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Urmila Matondkar, The Birthday Girl Who Has Her Cake & Eats It Too



Urmila Matondkar

She came out of the blue to bathe the screen in purple desires. The minute Urmila Matondkar got on a slippery   rock in  Rangeela in a fabulously cut Manish Malhotra dress, a new sex symbol was born.

For the first time since Zeenat Aman, oomph was no longer the vamp’s domain. Never confusing vulgarity with sensuality, Urmila has virtually revolutionised the way sensuality is projected in Indian cinema — never cheap, forever chic. She  showed the way on how a heroine should project herself on screen  without apologising about her sex appeal.

In Rangeela  she came, she sang, she danced  .She  conquered… Urmila tripping over that handcart to the sound  of  Asha Bhosle’s Ho ja rangeela re oozed oomph and sex appeal. With considerable  help from Manish Malhotra,  Urmila redefined the  seductive space  which was so far occupied  by Hindi film heroines with simpering reluctance. After Zeenat Aman,Urmila  was  the first Bollywood diva to break away from the belief that only bad girls  wore  short  skirts.

Cut to  Pinjar(2003) .It was complete change of  image for  the femme fatale, as she  transformed  into a rural Punjabi woman during Partition who accepts her rapist as her husband. It  was a tough role requiring grueling levels of  focus  and dedication. Director Chandraprakash Diwedi  was  filming  Amrita Pritam, and that is  a  big deal. Urmila  was up to the challenge.

In   Pyar Tune  Kya Kiya   Ram Gopal Varma once again turned his  muse to a wickedly subverted  ode to womanhood.  If  in Rangeela Urmila played  a sexually innocent  seductress(Urmila  oomphed  only in  dream sequences)  in this film she lusted after Fardeen  Khan like Sharon Stone on coke. It was  frighteningly desperate  performance filled with  rage and longing that went  beyond the mediocre  direction(by the late Rajat Mukerjee). Her expressions of  yearning and aggression in the song Rondhe  hai tera pyaar(Alisha Chiani smouldering up the soundtrack) were  killing.

Ek Haseena Thi(2004): typified   the adage  that Hell hath no  fury like  a woman scorned. Who knows this better than Saif Ali Khan? He  was left by Urmila to be eaten  by live rats at  the end  Sriram Raghavan stunning revenge  saga. From the innocent virgin seduced  by the cunning Casanova to the psychopathic  avenger, what a range  Urmila  revealed! To think they  didn’t give her  the best actress award for this.They didn’t give  Mumtaz the  award for Tere Mere Sapne either.

And then there was   Kaun. I still get shivers when I recall Urmila’s  psychotic  expression at the  end as she peeps  out of her home’s eyehole to catch her next victim. This was a film that required her to ‘act’ like  a  normal frightened  victim  all through when in  fact she  was  a frigging lunatic killing people  who had the misfortune of  knocking on her oak door.Among  all  the films that Ram Gopal Varma  directed with Urmila this was the scariest. And for  the right reasons. After  Urmila stopped working with  him Ramu’s films got scary for all the wrong reasons.

But it is Rangeela with which  Urmila is  best recalled  .On September 8 ,1995 at 12.05 noon, a star was born.It was like a war chant.The minute Urmila Matondkar screamed Yaeee re yaeee re zor nagake nachee re in her micro-mini Manish Malhotra outfit that left EVERYTHING to the imagination, she was a certifiable star. Of course in the film it took her another 175 minutes to get there.The magic of the movies is that it foretells a success story even before the story unfolds.Urmila who did half a dozen inconsequential films before Rangeela never anticipated the typhoon that her  character whipped at the boxoffice.

Playing the middleclass Mumbai girl Mili(the protagonist’s name was a furtive tribute by director Ram Gopal Varma to Hrishikesh Mukherjee) Urmila rocked the boxoffice and shook up every definition of how the conventional heroine conducted herself on screen.Bindaas is the word that comes to mind when describing Urmila in Rangeela. Gyrating sensuously to A R Rahman’s seductive sounds Urmila scorched the screen ,setting the audiences’ collective libidos on fire.

The plot was a cleverly cloaked fairytale.Girl dreams of stardom , is secretly loved by the street hoodlum Munna(Aamir Khan) but is swept off her feet by the nation’s hearth-throb Raj Kamal(Jackie Shroff, playing an amalgamation of Rajesh Khanna and Kamal Haasan).The film was fresh ,sassy, unselfconsciously and unabashedly dream-like in choreography, mood and tempo. Mili’s life at home is portrayed with a lightness of touch that Ram Gopal Varma(RGV) never seemed to achieve in his subsequent films. In fact  RGV’s cinema leaned progressively towards dark blood-soaked themes of gangsterism.The delight he derived in serenading the artless joy of first love or the first flush of success or for that matter, the first dance of effervescence  as Urmila’s native joie de vivre jumped out of the sceen, remains contagious to this day.

The domestic scenes with Urmila’s parents (Achyut Poddar and Reema Lagoo) and her kid brother, curiously named Motilal and weirdly incompatible-looking in skin-tone with the rest of the family,are vehemently vibrant. In his later films Ramu invested his energy into the dark region.He sold himself ‘ouch’ .Rangeela is RGV’s lightest film to date. Its unmistakable power-source can be traced to Urmila’s fidgety constantly-restive performance that invites audiences’ adrenaline level to take a high-jump. She epitomizes the yearnings of the young Mumbai girl with a strong family support-system to see her dreams through.‘Family’ also means Munna(Aamir Khan) the  tapori in yellow pants, knitted vests, stubborn stubble and cocky caps.It would be seriously wrong to call Munna a goonda. He is more the neighbourhood rowdy Rathore in anything but khaki.Arguably the finest performance of Aamir’s career Munna gave Aamir a chance to let go, to simply have fun with a part without bothering with the earlier and future history  of the character. The scenes were he coaches Urmila to memorize her dialogues for her shooting the next day, show the actor’s gaze melting in unrequited love as he gets ‘in character’.Aamir  actually played the all-giving Chandramukhi from Saratchandra Chatterjee’s Devdas with a sex change. He didn’t have to perform a Mujra to entertain love. The lovelorn looks when Mili isn’t looking(she has her eyes trained to  a distant dream) kept Munna’s character on the level of a street-smart lover-boy without reducing him to a caricature.Munna’s hurt when Mili excitedly walks off in the middle of a lunch date to be with the superstar, was so palpable, we were inclined to shake Mili by her shoulders and point her to the obvious love that flowed out of Munna.

Interestingly films set in the film  world were known not to work at the boxoffice. Guru Dutt’s Kagaz Ke Phool had nearly killed the filmmaker’s selfesteem. Then there were Vijay Anand’s Tere Mere Sapne, Meraj’s Sitara and Rituparno Ghosh’s Shubho Mahurat. After Rangeela RGV’s Mast which was also set in the film industry bombed, as did Sudhir Mishra’s Khoya Khoya Chand and Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance.

Rangeela was  another experience altogether. The excesses of the entertainment industry were harnessed into telling a tale where it was okay for the wannabe screen-queen to overnight replace the tantrum-throwing leading lady . Rangeela is about wish fulfilment.Urmila gets stardom. Aamir gets Urmila. The superstar Jackie Shroff gets left behind. You can’t  have a love story without a broken heart.While the songs and dances were uniquely evocative and erotic, scenes from the film industry were deliciously tongue-in-cheek. Neeraj Vora as a sozzled gatecrasher pretending to be an influential producer who beleaguers Urmila at a party, the finicky director Steven Kapur(Gulshan Grover) who threatens to pack up at the smallest pretext, the tantrum-throwing heroine(Shefali Shah), the harassed film producer (Avtar Gill)quoting boxoffice figures to lull his own insecurities, the faithful father-like star-secretary(Ram Mohan)… these are all figures from the film industry.

RGV wove the wackiness of Bollywood into an oven-fresh rags-to-riches saga. The working-class wannabe star was draped in dresses that defied gravity. But RGV never resorted to low-angle vulgarity. His camera had not begun to peer into thighs and cleavages as yet. The film has long swift legs.But no thighs. Rangeela is a celebration of unalloyed innocence. The fun quotient was not thrust on the plot. It flowed freely and smoothly from the actors’  own enjoyment of the material that was served up to accentuate the contrast between dream-like aspiration and harsh day-time reality.Significantly, Munna  sold tickets at blackmarket rates outside the theatres were Mili aspired to be on screen.The dream that stars live out on screen often fades into the harsh reality of daylight.Urmila’s character was partly based on RGV’s dream-woman Sridevi.

Urmila had earlier worked in RGV’s Telugu film Drohi. The two subsequently worked in 6 films and were often linked together. Though they both denied it.The last time Urmila worked for RGV was in Ram Gopal Varma Ka Sholay where she performed the iconic Mehbooba oh mehbooba.

While one-half  of Urmila’s Tanha tanha number was shot in Goa the other half had to be shot in Madh Island.And no one could tell the difference.

Ram Gopal Varma speaking  on Rangeela  said to me, “Rangeela was a homage to two of my  favourite Hollywood films The Sound Of Music and Singing In The Rain. The choreography was inspired by Singing In The Rain. The Sound Of Music was the first film I had seen which had no antagonist.I consciously avoided negative characters in Rangeela.It was set in very real situations. We shot in a  real middleclass house to show  Urmila and her family’s lifestyle.When people say I made Urmila’s career in Rangeela I completely disagree. I am the same guy who earlier made Drohi with Urmila. What happened to that?For any actor success is a question of getting the right opportunity. Then everything falls into place. During Drohi the choreographer didn’t turn up for a song.So I asked Urmila if she would dance on her own and she agreed. And she did a great job. That’s when I decided to make Rangeela with Urmila. Aamir’s character was based on a street goonda I  knew in Hyderabad..When I  narrated Rangeela to Aamir  he immediately agreed. He is an incredibly passionate performer. Rangeela worked. Daud didn’t. There’s  no way we can predict these things. I’d like to do another film in the Rangeela genre.”

I’ve known Urmila Matondkar from the time she gave her finest performance in Ram Gopal Varma’s Kaun. As a seemingly normal girl left alone in a big bungalow for the weekend by her parents, Urmila was scary, damn scary.I had to seek her out. I asked my friend Ram Gopal Varma to introduce us.And that’s how I landed up at the home of an actress who is a dear friend and one of the gentlest kindest and most entertaining humanbeings in the Indian film industry.

I remember it was a day after her birthday. The entire lobby of her apartment building leading right up to her apartment was strewn with bouquets.

“Woh Urmila Madame ka happy burday tha,” the liftman had smiled.


Reserved reticent and somewhat enigmatic, Urmila and I  immediately warmed up to one another. I spent a good two hours with her.The lady is a marvelous entertainer. Her innocuous mimicry of the singing legends Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle had me in splits. (Sorry, Urmila,I know you told me not to talk about it). And there began our friendship which has endured over the years.

Somewhere along the course of our friendship Urmila shifted residence . She couldn’t wait for me to see her new swanky place.Neither could I. Some years ago,by coincidence I happened to be in Mumbai for her birthday. I reached her place with a  cake.Urmila served me the  cake that she cut the previous evening and, just so that I don’t feel left out, she served me some of the cake I had brought along.I finally knew what haiving one’s cake and eating it too, meant.

We spoke nineteen to the dozen.Rather, she spoke. I listened.It’s always that way whenever we meet up. There are very few stars in Mumbai I am as comfortable with.During one of my visits to Mumbai I had along my daughter Lata, my niece Pooja and my nephew Yash. Without a second thought we invited ourselves for dinner at Urmila’s place.

The embarrassingly large and loud invitees reached Urmila’s residence with some trepidation. Urmila was not the least fazed.She served us a banquet of food which I distinctly remember, included three types of rice preparations .And she had included fish because she knew I liked it.

And yes, unlike Karan Johar who just sits and watches me eat when he invites me for a  meal Urmila tucks in. She really tucks in. The first time when I saw her eat my mouth fell open. How could someone with an hour-glass figure(and let’s not pretend, Urmila has one of the most fabulous physiques Bollywood has ever seen) eat with such  relish?

“I love my food, so don’t look at me like that.And I don’t go to the gym either.” Urmila’s infectious giggle had filled the room as her mother had smiled indulgently.

She is the consummate sunshine girl, our Urmila. Her laughter and her joie de vivre fill up the spaces around her and influence those who happen to be in her vicinity. But for all her unstoppered gregariousness Urmila is an extremely private person. Though I’ve known her for many many years and we have gossiped, chatted and bitched about the whole industry I’ve till date never discussed  Urmila’s love life.She never told me when she fell in love with her Kashmiri husband Mohsin Akhtar.I  never asked. Urmila invites warmth. But she forbids an invasion of her private space even without having to say anything.And no one messes with Urmila.I dare anyone to try.

Her career has so far been dotted with surprises. From the spunky middleclass Marathi wannabe star in Rangeela, to the rape-victim during Partition in Pinjar to the haunted woman in Bhoot, Urmila’s wide spectrum of roles are enviable for all actresses of her generation.

She once told me, “From the beginning of my career, I’ve never done roles for awards or recognition. I’ve never   seen the  need to prove anything to anybody. I never relied on specific types of roles. Right after Rangeela I did Judaai and Aflatoon, then took a U-turn to do Satya and Kaun. Now I feel there’s no point in accepting a role unless it excites me. Usually it’s the  leading men who can manoeuvre and control their careers. I’m one of the few heroines who has been able to control her career. But the fact is, heroines have no control over a project. I’d  love to  select my subject and director and say, we’re on. But that isn’t possible. Maybe one day it will be possible.”

When I  asked about Urmila’s down-to-earth  nature she  replied, “I  never forget who I really  am.And for that the credit must go almost completely to my family and the way they’ve brought me up.My parents have always taught me not take success or failure seriously.Maybe because my father  has a background in stage acting I was taught  that I must act only as long as I like doing so.The trappings of stardom must be controlled by me and not vice versa.The money fame and stardom should flaunt the star.The star shouldn’t flaunt them.Another thing that I learnt early in life was,you must never demand respect,you must command it.There  have been enough instances in my life when I have seen my colleagues throwing their weight around.That made me even more confident of my convictions.There are times when I get irritated with the working atmosphere.But so far,touchwood,I never had to demand anything.I  never remember asking for anything in life.I’ve always been given everything before asking.

I remember Manoj Bajpai telling me nobody dares to mess with Urmila.

Urmila agreed, “I really don’t know why this is so.All I know is once I enter my house I am not long a star.I don’t know whether that’s good or bad.A lot of actors love to be surrounded by film personalities all the time.It isn’t as if I don’t love films. Perhaps I love films more than most of my colleagues.Perhaps I can talk more authroritatively about cinema than a lot of other  film people.But  I can’t relate to the term filmy nor can I be filmy in real life.You know people are taken aback when they meet my parents.They wonder how they can remain so unaffected by their daughter being a star for almost a decade.In our home the kind of conversations we have and the magazines that we read have nothing to do with films.Acting is like a nine-to-five job for me.I have met some wonderful people.I’ve learnt so much about life and living.However it is not possible to have good experiences all the time.At the end of the day one only makes a few good friends.Not everyone can be a friend.So I don’t see why people raise their eyebrows if I am not friendly with everyone in the film industry.”

How does Urmila  manage to avoid unwanted attention at filmy   gatherings?  “I don’t know about all this.I do attend  parties.I’m friendly to everyone.You know as a child I was painfully shy .I  just couldn’t say hello to strangers.I’ve overcome that shyness now.But even now somewhere deep down I’m still the same child who finds it hard to approach people and chat with them. To be liberated in mind and not just in body. It’s so funny when people  think I’d hide my marriage to preserve my image. To me marriage is part of complete womanhood. A woman may not step out of her house, she may not know what a disco looks like. But she could be the perfect woman . To me  an ideal woman is  the one in the village of UP  or Bihar who takes care of her large joint family without being forced to do so.  Being a woman is about having choices. Having someone in one’s life, getting married, having children are normal and beautiful.”

Lady, you fit the bill rather well. Happy Birthday, Urmila. May you continue to spread sunshine.And yes, hoping to see a little Urmila in  your arms soon.


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