My first memory of Smriti Irani is seeing her in a television series called Kavita, which my mother would watch regularly and by default I would as well. It didn’t matter much then, but yes, when she became the talk of the nation with her character of Tulsi Virani in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, I started viewing her in a completely different light. It was a shock as well as a surprise when in 2003, she decided to join politics and embark on a whole new journey. It was difficult for me to imagine her as a politician and like many others, I didn’t anticipate the kind of success she has had as a union minister. However, today when I look back, I think she always had it in her. Whether it is in the kind of roles that she essayed on television or the kind of issues that she chooses to fight for, as a minister today, Smriti Irani is a rebel with a cause. To me she is someone who constantly defies the stereotype and doesn’t shy away from calling a spade a spade. And just when I thought she is deep into the world of politics, she took me by surprise all over again by announcing her debut book, Lal Salaam.
When I met her early this month in New Delhi for this interview, Smriti Irani turned out to be everything that I had imagined her to be—unfiltered, intelligent, warm and unpretentious. She is certainly one of the most charming people I have met in recent times and she has this innate quality of instantly putting others at ease (not sure if this happens in the Parliament though!). Our freewheeling conversation was everything from Lal Salaam, films, fashion to politics (of course) and her future plans.
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Excerpts from the interview:
Kamna Malik (KM): Actor, Union Minister and now author—I know everyone must have asked you this question—but this is certainly a very interesting move-how and when did you decide to become an author? Do you recall that specific moment when you made up your mind about writing Lal Salaam?
Smriti Zubin Irani (SZI): I’ve been writing for two decades now. So, the concept is not new to me. In the past, there have been television concepts that I’ve written, my scenes that I re-wrote with the permission of the producer and the creative energies within a show. I have also written newspaper columns for various publications. So, in that sense there wasn’t a specific moment when I decided to turn author because over the years, I have had multiple writing opportunities. My original plan was to write a non-fiction book and the manuscript has been under works for the past three years now. But since it requires a lot of research and my editor was getting extremely exasperated and running out of patience, I decided to write Lal Salaam, a concept that I have had for 10 years now.
KM: The book is inspired by the killings of 76 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel during the Maoist attack in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh in April 2010 and pays a tribute to the people who have given their lives in order to serve our nation. How did you arrive at this narrative and chose to make this as the subject for your debut novel?
SZI: I have been a part of the socio-political milieu of our country as an activist at a grassroot level for a very long time. Having served in areas of Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, I have worked with security personnel and seen their issues firsthand. In my official capacity as well, I have had the privilege of knowing retired as well as serving officials. But I think the inspiration of this book was first sown during a television debate that I was a part of a decade ago where an outrageous comment was made by one of the panelists, who while discussing the sacrifice of our paramilitary forces, said something like—“What did you expect? If you wear a uniform, you know that you will die.” The insensitivity of this comment enraged me. The fact that just because someone is a security personnel or a paramilitary force officer means that their lives are not precious or valued, is what enraged me. And I think I carried that rage for a decade! That is how that half an hour of television debate impacted me. I was angry. I was angry at this incident and the fact that people could be nonchalant about such things and not care how it impacts the families of the people who have lost their lives. This book was a chance to channel that anger, let the world know how things really take shape and how we need to value lives regardless of whether they wear a uniform or not.
KM: The novel, though fictional, effectively points out the challenges that the protagonist faces against a system that is steeped in backroom politics and corruption—a brave topic weaved into a thriller. How easy or difficult was it for you to bring the story out and yet balance it with the right dose of drama that is usually required in thrillers?
SZI: I think people don’t expect thrillers from women writers. I am sure that itself came as a big surprise for everyone. I didn’t really plan the story. I think if you love a story or a plot, it organically drives you to write it. This story evolved very naturally. I have written the book in portions—some of it on flights, some in between meetings and every time I would pick it, the narrative flowed smoothly. I always knew what I wanted to write, where I wanted to take it, what turns I wanted to give it. Yes, there were times when I wanted to mull on certain areas or aspects, which were difficult for me to write and I did spend time researching on the same but overall, it was a very organic journey.
KM: In your recent Instagram live conversation with Masaba Gupta, you made a very interesting and valid point as to how women are typecast and this was yet another attempt by you to carve a new space for yourself. How does that feel? To, time and again, be perceived as someone who breaks societal notions and leads the change from the frontline?
SZI: Frankly speaking, I don’t think I’ve done it for so many women. It’s a perception that has been built. I think whatever I have done is only for myself. We always do this to women who succeed. And in my case, it’s always, “She has done XYZ for women votes.” No. I’ve done it for myself. The reason I am saying this is only because over the years society has put the entire burden on women and how they have to live for others. Either for a cause, or for an individual or for another organisation. It’s about time women get up and own their achievements and say, “I did it for me.” There should be no shame or hesitation in doing things for your own self, that feel right.
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KM: Your father was a bookseller and you’ve had a perennial love affair with books. How would you describeyour childhood? What do your parents think of Lal Salaam?
SZI: Even though I come from poverty, my childhood was very good and happy. When you come from a poor family, you always wonder if you will get an opportunity to excel, to work, to explore the world. You don’t get things on a platter. You have to fight for it. And eventually, no matter how much money you earn, no matter how famous you get, no matter how powerful you get, that imprint never leaves your conscience. As a child, I always told my parents that I would become something someday, and they would think I have completely gone nuts. My father used to sell books on a footpath and is the one who exposed me to this world. I did send a copy of Lal Salaam to both my parents and my father only said, “It’s paisa vasool!” Coming from a bookseller who has seen so many authors and books over the years, this was the biggest compliment I could have asked for!
KM: With all the achievements and accolades that you have earned over the years, what inspires you today and keeps you going?
SZI: I think it’s the people around me. Whether it’s my family or colleagues or anyone else that I work with, they have always somehow understood me as a person and have allowed me to be me. That is a huge thing.
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KM: What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself five years from now? If there is yet another hat that you can don, which one would it be?
SZI: I have no idea. I don’t plan things. Never have. I just know that once upon a time there was a 7-year old kid, who was sitting opposite Delhi Army Club on a footpath and told herself that, “I will do something in life.” I had the tenacity to do things then, still have and will continue to keep doing things till that feeling doesn’t go away. I think the day it goes; I will die.
Makeup : Aprna Mitter; Saree Drapper: Neelamvish
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