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The making of television icon Smriti Irani

  • This excerpt from a new book of essays charts the rise of Smriti Irani into stardom
  • In spite of her humble origins in Delhi, Irani caught the eye of producer Ekta Kapoor  

Irani in an emotionally charged scene from ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’.
Irani in an emotionally charged scene from ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’.

Smriti (Irani) was job-hunting when she ventured into Balaji Telefilms. She needed a job so badly that she wasn’t even looking to playing the lead. But then Ekta’s (Kapoor) eyes fell on her, and she had declared to her team, ‘That girl! She can make India cry. She will be Tulsi.’

The casting director was shocked, but he could not tell Ekta that the girl he had just finished auditioning, just did not have it in her. But no one ever questioned Ekta’s decision; she was right, even when she was wrong. Meanwhile before India wept for and with Tulsi, Smriti was driving the entire crew of Balaji to tears. The audition, by Smriti’s own admission, was a disaster. ‘It was a pathetic delivery…the worst ever,’ said Smriti to me. But nothing could change Ekta’s mind. She was convinced that Smriti would be Tulsi.

A week before Ekta signed her up for Kyunki (Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi), an ad agency had rejected Smriti. They were apparently scouting for a woman to promote home appliances and according to Smriti, she didn’t make it because, ‘I didn’t look like a housewife.’

I think the bond that the two women shared was the desire to succeed come what may. Smriti confirmed this to me, ‘Ekta always wanted to make it. People think that she must have had it easy, but I know that she has worked very, very hard to get where she is today.’ This is not the place to analyse Smriti Irani’s stint as a politician, but purely as a woman who took to television because she needed a job and perhaps moulded herself to suit the art form later. Apart from what Ekta had spotted in her the day she had walked into Balaji Telefilms’ office, if there is one thing which has sustained Smriti all through her life even as a career politician, then it is her ability to articulate her thoughts with great clarity. Unlike Smriti who still enjoys a good conversation, Ekta tended to hold back and seemed like she wanted to end a conversation even before it got off the ground. Maybe it was the lack of time, or just impatience with people.

Unlike Ekta, who is the daughter of a star, Smriti’s parents are ordinary folks. In fact, during my conversation with her, it seemed like she didn’t want undue focus on them. All I gathered was that her father, Ajay Malhotra who ran a courier company, was a Punjabi, and had married an Assamese-Bengali woman called Shivani. After volunteering that information, Smriti wanted to move on to speak about her work and life after she had left Delhi and moved to Mumbai.

In Delhi, Smriti grew up in Munirka, which flanks the upmarket Vasant Vihar, and what can be called its anti-thesis, the Jawaharlal Nehru University or JNU, which ironically rose up in protest against Smriti Irani in 2016, when she was the Union Human Resources Development minister and was in the eye of a storm for supporting the arrest of students on charges of sedition.

To her neighbours in Delhi, Smriti was simply ‘Malhotra ki beti’ or Malhotra’s daughter. Smriti told me how her father didn’t expect much from her, and she went to his office every day to dispatch packets. It wasn’t long before she quit, and set up shop on a pavement in Janpath, and began by selling hairclips and safety pins, and later ‘expanded her business’ by adding fairness creams to the list.

Like many Indian fathers, Ajay Malhotra wanted his daughter married, unaware that she had other plans. One day, Smriti Malhotra left home and took a train to Mumbai, and resolved to make it big than just selling trinkets on the streets. In Mumbai, she participated in a beauty contest but didn’t make it, just like she didn’t clear her first audition. She next tried her luck at McDonald’s for a behind-the-counter job, but they wanted someone to mop the floor, and do the dishes. She grabbed it. The ‘mopping floors’ story is Smriti’s favourite, which she has often repeated. Today she is a politician and a colleague of the prime minister who also began humbly by selling tea at a train station in Gujarat. Therefore, many may deride her for seeking publicity, but to be fair to her, I had heard this story from her even when she was still playing Tulsi, and spoke about it only to drive home the point that it takes little to give up, but a lot to aim high.

The Marigold Story—Indira Gandhi & Others: By Kumkum Chadha, Tranquebar, 356 pages, 699

Excerpted from The Marigold Story: Indira Gandhi & Others, with permission from Tranquebar .

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