“Please clean this area,” Gul Panag instructs someone on the sets of her latest film Jurm, directed by Vikram Bhatt and co-starring Bobby Deol, Milind Soman and Lara Dutta.
The floor in her makeup van seems only a trifle muddy, but Gul cannot bear it.
She is a self-confessed cleanliness freak. “I cannot even wear shoes without socks — my feet may get dirty,” she says.
The Punjabi kudi soon settles down for lunch. One of the dishes is fish, not one of Gul’s favourites. She hates to pick the bones. After being reassured that the fish doesn’t have too many of them, she gingerly takes one, only to be let down.
But Gul says, “I’m not fussy about food at all.”
After she graduated in mathematics from the University of Punjab, she wanted to earn an MBA degree. Instead, she found herself enrolling for the Miss India beauty pageant at 19. The Femina Miss India-Universe 1999 went on to star in the popular television serial Kashmir.
She now makes her screen debut in the offbeat Dhoop. And there are more plans up her sleeve, she tells Ronjita Kulkarni:
What made you enroll for the Miss India beauty pageant?
I won numerous medals in public speaking. I also represented and won twice in debates at college. I wanted to add something to my achievements.
I felt I could win the Miss India title. After I won it, I went back to college to complete my graduation.
Modelling is a by-product of beauty contests. I got commercials and even film offers. But people wanted me to do the regular three-song, five-scene type of films. I have done theatre in the United Kingdom and did not want to do these kinds of films.
So I decided to wait. I wanted to be sure because someone was going to spend a whole lot of money on me and I didn’t want to take that lightly.
Did Kashmir help you make up your mind?
Kashmir opened all doors for me. Since it was very well received, people started calling me for better films. I knew I had to debut in films but did not want a commercial debut and become a star overnight. I wanted to become known as an actor first. That’s why I chose Dhoop.
But that doesn’t mean I will not do commercial films. Vikram Bhatt’s Jurm is totally commercial.
I want to maintain a balance between commercial and good cinema. I want to try everything, whether it is masala, art or mindless. Then I will know my strengths.
But I will not do item numbers now. There’s a difference between a newcomer and Aishwarya Rai doing item numbers. I will do those once I have arrived.
Do you think you’ll fit in as a Bollywood heroine with your Western looks?
Yes, people say I have a Western look because of my short hair. But I’m growing it now.
Tell us about Dhoop.
Dhoop is a real story about a Kargil war hero Anuj Nayyar [played by Sanjay Suri]. I play his fiancée. The film is about how the family copes after their only son is dead.
They want a reason to keep him alive. They are presented with a petrol pump in compensation. But in order to actually get it, they have to deal with the police, electricity and water departments. All of them want bribes to pass the petrol pump. At one point, even goons are sent to their house to threaten them.
In the real case, the matter had reached Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and he took action immediately by sacking a lot of people.
Dhoop shows the lack of respect people have for a martyr.
The film has not deviated from the story at all. It is very realistic. There are no camera tricks to make me look attractive.
Did you meet the girl whose character you’re portraying?
No. She is still grieving. I have incorporated that in my role. It was very difficult for her because she was seeing Anuj since class 10. She was looking forward to being an army wife. She is a very determined girl and I’ve tried to get into the skin of the character.
Have you met his parents?
Yes. I met them once at the music launch of the film. I could not bring myself to talk about their son. They are very simple and strong.
Imagine your only son’s body coming home wrapped in the tricolour and people saying, ‘Yeh sab hota hai’!
Ashwini Chaudhury and Om Puri had seen this on television years ago. People will relate to this film because all of us feel strongly about corruption and bureaucracy. It’s a brave attempt.
Were you nervous acting with stalwarts like Om Puri and Revathy?
No. I was confident that my talent would carry me through. They are wonderful people. They went out of their way to help me.
We always had rehearsals and most of the time, they would help me and without even making me aware of it.
Every morning, Omji would get nashta [breakfast] for us from home.
How was your first day at work?
We were shooting at a fort in Madh Island, in the suburbs of Mumbai. The doors of the fort were low and I banged my head twice on those. The second time was so bad that we had to pack up for the day!
How do you spend time in-between shots?
I love reading books. I always do when I’m shooting. Right now, I’m reading a Robert Ludlum book.
Is there any actress you really look up to?
I look up to Aishwarya Rai. She is the complete public woman, a perfect role model! She has such a matchless face. Even Preity Zinta. I admire the fact that Preity came to Bollywood without knowing anyone in the industry and was not even a beauty queen. Yet, she made it.