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The prude in scant cloth

She will not kiss or wear a bikini. But she will dance in flesh coloured panties. Rakhi Sawant is the hottest item girl in Bollywood. What makes up her world? Sonia Faleiro finds out

On a black sofa in a sixth floor apartment in suburban Goregaon, batting away the thick aroma of frying vegetables with a small, pale hand, sits item girl Rakhi Sawant. In her 20s, Sawant has the body of an adolescent, small, frail. Translucent skin stretches taut across the high bones of her face. She is 5’5 and weighs 43 kilos, and as she sits in a mustard coloured kaftan, reading from a Christian prayer book, the beauty appears in urgent need of a steak sandwich.

Sawant was a student of Goklibai School, Vile Parle, when director Suneel Darshan offered her an item number opposite Govinda in Joru ka Gulam (2000). “I was bubbly, very fatty, very chubby,” smiles Sawant. “But I wasn’t nervous.” Three years later, she auditioned four times before winning her breakthrough item number in Chura Liya Hai Tumne (2003). In between, Sawant says, she studied Arts at Mithibai College and spent energy she may never regain, arguing with her father who despised the film industry. ACP Sawant would scream, “Studies will count in life, not these things”. “For Marathi people ‘nathi’, heroine, is a very bad word,” says Sawant. “My father was like Hitler. And he was a policeman. He didn’t like me exposing my cleavage.”

Usha Sawant, a large woman with comfortable features, had no such qualms. She had had two offers in Gujarati cinema. After the first role, her husband insisted she remain a housewife. Derailed from her destiny, Usha, a Hindu, addressed letters to Jesus in Bandra’s Mount Mary Church, beseeching that her children Jaya, Rakesh and Neroo (later Rakhi) would become filmstars. “My mother had big dreams for me,” says Sawant. “She wanted me to be a child actor. She pushed me, ‘go, go, do it!’” Usha sighs fondly, “Rakhi was like a doll. Neighbours would keep cuddling her. She was so lucky for me. For six years, nothing. Then a month after she was born, I won the lottery — Rs 1.5 lakh.”

Jaya, the sister, did act in two films, then jettisoned her career for marriage; brother Rakesh is a director awaiting the release of his controversial debut Hot Money (2006), which stars his sister in a bustier and mini skirt made only of Rs 1 coins. “People were upset, but I’m doing everyone’s films wearing chote kapde, why not my brother’s’?” asks Sawant. Rakesh lives with his wife in an apartment purchased by his sister, who is also funding his career.

Economic head of the family, Sawant is no longer willing to justify either the wardrobe or body moves that earn her Rs five lakhs a song and three lakhs for a half hour stage show of which she does an average of eight a month. For her last item number, Aakhiyon Na Maare in Ek Haseena, Ek Khiladi in which she dances alongside Mumait and Zabyn Khan, she wore flesh coloured panties and a bustier, curled her limbs around a pole, and crawled on all fours down a ramp of steps. She sniffs, “I don’t know why (producer) Rangita Nandy took those girls. People say, ‘We only noticed you’.”

So did her father, who left home in protest, and now lives alone in a government apartment. He visits his wife, who lives with Rakhi, only on festivals, sullenly feeding her her favourite shrikhand before leaving. “I miss him,” says Rakhi. “But I won’t leave the industry for him. I don’t expose unless it’s necessary. I turned down Hawas because it was totally sex, sex, sex. Even Dhoom 2 because they wanted me in a bikini — you want a two piece film so you remember Rakhi? In my heart, I don’t want to do a kissing scene. But if I get a big offer, what’s my option?”

Sawant’s third film was Farah Khan’s Main Hoon Na (2004). For the auditions, she wore her tiniest skirts and t-shirts; on the way there she wore a burkha. “We lived in a bad neighbourhood,” she explains. “People would stare gandi nazron se.” The “bad neighbourhood,” was also why the siblings were sent to a hostel, even though their parents lived minutes away from school. “Since I can remember, I’ve been in a hostel,” says Sawant. The separation scarred her. “I was very darpok,” she says. “People won’t believe this girl who does so much expose (sic) in front of the camera couldn’t recite a poem on stage. But something happened to me as a child. I don’t remember. Maybe a family problem. I was out of school for a year because of this. I could not talk. Later I made a decision to change. I started doing drama.”

As her popularity grows, so does the pressure. Sawant eats a full meal only on Sunday. During the week, she has a cup of tea and fresh aloe vera for breakfast, juice for lunch, fruit for dinner. She exercises two hours daily. In her new video, Hoton Mein Aisi Baat, her gaunt appearance suggests anorexia. During the interview, the Sawants’ family doctor administers an injection to Rakhi. “He says I’m very weak,” she says later. “He told me to eat, stop exercising. I will eat for 10 days then I’ll stop in time for my next shoot.”

The pressure is magnified because Sawant has no ambition to act. To be an item girl is all. In this, she must know someone younger, thinner, more limber, may soon replace her. For the moment though, she dismisses the competition. “Unko paseena aata hai jab main set pe jaati hoon,” she says. “(They start sweating when I walk on set.) They’re not my friends. Since childhood I haven’t had friends. In this industry particularly, people just use your shoulders to climb up. But still, I help them. I tell them how to look at the camera, and they feel so good, ‘Oh my God!’”

Her father has moved out in protest. She starves herself for days before a shoot. A college kid once bit her cheek. This is the ambitious world of Rakhi Sawant

Still, the competition exists. Perhaps this is why Sawant feels the need to lie about her age. “I was 14 when I acted in Joru Ka Ghulam,” she says, “I’m 23 now.” The film was made in 2000. “She has only a few years left in the industry,” shrugs her mother. “She has to make the most of it. If she won’t wear chote kapde, someone else will. It’s better she does.”

Sawant agrees. “It doesn’t matter to me what I wear. I’ve worked so hard to get here, you think I argue over clothes? I don’t mind showing my body. But I won’t be vulgar. What’s the point of 17 smooching scenes? (Mallika Sherawat’s Khwaish). The movie was good, it would have been a hit anyway. I also stay away from bikinis, because of the censors. If after all that work the public doesn’t see the fruits, what’s the use?” Later, she mulls, “People know me because I’m a good dancer, not because of my revealing. I think of Helenji when I dance. Kapde utarne se kuch nahin hota. Is Neil & Nikki a hit? Of course, there’s lots of pressure to wear small clothes. I say, ‘Make the skirt longer.’ They say, ‘You’re famous for only this.’ I feel bad, but I respond, ‘Fine. Give me. I’ll show my talent.’”

Make My Skirt Longer! (From top) Many faces of Rakhi Sawant, the chote kapde girl

There are other hazards. Sawant gets obscene phone calls and threats purporting to be from the proverbial underworld “Bhai”. “I’m not scared,” she says. “As a child I was. No more. If you’re a star, you can’t expect people won’t harass you. That’s asking too much.”

Still, performing onstage, she is in constant fear of being molested. “As soon as a show finishes I have to run,” she says. “The public goes mad.” In Kathmandu, a college student bit her cheek. In Dubai, members of a private audience groped her. The police was summoned, and Sawant was temporarily banned from entering the uae. “The audience is the worst on December 31,” shudders Usha. “So drunk they just lie on the road.” Sawant’s face darkens. “The organisers are to blame. Instead of putting good pictures, they put my sexy, sexy hoardings.”

In 2006, Sawant will be seen in three videos including Tips’ Pinup Doll, and five films including Priyadarshan’s Malamaal Weekly. She will launch the Rakhi Dance Academy in Andheri, adding to a real estate portfolio which includes three apartments. “When she gives me the word,” says Usha, “I’ll find her a husband. But I’ve told her to work and make money as long as she can. After marriage, she’ll have a baby and her body won’t be as before.” Sawant laughs, “Ab toh surgery hota hai.” (These days there’s surgery.) Usha continues, “I don’t trust actors. I want a businessman who’ll provide well for her.”
Sawant responds with a smile, and gesticulates at the tall glass cabinet opposite. Inside nests a box of L’Oreal hair colour, a Veet hair remover, a pink china lady with a blue bonnet, a gold Buddha, a clutch of orange flowers, a pink candle, laminated photos of Mother Mary, Jesus Christ, Aamir Khan, and herself; a hefty green plastic parrot, and a Philips stereo. She looks at the black velvet couches, the glass topped table, the dining table with three matching wooden chairs above which hangs a calendar from a ration shop. “My mother’s sacrifices have given me everything,” she says. “I won’t get married so soon, and let her dreams go to waste.”


Dec 31 , 2005

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