You’re trying to speak to Dimple Kapadia and ask her actress daughter Twinkle, who’s just had her first baby, about why she is dodging an interview, and she says, “She’s like that. What do you do?” Cut to 2007, and Twinkle is sitting at the dining table of the beachside house she shares with Akshay Kumar, watching as he lovingly slips a methi roti on to his son’s plate, rolling her eyes at a cake, and telling a droll story about her days in the film industry involving a male actor coming to the sets with padlocks on his tiffin boxes because he feared he was being poisoned.
Cut again to 2019 and it’s no surprise then to see Twinkle Khanna, aka Tina Baba as her famous father liked to call her, in her current avatar, a starling-turned-interior designer-turned-bestselling author, starting yet another innings, this time as a self-help guru with her very own website, Tweak. More Oprah and less Gwyneth Paltrow, it’s the perfect way for a woman used to being at home in her tracks and ponytail to take centre-stage and yet be aloof.
It’s how Twinkle Khanna has always been, despite self-admittedly growing up in a fishbowl as the daughter of 1970s superstar Rajesh Khanna and his teenage bride, the breakout star of Raj Kapoor’s 1973 movie Bobby, Dimple Kapadia. Her cool stare that can freeze a fireball is seemingly at odds with her fierce beauty, her sharp intellect discomfiting to those who cannot see beyond the crowning glory that could rival her mother’s and her even sharper tongue dismembering several well-endowed egos. Think Dorothy Parker’s wit meets Rosalind Russell’s face.
Sarita Tanwar, the Mumbai editor who persuaded Twinkle to start writing a weekly column as ‘Mrs Funnybones’, calls her a “mad scientist”. Indeed she is, not merely for her love of science fiction, nurtured in an eccentric lapsed Ismaili Khoja family and shared with a beloved guitar-playing, ink sketch-loving uncle. Her maternal grandfather, Chunibhai, was infamously disowned by his father, Laljibhai—who had embraced Hinduism, but continued to regard the Agha Khan as his religious mentor—when he allowed his daughter, Dimple, to act in Bobby. The family owned the manufacturing company Killick Nixon. Twinkle also has a vivid imagination which helps her conjure up worlds as varied as Anshu’s ayurvedic retreat in Pyjamas Are Forgiving and Laxmikant Chauhan aka Arunachalam Muruganantham’s village in Padman, as well as burnish a geeky love for collecting seemingly useless information.
Tanwar says Twinkle’s wit and humour are unique and not for everyone, especially not those who are easily offended, like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “who made it known on national television that he is aware of the digs aimed at him in the interview with Akshay Kumar”. Her popularity comes from the fact that she speaks about things that relate to everyone, like news, politics, parenting, home, the mother, the husband, the mother-in-law, the sister-in-law, neighbours. Everyone is fair game, says Tanwar. “She speaks to everyone who doesn’t connect with the Kapil Sharma-kind of humour Indians typically enjoy, making fun of people who are too fat, too thin, dress badly or dance like they are possessed. She has done us a great service. Whenever people say Indians have no sense of humour, she can be our exhibit A,” adds Tanwar.
She can also be our exhibit A when it comes to the advantages of reading. As Twinkle says to Open: “I don’t have a role model as such. I would like to believe that my ideologies have all been built because of books I have read more than people I met.” Twinkle has always maintained that she writes because she reads, and indeed, what started as an escape for a lonely child of divorce sent off to a Panchgani boarding school in Class VI has helped her become a writer who “grows and grows and grows”, says her editor and Juggernaut publisher Chiki Sarkar. Twinkle began as a columnist who talked humorously about being a well-heeled mom, worrying about her weight, fasting for Karva Chauth and managing her staff. But, says Sarkar, “her interests and subjects have deepened and become more ambitious moving from menstruation to politics.” And with this transition, she has become one of the country’s most read columnists in English. “Along the way, she had three best-selling books, Mrs Funnybones: She’s Just Like You and A Lot Like Me (2015), The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad (2016) and Pyjamas Are Forgiving (2018)—her last novel being her fastest seller, making her the country’s top-selling woman writer of new fiction,” she adds.
“I grew up with a decidedly unique name, was a unique size, so having a unique voice was sort of a given,” says Twinkle Khanna, entrepreneur
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Pritish Nandy, who has known her for years, says Twinkle is “one of those very few people I would like to call a friend even though we rarely meet—for that matter, I rarely meet any of my friends. Her writing is clever and funny but she always manages to get across, in her easy read style, some very interesting and important points. In that sense, she is charmingly subversive though she may not agree to my use of that word subversive. We share a common interest in science fiction. The usual stuff: Ray Bradbury and my friends Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke who wrote for The Illustrated Weekly when I was its editor.” He is delighted she turned producer with Padman (2018) and believes she is capable of doing interesting work in any area she gets involved in. “That makes her special.”
And now there’s Tweak as well,
which promises to answer questions on women’s empowerment, culture, sustainability, parenting, clean beauty, wellness, democratic style, fashion—and everything else. “Sometimes I look at her and wonder, what can’t she do?” says Sarkar. So is she Wonder Woman in disguise? Twinkle will be the first person to laugh at that, not being a great one for perfection. As she says to Open: “Women are truly struggling. We have entered the workforce but still have to almost single-handedly manage home and family. I think there is a void between platforms telling them to get a $4,000 Gucci dress and buying brinjal at Big Bazaar and that’s the void that Tweak aims to fill.”
It flows from her personality. If she laughs at others, she also first scoffs at her own self, disparaging everything from her “well-padded backside” to her acting skills (she believes the 17 movies she did in a six-year career should be banned). Perhaps she is being too harsh on herself. She did, after all, win the Filmfare Best Debut for Barsaat, her first film co-starring Bobby Deol, in 1995. Even a cursory look at it will show a certain flair for comedy (unfortunately in the serious moments) and an instinct for fun highlighted best in the madcap but muddled Baadshah (1999). She says now: “I wanted to become a chartered accountant and I was pushed into joining the family business. I did learn a lot though so I have no regrets.” Especially as the characters she met during the strange 1990s when men would be clad in all-white have clearly left an indelible mark on her. She recalls a male actor telling her that he had cancelled shooting because he had a problem with his uterus. “I do wonder about that even now.”
Her last film, Mela (2000), was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back with a fake simpering performance from Twinkle matched only by a teeth-clenching, hair-tossing and one-note performance from Aamir Khan. It led to her dumping Bollywood for Akshay Kumar, who in turn was said to have dumped a string of women, with whom he had been serially engaged. What could, however, have been the most exciting thing about her has now become the least fascinating: the blockbuster machine she is married to. It helps that she regards him with healthy disrespect. I remember once asking her what she found most interesting about Akshay, and she said, after some thought, “He is super athletic.”
“Twinkle has a gift of humour, and you see that in her writing and in real life as well. There are few writers who can be funny yet incisive,” says Chetan Bhagat, author
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It is this self-deprecation that marks her out in a sea of people who take themselves too seriously. It shows up in everything she does, her IQ matched by her EQ. There is no doubt that it will find an echo in Tweak, an idea that has been percolating in her head for a long time. As she told Open: “When I started writing, I realised how many women would reach out to me and they were also like me, looking for ways to make life easier, to be equal in a world that is fundamentally lopsided.” The easier way would have been to host an Oprah-like show and she did get many offers but “all that bit in the spotlight would give me a bit of burn”. So will she be selling jade eggs for you-know-where like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop? No, she laughs, “but I may tell you that you need a vaginal wash and present a gynaecologist who will tell you why. And since you are behaving like the word ‘vagina’ is sort of like Voldemort and can only be referred to and not named, Tweak shall get you used to saying the word as well.”
There is hardly anything she cannot achieve if she sets her mind to it, and it is a function not merely of her intellect but also her work ethic. As she says: “Unfortunately, I am a bit of a control freak, so everything I do, I need to immerse myself. Yes, every day. The office starts at 10 and I get there just a little before that. You can’t ask your team to be disciplined when you are not setting that very precedent.” And clearly it needs to be set in what is clearly a cynical world. Tanwar says when Twinkle began her column with DNA six years ago, “for the longest time no one believed she was writing it herself. Everyone believed she had a proxy. Even for the books.” It was when she finally got on Twitter and started doing those “mad tweets”, says Tanwar, that everyone realised it’s her, especially when she started speaking at events. It is her unique perspective that people want more of. As Twinkle puts it: “I grew up with a decidedly unique name, was a unique size, so having a unique voice was sort of a given.”
This originality is something even her biggest writing competitor, Chetan Bhagat, often at the receiving end of her gentle sarcasm, acknowledges. As he says: “Twinkle has a gift of humour, and you see that in her writing and in real life as well. There are few writers who can be funny yet incisive, self-deprecating yet cool and simple to read but yet have substance in their writing.”
Books. Design stores. Digital how-to brand. What is the next stop for Twinkle? “I don’t plan these things. I only know that I am a workaholic and that I have an enthusiasm about learning new things. I enjoy the stage when I have to struggle a bit and stretch myself to understand new concepts and ideas. I will start working on my next book as soon as I have a little respite.”
So what is the biggest tweak in Twinkle’s life? She believes it was practising yoga and meditation. “It took seven years to work but it changed me from being a pessimist to an enthusiastic optimist,” she says.