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Madame Butterfly
Text by Sona Bahadur and Photographs by Atul Kasbekar
Published: Volume 16, Issue 4, April, 2008
She’s become a leading lady in the opera of cultural change. After her own astonishing metamorphosis post-Celebrity Big Brother, Shilpa Shetty has been elegantly flapping her wings around select projects that reinforce her enormous brand power while making a positive difference. Sona Bahadur traces the butterfly effect of the actress-turned-diva’s life as she dons yellow, the colour du jour, for Verve

It’s a fascinating thought. The flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas. Associated with the chaos theory in physics, the notion draws on the premise that a butterfly’s wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that ultimately cause a tornado to appear or prevent it from appearing. The flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system that triggers off a chain of events with momentous outcomes. Unaware of its role in the weather cycle, the butterfly becomes an unconscious agent of transformation.

The butterfly reminds me of Shilpa Shetty. Last year’s events at Celebrity Big Brother leading to the actress’ historic victory after being at the centre of a racist row were surreal to say the least. Who would have thought a Bollywood actress trying her luck at a reality television show would jolt the world into taking cognizance of racism rampant in contemporary British society through her harrowing ordeal. The actress who was famously asked to “go back to the slums” by her fellow contestant and tormentor Jade Goody at the Big Brother house unwittingly became a key agent in the opera of cultural change in the UK after the show shook the British parliament, unleashed a tornado of protest against racial bullying and garnered unprecedented media coverage.

The chain of thought forms in my head as I wait for the actress at Mumbai’s Mehboob Studio, a year after the episode. Yellow, the colour we’ve chosen to style her in on this day happily recalls butterflies, spring and fashion currency. Since morning Verve’s expert stylist brigade has been at work deftly arranging yards of pale lemon net fabric as backdrop curtains. A blower has been called for to move the fabric from behind to create a fluttering, dreamy effect. And a smoke maker. The ensembles selected for her—Shantanu and Nikhil, Surily Goel and Narendra Kumar—are a mélange of classic and trendy. But then anything would look on that flawless body.

Recently back from Paris Fashion Week, the actress arrives spot on time. Dressed in a purple tee and jeans, she wears her celebrity lightly. As we catch up in the green room amid the din of the hairdryer, she tells me she senses a tangible change in the attitude to India overseas. “I’m positive Big Brother changed a lot of misguided perspectives about Asian people. When I entered the CBB house, people would ask me where I lived. Their idea of India was slums and poverty. They’d say, ‘Oh, how do you speak English so well?’ It was really condescending. But today when I go to the UK, I see how much of a difference that one show made. If I’ve been even a tiny part of that change, I feel good I just went in there wanting the Indian community to tune in and feel proud. What came out of the show was so much bigger.”

Post Big Brother, savvy Shilpa has been green-lighting only those projects that do justice to her newfound role as an aspirational icon on the international arena. The decision to do Miss Bollywood, a West End Musical was a smart career move to consolidate her position as an actor overseas. The actress also saw it as an opportunity to change how the world’s largest film industry is perceived by the West. “Bollywood is often looked at in a very derogatory way—people see our films as kitsch with loud colours and costumes. But we turn out some really good cinema and have a very strong cultural heritage. I wanted to take a slice of Bollywood to the West with Miss Bollywood.”

Unlike previous stage adaptations like Andrew Lloyd Webber's Bollywood Dreams and Merchants Of Bollywood, Miss Bollywood was a no-holds-barred song-and-dance extravaganza starring an actual Bollywood actress. The enormously successful first round at Berlin, Holland and London attracted both mainstream European audiences as well as Asians. “Recently I was in London and this guy came up to me and asked me when we were doing the show again. He had seen it and wanted to see it again with his entire family. That’s the kind of reaction we evoked. I’m not here to patronise India. But if I’m put in a position where I can talk more about my country and Bollywood and do something for them, I’m more than happy to do it.,” she gushes.

The actress is pleased about being invited as the chief guest at the recent Dove self-esteem workshop at Sebright Primary School in London, accessed by 1.8 million people on the net. Rumoured to have gone under the knife herself at one point, she waxes eloquent on the wider definition of beauty. “A lot of children abroad want to go in for plastic surgery because they are low on self-esteem. The workshop was designed to build their confidence and tell them that beauty is not always about what it seems outwardly. It’s what you are within.”

Philanthropy has its place, but she’s also the lady with the Midas touch. Estimated in polls as one of richest celebrities to date post her victory at Big Brother, Shilpa has an estimated net worth of £240 million. Miss Bollywood brought in one standing ovation after another, as she toured Europe with it. Her perfume S2 raised more than Rs 12,00,000 at an auction in UK. After topping charts in the UK, her fitness DVD, Shilpa's Yoga, is being readied for release in the Indian market, giving grief to the legendary Baba Ramdev who almost rules the market of yoga education products. Even her unauthorised biography is a money spinner.

Despite being flooded with a million Bollywood offers, she focused her attention on the overseas market choosing her projects and endorsements with utmost care. Even as offers are pouring in for a second innings of Miss Bollywood from Australia, Singapore and the US, Brand Shilpa is everywhere--her own perfume, a yoga DVD, a biography and a clothesline in the offing. “I’m not really as ambitious as people make me out to be. But it would be foolish on my part not to make the best of whatever I have at this point of time. The perfume deal was offered to me like any other endorsement. It wasn’t a deliberate career move. I didn’t go out there especially and say, ‘I’m a brand. Mujhe brand banao’. People wanted to do it and I got paid for it. I was excited about the yoga DVD. As for the biography, the author never spoke to me directly. She picked up stuff from all my old interviews and what she saw on Big Brother and made a book out of it.”

Accused of riding the racism wave to rake in the moolah, the actress admits she has had more than her share of negativity. “A lot of positive things came out of Big Brother. But here in India people didn’t know what was actually happening on a day to day basis inside the house, so they were very critical. They said, ‘She did it only for the money.’ Fine, even if I did, that’s my prerogative. Who is anyone to pass a comment on it? To come out of something like this with dignity goes down as a huge compliment. And I felt very proud. There’s not a single moment when I regret doing the show. The strange thing is that people said such negative things in my own country.”