. You’re dealing with your mind but it’s not really about you, it’s a whole other universe. I feel almost completely at peace, in that hour or two that I spend.”
Khanna knew she wanted to write pretty much since childhood. She tells me she used to maintain a file of her “really, really bad” poems as a little girl and by 16, was several chapters into her first book. “It was called Maya And Magic, about the adventures of a girl who goes to live with her Aga Khani grandmother who is trying to get her married to different suitors. She tells her things like ‘Meenakshi Seshadri rejected this man, now you rush and get him!’” What rare fortune to have your calling made known to you so clearly, so early. Slightly less fortunate when it’s the furthest thing from the much more lucrative family business.
“I would keep getting film offers because of my family and my mum said, ‘For a girl your age, to make that kind of money would be incredible.’ I thought that made sense because my mother was single-handedly looking after us,” she says. Thrusting in the rain with Bobby Deol with your mind (Barsaat, 1995), while your heart says iambic pentameter — nobody should have to go through that. The direct fame made it a little worse. “I was born in a fish bowl, so being in a fish bowl wasn’t special for me at all. That was not an ideal attitude to have to be in showbiz: hiding.”
Khanna didn’t choose the fish bowl she was born into, but she did choose the one she now swims in by marrying Akshay Kumar, after they met on the sets of the two terrible films — International Khiladi and Zulmi — they did together in ‘99. Doesn’t he bring with him everything she left behind all those years ago? Media scrutiny, long jaunts away from the fam — “My husband comes home at 6.30 every evening,” she sniggers. “Even when he’s shooting. In this fish bowl, I can choose if I want to hide behind a rock or swim to the surface.” Marriage, becoming a mom, entrepreneurship (she owns the Mumbai décor store, The White Window) were some of the things that filled the two decades before she finally pursued a childhood dream. The lag doesn’t rankle her even a little. Since we got into the car, she’s asked for the time thrice already, because she wants to be home before 12-year-old Aarav comes back from school. Her children — daughter Nitara is ickle at just two — consume her.
“Maybe learning how to relax and kick back,” is the new thing she wants to try next. She’ll be bad at it, from the look of how many other things fascinate her — gardening, design, science, becoming the writer she always dreamt she’d be (she doesn’t see a Booker in her future, though: “My name is Twinkle. I have no chance”). Her forties look set to be her most invigorating decade yet. She laughs. “I had a plan in my head, that I was going to be 60, move to Goa, try mind-altering substances and write. I had it down to having short nails, white hair and wearing only white kurtas. It just happened 20 years earlier! Not the substances, though. Maybe I’ll save those for when I’m about to die.”
Twinkle Khanna’s book Mrs Funnybones (Penguin Random House India) is out on August 18
Photographs: R Burman; Styling: Nidhi Jacob; Art Director: Reshma Rajiwdekar; Make-up and hair: Namrata Soni; Production: Parul Menezes; Assisted by: Arti Nayar (make-up and hair), Akanksha Kamath, Saaraa Uttanwala (styling); Location courtesy: Abode, Mumbai