Milind Soman talks about his life on the run, wife Ankita Konwar and ex-girlfriends

Updated: Jan 12, 2020, 15:05 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

An RSS student, national-level swimmer, supermodel, chain smoker, marathoner and (practically) every woman's fantasy, Milind Soman recalls the many lives he has chased in a just-released memoir.

Milind Soman. Pics/ Ashish Rane
Milind Soman. Pics/ Ashish Rane

The last time we saw Milind Soman was at Marine Drive four years ago, on a Sunday morning. His running shorts and tee clinging to his body, he sprinted past onlookers, some of them sizing him up. This writer had just begun to actively use her feet. It was the only time, Soman and she had something in common.

When we meet the former model, actor and now marathoner at his Santa Cruz East office, a lot has changed. At 32, we can barely run—the excuse is our collapsing body. Fifty four-year-old Soman is still hanging in there, like the solid branch of an ageing tree. There is reason to be in awe. But, we have decided we won't fawn. Fresh from reading his memoir, Made In India (Penguin Random House), where he writes, "no interview with a female journalist... has ever begun without her first saying something complimentary about my looks," we are determined to keep things different.

And yet, when Soman shows up 25 minutes after the scheduled 2 pm time, in distressed jeans and a jacket with popped collar, requesting another 10 minutes, we thaw—generously obliging. When he is back, we say nothing about his looks, and congratulate him on the book, which he has co-written with Roopa Pai.

With mother Usha; 2019With mother Usha; 2019

Publishing house Penguin had approached Soman years ago, to write his story. But he recalls dragging his feet. "I had no struggle [to speak of]. Or at least the kind, that would have shaped my life [or merited a book]. What would I talk about?"

It was Raga Olga D'silva, friend and co-founder of his firm, Speaking Minds—which provides a range of motivational speakers to corporate clients—who convinced him to write. Pai came on board, because Soman, who says he is fairly new to social media, chanced upon her post on his Facebook timeline. "I read stories she had written about sportspersons, who were representing India at the Olympics. They were very short, but the essence of their personalities was apparent. I was very inspired. I later went to her page and read all her stories," he says. At the time, Soman didn't know that Pai was a published author. The memoir is the result of lengthy interviews between the two.

Soman speaks of a childhood spent in London and later Bombay, the indulgences that come with modelling, and a new lease of life as a marathoner. The book has moments of self-introspection, as most memoirs are wont to. Soman, who seems like to like giving credit where due, says that Pai did a good job at vocalising his thoughts. "It sounds like me."

With Madhu Sapre; 2006With Madhu Sapre; 2006

It's most likely that he has excluded important chapters from his life, "just because I couldn't remember them". "I live in the moment. My wife [Ankita Konwar] tells me that I have a bad memory... all wives say that," he says, plainly. "But yes, I don't remember things that I did yesterday or even last week. So for me, to think what I 20 years ago, wasn't exciting. The highest point of my life so far was in 1984, when I won my first national [swimming] championship. I was 18. I think, nothing has exceeded that feeling, although I have done so much since. That's a bit sad."

Soman moved to Mumbai, as an eight year old, in 1973. While he felt like an "outlier", because he spoke with a British accent, he writes glowingly of his childhood—one that involved rigour and discipline. He was training to be a professional swimmer, and would eventually go on to represent India at the The South Asian Games. But, growing up in the Maharashtrian neighbourhood of Shivaji Park meant walking in the light of the rest. His father, an employee of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, who he calls Baba, enrolled him in the local RSS shakha, because he was a "great believer in the benefits that would accrue to a young boy, in terms of disciplined living." Soman remembers it as a fun experience. "I talk about everything as being fun," he laughs. "But the RSS then, was all about games and exercises. Discipline was also a big thing—that you have to listen, be obedient, respect your parents and elders. We also learned stick fighting and attended camps. It wasn't religious, dogmatic, racist or negative," he says, admitting that he is a "little surprised" when he reads reports concerning the social organisation today. "I don't discount it. I didn't study their philosophy or what their mission was. For me, it was a good experience. And the people I was with, were good people."

With Anusha Dandekar; 2003With Anusha Dandekar; 2003

As a 21-year-old, his life took a dramatic turn, when following a tiff with his Indian coach, his name was not considered for the 1986 Asian Games. It's the one thing he regrets. " I would have loved to represent India. I think it was my fault [arguing]. I should have been smarter. It's always about how you deal with a situation. I didn't deal with it correctly," he says.

In between 1986—the year he considered giving up professional swimming—and 2009, Soman became the poster-boy of Indian modelling, a gay icon, an actor, film and television producer and successful full marathon runner. Nothing, however, brought him more joy, than the dismissal of a case in November 2009, against him and former girlfriend Madhu Sapre for the infamous Tuff shoes advertisement, where the two had posed in the buff. He points out in the book that the ad would have gone unnoticed, had it not been for an article in this very paper on July 23, 1995, which reproduced the image of the ad, with an article on the controversy. "That was when the s**t really hit the fan," he writes. The court battle dragged on for 14 years.

 Watching a selfie seeker pay the customary price, do push-ups; 2018 Watching a selfie seeker pay the customary price, do push-ups; 2018

The modelling years may have brought Soman stardom, but it's also the first time that he threw caution to the wind. Alcohol, drugs and smoking, became commonplace. It's that one time when aai, his mother Usha, who until then had been supportive of his choice of career to his girlfriends, disapproved. "She has always been there. She is a solid backbone. It's not like she ever told any of us [Milind and his three sisters] what to do. She just led by example. Also, I don't listen to people, even if it's my mother. And she respects that," he says. "Yes, she was against alcohol and tobacco; all mothers are. But I was at that phase of my life, where I was surrounded by people who encouraged it. I used to drink a lot. I'd come home drunk and she would be horrified. But, I never smoked or drank at home. I didn't want to make it worse for her," he says. He admits to smoking 30 cigarettes a day. "I was that stupid, yes." But because of the subconscious guilt about smoking—his father was a hard smoker—he says he never actually bought himself a single cigarette through those years. "I have an addictive obsessive personality, but I am able to get in and out without scarring myself. I try whatever there is to try."

A year after the annual Mumbai Marathon launched in 2003, marked another chapter for Soman. It was like going back to his childhood, he says. He continued doing the half marathons annually for the next five years, before he took the full plunge. While he completed the race in 4 hours 47 minutes and 44 seconds, he collapsed a few kilometres from the finish line. "That was the only time I really struggled to achieve something. It was because of overconfidence. I had been running for five years, and was cocky and arrogant. I didn't allow myself to understand what it meant to run 42 km. It was a great learning experience."

Running the Mumbai Marathon; 2007Running the Mumbai Marathon; 2007

In 2015, he competed in the Ironman Triathlon, "widely considered the world's toughest one-day sporting event." Participants have to complete a 3.86-kilometre swim, a 180.25-kilometre bicycle ride and a full marathon (42.2 kilometres), successively, and in that order, in under 17 hours. Two years on, he completed Ultraman, a three-day-long mega triathlon, which he says was scarier than Ironman. "At 38, I had thought finishing a half-marathon would be difficult. At 52, I knew becoming an Ultraman was easy," he writes in the book.

Memoirs are meant to be tell-all. But Soman, despite showing no restrain when exposing his vulnerabilities, including his love-hate relationship with his father whose volatile temperament worried him, refused to discuss or dwell on the relationships with his girlfriends, except for Sapre, which was public knowledge, his first wife Mylène Jampanoi and Konwar. "I skipped it deliberately. People didn't know about a lot of my girlfriends, and I didn't want to suddenly bring it out, and create some issues for them. It happened so many years ago, and they have their own lives. I didn't want to call all of them up, and ask, 'Hey, should I tell them our story?'. I also felt it wasn't important to write about them."

Having said that, he loved the attention he has received from women. A soothsayer, after reading his palm, had told his mother that he would be surrounded by ladies. "It's the truth. It's not that I don't get along with men, but I prefer the company of women. I like being with them. I have learnt a lot from the women I have been with, whether my mother, sisters, girlfriends, business partners or wives." And then corrects himself: "Wife."

Soman and Ankita KonwarSoman and Ankita Konwar

Konwar, who he married in April 2018, is at the office when we meet him. She doesn't interrupt the interview, but agrees for a quick picture, when asked. The two met at a nightclub, and for Soman it was almost, love at first look. "I thought this girl was amazing." But he didn't want to appear like a "predatory Casanova", a description he says is wrongly attributed to him, so he took it slow. They went out on a date two weeks later. He jokes about how "traumatic" the whole wedding talk was. "When we met for the first time, we had this chat about marriage and kids, and we both agreed that it was not for us. And I was like, 'yay!'. But a couple of years later, her sister got married, and she said, 'oh! It would be so nice to get married.' And I said, 'excuse me!' It kept cropping up again. Eventually, I got around to it," he says. "But it's been wonderful. I am really happy that we did it. We do everything together, and I think, it has worked well for us," Soman ends, as we get into the elevator, for another round of pictures in the outdoors. The marathoner poses like he is on a ramp, and taking a look at the pictures in the DSLR, he admires his own face: "Hhow good I look?"

And we break our wow. "Of course!"

QUICK 5

1. His first girlfriend was called Anne. They were both five and in the same class at a London kindergarten.
2. His favourite escapist fantasy as a child was Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.
3. He has read at least 200 Mills & Boon romances as a teenager.
4. He hasn't used shaving foam, cologne, sunblock or soap, in over 10 years.
5. When the concept of Alisha Chinai's Made In India indipop video was first explained to him, he thought it "unbelievably tacky".

Milind Soman on tweets about Milind Soman

@dhaniyawaad
Milind Soman is so hot that I can cook biryani on him

I really hope @dhaniyawaad is a girl. Not that I want her to cook biryani on me.

@sup_3
Don't blame climate change! Milind Soman is directly responsible for global warming!
I am not. It's really bad, and I can't be responsible for what's bad.

@Shakti_Shetty
Milind Soman can actually justify sending "Running late" emails to his colleagues
Laughs.

@iamdatemike
At one point I also wanted to date Milind Soman, but then I saw the amount of exercise it involved
Thank god.

@LOLrakshak
I have a lot of questions about the Milind Soman-Ankita wedding. Like who reached the mandap first, Milind or the horse?
Funny. Funny. Funny. There was no horse.

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