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Top of Her Game

by Shehrbano Taseer
Photo illustration by Minhaj Ahmed Rafi

Photo illustration by Minhaj Ahmed Rafi

In conversation with Shobhaa De.

Indian author Shobhaa De was in Lahore recently to speak about women’s empowerment. We caught up with her to discuss feminism, Bollywood, literature, and more. Excerpts:

You’ve described yourself as a feminist and address issues affecting women around the world. At what point did you become an activist?

I’ve always lived my life as a feminist and always been determinedly pro-women. Being pro the underdog is very important to me. If I were to find a man in a situation that is distressing, I would reach out to him and speak for him equally. Feminism is about a sense of fair play in life. I am not an activist and I don’t have a political agenda. I don’t use “-isms” to define myself. I’m pro-women, period. It’s as natural as breathing.

Critics have found it difficult to pigeonhole you since your career has been fairly diverse. Have the attacks finally ceased?

I’m attacked all the time, even now. I was a fashion model 50 years ago, but even today I’m [pejoratively] referred to as a former model or “the model.” It didn’t bother me then, and it doesn’t bother me now. But I do get upset when moralizing critics question the choices being made by women in show business or women in fashion or women who model or are in beauty pageants. As long as these women are not being coerced and are making their choices freely, who are they to decide what is wrong or right?

You edited the Bollywood gossip bible Stardust. Did that job ruin any friendships?

I was the original ivory-tower editor there, and this was a deliberate decision. It’s important never to be buddy-buddy with the people you write about. You cannot do your job if you let unnecessary constraints get in the way, things like presumed loyalties and friendships. If a public figure has behaved in a way that is unacceptable, I want the freedom as a journalist to comment on it without worrying about so and so being my friend. I’ve always maintained a healthy distance. I know movie stars, but I do my job and they do theirs.

Do you think you’re more feared than respected?

That’s not my concern. I am really not bothered by perceptions. I do my job the best I can. I’ve been doing it for over 40 years. I would think respect and credibility go hand in hand, and I’ve established my credibility quite convincingly.

How is today’s Bollywood different from when you were editor?

It’s a completely different ball game now. It’s corporatized now, there are many more systems in place, and there’s more professionalism. The biggest change in Bollywood is the women, who are pretty much on top of their game. They’re making choices freely and doing things on their own terms. They’re not being shortchanged monetarily, like in the old days. They’re cutting fabulous deals, and are very global in their thinking, very smart, and very well-spoken.

You once called actresses Sonam Kapoor and Deepika Padukone “nonentities.” Padukone said she highlighted phrases from your article, pinned them to a board, and tried to heed your criticism.

I heard that too. A journalist can never ever have a closed mind. You can never limit your options by thinking what you’ve written is carved in stone. If these girls delivered and performed, you have to have the largeness of heart to acknowledge it and say ‘well done, you’ve done a good job.’ When I wrote [about Kapoor and Padukone], they were nonentities without much promise. Deepika has evolved. She is first-rate and one of Bollywood’s few star actresses. I have no qualms in saying I got it completely wrong. She’s grown and evolved. One must hand it to her.

Apart from being a columnist, you’re also the author of some 18 books. In your opinion, can writing ever be objective?

No writing—and I include journalism—is perfectly objective. At the end of the day, all writing comes from one source: your mind. My characters are a combination of my experiences, my imagination, and my craft. In fiction, the biggest challenge is to make a character come alive. I find this challenge very exciting.

Do you write with a particular audience in mind?

No writer can claim they know their audience. All books have their own destinies; they find their own audience and readers. My younger audience is more open in their thinking, and much more receptive. My blog is a very democratic space. I don’t censor comments; I post them all—even the worst ones—because if I have the right to say what I’m saying about so many different issues and individuals, people have the right to comment as they feel.

Who are your favorite writers?

Voices from the subcontinent, especially from Pakistan, are the strongest for me because they are saying things in ways that are not only powerful but very unusual and gifted. For many years they were suffering from a colonial hangover. They were very much trying to write like Charles Dickens or Jane Austen when even the British had stopped writing like that decades earlier. Today I feel wonderful that we have found our own voice on our own terms. When you read a writer from Pakistan, they are now writing their own realities in their own voice.

Did terrorism and 9/11 change Pakistani writing?

There are certain seminal moments in a nation’s history and 9/11 was certainly one of them for all of us on the subcontinent. You cannot, as a creative person or a writer, be disengaged. And if that does influence your writing, that is completely legitimate.

What’s your take on the crisis engulfing Tehelka and its founder, Tarun Tejpal?

He admitted a lot of what he’s been accused of by the victim in his emails. Tejpal is not someone who was a saint and has suddenly become a sinner. He has acknowledged that he committed a gross sexual assault. If he did not do it, then why apologize to her? Why the atonement and self-laceration? Why would he, before anybody else could say anything, take a six-month break from the magazine as penance, if you please, and think that that is where the matter should end. [Tehelka’s managing editor] has resigned as well; she should have done so from the word go. She’s responsible for much of the mess that followed. They dealt with it very shabbily.

From our Dec. 21, 2013, issue.

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