From Sheila to Suraiyya: The unbearable lightness of being Katrina Kaif

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Katrina is a product of masculine imagination, but she can transcend that in her spirit and spunk, which won’t get unnoticed in Thugs of Hindostan, as there’s hardly anything else to notice.

Having lost the opportunity to fictionalise the story of thug Feringhea and thug-hunter British officer William Sleeman, you would think at least Vijay Krishna Acharya’s Thugs of Hindostan would give us a movie that was as exciting as the lives of the bandits.

But no, that is too much to expect from a movie intending to be a Diwali blockbuster — as noisy and as self-consciously spectacular as this one is. What you have instead is a movie that has allowed me to contemplate the many virtues of Katrina Kaif.

In 2011, when I did a profile on Katrina Kaif for India Today, based on a series of interviews with her and those around her, the ever-insightful Shiv Visvanathan told me: ”She is part of the new Indian epics enacted abroad, from New York to Singh is Kinng, which convey a new sense of the Indian, who is definitely global, urbane, mobile and tactical. She smells new and conveys the new. She is so easy with all the men, and yet seems to move beyond all of them.”

As Indian cinema has turned inward, looking to its own stories and its own homegrown epics, Hindi cinema has used her less, but one look at her filmography and you will agree with him.

Whenever a male superstar has needed to posh-up, he has relied on the 35-year-old, beginning with Akshay Kumar, who gave her the first break in 2007 after the disastrous Boom, in Humko Deewana Kar Gaye. She is an heiress, he a middling, a middle-class automobile engineer.

They meet in Canada, and of course love ensues.

In Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012), she is a London-based businesswoman, Meera Thapar, who allows street-singer and sometime-soldier Shah Rukh Khan to move up the social chain.

And in Ek Tha Tiger (2012) and Tiger Zinda Hai (2017), she is the ultimate outsider, a Pakistani who also happens to be a superspy.

That’s a pattern for Katrina.

An irresistible love object, with indefinable ‘angrez’ accent, very identifiable white skin in a nation — obsessed with fairness — and with  usually a residential status that is trans-national.

She is such a shorthand for everything that Indian men obsess about that in some films she is not even given a surname. So, she is Sheila in Tees Maar Khan (in what is meant to be a meta move, she is Anya Khan, starlet, playing Sheila, star), Aaliya in Dhoom 3 and Suraiyya in Thugs of Hindostan.

Listen to the lyrics of ‘Sheila ki Jawani’ from the song that cleverly tapped into Katrina’s appeal and you will understand why she is the ultimate male fantasy:

Here is Katrina celebrating her physicality in Thugs of Hindostan, confessing she likes “sirphire” and even getting the best line of the film, which goes something like this: Dussehra ka dastoor hai, Ravana ko jalana hai, those si aag hum bhi senk lain.

The obvious argument against Katrina being the Madonna of our times is that she doesn’t have the agency that the ’90s Madonna had.

Katrina is very much a product of masculine imagination, designed by men, to be consumed by men, but it is in her unique interpretation of this that she shows a spirit and spunk that has often not been given enough credit.

By taking the sleaze out of the item song, she has not only injected some humour and dignity into one of the most exploitative aspects of Hindi movies, but also ensured she is the best thing in a movie that on paper boasts of Hindi cinema’s biggest male stars, Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, but is in reality a gigantic soggy, wet blanket.

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