Author and outspoken social commenter Shobhaa De on defending her freedom of speech, and taking risks. By Reena Karim
Shobhaa De has always had a way with words. Her razor-sharp wit, her unabashed writing style, and her penchant for explicitly telling it like it is, have all contributed to earning her the moniker the “Jackie Collins of India” – a title given by an American journalist from Time Magazine. The characteristics that best define her enigmatic persona are what often land her in the eye of several storms. Be it for her social commentary on issues plaguing India, or the open letters she writes to the who’s who of Indian society, Shobhaa is indisputably a controversial household name in India.
Social activist, editor, author, blogger, model, fashion designer, social commentator, socialite, and mother, Shobhaa has lived an illustrious life. With over 18 books to her name and a four decade-long career in the limelight, this best-selling writer shows no sign of slowing down at 67.
I caught up with her in May, where she was among the panel of authors attending the ‘Words on Water’ literary festival in Bangkok, as part of the Festival of India in Thailand. Seated gracefully in her suite at the Rembrandt Hotel Bangkok, she delves into her latest string of controversies, and dishes on the women in Bollywood.
Your opinions on social issues on Twitter often stir up controversies with political parties. How does this infringe on your rights as citizen of a democratic nation?
My recent comment about adding vada pav to the concession stands was in regards to the Maharashtra government’s decision to give regional movies primetime slots. The local party blew it out of proportion and labelled my comment as being anti-Maharashtrian. Right now, because the whole situation is sub-judice, I cannot comment on the legality of it all. However, I think that it is very important to stand up for what you believe in, and to challenge the system if you believe what you said is not in any way negative or harmful. My comments weren’t said with the intent to cause a law and order situation. It was an opinion on what the government had implemented. We are still a very vibrant democracy and the most cherished freedom of all is the freedom of expression, and as a citizen one must defend it vehemently. So I am not just defending it for myself. I hope it is sending out the right message that it is important to respect people’s opinions.
Speaking of which, what frustrates you most about India’s policy makers?
Right now what we are looking at is a dynamic and sincere move to tackle corruption. To me that is priority because it was so deeply entrenched. If we can start with the cleaning up of bureaucracies and corporate India, I think that is the great big first move. We have a prime minister who seems to care about a lot of issues, foreign policy in particular. He is very aggressive in changing perceptions, whether it is globally or with our neighbours. I wish him well. I really hope and pray that the “acche din” that he promised will be here soon.
May 26th marked Prime Minister Modi’s first year in office. How do you think he has fared?
I would say that in all fairness to him — and I have been a critic of his, as I have been of any administration that promises and doesn’t deliver — one year in any case is not enough for a new administration to demonstrate anything other than intent. And the intent is in place. We were impatient because we have had a raw deal for too long. We were expecting miracles and that is unfair. People expected a very quick turnaround, but that does not happen, we have to be realistic. I wrote him a letter to mark his occasion, telling him that what young India needs is jobs, and economic policies that are tangible. You promised changed and now you have to bring it on.
You seem to have a lot of opinions on politics and the way the country is run. Do you have a political agenda?
Oh no never! In every single election I have been offered a ticket, but I am not interested. I think I am far more effective outside. When you join a party, even if you may not agree with everything, you can’t say it. Your independence gets compromised. I have no political agenda at all. I think my readers believe in me and my credibility, because they know I have no political ambition. I don’t want to receive any recognition from any political parties or the government because I find all of it comes with strings attached and I am way too independent to ever compromise with that.
It is often said that your editorship at Stardust and Society magazines was the era of new journalism. How far do you think the media industry has come since?
I am so flattered that people still remember that, and it was over 40 years ago. The magazine then was a game changer. Right now we are at a very interesting stage. Conventional media is being challenged across the world. The magazine world that I know very well and still love, is under tremendous threat. It is expensive and you don’t get the kind of advertising support like you did 10 years ago, and digital media has challenged all traditional formats. Magazines which have converted very quickly and have a strong presence on the web are the ones surviving. The others are packing up. It’s sad to see their demise. Stardust and Society were my babies so it’s good to see they are alive and thriving.
You are a big fan of Bollywood and have always supported the new generation of female artists. Do you have any favourites?
The new kids are hugely talented. I just watched Tanu Weds Manu, because I am a great fan of Kangana Ranaut. She to me, more than any other actor in Bollywood, represents the true independent spirit where talents counts a lot, where you can do it on your own terms, and not have a patron saint or godfather. You take your chances. It’s her sheer grit – a young girl from Himachal, who I remember meeting when she had just come in to Bollywood. She was a kid of 18 and couldn’t even speak proper English. Look at her today; she has international brands throwing couture at her. And she carries it off with such aplomb. A lot of it has to do with her innate style, finesse, sense of identity, and pride. I just love that about her. There’s also Deepika Padukone, I have criticised her in the past. But look at her today, and how she has groomed herself and become an accomplished actor.
What are your views on modern Bollywood?
We have a lot of spunky female actors who are breaking the mould and doing things on their own terms, compared to the old days where they were “goongi gudiyas”, or dumb dolls who relied on producers or top stars to take them further. These days the women don’t wait around anymore. If they don’t get the role they want they become producers and that is the way to go. Commercially it is still an industry driven by men, but that is true everywhere in show biz, even Hollywood.
You have been to Bangkok numerous times. Why do you keep coming back?
I think the place and the country is so culturally connected to India that for me being in Bangkok or Mumbai is the same. However, I would opt for Bangkok because people are so much politer. We should learn how people treat each other with respect, we should learn from their calmness. People here cope differently with the everyday challenges, maybe because of their spiritual or emotional resources. I love the buzz and chaos of Bangkok. I see the food vendors, the eating culture, and the hundreds of metres of hanging electrical wires and I feel completely at home. Some of my favourite places to hangout out in the city are Zuma at St. Regis and the Erawan Tea Room. I really love Platinum Mall, it has such fun stuff, the accessories and bags.
Follow Shobhaa on Twitter @DeShobhaa and her blog
Photo courtesy: www celebhealthy.com
Wit & Wisdom, published in Masala magazine Thailand, June 2015.