Gul Panag, the gorgeous looking woman who won the Miss India crown way back in 1999, is now an actress of substance with brilliant movies like Dor and Manorama Six Feet Under to her credit. All this is something that most folks know. What they wouldn’t is the fact that this strikingly beautiful Bulleteer has a thing or two for everything that moves on wheels. In a freewheeling conversation with Team IndianCarsBikes, Gul talks about everything auto and then, some more.
Kicking things off, if you think that movie stars know zilch about cars and motorcycles, think again! This interview will surely prick that bubble and believe me you, the woman we’re chatting to is a serious petrol head whose immense knowledge about cars and motorcycles simply astounded yours truly, who, in hindsight was more than a little surprised with Gul’s MQ. Yeah, that is Motor Quotient. And, we came back very, very impressed!
Team ICB: Hi Gul, Good Afternoon and on behalf of Team ICB, I wish you a very Happy New Year 2011.
Gul Panag: Thank you Team ICB and and a very Happy New Year to you too!
Team ICB: (A tepid start) Alright Gul, I’ve seen and heard a lot about your love for motorcycles. Could you briefly tell me how it all began?
Gul Panag: I have been riding a bike since I was 16. My cousin who was in the Army had a Bullet that he left behind. That’s how it all started and I learned to ride on a Bullet.
Team ICB: Wasn’t Bullet as very heavy motorcycle, especially considering that you were just 16 when you began riding it?
Gul Panag: No, the weight of the bike really doesn’t matter as it is more to do with balancing the motorcycle and getting the hang of it.(Girls, listen in!) When I was in college, I rode a Kinetic Honda which weighed around 110-120 Kilos. So, it wasn’t like I went from a cycle weighing 30 kilos to a Bullet weighing about 160 kilos. So, it was a very easy transition that way.
And we launch into some serious stuff!
Team ICB: You’re Punjabi and there is this general feeling about Punjabi’s having an affinity towards Bullets. For instance, the Bullet is a big seller in Punjab What do you have to say about this?
Gul: Actually I’m Sikh but well, I think I can explain this. I was recently talking to Sid(Siddharth Lal), the former CEO of Royal Enfield, who told me that Royal Enfield’s largest sales come from the Punjab-Haryana belt. So, you can’t argue on that!
Team ICB: Yeah, you’re absolutely right on that Gul. Meanwhile, here’s something I’d like to share with you. A while ago, Royal Enfield discontinued the Cast Iron engined Royal Enfield STD350 all across India. Bullet buyers in Punjab and Kerala were so miffed that they protested until the company, for a short while took orders for Cast Iron Standard 350′s from Punjab and Kerala exclusively.
Gul Panag: Yes, I have heard that Kerala also is a big market for Bullets and for me, I still own a Cast Iron Engined Bullet 350 despite a very generous offer from Royal Enfield to upgrade to the Aluminum engined Classic 500. For me the whole beauty of the Bullet is the thump and no matter how much you artificially doctor the sound, the thump on the aluminum engine can never be the same.
Team ICB: Obviously, that is because aluminum has a totally different sound characteristic when compared to cast iron and the fact that the CI STD350 uses a heavy crank makes it a lot more relaxed than the newer Bullets.
Gul Panag: Aluminum engined Bullets sound more like Pulsars. I would rather buy a Pulsar, Kawasaki or Apache if I want that kind of sound. With the Bullet though, it is about the thump and the feel.
Team ICB: Ok. You ride a Thunderbird Twinspark with Purab Kohli in the movie Turning 30. So, how was the experience?
Gul Panag: It was alright. The new Thunderbird is powerful for an Enfield, but I prefer the Cast Ironed ones.(Now, that’s a dyed in the wool thumper fan talking!)
Team ICB: So, you think that Royal Enfield should bring back the Cast Iron engined Bullets or engineer that “feel” into their existing motorcycle line up?
Gul Panag: See, Royal Enfield is a great brand that has successfully managed to sell the Retro engine for so long. In fact, a lot of people have been telling me that the Royal Enfield Classic is a great bike and Sid(Siddharth Lal) himself rode the Classic to Ladakh recently and told me that is a very good bike. My take on that is, fine, it is a great bike and I even rode it when I was in the Car and Bike Awards jury last year and honestly have no complaints.
But still, It doesn’t have the cast iron engine. And the original enthusiasts who know about the cast iron engine somehow manage to buy one. Then, there is the newer lot who want to buy the Enfield more for the pseudo, retro look. Ok, let me give you one more example. The Victory Hammer is a bike that looks retro but it is not. It was first manufactured in 2005 and it’s like you’re trying to achieve a retro look on something that is extremely modern. In my books, it’s more like faking the retro looks.
Team ICB: But that makes a lot of sense for a motorcycle company as they also need to make profits and cannot continue selling obsolete technology just because it is old and represents retro, isn’t it?
Gul Panag: There are two different issues altogether, one is the passion of somebody who is fond of the cast iron engine and the other is what sense it makes for Enfield to remain profitable. But the fact that there still a craze market for the Royal Enfield with the retro looks minus the retro engine. This can still satisfy the amateur aficionado. He’s(the Royal Enfield UCE buyer) a guy who doesn’t really care whether the Classic has a cast iron or an aluminum engine because the Classic has classic retro looks, lovely colors, beautiful saddle and all that.
Team ICB: So, for you it is more of the engine rather than jut retro looks?
Gul Panag: My point is if you gonna own a retro bike, it might as well be a retro bike. I am not going to buy a 2010 BMW if I want a retro bike. I’d rather buy a 1950s BMW if I want a retro bike.
Team ICB: Alright, logic taken. Anyways, lets move on to some safety issues while riding. We heard that you recently had a crash on a Bullet Electra. So, what was that all about?
It wasn’t exactly a crash but I’ve had a few falls over time. These things do happen while you ride and the most important thing is that you ride with the right kind of safety gear. In India, still safety hasn’t yet caught up as I still see a lot of young boys riding with shorts and sandals.
Team ICB: Actually, the reason I asked you about your fall is because a lot of people riding motorcycles, tend to stop riding once they have a few falls. They move on to the safety of cars on which they have a cage around themselves unlike, on a motorcycle which is inherently more dangerous. How has it been for you?
Gul Panag: As I was saying earlier, safety is highly underrated in our country. People know they need to wear seatbelts, but they don’t. It’s stupidity. You can easily fall off a bike and die. You can even fall off a cycle and die. You simply need to gear up in safety gear while riding. And that is one reason why some European countries have mandated that motorcycle riders must wear full riding suit(riding leathers) while riding.
Team ICB: So, Gul, what is your level of safety while you ride?
Gul Panag: I own a BMW F650. That is one of the bike I own. And when I bought the BMW F650, I bought the full fledged riding gear, straight from the BMW factory in Bavaria and I always make sure that I’m kitted out when I do long rides.
Team ICB: Why don’t you tell us more about your BMW F650 and the various rides you’ve had to the Himalayas and other places?
Gul Panag: I rode to the Ladakh on the BMW F650. It was quite good and the bike is suited to the terrain and it is meant for touring. Though it belongs to the Enduro class, it is named the Funduro as it is so much fun an has durability to last a long ride.(Now, that is some serious gyan) We didn’t have to carry too much luggage as we had a back up vehicle to carry all our luggage.
Team ICB: Now, I think you must be aware that BMW Motorrad has just started delivering the BMW S1000RR and the BMW K12000GS to select customers across India. But inexplicably, the F650 is not to be seen in BMW’s line up. A mistake on BMW’s part?
Gul Panag: The F650 is an affordable bike and is a hybrid that can be used both for the city and touring. So, I think BMW will eventually see the logic of launching a smaller, more affordable bike.
Team ICB: Harley Davidsons are getting cheaper with the HD Sportster SuperLow 883 selling for under 6 Lakhs. Will you be buying one for yourself?
Gul Panag: Er, I would get one if someone gifted me. I wouldn’t send my own money on one.
Team ICB: And why is that so?
Gul Panag: It’s the best part of being a woman and getting lots of gifts and nice things from your men (Laughs)
Team ICB: Haha, alright! (And I’m feeling dumb). Alright, you’ve ridden a lot of motorcycles, but why is it that you haven’t been seen endorsing any cars or bikes?
Gul Panag: I wouldn’t mind endorsing cars and motorcycles if I’m approached for it.
Team ICB: Now, talking about men and women, how safe do you think motorcycling for women is, especially in cities like Delhi, which has recently seen a spurt of crimes against women?
Gul Panag: I wouldn’t be very comfortable riding my motorcycle by myself in Delhi. Perhaps I might, with somebody. But, I ride my bike every Sunday in Bombay!
Team ICB: Bombay, I think is much more liberal and safer than Delhi, especially for women!
Gul Panag: Most cities are and I’ve also ridden my bike in Chandigarh. But I’m not very comfortable in Delhi as the traffic is very uncouth and there are lots of people who take their machismo a little too seriously. I would advise any woman riding her motorcycle out of the city to ride in a group.
Team ICB: I’m talking about all this as there has been a 40% rise in the number of women riding motorcycles in India and this perhaps calls for some regulatory intervention to make it a little more safer for women riders?
Gul Panag: No, I think that is not just about women riders but India as a country is not safe for women. Period! It is not just a question of Delhi. It is everywhere. The safety of women on Indian roads cannot guaranteed by the state. I think this is a part of the larger issue of women not being safe in India.
Team ICB: I think it is more of an attitudinal shift that is required towards women riding and driving. Moving on, a lot of people say that women can’t ride or drive well. While I agree that is more of masochism, I’d like to hear your opinion on this.
Gul Panag: I can see where that comes from as I have seen a a few disastrous women driver and I feel ” Oh god, why does she drive like that?” At the same time, for a bad woman driver, there is an equally bad male driver.
Team ICB: So, you take the middle path on this one?
Gul Panag: Yeah, while I have seen some very bad women drivers, I’ve also seen some outstanding women drivers. For instance, Navaz Sandhu(formerly Navaz Bhatena) can take a pants of most men who rally.
Team ICB: Oh yes! I saw you driving the Volkswagen Polo at the MMST for the Volkswagen Polo Women Championship where Navaz topped the charts.
Gul Panag: Oh, that was just for fun while I was promoting my latest movie Turning 30.
Team ICB: Alright, that’s understandable as you don’t have much of track experience and I know driving on a track with women as competitive as Navaz requires plenty of track time and experience.
Gul Panag: There are many more women like Navaz. Sarika Sehrawat is another and there are a lot more women who race professionally. Having said that, on a day to day basis on the road, you see a lot of women who are very, very good drivers. But for every woman whose a good driver, there will be a really lousy driver as well. While women may be bad drivers because of them being slow and (pauses), being sort of painfully cautious, there are men who are worse drivers by driving rash.
Team ICB: It is more of, you know, some kind of equality amongst the sexes here at least.
Gul Panag: Yeah, for sure. I have been stuck up behind women driving really slowly and taking ages to finish a U-turn. But women also have lesser crashes than men and what does that prove?
Team ICB: (I squirm uncomfortably but quickly manage to retort) That’s perhaps lesser women drive and ride! (Feeling a little smugger)
Gul Panag: Doesn’t that mean they’re better drivers also?
Team ICB: (Oh-Oh, I’m cornered here) Uh, I mean they’re a little more slower maybe and yes, that’s a natural corollary. Alright, they drive a little safer. (muted laugh)
Gul Panag: (The feisty lady that she is, she doesn’t give up) Alright when you crash, it could be because of somebody else’ fault. And chances are it could be your fault too.
Team ICB: (On the defensive) I’l take that, considering most crashes are caused by driver errors. Assume you’re in the government making policies, what would be the one thing you’d do to make life a little more happier and safer on Indian roads?
Gul Panag: I think there has to be a more stricter enforcement of traffic laws and more severe punishment for those who flout traffic rules. The average person on India roads isn’t even aware of road rules and stuff. They don’t even give a driving test for get their licenses and driving licenses are available too easily.
Team ICB: do you think we should have European standards for driving tests?
Gul Panag: I think that we have the laws. We just need to enforce it.
Team ICB: Fair enough! What do you think the minimum age for obtaining a license should be? I’m asking this as a lot of young people want the minimum age to be relaxed from 18 to 16.
Gul Panag: Umm, I think 18 should be just fine. I wouldn’t be tampering with that.
Team ICB: Now, for some environment. I think you’ve been hearing our environment minister Jairam Ramesh coming out with a statement saying that consumer vehicle owners shouldn’t be getting subsidized diesel. You own a Mahindra Scorpio yourself. You think he makes sense?
Gul Panag: I think he’s being misquoted by most of the media.(Yeah, she knows what she’s talking about) Nowadays I drive my BMW 5 Series and not the Scorpio anymore and I’m in the market for a new SUV anyway. The point is, I don’t feel that I should fill subsidized diesel in my SUV. (Sharply) What is the logic?
Team ICB: Absolutely, there’s no logic and what he says makes a bunch of sense. And a lot of farmers run their pumpsets on diesel too. So, you’re agreeing with him?
Gul Panag: Yes, why are you subsidizing diesel for people who own luxury cars. Abroad diesel is similarly priced with petrol. The original subsidies meant for the tractors and commercial vehicles. I still don’t agree why I shouldn’t be paying the market price for diesel. But I don’t agree with him when he says that SUVs are not eco friendly. He should compare apples with apples and compare an Ashok Leyland Truck’s emissions with that of an SUV. You’ll know very clearly of who the bigger polluter is.
Team ICB: That’s the main reason why Ultra Low Sulphur Diesel(An LSD of a different kind, hehe) was introduced in the first place.
Gul Panag: Each truck is supposed to go in for a certain number of periodic emission control checks which they(Truckers) don’t do.
Team ICB: Exactly! It is more to do with the lackadaisical enforcement of rules on the ground I suppose. As diesel containing sulphur is carcinogenic, the government mandated the introduction of ultra low sulphur diesel. But, with the amount of fuel tampering that goes on, and with the trucks not going in for emission checks regularly, the change that ought to have happened doesn’t seem to be happening.
Gul Panag: (Sighs) You’ve see the bigger picture here. In India, 600 million people are struggling to make ends meet and for them, these small things just don’t matter as life is an everyday struggle. The emissions and the pollution maybe matter to maybe 200 million people, but in the bigger picture, do you think the guy sleeping on the road really cares for all this?
Team ICB: (My turn to sigh) True, but the bottom line is he’s the one who is most affected.
Gul Panag: And he can’t(She’s really passionate about this one) because he cannot look beyond tomorrow.
Team ICB: I agree. The man on the street couldn’t care less about what is going to happen fifty to hundred years from now. (I’m an eternal optimist)
Gul Panag: What? Fifty years? He can’t see what’s happening tomorrow because he might not be alive. And he might not be able to feed himself today. We can’t, as a country pretend to enforce first world ideas when the bulk of our country is third world(Makes a lot of sense, lady!).
Team ICB: You’re a celebrity and we have folks like Leonardo Di Caprio driving around in his Toyota Prius and making a green statement. While I’m not saying that hybrids that use electricity are completely green as electricity too takes conventional resources to produce but won’t it be a good idea for Indian celebrities to get involved in a larger way to make a positive change when it comes to matters of the environment?(And this, perhaps ticks her off). You yourself have been running marathons to maybe spread some awareness about the environment.
Gul Panag: I run marathons because I love staying fit. Don’t confuse my running in the marathons with the environment.
Team ICB: (I interrupt sheepishly) Well, I thought you were involved with a few green causes with your running in the various marathons.
Gul Panag: Largely, I’m in favor of saving the environment by creating the necessary awareness. I have also built a home that is completely off the grid. I do understand what my green commitments are but having said that, do you know the cost of getting your home certified by GRIHA.(She’s not happy with the Government methinks)
Team ICB: (Now, I’m flummoxed) Now, what exactly is GRIHA. I’m sorry, I have no clue.
Gul Panag: GRIHA(Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment) are the people who certify that your home is green and it costs around 10 Lakhs just to get your green home registered. (Frustration, in her voice) This makes it so difficult for people to go green in India, even they want to. A five Kilowatt solar power plant that I’ve put up in my house costs 18 Lakhs and the government makes the registration and stuff all the more difficult. This simply is very discouraging. You have to understand again, that as a celebrity, I can do only so much, but unless and until a credible policy for going green is unveiled by the government, going green will continue to remain difficult in India.
Team ICB: (Clap-Clap) While I fully appreciate and understand the efforts you have put to make your carbon footprint smaller, I’m afraid that we still require a lot more awareness in this area. (And she’s getting late for work) We”ll quickly wrap this thing up with a rapid fire round. Alright, here we go!
Team ICB: Your first car and bike?
Gul Panag: Bike is the Bullet and my first car was the Tata Indica which I got after winning the Miss India title.
Team ICB: What’s the fastest speed at which you’ve ridden/driven and in what vehicle?
Gul Panag: I managed about 280 Kph in a 2007 Renault F1 car at the Paul Ricard circuit in Southern France. (And I take a bow)
Team ICB: Electric cars! Yes or No?
Gul Panag: Yes to electric cars. I just booked a Mahindra Reva NXG!
Team ICB: F1 or WRC?
Gul Panag: F1
Team ICB: We follow you on twitter and lately you’ve been very busy promoting your latest movie for the new year. Could you tell us a little about your latest movie Turning thirty and why one should go out and watch it?
Gul Panag: Turning 30 is a movie about a rebellious woman whose just turned thirty. A movie to which all women who’ll have a rebellious touch to their personalities would connect. And it releases on the 14th of January.
Wrap up time folks!
Team ICB: Alright, It was really a pleasure talking to you Gul, and I wish you the best of luck for your latest movie, ‘Turning 30′!
Gul Panag: It was wonderful talking to you Team ICB. Bye!
There you go. The conversation with Gul Panag, as it happened. No edits for political correctness or anything else, except perhaps for grammar. Now, here’s a star who knows a lot about automobiles. And she could probably hop onto Team ICB and do a terrific job. Honest! Meanwhile, for a change and a very refreshing one at that, we met a very honest Indian actress who wears her heart on her sleeve. And yes, the earth would definitely be better off with more such women. Enough said!