Manisha take care

The career of the only non-Indian star in Bombay is on a nosedive; she needs to pull out of it fast.

Manisha Koirala recently split with her boyfriend. This piece of 'news' lingered for rather long in broadsheets, tabloids and fanzines and on websites and blogs dedicated to purveying details of the lives of the bold and the beautiful. Koirala's fresh-off-the-boat ex is Cecil Anthony, a London-based businessman whose association with the actress briefly made him a notable blip on Bombay's ever-promiscuous party radar. "The Nepali diva, Manisha Koirala, has another split. This time it is with her boyfriend of three years, Cecil Anthony. Apparently, the two had been living in different far-off cities and the relationship could not further endure this long distance test," explained the New Delhi edition of the venerable Indian broadsheet Hindustan Times. The paper also supplied information on the star's earlier liaisons, including actor Rahul Roy, business tycoon Ness Wadia (presently linked to Preity Zinta), and Nana Patekar. It failed to list in addition former model Ranjeev Mulchandani, a DJ named Husain (who spells his name 'Whosane') and Crispin Conroy, a former Australian ambassador to Nepal.

In the absence of any significant career enhancement, it is Manisha's off-screen life that has nurtured the Bollywood gossip grapevine for some years now. The actress's personal turbulence and her alleged drinking and drug-fuelled binges are better chronicled than her progress in cinema. This has led to much heartburn among diehard fans, and much resignation among disapproving critics. "She had a great break, and she only has herself to blame for the way her career shaped up," says Komal Nahata, publisher of Film Information, a respected Bollywood trade guide. "You can't mix your personal and professional life."

Perhaps it is that Manisha the party animal is preferable to Manisha the political animal. Just before she parted ways with Anthony of London, Koirala had caused a few eyebrows to rise when she issued a statement (over e-mail) supporting the royal coup of 1 February and the state of emergency imposed in Nepal by King Gyanendra. "Our beloved and respected king had to take the step to stop anarchy," Koirala said. The statement was in tune with the support voiced by her father Prakash Koirala, son of the revered Nepali democrat, the late B P Koirala, for the king. While her grand-uncle, former Prime Minister and B P's brother Girija Prasad Koirala has been battling King Gyanendra in Kathmandu, Manisha described the monarch as "an epitome of selflessness" who was preventing "the country from falling into disgrace."

So there she is, Ms Koirala, in a most unenviable position: at odds with the movement to restore democracy in her mother country, and out of the reckoning in her adopted home, Bombay.

Letter 'M'

Koirala's most recently released film, a comedy called Mumbai Express, tanked at the box office. Her last notable role was back in 2002, in the film Company directed by noted filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma. There, she played Saroja, the nicotine-hooked moll of a character loosely based on the real-life underworld don Dawood Ibrahim. Manisha has a few upcoming releases listed, but none of them reads, or sounds, like comeback material. She also recently turned producer and bankrolled two films, Paisa Vasool and Market, both of which fared poorly. Manisha is also said to have plans to turn director. Her attempts at reinvention are being attributed to sisterly concerns: her brother Siddharth Koirala has been attempting to launch his own career as an actor, and so far hasn't got past the turnstile.

Fans are stunned at how quickly Koirala's acting career has managed to pack up. The future has never looked this dim for the 35-year-old ever since she emerged from the smog of New Delhi to star in Subhash Ghai's Saudagar in 1991. Back then, Ghai was one of Bollywood's top hit-producing directors. Though his finger has slipped off the audience's pulse lately (his last three films, Taal, Yaadein and Kisna, all flopped), back in the early 1990s he was unerring. Ghai was a star-maker who produced heroines in more than one sense and, just to please the gods, he ensured that all his conquests had names that began with the letter M – Meenakshi Sheshadri and Mahima (formerly Ritu Choudhary). Manisha Koirala had more going for her than just the first letter of her name: she was an unspoilt flower from the verdant hillside and she had a delicate, virginal beauty, underlined by one memorable photo-shoot in the Stardust film magazine in which she is clad in white and looking to the horizon with a lamb in her arms. She held her own in Saudagar, a film built around loud verbal exchanges between two of Bollywood's senior citizens, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kumar. The signing spree began.

Foreign Passport

Before and after Koirala's debut, Bolly-wood has seen a steady stream of non-Indian actors who wash up on Bombay's shores in search of fame and glory. One of the earliest such 'foreigners' was Helen, whose dance numbers in more than 200 Hindi films in the 1960s and 70s reduced audiences by the million into piles of nerves. Helen, born Helen Richardson, was a British-Burmese hybrid whose family trekked to India like countless others fleeing World War II. In the 1950s and 60s, it seemed that one couldn't watch a film without a dance number featuring Helen, though her continued appearance in dare-bare costumes, skin-coloured tights, boas and blonde wigs ensured that she stayed on the fringes of acceptability. The more you saw Helen, the more you desired her, and the more you pushed her into the harem.

Mala Sinha, a star of the 1960s, can be considered Manisha's closest acting ancestor. Sinha is described thus by journalist Dinesh Rajeha on the website "Born a Nepali Christian, the young Mala was a chinky-eyed girl with curly hair and average height." None of these physical characteristics prevented Sinha from becoming a star and, truth be told, she was an Indian citizen of Nepali ancestry. The arrival of Pakistanis in Bollywood picked up after the 1980s – Mohsin Khan (Saathi), Salma Agha (Nikaah) and Zeba Bakhtiar (Henna). The latest entrant is Meera, who plays the lead who plays the lead role in Mahesh Bhatts' Nazar. But no non-Indian has made it to Bollywood stardom, except Manisha.

Though Manisha's Nepali passport was, and still is, an interesting factoid to mine for profile writers, it did not raise eyebrows or hackles as her career took off. Her mix of political pedigree and porcelain skin made her especially desirable, even exotic, but never so alien that she couldn't have a fair chance at being a leading actress. She did come with more privilege, and baggage, than the others. Her family name gave her an aura reserved for royalty, and her schooling in Banaras and New Delhi made her more desi than videsi.

Manisha easily segued into the craze for fair-skinned actresses that has never waned in the Hindi film industry, and after Saudagar, she was directed by the topmost directors – Vidhu Vinod Chopra in 1942: A Love Story, Sanjay Leela Bhansali in Khamoshi. Her best work has been reserved for Mani Ratnam, the Madras-based filmmaker who cast her in Bombay and again in Dil Se. Before long, though, Manisha's performance was also swinging from these uplifting films to downright embarrassing ones, like Sangdil Sanam and Grahan. Her portrayal in Dil Se of the suicide bomber Meghna is Manisha's finest and most understated. It showed her ability to carry off a schematically scripted role.

Conservative Bollywood

As the acclaim swelled through the 1990s, so did the gossip. Koirala's boho chic lifestyle had never gone down too well in an industry that prided itself in wearing multiple masks even off the sets. It is only now, as late as 2005, that a top actress like Kareena Kapoor can have a boyfriend (co-star Shahid Kapoor) and flaunt the fact. For an industry that has constantly negotiated and pushed the boundaries of desire in its cinematic products, Bollywood is notoriously consevative place: affairs are discussed with as much moral judgement as avidity; actresses who dare to turn 30 are immediately downgraded to playing the mothers of their erstwhile co-stars; stars with 'vices' like alcohol and drugs are gradually dropped from the marquee. There is an iron-cast divide between who you are and who you project yourself to be, and Koirala's singular mistake was to skate on the thin ice of acceptability and be unapologetic about her many-hued personal life. Bollywood would be unforgiving.

There is also the issue of ballooning weight, which Koirala has battled throughout her career and which is attributed at least in part to her out-of-control lifestyle. All in all, Koirala began to be seen as unstable: ergo, a box office risk.

It is easy to attribute Manisha's fall from grace to the vicious industry gossip, easy to paint her as a victim of malicious stereotyping. But really, on balance, Manisha is a victim of her own unwillingness to remain on the A-list of Bollywood actresses. She is a beautiful woman with a haunting screen presence, has been compared to Meena Kumari no less, but has become limited as an actress because she failed to challenge herself. Her memorable roles have been few and far between, and she has had to waste too much time trying to wash the mud from her image.

Somewhere along her journey from Kathmandu to Bombay, Manisha lost the roadmap. She has always lived life the way she says she wanted to, but in the end, it is the affairs that seem to add up, not the performances. She has fame, notoriety, hopefully a healthy bank balance, and still retains a fan following.

Manisha needs now to get back to acting.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian