There’s a scene in Merry Christmas where the actor Katrina Kaif is dancing to Charleston music with Vijay Sethupathi, with what seems to be un-choreographed abandon, with their arms and legs flailing. As he does an improvised twist, she twirls around him, laughing and her hair flying. It’s a single take, and part of a critical 18-minute sequence, which is at the core of the murder mystery.
“It’s an expression of release, of frustration and helplessness, given what she has just done, but also of freedom,” says Kaif, reflecting on one of the many moments in the recently released movie that has been appreciated far and wide. “She is clearly high on adrenaline but underlying that is also an anxiety about what will happen to her now,” she says of the character, Maria, a seemingly sensible single mother living in 1980s Mumbai, when it was still Bombay.
“I have always expressed myself better through my physicality rather than my words,” says Kaif, whose Maria is receiving much love from critics, as did her Babita, a Bollywood star, in Zero (2018). “There is so much pain in both Babita and Maria. What I started doing is using personal pain and life experiences. I suffered as we all do, deeply, in private, in the room alone, where no one sees you. It is isolating, suffocating and painful. In some ways it frees you. That’s the job of an artist,’’ she says, adding, “You put yourself out there all the time. But in telling other people’s stories, you are healing your own wounds. The experiences we go through connects us all knowing we are not alone in our pain.”
As a child, says Kaif, she was uncertain, and as a teenager underconfident. “I was shy and withdrawn, I would not speak to people. Only when I came to this industry as a model and actor did I open up. As I moved through my 20s and 30s, I found my self-expression through the disciplines of dance and action. The discipline has been my salvation, the only way I found myself in control of my life. If you train for two-and-half-hours, and rehearse for three hours every single day, you will look fluid in your dance, or lithe in your action,’’ she says.
“My mind still finds a large amount of solace in dance. My mind sometimes can give in to a lot of thoughts and emotions. Through dance and action, and in the last few years, through more dramatic roles, I am moving through my issues. Developing an inner world for my characters gives me something to relate with the character.” she says.
It is no accident then that she was one of the first women in the 2000s to don an action avatar with Ek Tha Tiger in 2012 as Zoya, a Pakistani spy. But the action always had some emotion attached to it, without it, it is alienating, says Kaif, just like “cold soup”. “That’s why although I’ve been offered many action films over the years, I’ve done very few. The Tiger franchise is rooted in emotion. The dynamic between Tiger and Zoya has something respectful and deep rooted,” she adds.
Now 39, Kaif can look back with satisfaction at an amazing journey. When she first came to India in 2002, after spending three years in London and an itinerant childhood, she didn’t know Hindi. Now she can not only speak it but she also reads scripts in Devnagri. She had to fight against insinuations about her nationality (she was born Katrina Turquotte in Hong Kong). And she also had to defend herself against criticism of her acting skills. She listened to the hurtful comments, kept her head down, and worked hard, learning her lines, turning up on time, prepping for every character in whatever way was required.
Kaif burst onto the Indian screens through a highly anticipated but eventually underwhelming Boom (2003), directed by Kaizad Gustad. After a brief foray into Telugu cinema, she returned to Hindi films with Humko Deewana kar Gaye (2006) but made an impact playing Jazz, a young NRI woman in Namastey London in 2007. She had a string of hits with Akshay Kumar but came into her own in Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) as Laila, “an incredibly sorted soul”. “Zoya has this ability to find the most beautiful thing inside you and use it. She was able to do that with Laila, one of my life’s most beautiful experiences. Sometimes the energy, the time and the crew come together and connect deeply to make a film come alive,” says Kaif, referring to her character in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.
Now she says she is looking for more dramatic roles, and has a dream list of directors she wants to work with. Raghavan was one of them, and she reached out to him before Andhadhun (2018) released, saying she wanted to work with him. “I love his quirky, zany world, but what appeals to me most is the way his characters unfold on screen. There is something so humane, which you relate to, the visceral emotions you can connect with,” she says. Raghavan got back a few months later and told her about a script based on a French book (Frederic Dard’s Bird in a Cage) and gave her a copy. “I read the book two to three times in the next 48 hours. I fell in love with the story. There was something so poetic, so classic yet so unusual for me. It was like I could see the whole movie in my head. I told him I’m super excited about the movie,” she says. “Later when I walked into the apartment set, it was not quite how I expected it, I had to let go of a lot of visuals. Yet it felt organic and real to me. Here was a girl who is not very affluent, so the house is a little bit dilapidated, a little bit shabby chic. I created a backstory for Maria, who was she growing up, what happened in her relationship with her husband, what had driven such a capable and confident woman to this incredibly helpless and powerless situation where she felt committing such an act was her only solution?”
No surprise then that Raghavan says she is meticulous and thoroughly prepared when she comes to the set.
“I have always expressed myself better through my physicality rather than my words. What I started doing is using personal pain and life experiences. That’s the job of an artist,” says Katrina Kaif
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Over the years, as she has built her cinematic brand, she has also invested wisely. Her beauty brand, Kay Beauty, is the result of that. “I obviously know about make-up, but I wanted to build a community where no one would be intimidated by the idea of perfection. I wanted a serious product but not people who took themselves seriously. I wanted it to be representative and inclusive. It’s a personal story for me because I too have struggled with the idea of beauty. But as my husband (actor Vicky Kaushal, whom she married in 2021) says, ‘It’s okay to be you, to be the way God made you.’”
What next for her? She wants to move forward in her work, making choices instinctively, intuitively, without calculation. “I don’t want to be in a place where I’m bored. I want to present something new to the audience. I want to be inspired, to be inspiring.”
She wants people to see beyond the fair and lovely; beyond the Sheila ki Jawani (her iconic song in Tees Maar Khan, 2010) and Chikni Chameli (her hyper-energetic dance in Agneepath, 2012); beyond the Indian man’s ultimate fantasy; even beyond the impeccable Disney princess.
So what would Katrina Kaif tell her 18-year-old self, who first came to Mumbai to make a mark in the world of glamour? “I would tell her to take a moment, spend some time with yourself. Remember how you would walk into a film set with so many shortcomings, in such an alien setting, not knowing the language. Yet you were so fearless either because you had nothing to lose or because you were so innocent and naive,” she says. “And I would tell her to proceed with the same fearlessness that got her here,” she adds.
Has life made her strong? “No, but it takes a lot of work on your internal self to believe in possibilities. I always hold on to that thought. The universe is inherently good. All you must do is surrender your baggage as you go along,” she says.
Exactly like Laila, Babita, and Maria, her finest screen versions of herself.