MUMBAI HIGH SOCIETY had perfected the art of social distancing even before coronavirus made it mandatory. Whether it was diamantaire Nirav Modi or the HDIL’s Sunny and Anu Dewan, they were quick to drop them, at least publicly, once the troubles began. The emojis and exclamation marks on Instagram posts disappeared almost as quickly as friendships did in the real world. Kanika Kapoor, who first made an impact in Bollywood as the voice of Sunny Leone in the hit song Baby Doll in 2014, is the latest in a long line of luxe ladies who finds herself socially ostracised in the literal and metaphorical sense. With a complaint against her for allegedly evading a coronavirus test on landing in India from London, and evidence of attending at least four parties in two days while the virus was incubating, she has become the embodiment of entitlement. It’s not helped by her demands for gluten-free food, among other things, while in quarantine at Lucknow’s Sanjay Gandhi PGIMS, causing the administration to admonish her for starry tantrums.
But she of the alabaster skin and the perfectly sculpted pout is a story of a makeover interrupted. Born into one of Lucknow’s established families, her father Rajeev Kapoor, alumnus of Scindia School, is a low-profile but well-networked manufacturer of electrical equipment. Growing up in a Mahanagar mansion in a conservative joint family, she was sent to Loreto Convent and studied music with Pandit Ganesh Prasad Mishra of the Banaras Gharana. A child artiste with All India Radio, she also performed with bhajan singer Anup Jalota. Married at 18 to Raj Chandok, the general practitioner son of two doctors who had set up a thriving business of clinics in northwest London, Kanika spent much of the next 15 years being mother (to three children), arm candy to Chandok at diaspora parties, and high spender on luxury labels that got her gigs as hostess for a party at the Pucci store in London. “I’ve been that girl, spent a lot of time lunching and bitching 10 years ago, being judgemental about people, and maybe, going through some jealousy,” she has said.
But a messy divorce followed, after which she reinvented herself as a singer, single mother and survivor of an abusive marriage. Dropping the surname as she segued into a career singing songs for movies such as Happy New Year (2014), Dilwale (2015) and Udta Punjab (2016), she also became part of the Mumbai-London set that included fellow party pretties Nandita Mahtani, Anusuya Mahtani Hinduja, Prerna Goel and Natasha Poonawalla, with occasional invites from Simran Kanwar, whose husband Neeraj runs Apollo Tyres, and Lebanese model Daniella Semaan, whose husband is football star Cesc Fàbregas. If that is a closed circle, the Lucknow elite she belongs to is an even tinier world, and includes politicians, bureaucrats, judges, royals and socialites.
Nowhere was it more in evidence than in the four functions she attended on March 15th and 16th. She accompanied her father to a Holi meet of Scindia School Old Boys’ Association hosted by the sitting Lok Ayukta of Uttar Pradesh Justice Sanjay Misra. She went to another party hosted by Adil Ahmad, an interior designer favoured by royals and nephew of former Congress/BSP/SP MP Akbar Ahmed, which had a cross-section of the interconnected world of India’s bold face names—Vasundhara Raje Scindia and her son, her niece’s sister-in-law, two princesses from the erstwhile royal house of Rampur, a former journalist who wrote a book which included their cuisine and her husband, former Congress MP Jitin Prasada, as well Uttar Pradesh Health Minister Jai Pratap Singh.
Kanika beecame part of the Mumbai-London set that included fellow party pretties Nandita Mahtani, Anusuya Mahtani Hinduja, Prerna Goel and Natasha Poonawalla, with occasional invites from Simran Kanwar, whose husband Neeraj runs Apollo Tyres, and Lebanese model Daniella Semaan, whose husband is football star Cesc Fàbregas
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Gaurav Prakash, who comes from a similarly privileged family of Lucknow, that runs the well-regarded Universal Booksellers, has known Kanika and her family for three decades and seen her transformation from schoolgirl to celebrity. “She has gone through a lot of ups and downs, but has always been very respectful and careful. Do you think she would knowingly infect her family and friends, and her 92-year-old grandmother she is so close to? Yes, she should have self-quarantined but to make it a criminal case is out of proportion,” he adds. He was at one of the parties and is now in self-quarantine as well.
There was another function held by Rajya Sabha MP and Lucknow’s top builder Sanjay Seth. On March 13th, there was an event by Kanika’s maternal uncle in Kanpur. Lucknow-based veteran journalist Sharat Pradhan says it is easy to put the blame on her and charge her for spreading the disease, but what needs to be questioned is the failure of airport authorities in Mumbai and Lucknow to check on her upon entry.
Like many in the glamour industry, Kanika was in the process of remaking herself as a brand. She had hired a premier public relations agency in Mumbai which was always proposing her name for glossy magazine covers and award nights. She had also started a House of Chikankari designer brand, which she often modelled herself. In the age of social media, her communication was on point. Photos with designers Christian Louboutin and the late Karl Lagerfeld, tagging other famous women (a great way to multiply followers and become an ‘influencer’) and short Instagram videos receiving gifts like the latest Apple phone or wearing an especially designed Manisha Malhotra sari. Oh, and yes, lots of picture perfect shots of the playgrounds of the rich and famous like St Tropez and Clarence House (for the 2019 Animal Ball where she met Prince Charles wearing an Anita Dongre elephant mask). Prince Charles was quite a favourite photo-op subject for Kanika, whose pictures with him at another Clarence House party in 2015 have gone viral in the truest sense, now that both have tested positive for coronavirus. The caption? Who infected whom?
Kanika has called herself a “hardworking girl.” Indeed, she is. She sang at the Wembley Stadium at the reception for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015. She was a judge in Star Plus’ reality show The Voice in 2019. In between, she has sung many chartbusters with a particular bent towards what can only be described as techno-Punjabi and indulged in some exaggerated self-promotion, including the claim that she was muse for designers Emilio Pucci and Franco Moschino—difficult since the former died in 1992, and the latter in 1994.
Reinventions are brutal but none is more exacting than in the Mumbai film industry where women have to work that much harder to retain their marketability. Kanika has often spoken of “vicious rumours” about her single status and loose talk about a “sugar daddy” but has endured them as the price for her dreams coming true. The words to Kanika’s Baby Doll may well describe the life she has lived so far: Yeh duniya pittal di, Baby Dollmain sone di (roughly translated: as this world is made of brass but Baby Doll is all gold).