Till about two years ago Mahi Gill was a constant at prominent Mumbai parties. Her weekly allowance from home (Chandigarh) was spent on buying ‘‘theme’’ party outfits or in getting herself a new hairdo. And come what may, she never missed prominent movie auditions. ‘‘Yet I was a total failure at auditions,’’ she laughs. And then she got her much-deserved break. At the birthday party of a prominent socialite’s four-year-old son, director Anurag Kashyap spotted her dancing with gay abandon and promptly decided on casting her as his Paro for Dev D . Much later Mahi was asked to reprise the same dance in the now immensely popular number, Emosional Atyachar .
Another Tabu in the making?
When I caught up with the actress from an ‘‘orthodox Punjabi family’’, the 26-year-old was holidaying in Goa with friends. ‘‘I have had no time for myself after Dev D . I did Anurag’s Gulaal and was busy finishing other projects,’’ she says, adding that working around the clock meant no time to really enjoy her stardom. The Goa trip is one of her few splurges. While Dev D ’s Paro earned her accolades from the likes of Naseeruddin Shah — ‘‘It’s after a decade that I am seeing such an actress with talent and looks,’’ he’d said — as well as Vishal Baradwaj and Rahul Bose — ‘‘She was awesome!’’ — Gulaal ’s mujra dancer (though a guest appearance) further put her on the road to ‘serious acting.’ When I tell her that critics are calling her the next Tabu, Mahi is thrilled. ‘‘When Anurag first saw me, he thought I resembled Suchitra Sen and later he found glimpses of Tabu in me.’’ Some say that the director is so smitten by Tabu that he made sure his protégée resembled the actress in Gulaal .
While Sharath Chandra’s Paro in the novel Devdas is docile, dreamy and conventional, Anurag Kashyap added dollops of spunk, drama and sensuousness to his Paro. This was supposedly inspired by the actress herself. ‘‘He rewrote the character after meeting me. He has incorporated my mannerisms.
Paro is me,’’ Mahi shoots off. There might be some truth in this, for the woman talking non-stop with me almost sounds like a schoolgirl. She seems reluctant to come to terms with her first brush with stardom. According to her buddies, she is impulsive, tiresome and at times rather quiet. In college, she used to be ready to pick up fights for her friends, and loved football, basketball and handball. But Mahi agrees that two years in the industry has taught her the virtue of patience and the importance of PR skills. ‘‘I realise that in this industry there is space for everybody and nobody is going to force you to do something against your will,’’ she reasons. Post Dev D , Mahi is slightly vexed with the fact that she can’t shop without being mobbed. Yet she quickly adds with a grin, “It is another matter that I would have hated it if they didn’t recognise me.’’ Ready to move on
Telling me that she had never imagined Dev D would become such a hit, Mahi says, ‘‘I knew it would be critically acclaimed but somehow Anurag was sure about it. He used to tell me that my Paro would get noticed.’’ Mahi admits that initially she wasn’t convinced about the Emosional Atyachar dance wedding song. ‘‘I fought with Anurag saying, ‘Paro should not dance like that.’ But he was adamant.
Now I guess I was wrong,’’ she recalls. She goes on to share how she got a standing ovation when the film was first screened in Chandigarh. ‘‘I expected gaalis but thankfully my relatives loved it,’’ she says. Now a certified ‘‘star’’ back home, Mahi tells me that her inspiration is her mother, a former Punjabi actress, who encouraged her to follow her dream of joining the movies. It seems nothing, not even a failed marriage — she refuses to comment further, only admitting that ‘‘it didn’t work out’’ — is going to come in the way of Mahi’s ambition to make it big.
The next sex symbol
Remember the scene in Dev D where Paro beats up her ‘‘alleged’’ boyfriend, Sunil, for misleading Dev in the movie? Apparently Mahi’s act turned out to be so realistic that she broke the poor chap’s hand while delivering her lines. Admitting that her folks at home were apprehensive about her ‘‘mattress in the fields’’ scene, she says she had no such reservations.
‘‘It’s only after I saw the movie that the enormity of the scene knocked me off my senses. But my mom was cool with it,’’ she says. With Dev D, Mahi is already being hailed as the next sex symbol in Bollywood. Such a tag, sans skin show or nudity, is what baffles the actress. ‘‘How can I be a sex-symbol? Two of the biggest directors of Bollywood cinema too called me that. I really don’t know why,’’ she shrugs. That sais, Mahi agrees that Bollywood perceptions are changing vis-à-vis sexuality.
Fitness diary I work out for an hour, combining yoga, jogging and cardio.
And I avoid dinner. I have this special vegetable juice for breakfast that consists of beetroot, apple, carrot and gooseberry Mahi rewind After moving to Mumbai, following her divorce, Mahi struggled for three and a half years to get noticed. This is when she dabbled in theatre.
‘‘My biggest support system is my mother,’’ she says.
Friends in the industry: ‘‘Kalki (Koechlin) and me hang out a lot. We loved to play pranks on the sets of Dev D . In fact, we had begged Anurag to add some scenes of us together.
But he refused. ‘‘Earlier, it was unthinkable if heroines tried the seduction act other than in a song. But I think after Dev D ’s success, this is being viewed differently. We need to cater to a more discerning audience now,’’ she says, adding that she is open to acting in all languages as long as there is a solid script.
Even while listening to scripts and looking out for that ‘‘great role’’ she says she isn’t really avoiding commercial projects. Next up is a comedy, Aage Se Right , with Shreyas Talpade, where her role is glamorous.
She is also looking forward to her first period film, Paan Singh Tomar, with Irrfan Khan and directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia. It is a biopic about a soldier who also won an Asian Games gold medal in a track-and-field event and who faced social injustice from his village. Mahi plays his wife in that.
And finally there is Pal Pal Dil Ke Paas , where she plays a journalist.