Kalpana Iyer: Yesterday's Sex Symbol Comes out of the Shadows
Kalpana Iyer, in the Eighties, was Bollywood's dancing queen (the term 'item number' - that, in turn, spawned 'item girl' - was coined years later), in the mould of the legendary Helen and Bindu (from the Sixties and Seventies).
Eighties' 'dance girl' AND FORMER MISS INDIA Kalpana Iyer tells Sushmita Bose about her transformation: from 34-24-34 to portliness, FROM siren to mother figure, from BOLLYWOOD to restaurant MANAGEMENT and how she's "not threatening to anyone anymore"
In the mid-Eighties, my parents bought a VCR to complement the television set in their living room; I was "strictly forbidden" to watch video cassettes of Bollywood films, since my father felt they corrupted "impressionable young minds" (like mine). Of course, I had my way and managed to sneak a peek at quite a number of them on the sly - including Disco Dancer; I loved it. The high point of Disco Dancer (for me) was a song titled Koi Yahan Aha Nache Nache (loosely translated, it means "somebody here is dancing" - with an 'aha' thrown in midstream). It was a peppy, upbeat number that made me want to break into dance the moment I heard the opening bars. It felt alive, never flagged - even after repeated encores.
But there was something else to it too. Actually, someone.
Kalpana Iyer, in the Eighties, was Bollywood's dancing queen (the term 'item number' - that, in turn, spawned 'item girl' - was coined years later), in the mould of the legendary Helen and Bindu (from the Sixties and Seventies). Each time I watched Kalpana dance to Koi Yahan (and I rewound the tape too many times to count), I used to be transfixed. She was not as talented a dancer as Helen (whose films I was later allowed to watch on the same VCR) but, boy, she had energy and raw sexiness. And attitude. Stuck in the mire of school-time grammar lessons, she defined words like "limber", and "lissome". and "willowy". I kept track of her twinkle toes as she did her stuff with hits like (not in chronological order) Hari Om Hari, Ramba Ho, Dil Ruba and so on. When my heady teenage days of Koi Yahan got over, I gave up keeping a close watch on her transition to on-and-off film appearances (but I remember she was daunting as the 'resident evil' prison warden in Anjaam).
Thirty years after I first got acquainted with Kalpana Iyer on screen, I met this portly, matronly woman in Bur Dubai. At Ambassador hotel's wonderfully satiating Nizam's restaurant. She came over to our table and said, "Hello, I hope you are having a good time". I looked up; and it was Kalpana Iyer all over again. (She's part of the hotel's business development team now, and works crazy hours, starting late in the evening and wrapping up early mornings.)
A few days later, I meet Kalpana at a coffee shop in The Greens (where she lives). The woman who'd have, in her day, given anyone a severe attitudinal complex, was now sitting across the table, drinking green tea, not intimidating me. and telling me the story of her life. "It's a long one - but let me try and make it as short as possible."
From where it all started to the Bollywood arc lights. to ushering diners into a dimly lit restaurant.
Getting into the dance groove
I'm not a trained dancer; as a kid [many, many, many years ago, I used to dance for fun. you know, at school events and functions in Bombay [Mumbai], where I was born and brought up. I must have had some kind of spark because, when I was about 12, I caught the eye of a choreographer who went and spoke about me to [noted playback singer] Mukesh-ji. Mukeshi-ji spoke to my parents about letting me take part in his shows.
So, here's the thing: we were a poor family, and this was an opportunity for me to help out with finances; plus, I would get to do what I liked very much - dance. My parents said yes, and thus began my dancing 'career', so to say. But I would also go on to complete my education.
On stage, I was this young, lively thing, and everyone loved my 'enthu'. Mukesh-ji introduced me to a lot of others - Kishore-dada [Kishore Kumar], [music director duo] Kalyanji-Anandji, etc, and soon I was dancing for them too.
I was a sharp child; perceptive. They say when life knocks you around, you learn to trust your instincts. I did just that. I realised if I worked hard, I'll get more work. I needed the money; so I worked hard. simple.
I went abroad for the first time with Mukesh-ji. oh, he got me my passport! My first flight was remarkable because Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri had just gotten married, and they were on the same flight as us. It was a big thrill for me. Our flight was to the US, but during a stopover at the Rome airport, we all clicked a group photo. That's a good memory.
After I completed college, I worked with the [hotel chain] Oberoi group, then as a photographer's assistant for Eve's Weekly. In 1975, I participated in a beauty contest - the Navy Queen pageant, sponsored by Femina. I was the runner-up, so Vimla Patil [then editor of Femina] took me under her wings. I started modelling in right earnest, doing fashion shows, working with top names. my life took a different turn.
Being a model in Seventies' India
What made me different from the others was that I was willing to adapt; I had very few inhibitions.. I had my own style, everyone liked it. My dancing career had lent me a lot of grace - in the way I carried myself. In those days, Indian models were more filled out; I was very slim, weighing 45 kilos [at 5'5"], measuring 34-24-34. I looked different, stood out. Before me, Zeenat [Aman] had changed a few rules of the game, but she had been the exception rather than the rule. The good news was that people were accepting of my thinness!
The Miss World contest
In 1978, I represented India as Femina Miss India in the Miss World contest. It was held in London that year, and I made it to the final round. It was a huge achievement because, back then, we were only given the air tickets. I had to buy my own clothes, cosmetics; I was my own stylist. I cherished every minute of my success because it was self-achieved.
When I returned from Miss World, I got a call from Rajshri [Productions]; they wanted me to play the hero's romantic interest in Manokaamnaa. I was paired with Raj Kiran.
Interestingly, Rajshri gave me a Western look - so unlike them! I had to smoke a cigarette in the film. at that time, I didn't smoke [now I do], so I ended up holding the cigarette like a candle.
In the middle of the shoot, I heard Dev-saab [Dev Anand] wanted to see me. "Just go meet him," I was told. "It's Dev Anand after all."
When I stood in front of him, he asked, "Kalpana dear, will you dance in my film?"
"Huh?" I said. "I'm shooting as a heroine, you want me to become a dancer?"
But I did take up the offer. The film was Lootmaar; the song [picturised on me] Jab Chhaye Mera Jadoo became an overnight sensation.
While shooting for that song, I signed half a dozen roles as a dancer. so, in a year's time, when Manokaamnaa released, I was a dancer. But you know what? I did it because I wanted it that way. No regrets whatsoever.
Most challenging role
In Anjaam, where I play the terribly mean jail warden. It was a difficult role to enact because I am nowhere near that mean a person.
On a Second Innings in Acting
If I get a good role, I will do it. My acting career is not over; I'd like to think I'm on the longest break ever. Oh, I have also done around 75 television serials - Banegi Apni Baat, Chandrakanta, Kurukshetra, Junoon, etc. I've never believed in saying no to work... work came to me, I asked for a certain price, I got the price, I did it. I never even had a secretary. I have always handled my own work.
On Moving To Dubai in 1999
I came to Dubai because of some very painful... reasons. Personally, I was spent; I was beyond repair and causing a lot of grief to my family. I couldn't have continued staying in Bombay, with people turning around and saying "Oh, you poor thing."
I Had To Get Out
Just when I thought I was not going to be able to do anything anymore with my life, Rajan Sippy and his wife - who are in the hospitality sector in Dubai - did me a favour by offering me a chance to come here. I was a wreck; they understood my pain.
I came to work for Rajan - at The Moghul Room as a hostess. It was a new beginning. When he [Rajan] exited the place last year, I followed suit. Yet again, I was at a crossroads. then, I bumped into Raju Lulla of Ambassador hotel, and he offered me a job.
On Being a Rebel
I was a little bit of a rebel. Like I said, I didn't have too many inhibitions. It's difficult to understand that in the present context. Today, a girl in a bikini would say, "I have the body, who cares?". and, in all likelihood, nobody will care. In my time, it was tough. If I wore a bikini, everyone assumed I'm a "loose woman". You know, I'm still a vegetarian, I started smoking much later, but back then, because of my 'image', everyone thought I was a party girl with multiple boyfriends. Today's Kalpana would not have given a damn, but back then, it hurt being judged. Having said that, I never, ever wanted to be a goody-two-shoes.. No, no, no, no.
On being single: by choice or by compulsion? And is marriage a write-off?
Why didn't I get married? Well, there are certain questions which I don't have answers for. Maybe I didn't have the guts. Let's just say that marriage was not part of my equation in a certain situation. I'm not going to go there because it's too painful.
I wish I had gotten married. Or, at least, I wish I had the guts to have a child.
The guts I have today, I did not have back then.
But I'm an optimist; so never say never. I believe if there is someone meant to come into my life, he will. But it cannot be a compromise. There cannot be any baggage. It's time I found someone who said, "Kalpana, you [and only you] are my priority."
Reactions to Kalpana in Her Current Avatar
Some are thrilled to meet me: they want autographs and get photos taken with me. And then there are some who say, "Really? How can you be doing this?" And I say, "Hello, I'm working, I'm earning my keep." It's funny how being a film star is what has kept me going because people still associate me with movies - even at my job. I somehow feel their reaction to me now is more connected, more real. "We thought you'd be different," they say. All of a sudden I've become this mother figure - instead of a girlfriend figure! I've learnt to laugh it off. I have to have a sense of humour when they ask me how come I've put on so much weight. I can't tell them I have thyroid and other health issues.
And I think it's cute everyone thinks I'm not threatening to anyone any more. Earlier, I'd be this woman who could be a potential home-wrecker. Not anymore.
Doing it her way
I'm in a happy place: I want to work, be active. I will not quit until I'm ready to fall down. But I'm in that "been there, done that" stage, so I will work on my terms. Push my wrong buttons, I walk. Khalas.