Rakhi Sawant’s gift is that she makes us believe we are better than her
A day after NRI businessman Elesh Parujanwala beat 15 other contestants to become Rakhi Sawant’s chosen fiance, he told reporters during a press conference, “Titles really don’t bother me, but I will tell you, right now she is Mrs Parujanwala.” But, according to a source in the Mumbai Police, Sawant already has a marital moniker: Mrs Naseer Khan. The police officer says that sometime in the early 2000s, the television star married one Naseer Dawood Khan according to Muslim rites. In fact, the police say, as per their investigations back then, it was her fourth marriage. (Open could not independently verify the police claim.) In 2004, Khan, a small-time Mumbai businessman, was arrested and booked for cheating and forgery worth Rs 8.52 crore. According to case CR No 47/04, he allegedly borrowed and reneged on several bank loans procured with false information and forged documentation. He spent five years in jail and came out on bail a few months ago. The trial is still going on at the city’s Esplanade Court. Of the 53 witnesses in the case, his wife Rakhi is one.
The name Rakhi Sawant first surfaced in tabloids and supplements with the advent of the ‘item number’, when a whole movie was sold on the sexiness of a big-budget song and its energetic seductress, the ‘item girl’. Sawant’s first was in the Govinda-starrer Joru Ka Ghulam in 2000, then another one in Chura Liya Hai Tumne in 2003, and several others, some even pretended to be bit roles. But there were many like her, some prettier, most with more natural embellishments, and certainly far better acting skills. They all pouted, pushed up and padded, at some point wore a checkered Tartan schoolgirl mini, slithered on a pole, and lip synched Ila Arun’s grunts. There was even a set of twins in the item race.
But Sawant, now reportedly 30 years old, is the only one who managed to keep moving, to get bigger and bigger, to get to that place in public life where she is her own brand, someone everyone has an opinion on, someone the critics watch despite themselves, and fans think they’ve figured out. She has done it by creating a persona usually described as crass but honest, loud but frank. A character made for television, especially reality television.
Here was a woman who couldn’t be the focus of rumour and innuendo because she admitted to everything, from sexual abuse and love affairs to plastic surgery and a bad mother; those who laughed at the spectacle that was Rakhi Sawant seemed meaner because she spent so much time taking the mickey out of herself. And if her middle-class audience was disgusted by her seeming immorality, she candidly admitted, “Mein ek characterless aurat hoon. (I am a characterless woman)”. As blogger Sakshi Juneja once wrote, this was ‘a woman who didn’t give a flying fuck’ about what people thought.
As it turns out, Juneja says she was wrong about Sawant. Till August last year, Juneja was known among friends and her blog readers as the ‘unofficial online PR agent for Rakhi Sawant’ (Juneja admits that the popularity of her blog was also due to Sawant’s notoriety.) Starting sometime in 2006, Juneja began following the showgirl’s hijinks through several, usually self-created controversies which finally landed her a spot in the reality show, Bigg Boss. In Sawant, the show’s producers had found the perfect vehicle for high TRPs—an unpredictable woman in an unscripted show. Juneja quoted, supported and, she says, fell for Sawant’s efforts to make the audience sympathise and empathise. “I thought she was so frank and real. When she was voted off the show, I stopped watching till she came back as a wild card entry,” says Juneja. So last year, the 29-year-old freelance writer got what she considered the assignment of a lifetime: to profile Rakhi Sawant for Verve magazine. As an empowered young woman who believed she liked Sawant because she called a toad a toad, and was brave enough to accept the ugliness of life, Juneja thought she would find a successful but friendly soul, refreshingly untouched and plain spoken.
“I was appalled by her behaviour,” Juneja says about what she saw of Sawant and her interactions with people while shooting an episode for her Zoom TV chat show, The Rakhi Sawant Showz. “All stars have their routines, but it was the way she treated people that was so horrible. She put people down, and the moment her guests left she would say things about them.”
Sawant’s triumph is that she has convinced us that she is a woman who is constantly trying to overcome her circumstances, that she hails from great misfortunes but she has the strength to fight her way to the upper reaches of life. Her supporters, especially women, all empowered and self-assured, feel proud of themselves for supporting someone they think of as uncouth but ballsy. And because Sawant has so obviously gone through painful episodes in her life, Juneja says she didn’t expect her to inflict pain on others. “She made her assistant take off her shoes and socks in front of me. Who does that? I think she just wanted to show him up for speaking with me in English.” Though it is difficult to fact-check the specific details of anyone’s life, Sawant’s middle-class, hard-scrabble start is certainly a truer back story than the one Mallika Sherawat trumped up when she dove into Bollywood. Sonia Faleiro, a Mumbai-based writer who profiled Sawant in 2005, says that many item girls share one thing in common: “They refer to themselves as their parents’ son, because their brothers are either unable to or don’t wish to take responsibility for the family. Rakhi was proud to be self-sufficient and to support her mother, brother and his wife. Her father is estranged from her, and so she played that role too in a way.” But her struggles weren’t important to the audience when she was just a prop in skin flicks like the Deepak Tijori-production Khamoshh… Khauff Ki Raat (2005). The thriller was an act of desperation for every failed actor in it, including the lead star Shilpa Shetty who, like Sawant, eventually found succour in reality TV.
But Sawant understands and needs her audience far more than Shetty does. There was a time when the item girl knew the best she could hope for was to be the comic relief in the nightly news hour. Not a histrionic actress, just an actress being histrionic. “India TV made Rakhi into a star,” says a former reporter, who is now with a newspaper. He quotes one instance during a monsoon when the channel wanted to include her in its coverage of the rains.
She volunteered to distribute food, but first they had to find a slum. Sawant suggested a construction site near her building. “On reaching the spot, she immediately grabbed the mike and started a monologue on how desperate the situation of the construction workers was due to the rains. They started distributing the food when the crew realised that this was just not going to be enough. So they moved ahead to an actual slum and Rakhi repeated the charitable act on camera again. It was total drama,” says the reporter. But it was also an indication of her committed work ethic, her willingness to do anything and everything it takes to remain in public memory.
Sawant is also known to be a smart, hardworking and dedicated professional. And, as she has moved from the sidelines of the movie business to prime-time TV, she has changed to adapt to an audience that also has the power to vote her off. She is still a fair bit more spontaneous than other actresses, but slowly she has pushed the zanier parts of her personality further and further into the background. On Bigg Boss, she sought empathy, Nach Baliye called for passion and talent, and on Rakhi Ka Swayamvar, she has taken care to portray her greatest character yet: the blushing Indian bride. She conceptualised the show herself, and sold NDTV Imagine the idea. And so a woman who has on several occasions stated she would never get married, came up with a reality show in which she would choose a husband.
Family problems don’t get any airtime anymore—the relationships, affairs, even the police-alleged marriage has become part of a cloudy ‘past’. Over 26 episodes from 29 June, Sawant evaded it all and preened like the best in the business till she chose Parujanwala as “the one”. But as her persona changes into something of an over-scalpelled Indian nari, Sawant is skirting the edges of what her fans may find acceptable.
She has always worked because she was always a spectacle, and always willing to go lower and trashier than the competition. It remains to be seen if her audience can accept a respectable Rakhi Sawant, as her latest avatar is trying to be. Her chat show, for instance, was pulled off air because it failed to drum up adequate TRPs. “She found a niche, but if she stops being funny then what’s left?” says Juneja.
Parujanwala and the other prospects were chosen from reportedly thousands of applicants, whose only prize would have been Rakhi Sawant. The channel combed through the details of every single applicant, checked and cross-checked everything they told them, and made sure every man met Sawant’s requisites. “We didn’t have to check Rakhi’s background because we all know her life,” says Nikhil Madhok, vice-president of marketing at NDTV Imagine. “She’s an open book.” Rakhi Sawant may be. But not Mrs Naseer Khan.
With reporting by Rahul Bhatia, Haima Deshpande, Madhavankutty Pillai, Avantika Bhuyan and Kabeer Sharma