BY VEENA RAO
Her face completely devoid of make-up, her porcelain skin gleaming, Vasundhara Das extends her hand with an apology. “I don’t usually chew paan,” she says impishly. Dressed in casual denim, her short brown hair tousled, the ‘Monsoon Wedding’ girl cuts short her window-shopping at Global Mall with local promoters of her show Gauri Melkote and Tanveer Ahmed and their friend Mustafa Ajmeri to chat up with this reporter.
Vasundhara is in the US touring with ‘Arya the Band’. The singer/actress is excited with her band, which, she says portrays what is cosmopolitan India today. The band mixes various styles of music that have no boundaries. She also talks about her singing, acting and how the two careers have helped her grow.
Did you always dream of being a singer? What has your musical journey
Music has always been there in the family. My parents are fans of good music. My grandmother was a classical singer, and she was the first one to push me in that direction when I was 5. I trained under her for a couple of years, and then received training from other teachers who commanded more discipline from me. My parents always encouraged me to keep my hobby alive. It was when I stepped into college that I thought for the first time that maybe I could pursue music professionally. I let myself be exposed to different kinds of music in order to broaden my horizons.
I grew up in Bangalore with different kinds of music, a lot of it western. The focus was to form a band and do various kinds of music. It was not to be a playback singer then. That happened quite by accident, and am I glad for it!
I believe Elvis is your idol.
That happened during my first trip to the US. My mom’s brother lives in Phoenix. I was 11 years old, and in those days there was no satellite TV back in India. I was inspired by these old Elvis movies, and decided that I wanted to be a singer.
How did movies happen?
Again by accident. I was in Chennai looking to cut an album. I met the Magnasound guys who did a test with me, and figured that they wanted to sign me on. Through them I met a producer called Pravin Mani who is based out of Canada. While we were working on his album, Mani introduced me to Rehman who signed me for ‘Shakalaka Baby’, and my playback-singing career began. Soon I started getting acting offers, butI turned them down because I wasn’t thinking about acting at all. Then the offers started getting serious, and I got an offer from Kamalji (Hasan) for ‘Hey Ram’ and I really couldn’t ignore that. I went to the screen test without really expecting anything. But I got the role, and three days later Kamalji asked me to go back home, tell my parents and pack my bags (to Chennai).
Did you have to drop a bombshell on your parents?
Not really. My parents always knew that I wanted to be an entertainer. But I hadn’t given them the slightest hint that I wanted to act. But I think they adjusted fine.
Adjusted even to the steamy scenes with Kamal Hasan in ‘Hey Ram’?
Well, they weren’t ok with it. But it was something that had to be done, and it was done.
And then you got an offer for “Monsoon Wedding’.
Yes, I was in Mumbai and Mira was casting for ‘Monsoon Wedding’. We met through a common friend and she made me read out a scene. She decided instantly that she wanted me for the role. Working with Mira was a great experience. She knows what she wants from her actors, and she is a perfectionist. It was also great to work with great actors like Naseeruddin Shah and Kulbhushan Kharbanda. It was after working in ‘Monsoon Wedding’ that I decided that I should probably think seriously about acting as a profession.
'Monsoon Wedding' was a huge success internationally. But has it helped you in your career as an actress?
The film has brought me tremendous recognition. For instance, even if I walk down a village street in Italy, people recognize me. In terms of popularity, and in terms of keeping my options open, the film has done wonders for me. I am not limiting myself to linguistic barriers. I am doing films in Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam English. It has opened up a whole new world for me. Until then, I was dilly-dallying as to whether I should go back to music. This movie gave me the confidence to continue as an actress.
What Bollywood projects do you have on hand now?
I’ve just finished work on a film called ‘Film Star’ in which I’ve done a guest role. I am also shooting for ‘Patthar Bezubaan’. I have several projects lined up until next year. In the meanwhile I have also done blockbuster films in Tamil and Malayalam, the latest being ‘Citizen’ (Tamil).
Are you selective about your roles? What kind of roles do you look for? Is there danger of being typecast into certain roles in this industry?
Yes, I am very selective about my roles. That’s the reason I do just two or three movies a year. I usually look for roles I can identify with. I’ve been offered all kinds of roles, and I’ve had to turn down most of them. It is only now that I get roles that I can contemplate doing. In ‘Film Star’ I play a woman who has killed her husband. ‘Patthar Bezubaan’ is based on the Mathura rape case, where I play the role of the superintendent of police who comes to the rescue of the victim. There is a whole new trend of films these days, and I am happy to say that ‘Monsoon Wedding’ provided the kick-start to this genre of films.
You have soft looks, and appear soft-spoken. Was playing a cop (in Patther Bezubaan) difficult for you?
I had to study the role, and do a lot of research. I spent some time with the cops in Bangalore rural and Bellary district (of Karnataka), and saw how the SPs handle situations. I really enjoyed studying someone else’s life and walking in their shoes.
Do you usually put in so much preparation into every role?
Yes, pretty much.
What is it like working with Rehman?
It is a real pleasure. Rehman identifies you as someone who has his/her own input to his music. He lays the platform and asks you what you can do with it. Not too many people have that approach.
Do you consider yourself an actress or a singer first?
Although singing happened first, acting has just caught on me in the past two years. I get a lot of satisfaction doing both. I would say acting and singing are complimentary. I notice that since I’ve been singing for so long, emoting before the camera wasn’t too difficult for me. I would say I am an entertainer.
Here’s wishing the pretty entertainer good luck!