In an industry that is still slave to dynasty and lineage, a British-Asian girl emerges from nowhere and attains vertiginous heights in Bollywood.
Katrina Kaif has defied all conventional film wisdom - she barely spoke Hindi, her acting skills came up for debate and she is politically correct in interviews to the point of boredom. But Katrina has the X-factor, accentuated by an angelic face and a body that could tempt the devil. Who else could pull off a raunchy Sheila ki Jawaani with lyrics like 'khudko pyaar karoon main' with such playful innocence?
Katrina's box-office track record is enviable, as proved again recently by Mere Brother Ki Dulhan. Considered a good luck mascot, she is much in demand and is probably among the few actresses who can boast of working with all the Khans. But her superstar status today is by no means a fluke.
Perhaps the fact that Katrina has not grown up with a sense of entitlement, like other star kids, has contributed to her success. She never seems take her success for granted. Directors vouch for her commitment, and her acting skills and diction have amped up over the years. And she seems to have mastered the art of Khan management. No mean feat, if you think about it.
Katrina has delicately worked around temperamental boyfriends, bloated egos and fickle relationships and built goodwill that spans diverse camps. Yet for all her astute networking, few seem to know the real Katrina. Vague information filters in about her past, she hides behind a veneer of correctness. What we don't know about her just seems to add to her mystique.
The early days
Katrina first floated into the industry with her debut, Kaizad Gustad's Boom (2003). The director though, refuses to talk about his discovery as he tersely says, "I don't want to hurt anyone."
Boom's producer Ayesha Shroff is more forthcoming, "During the course of some research, Kaizad chanced upon her. He tells me that a few days later, she went to his house and asked him, 'I'm interested in India.
Do you think I have a future in India as a model or in films?' She came down to Mumbai, auditioned and got the role. I think she had done some modeling in London. I thought she would have a career here. At that time, there was nobody with a good body, no one was wearing bikinis."
But where did Kaizad meet her? Ayesha refuses to say. "I can't talk about it. What's the point? What she has achieved is admirable and it's not easy for a woman to pull herself out of nothing and make such a huge name for herself."
What she does talk about is how Katrina got her last name. "Her passport says Turquotte. We created an identity for her. She was this pretty young English girl, and we gave her the Kashmiri father and thought of calling her Katrina Kazi. We thought we'd give her some kind of Indian ancestry, to connect with the audience. Those times were different, now people are more accepting. But then we thought that Kazi sounded too... religious? We were to introduce her to the press and at that time, Mohammad Kaif was at the top, and so we said, Katrina Kaif sounds really great. In fact, the brochures for the press say Katrina Kazi. We passed that off saying, 'Oh that's a printing mistake," says Ayesha.
Is Katrina in touch with her? "No. But that's a personal choice. What hurts me is that she distances herself from Boom. When Boom released, she was seeing Salman, she dismissed her debut saying she didn't know what she was doing and so she did the bikini scene, the smooching scene. No one put a gun to anybody's head. She is a very intelligent young woman, she knows what she has going and doesn't want to jeopardize it."
After Boom, her early success was David Dhawan's Maine Pyaar Kyun Kiya and later Partner, both starring Salman. The director fondly recalls, "She was young when I met her, but her presence was very strong. She's very beautiful. She barely knew enough Hindi to save her skin. But her dedication was very strong and she was a good learner. She had the making of a heroine."
Dhawan says that it was her attention to scenes and rehearsals that was endearing. She didn't throw tantrums and she was friendly and warm. He adds with a laugh, "I took her for granted when we shot Partner. She hasn't changed, so much respect she gives me. She is looking very good, is still very insecure and that is important for an actor. It becomes difficult to hold on and live up to the success tag."
Salman at that time was always teaching her a thing or two on the sets, but the director insists, "Just being in someone's good books doesn't work. The audience really loves her."
This sentiment is echoed by her Tees Maar Khan director Farah Khan, "Katrina has the X-factor. There are prettier girls who haven't made it. She has the same fire that actresses like Sridevi and Madhuri had. The audiences love her, especially the kids."
Farah adds that no one promotes a film like Katrina does. And that she has never heard Katrina backbite. She says, "Katrina stresses about the way she looks. But she never frets over petty issues like my vanity van is too small."
Though Akshay Kumar had recommended her, Farah was initially hesitant, "I thought they'd done too many films together." On the sets, Farah was no closer to knowing Katrina intimately. She laughs, "I don't think anyone in the industry really knows her, give or take one or two people. But I've met her mother. Katrina is quite the family girl."
Akshay and Katrina's chemistry had also proved to be a hit with films like Namastey London and Singh is Kinng. In past interviews, she has acknowledged Akshay and Salman's contribution to her career. She makes for a good leading lady with the younger heroes like Ranbir and Imran as well. And she can boast of a Yash Raj film with Shah Rukh and Dhoom 3 with Aamir. Add to the that, she has the instinct for the right scripts and working with the right people.
To maintain relationships with the big boys of Bollywod calls for immense dexterity. Her dignified silence and denials about link-ups has ensured that she doesn't tread on anyone's toes. There were reports of Salman having slapped her at a coffee shop in 2008, but she denied the incident. Now as they shoot for Ek Tha Tiger in Ireland, they are reportedly fond of each other and there is no bitterness as they shoot together.
In an earlier interview with Mumbai Mirror, she said, "All my life I have judged my worth by how much I have been loved by a man. It's so with a lot of women, that their self-esteem is measured by how much they are loved by a man, their partner, their boyfriend or may be their husband. In my case, it may be because I grew up without my father. But now that I am more mature and not eighteen any more, I have learnt to overcome that and understand that I have my own destiny and life." Destiny's child has come into her own.