In an exclusive chat held at the mid-day office, writer and social-media sensation Mrs Funnybones Twinkle Khanna shines a light on fame and films, as she turns producer with the Akshay Kumar starrer 'Pad Man'
Twinkle Khanna with Team mid-day. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar
You mentioned you haven't given an interview as a producer before. To ease you in therefore, how about we start with what I'm sure you've been asked all your life: Twinkle, are you really named after the nursery rhyme?
The apocryphal tales from my childhood would suggest that I was named (Twinkle) because it rhymed with sprinkle and sparkle. Luckily, I wasn't named Wrinkle.
What's wrong with Wrinkle?
Well, Wrinkle would just be slightly worse than Twinkle. At least, here you're shining, there you're sagging. Having said that, for very long, I didn't like my name. I fought against it. But as with everything else, my perspective (on this) was influenced as much by literature as life. I read Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter Of Maladies, which has a short-story about a girl with a fancy Bengali name, who insists on introducing herself to everyone as Twinkle - her 'pet name'. Everyone is baffled by this, including her husband. And she's a popular, cool girl, who still insists on going by Twinkle. So I thought if she's okay with it, I can pull it off as well!
Was there a connection between Twinkle (in that short story), and you? Did you ever meet or ask Jhumpa Lahiri?
Well I think there was a paragraph in there about an actress from Bombay, by the name of Dimple (Twinkle's mother). I guess she did kinda...
Oh, so there was a reference.
I don't know if it was completely directed at me. But it certainly did change my perspective!
The other name you're equally well-known by is Mrs Funnybones.
I seem to have a penchant for really funny names.
That would obviously be because you have a funny bone. Also, I hear, the name comes from you being accident-prone, you've managed to break a lot of bones.
I've broken both my legs, arms, collarbone. I've limped for most of my life, which strangely enough I stopped after 40, so some things do get better with age. Mrs Funnybones was a handle I had essentially made to anonymously troll people on Twitter. But the day I decided to (officially) join (Twitter), Twinkle Khanna was already taken. And I didn't want to be 'TheOneAndOnlyTwinkleKhanna' (God that sounds really bad), or 'TheReal...' Since I already had MrsFunnyBones, I went with it. When I did join, one of the politicians had been slapped. My first tweet was, "What a slap Sirji." My family immediately said that I should get off this platform. This is not for me!
Now when you call yourself Mrs Funnybones, and write columns that are inherently funny, is there too much pressure to be funny at all times?
Now the good thing about hiding behind the persona of Mrs Funnybones, I mean that's not really me, it's a projection is that I'm not supposed to be amiable, I'm just supposed to be myself. And cracking lame jokes comes easier to me than minding my P's and Q's, so I'm alright there. I used to feel the pressure in the beginning, but then realised that I just have to be myself, and really, how wrong can you go with that?
You've said before that since you were fat while growing up, humour became your natural defense mechanism. Is that cliche' about fat people being funny really true?
It's not about fat people, it's about odd people being funny, while finding a way to fit in, making fun of others, before others can attack you. I mean, how non-conventional could I be? I was in a position where people would be nice to me, because of who my parents were. And they were also mean to me for the same reason. I had an odd name. I was the fattest girl, which is great, because I could sit on everyone in class, and beat them up. And I feel lucky to have been an oddball, forced to develop other skills. Because if I was really the prom queen, what would I be doing right now? Staring at my position in my 40s, with the thing I banked on (beauty) depleting?
Going back to pressures of humour, I know stand-up comedians in particular, who are headaches to hang out with they just keep thinking of repartees, comebacks, puns, during conversations. It's impossible to talk to them in a social setting!
Well, unfortunately, that describes me as well. And I do try really hard not to (fall into the trap), so I do my yoga to tell myself, "It's alright. I don't have to have the last, punch line!"
The other thing about humour is its decline that one senses in general. Would you agree?
You're telling me about it? (laughs). I definitely think so. But I'm divided on this (issue). There are certain things (we were used to) that I feel weren't politically correct culturally, discriminatory, racist. And we're not okay with that anymore. But our funniest jokes used to be about other people. The other side of me feels sad, because we're losing that too. Or I'm losing opportunities!
There's also the element of an exponentially growing number of holy cows that you simply can't make fun of anymore. Or is that just a social-media thing?
My (Twitter) bio says that nothing is sacred, except laughter. And why do Hindu boys worship their mothers? Because their religion tells them to worship the cow! Clearly I'm the wrong person to talk to about holy cows.
Did you get trolled for it?
Since you write opinion, that's the other thing happening, where every perspective is presently being boxed, while individuals are being conveniently reduced/diminished to labels: Bhakts, Libtards, and so on. Do you notice that?
I also see that if you write something 'Left-Liberal', as you'd call it, you get trolled majorly. I have a formula. Once I was writing a column about building a nation of tyranny on corpses of soldiers, and I began with saying that ornithologists can see a distinction between birds. I didn't get trolled, because most people didn't understand what ornithologist means, and they left it alone (laughs).
Politically, socially, your husband (Akshay Kumar) holds a totally separate world-view from yours. Is that fair to say?
I'd say our social, political ideologies, sense of humour, are very different. What's interesting is that after the first few years, we gave up trying to change each other. What we did instead was start to learn from each other. Luckily all his strengths are my weaknesses, and vice versa. What would I learn if we were more like each other anyway? I really believe two peas in a pod died of inertia. And we are not like that. So we continue to grow. Marriages essentially fail, when you try to clone the other person to become like you, it's not possible.
But he's protective of your public opinions, censoring your columns, we hear, cautioning you against going too far?
We're two different brains. Mine is a washing machine, whirling, chaotic. His thoughts are neatly folded in the closet of his mind. I need his stability to hem me in. He needs me to push him out of his comfort zone.
Why does it feel like we're reading a perfectly-worded column of yours?
What can I say, I'm smart, you don't get to meet too many of those (laughs). So in a certain situation, he's only trying to protect me from the fact that there'd be people throwing stones at our house. And I appreciate that. Because I could, sometimes, get into a lot of trouble on my own.
Well you do represent 'soft power' having grown up in the limelight which inevitably make for soft-targets. What's the worst sort of targeting you've faced for your opinions? Have they percolated offline?
Well I had an elderly lady accost me at a hospital once, while I was waiting for my mother-in-law's test reports, and she kept asking me what I had against Yogi Adityanath. And she was a really old lady, and I kept telling her this was not the right time, and she just went on regardless.
Given excessively famous parents (Rajesh Khanna, Dimple), I'm sure you've been used to this sort of intrusion all your life, no?
I had no choice over where I was born. But being married to a movie-star was my choice. Still it (intrusion) is not something I'm comfortable with. I prefer sitting behind my desk that's my life. When I'm pushed out there, of course, I have, with time, developed the abilities to deal with it too.
One of the challenges of your life, you've said before, was to be normal. What did you mean by that?
I've had a turbulent life, first of all. I went from living in (my father's) mansion, going to school in a convertible, to shifting into my grandmother's house, where my sister and I would sleep on mattresses on the floor. I would go everywhere in rickshaws that I absolutely loved. My friends had nicknamed me 'Rickshaw Rani' for some reason. (This carried on) until I got the signing amount for my first movie, and I put a down-payment for my car a white esteem, which was a big thing. I could have borrowed my mother's car. But we were raised in a certain way, seeing my mom working, raising not just me, but my sibling, and my grandparents. I realised early on that I needed to be financially independent. So I don't know if I've had that semblance of a normal life, if you know what I mean.
I read a lovely column of yours (it also had Akshay's story in it) about taking suburban trains, and was quite surprised that you did take the locals growing up.
How else would I commute? As I said, I had a convertible until I was 10, and then it vanished. But more than that, it was about a work ethic, and a mindset. I went to boarding school, the most defining time of my life, where I turned from a complacent child, who came last in a class of 37, to always being in the top three. Which is true for children in general, it's the circumstances that propel them to go either way, not just their abilities. So the misfortunes, that I thought were devastating, turned out to be assets.
Looking at the post 3 Idiots phase, where so much premium is put on 'passion', there must be kids who probably want to become engineers or doctors, but their parents will probably force them to become poets! That's a joke. But this actually happened to you; you'd scored 97 in math...
Yeah, I wanted to be a chartered accountant. But my mom didn't even pay attention (to that). The thought was just thrown out of the window. I had applied for my (CA) entrance exam, during my second year in commerce. And I used to keep getting these (film) offers. There was Time Machine, which Shekhar Kapur was making, that I said no to, and many others that kept coming.
So it was clear to your mom that you would be in the movies?
She told me that this is the time (that I can pursue movies). I can always do other things later. And it worked out. And like I said, I really wanted to get financially independent quickly, and this was a good way.
Here's something that you do in all your interviews: you totally downplay your acting career, as if it never happened, or say that you sucked at it. You've had 17 lead-actor credits against your name, that's a lot!
Were you writing reviews at that time? No. Otherwise, I would've asked if you've ever written a good review about me!
Well your last film, Love Ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega (2001), was good. Shah Rukh Khan, for instance, is known as Baadshah (1999) for the film where you were the heroine...
What's the point of all these things? I don't even like my children watching my movies. And my son is such an ass. He keeps replaying a clip from the film Jaan (1996), where I am kissing around a man's nipple. He made a collage out of this for one of my birthdays. It's sick [laughs]. I don't think my family has been supportive of what you think has been a great career!
But you were pretty much in the thick of things back in that decade.
All I wanted to do was get back home. On sets, I would read books. There were times when I'd be sitting, and knitting, and my spot-boy would tell me, "Aap mat aisa kariye. Sab log Auntyji bolenge." So you had to live up to an image, and I wasn't that person.
If you felt like the 'outsider', you'd actually have the best observations to make. So much of writing is reminiscence, isn't it? Still, you've never written about showbiz/movies.
I couldn't really see people as clearly as I can now. Though, of course, you couldn't miss some people who were in a kaleidoscope of colours. I had a (male) co-actor who cancelled shoot, and he called me the next day to say that he was really sick, because he had a problem with his uterus [laughs]. I didn't really feel like saying anything after that.
What's the craziest story that you remember from a set?
This uterus story was really funny. And he (the same actor) always had strange medical issues. Once we were shooting in Switzerland, and after pack-up he said that his ear was numb, and the doctor was pleased that he got himself checked up in time, otherwise his brain would have dislocated! And I was like, this really can't be happening. So I have all these weird stories but somewhere, somehow, I don't enjoy writing about them.
Have things changed a lot in the movies since?
Well, I haven't produced any films, except Pad Man.
Are you going to disown Tees Maar Khan? You're credited as a producer there too, among a couple of other films.
My husband just put my name, because I was lucky for him [laughs]. I haven't done anything in Tees Maar Khan. Pad Man is the only movie I have produced. Well, the movie business has completely changed so far as women, and women's roles, are concerned. even the way women are treated has changed drastically.
Were women in the movies treated as dim-witted back then?
Yes, most of us were. Which is why you are surprised that I come up with these quotes!
Which brings me to a point about intelligence, and acting. How intrinsically linked do you think the two are? Do you really need to be an intelligent person to be a good actor?
It depends on how you define intelligence. If you are looking at somebody who is emotionally intelligent, then yes, they would be good at acting. But someone who is well-read might not be a good actor. I don't think intelligence has anything to do with your abilities. The ability of an actor is to feel emotions, and enact them. I didn't have that.
I've met actors who seem totally clueless and blank about the world they live in, and yet they shine on screen when they have to portray complex characters. Do you think it just comes naturally?
I think being able to act, as a quality, is as inbuilt as being able to write, sing or dance. You can't cultivate it. You are born with it. As for (some ) actors you meet who seem blank even now when I do a few commercials for brands, on the sets, there's just a whole bunch of people only talking about the current styles, all day. So you can't blame people for not being vocal (on stuff about the world), because their entire day is either spent in performing, or investing in the way they look. Where is the time to invest in their brains?
What did you do to not be in that bubble?
I was never in the bubble, that's the whole point. By the end of it, I started doing my own hair and make-up, because I got bored, just sitting, and looking myself in the mirror. I never felt that I would fit in.
Clearly you fit in quite well now as a bestselling author; and a first-time producer.
Yes (laughs). We keep telling kids that they have to be good at sports, or look a certain way. But it's your flaws, which make you unique, and that pay off in the end. By the time you're 10, your personality and attributes get completely defined. And if you play on those attributes, and strengths, those are things that really hold you as an adult, and (drive you towards) success.
Audience questions: I'm told you literally had to chase Arunachalam Muruganantham around to get rights for the story of Padman? [Mohar Basu]
Yes, for some reason he couldn't just pick up the phone. When we finally met, he told me a lot of people were chasing him too. He mentioned Abhay Deol, Akshaye Khanna, who wasn't Akshaye Khanna, it was actually me. But I knew I really wanted to write the story and that it needed to get out there to every household. So I just chased him relentlessly for, I think, seven to eight months. I could have had another baby in that time [laughs].
Do you see television and web streaming platforms as the future of cinema? [Amit Karn]
For me, it (the future) is in immersive, virtual reality, where we're completely immersed in an environment, within a scenario. That's where we are heading. There is pollution, traffic. We're not going to be able to leave our houses very soon. So where are we going to be? Living in cubicles, pretending (through headsets/glasses) that we are living in a much wider world.