Not many people have made such a seamless transition from being champion swimmer to supermodel to actor to extreme sportsperson to women›s fitness activist—all in one lifetime. How does he do it? What makes him tick? On the 25th anniversary of “Made in India”, the breakout pop music video of 1995 that catapulted him into the national imagination, Milind Soman talks about the making of the album and why the same year was also a low point of his life.
The year 1995 was a very significant year for me in many, many ways. In January that year, my father died, leaving me with a bunch of mixed feelings to sort through, but not much grief. I had never had a great deal of affection for him, which is rather sad when you come to think of it, because he cared deeply for me in his own way. When he had moved out of home five years before he died, I remember feeling nothing but a huge sense of relief; as I sat by his prone form in the ambulance that was taking him to the hospital, I tried to muster up some warm emotion for him, but did not succeed. It was the end of an important and not always happy chapter in my life; fortunately for me, I was able to make my peace with it sooner rather than later. Right on the heels of my father’s passing came the music video. Yup, that video. The one that single-handedly propelled the singer—the pint-sized, sweet-faced, ‘baby doll’ Alisha Chinai—into the stratosphere of musical fame. And turned me from a supermodel into something way bigger—a star. But first, there are a couple of clarifications/disclaimers I want to issue:
In a video that is 4 minutes 19 seconds long, I’m on-screen for a mere 53 seconds, give or take a couple. When the song was first played to me and the concept of the video explained, I thought it was unbelievably tacky, and I didn’t shy away from airing my unsolicited opinion to director Ken Ghosh and Alisha herself. They went ahead and made it anyway.
Let me jog your memory a bit here, so that you can decide for yourself if I was right or wrong about the ‘tacky’ part. ‘Made in India’—the song around which the music video was made—tells the story of the lovely Alisha, the princess of the land of Yashab. Alisha (played by the eponymous singer herself) is looking for her perfect mate—a dreamboat who will capture her heart and sweep her off her feet. She has travelled the world seeking him, and has had her pick of the finest specimens of every race—Mongoloid, Negroid, Caucasian—but none of them has been able to get her adrenalin pumping, and her feet have remained resolutely on the ground. At her wit’s end, she takes herself to a sorcerer of some kind (‘exotic India’ stereotypes, anyone? There are snakes and a snake charmer in the video as well, and an elephant, a pet leopard, a dancing sadhu, a Kathakali dancer and a guy doing yoga—no, seriously!) who conjures up, out of a fog in a copper basin, the image of a well-muscled—in a nice way—Indian man. Alisha is smitten but has no idea where she can find this man of her dreams. She takes to moping sadly on her throne, until. . . You can guess the rest. One fine day, the copper-basin guy arrives in her court—cringe alert!—packed inside a wooden crate stamped with the words ‘Made in India’. Unboxed by his attendants, he climbs out, bare-chested and dhoti-clad, picks up the besotted princess and carries her away to their ‘happily ever after’. Urggghhh. Needless to say, yours truly played the eye candy. I finished shooting my part in less than half a day and went on to my next assignment, convinced that the video would at best air a few times and then sink like a stone. As it turned out, I was quite, quite off the mark. ‘Made in India’—both the song and the album—became a monster hit. It sold, according to industry reports, a staggering five million copies in India and abroad; singlehandedly established the genre called Indipop; and catapulted Alisha into the position of its reigning queen. It was also the first homegrown pop album to give Hindi film music a serious run for its money. I have often wondered about the factors that were responsible for this. And I always come back to the same three things—timing, timing and television. It was 1995, only four years after liberalization, and the mood in the country was unbelievably upbeat. A new confidence was swelling the hearts of Indians of every stripe, and the dominant emotion could be summed up in a phrase that would not be coined until much later—Mera Bharat Mahan. ‘Made in India’ captured the zeitgeist like nothing else. Not just Indian products, Alisha was saying, but Indian people, Indian men, were the most desirable in the world. Naturally, India roared in approval. Television—read: Channel V—played its part too. Smart, hip, homegrown Channel V, created in 1994 expressly to fill the ‘youth channel’ vacuum left by the retreating American behemoth MTV, which simply could not find its feet in this market in its first outing, was the perfect setting for ‘Made in India’. In direct contrast to MTV, Channel V had a decidedly Indian soul and used a mix of irreverence, self-deprecating humour and Hinglish to serve up never-before music programming in a genre that did not exist before they invented it—‘desi cool’. In addition, the casting was perfect. To choose a darkskinned model to play the princess’s paramour was a master stroke. It sent out a powerful message: after years of grovelling before the West, first as part of our colonial hangover and then as part of a phenomenon we named the ‘brain drain’, where our brightest and best fled the shores for the blandishments of America, we were finally getting comfortable in our own (dark) skin. I was cast in several other music videos after that, including two with Alisha herself, but while some of them caught the imagination of the viewers—like ‘Jaanam Samjha Karo’, sung by Asha Bhosle and composed by Leslie Lewis, featuring Helen Brodie and me in the lead; the ‘Aa Jaane Jaan’ remix with Shenaz Treasurywala; ‘Yeh Wadiyan’ with Jeanne Michael; and Sonu Nigam’s ‘Is Kadar Pyaar Hai’ with Michelle Innes—none of them came close to the wild popularity of ‘Made in India’. And I had thought it was tacky. Clearly, my tastes were out of sync with everyone else’s. If I needed one more shoutout from the universe to let me know that I was a misfit, this was it.
It was also a very clear signal that my lucky star was alive and well, and still looking out for me.
When life hands you an exhilarating high, you can bet that she will soon blindside you with an excruciating low. It’s nothing personal—she does it simply to keep things interesting. And so it was with me. Unfortunately for her, Madhu was also involved in this one, and the blowback was much harsher for her than it was for me. Yup, I’m talking now of the ad. that ad. The one in which the admen, in their wisdom, put the two of us in a tight clinch without a stitch between us and assured us breezily that everyone’s attention would be on the sneakers we were advertising (brand name Tuff), and not us. Oh, they also put a python in there somewhere. This was still 1995. But first, full disclosure—this was not my first photo shoot in the buff. A couple of years earlier, I was doing a photo shoot for designer Suneet Varma at the Ridge in Delhi, with photographer Bharat Sikka in attendance. After we had completed the shoot, Bharat said he would like to attempt some nude photography with me if I was okay with it. I have always been very comfortable with my body, so I simply dropped my clothes and posed for him. There were other people around—we could hear them—but the Ridge is a large, wooded space, and we managed successfully to stay concealed. The pictures—which were really quite beautiful—were offered to the Bombay edition of the Saturday times (this was the weekend supplement of the times of India then, before each city got its own daily supplement), which prudishly refused to publish them. Very surprisingly, the Delhi edition, which I had always expected to be more conservative, agreed to publish them, and did. The pictures, which became the toast of the town, raised not a single murmur of protest. The Tuff shoes print ad, however, was quite another story. When Ashok Kurien and Elsie Nanji of Ambience Advertising approached Madhu and me with the proposal, we both agreed almost immediately. It helped that the two of us were seeing each other in real life, but even if we hadn’t been dating, I don’t think either of us would have had too many reservations; Madhu was just as comfortable with her body as I was with mine. We were even more reassured by the fact that one of India’s finest fashion and fine-art photographers, Prabuddha Dasgupta, was going to be shooting the campaign. The actual shoot passed off without incident. We were told that the July editions of Cine Blitz and G (tagline: Glamour, Glory and Grandeur) were going to carry the ad.
Satisfied, the two of us went back to work and thought no more of it. Cut to the first week of July. The magazines had been up on the stands for no more than a few hours when all hell broke loose. Word of the ad had got out to some of the more conservative political parties, and they reacted with the kind of lightning speed and efficiency that I haven’t seen before or since. Coming down hard on the managements of the magazines, they demanded that every single copy of the July issue be pulled from circulation. The magazines complied, and we breathed again, believing the worst was over. On 23 July, the Sunday Mid-day ran a story on the clampdown and used an image of the controversial ad in it. That was when the shit really hit the fan. People who knew of the story but had not seen the ad now got to see it. Before we knew it, women’s organizations were protesting outside Madhu’s house against her lack of ‘culture’, burning copies of Cine Blitz and handing her father stacks of saris. Since his daughter was apparently too poor to afford her own, they explained, and her parents too irresponsible to provide her with a few, they had decided to make a donation. In early August, a public interest litigation was filed against all the accused—the producers and distributors of the magazines that had carried the ad, the advertising agency, the photographer, the director of Tuff shoes and the two of us—for obscenity. Soon after, another case was brought against Ambience under the Wildlife Protection Act, for the illegal use of a python, accusing the agency of cruelty to animals. Both cases would drag on for fourteen years before all charges were finally dismissed. I never discussed my work at home, so Aai was completely taken by surprise when the furore broke out. But she wisely refrained from commenting on it; her concern was entirely for Madhu, whom she was very fond of. In any case, neither Aai nor I had to face the kind of public ire that Madhu’s family did.
Luckily, Madhu had told her parents about the campaign and had even shown them the photograph before it was published. Her mum had been disapproving, but her dad had been very cool, even going so far as to say that it was a very nice photograph. Through the entire ruckus, he stood by her like a rock. But the whole episode was very tough on Madhu. On the one hand, she blamed herself for doing something that had caused her parents to be hounded and harassed.
On the other, she herself had to deal with a whole lot of trouble— the unkindest cut being that her passport was confiscated for a while, cutting off all her foreign travel, whether for work or leisure, for over a year. It was all patently unfair—I didn’t have my passport taken away, nor was I harassed half as much—and it exposed the hypocrisy of patriarchal societies in a way that made me sick to the stomach. But apart from standing by Madhu, there was nothing I could do. The case was finally resolved in November 2009, a full fourteen years after it had been filed, with the court dismissing all charges against all the accused.
Madhu and I had split up a long time before that happened, in 1998— we had different plans for our lives. But everything we had been through together kept us close—we remain friends to this day.
Edited excerpts from Milind Soman’s memoir, Made in India (Penguin, Rs 399)