Gul Panag on life, acting & more

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As I waited for Gul at the Mumbai studio we were to meet in, I reflected on what I had read about her. Words such as “actor”, “activist”, “intelligent”, “marathon runner” kept popping up. Here is a beauty queen who genuinely wears many hats, and does not just go by empty platitudes. Gul arrived dressed simply in jeans and a plaid shirt. Not an ounce of makeup on her f lawless complexion. She began to tell us about her hectic day ahead – another shoot in the afternoon, followed by a big awards function later that evening. It’s all part of a day’s work. Her no-nonsense attitude belies her soft look. She’s sure of what she wants, and is able to put her point across clearly, without being rude – a not-so-common trait in her industry. She’s knows what she’d look good in, but is gracious enough to try out several ensembles for the shoot.
A new beginning
Gul married her long-time boyfriend, commercial pilot Rishi Attari, last March. ‘Rishi and I have been together for long; I know him for over a decade. It’s not like it’s an arranged marriage!’ That goes a long way in helping her do all she wants to, and still keep her marriage on an even keel. Both their careers demand erratic working hours, tiring travel schedules and long periods away from home.
But working at matching disparate schedules is now routine and easily done. Rishi started flying international five years ago, and while domestic flights were easier to coordinate with, as he was back every day, the couple has found a “system” that works. ‘We both know what his schedule is going to be for the month in advance. So I normally try and plan my work on the days that he is out.’
She’s candid about why they got married: The couple wants to start a family some time in the future. ‘Otherwise there is no need (to get married) for two people who are committed to each other….’ However, she is quick to point out that it will require some re-orientation in her way of thinking before she can actually get down to having a baby. She confesses, ‘If I’m checking into a flight, and I notice that there’s a baby travelling on the same plane, I sort of give my nicest smile at the counter and request them to not put me anywhere near the kid!’ Gul, now 33, has been living alone since she turned 20. ‘I’ve always been house proud and I’d like to believe I keep a very efficient house. That has been the case ever since I moved to Delhi for work 13 years ago, and got my first home. Marriage is just a crossover to managing a home for two.’

Acting & more
Gul studied theatre and was not really keen on joining films. In fact, she looked down on cinema and was set to head to America to study further. It was about that time (2003), that she got her first film offer (Dhoop), and it was Rishi who nudged her into giving it a try. ‘He said you’ve got this great opportunity; you don’t want to look back 10 years down the road and regret it. And it seemed like the sort of film that I wanted to do.
Not the usual song-dance type of cinema,’ she recalls. She deferred going to the prestigious Kellogg School of Management for the next year, thinking that if she managed to crack the admission tests once, she would be able to do it again the following year. Her film career took off, and she never looked back. Gul went on to act in Dor, Manorama Six Feet Under and more recently, Turning 30.
While Gul has had her share of thought-provoking roles, she still feels there’s a long way to go, when it comes to women-led cinema, even abroad. ‘The change hasn’t come about in the West either. Yes, there has been the odd film every year, but that’s about it’. She believes that till the time 50 percent of the films being produced are not toplined by women, you can’t call it a trend or a change. ‘I remember reading this in a magazine in the US, that women are “very easy”… They go with what the guy wants to do. For example, if a chickflick is playing, that I’d like to watch, but my husband doesn’t, we won’t go for it. I end up watching what he wants to watch. I am watching his cinema…’ If she wants to watch her type of cinema, she usually calls up her friend Shubhra, who is also her makeup artist.
‘Watching a movie is an expensive proposition – so when going with a group, you’ll choose a movie that everyone enjoys’. This usually results in the woman sacrificing her personal choice for a unanimous decision. ‘In a way it is women that let womenoriented cinema down; unless the movie’s subject is broad-based. So while No One Killed Jessica and Dirty Picture were female-oriented, both revolved around generic themes,’ she adds.
Her “Real” World Gul has been selective about the roles she chooses, which gives her enough time to pursue other interests. In addition to being an actress, she is a writer – who writes on technology, travel and even automobiles (a topic she is surprisingly knowledgeable about!). ‘I have a lot of gainful, productive work going on in my life. So because it (films) is not the be all and end all of my existence, I have the option and luxury in being liberal in what I want to do.’ She looks up to actor Nana Patekar, who, like her, has a very active “other” life. Nana is a gold medal-winning shooter. ‘I think he is somebody who has such an interesting life which is fruitful and rewarding outside the showbiz industry.’
Fitness always
Another one of Gul’s interests is fitness. Once she hit her teen years, her father, Lt Gen (retd) HS Panag, encouraged her to make exercise a part of her daily life. At that time, she would resent it. Nobody else her age was playing tennis or jogging every day! But her attitude changed when she turned 18, and realised the benefits. ‘I was just so much fitter than my contemporaries, and by that I don’t mean thinner. We would come back after a long day, and they would be completely exhausted, whereas I’d still have lots of energy, raring to go!’
Psychologically, she felt superior too, and has always maintained that fitness gives you the bonus of not having to worry about what dress to wear for an evening out, because you don’t really have much to hide. She was in fact, so diligent, that one day her best friend told her that it was getting to be too much, and she would put all the fat back on the day she stopped running. ‘And I was like why would I stop running? It’s not something that I am doing for a particular reason. It has now become part of my routine; it’s like brushing your teeth!’ Rishi too puts an equal premium on fitness; that’s another bonding that keeps them together.
In fact, packing “work-out clothes” is part of their holiday planning. ‘If it’s six days of holiday, at least four days of work-out clothes are in the bag,’ she says. And work-out doesn’t mean that they have to hit the hotel gym every morning. ‘On our recent vacation to South Africa, we thought why not walk up to Table Mountain instead of taking the cable car? It was a two-and-a-half hour walk. But that was the work-out for the day.’ Her daily regime is simple – she does an hour of activity, six days a week. But she won’t be bothered too much if she can’t do it. ‘If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen, as long as you’re true to yourself,’ she says.
Gul confesses that she is a compulsive eater. If there is nothing interesting, she will hold back; otherwise, if she likes something, she will indulge. ‘The other day I went to meet my friend for tea and she got gajak. I ate the whole box; just sitting there. I wasn’t hungry, I still just kept on eating!’ she confesses. But she’s particular, and tries to balance out the indulgence later.
A word of advice to GH readers from the actor: Be especially conscious once you cross 30, as the body tends to slow down. ‘A simple cut takes so much longer to heal in our 30s, than it would in our 20s; the regeneration is much slower. This is why it is important to understand that everything you do, will impact your body – your insulin, pancreas, arteries – in the years to come.’ When she was younger, the only thing Gul took seriously about health was the exercise part. ‘I drank a lot and ate a lot, but you have to be conscious of what you eat,’ is her message to today’s youth. As for her beauty regime, Gul says she is blessed with good genes; and her healthy lifestyle does the rest!
Endurance track
Another keen interest that Gul has developed over the years is running marathons; her latest being the annual Mumbai Marathon held in January, this year. The Auroville and Florence Marathon challenges are next on her list. Training for these events is scientific. There are several programmes available online that can help with training. But in the end it really comes down to personal reasons for one’s participation. Says Gul, ‘If you are just running to complete it, you can do it even if you are moderately fit. But if you would like to do a goal-oriented finish – which has been my approach for the last few years now – then you go about it in a scientific way.’ Gul would also like to take part in a triathlon some day. ‘I have been cycling ever since I can remember, and I swim really well. So running a triathlon is definitely on my agenda.’
Citizen first
Gul is quite the activist and believes in standing up for what she believes is right, but is pragmatic. There were reports that the actor was harassed at the start of the Delhi Half Marathon in 2010. She clarifies, ‘I think it was all misreported. What did happen was that it was crowded; and I find that in crowded places there is a tendency, because of the shroud of anonymity, that some people will just try and brush their hand past you.’ This is something she says, that happens everywhere. There was a recent incident on a crowded ferry to Madh Island, where she was shooting for a couple of weeks. ‘I think out of the eight days that I took the ferry, not a single hand came close. One guy tried, but I just whacked his hand away. ‘
She has a strong point of view on how women stand in society. (At the time we meet, the porn-gate scandal involving three Karnataka ministers had just broken.) ‘I think as a society, we don’t really think much of women. The majority of India sees women as childproducing objects. It was only recently that the Hindu inheritance laws allowed women to inherit property.’ But she feels we shouldn’t beat ourselves over it, and that we’ll get there eventually. She does believe that the youth is changing things slowly ‘Women weren’t allowed to vote in America till the early 1900s… I don’t think it’s (women’s development) something we should focus all our energies on. But yes, we should be aware that women need to be given their due; the sooner we do it the better’.
Gul believes that women also need to be more tech-savvy, and not be intimidated. This will give them more knowledge and perspective. ‘If something needs to be fixed, why shouldn’t the girl do it? Simple things like playing a DVD, the boy will be asked to do it. That is the way you have been conditioned from a young age; it doesn’t come down to capability; and women too, become averse to these things.’
Being tech-savvy herself, she enjoys sharing her views on social media sites. She is also ready to voice her opinion against the government’s recent announcements to censor such sites. ‘This was prompted by a lot of “antipolitician” content that scared some off, not by the desire to create harmony in society. This is not to be condoned.’ Gul does not spare the press, who she feels tends to watch their own backs, and rarely bring forward relevant facts that need to be known.
In the future
Apart from her several ongoing entrepreneurial activities, we can look forward to the release of Ab Tak Chappan Part 2, which should release around the second half of this year. Adds Gul, ‘I am now doing a film that is based on student politics, and how people end up staying in universities well past the student age, to be part of the political scene in student life…’ That sounds just like her type of film, and one we should look out for.

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