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Glamour and Goodwill

Model, actress, film producer, foodie and now, the new informal ambassador to UNIFEM. Padma Lakshmi in conversation with T. KRITHIKA REDDY


There's a tangible sense of peace and comfort about the house and it seems to reflect Padma Lakshmi's current state of mind. No make-up, no airs. But in form-defining dress and with tousled mane, she looks every bit the ramp scorcher who the celebrated photographer Helmut Newton captured in his pictures. For starters, she makes small talk about the erratic weather and childhood in Chennai, but minutes later, the sharpness in her gaze suggests that she's ready for more serious matters — of the mind and heart. Padma Lakshmi is just back from New Delhi, where she visited the office of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and armed with plans to involve herself in promoting its causes. From there on, the conversation moves with a rare candour to film production, her rendezvous with global cuisine and writer-husband Salman Rushdie.

Padma in first person.

Always socially conscious: Glamour to goodwill was a natural progression. I was always socially conscious and have done my bit back home in New York. It's just that there's more recognition now. Recognition can be attributed to the fact that I've been around for quite some time now, because of the person I married and since information travels much faster today.

Recently, I went to the U.N. office in New York and explored the areas in which I can work. I found out that UNIFEM, though not heard of, is as large as any other U.N. initiative. Its focus is on issues relating to trafficking of women, dowry, harassment and women in trauma/war-ravaged areas. There's so much stigma attached to women's issues. That's what drew me to UNIFEM. It's not glamorous, but certainly a worthy cause. I decided to lend my name to it. I just visited a shelter called Shakti Shalini in New Delhi and the experience was more motivating than what's just said in the abstract.

Leave creative writing

to others:

Involvement with social causes is only a side thing. There are other interests to pursue as well. I write for some magazines. They are more like personal essays. But as for creative writing, I prefer to leave it to others. It surprised me when my first book "Easy Exotic" featuring quick fix, low cal recipes turned out to be a hit. Even more kuzhambu finds an entry in it. It was an idiosyncratic kind of thing — a scrapbook with little vignettes accompanying the recipes. Perhaps everyone wants to know what a model eats. My next book too covers diverse cuisines. It's a reflection of our times. But it's not low cal. As far as health consciousness goes, people should make adjustments on their own. Pickle making always daunted me. I just finished making lime pickle. It came out great. I am giving it to some friends in New York.

Padma's Passport:

My passion for food does not stop with writing cookbooks. I do "Padma's Passport" a television show in the U. S. This takes me to exotic places across the globe. It's draining, but exciting.

Once we came to the backwaters of Kerala and tried meen moile. And guess what, every time friends came for dinner, they would ask me to prepare it. After a point, it was irritating. So I decided to present the recipe in the goody bag that was given away at my wedding. We wanted to give the guests things that would represent both of us. So the handcrafted goody bag from India contained a handmade diary, an Easy Exotic South Asian Curry Mix and a scroll containing the recipe. A friend of mine, the CEO of a cosmetic company, offered to put some complimentary cosmetics to represent me. It made sense. Where could I go for 300 thengais (coconut) and vethalais (betel leaves)?

Waistline watch:

I work out. There's this gym in L.A. where you meet all kinds of people — from the East L.A. gangs to even the Russian mafia. I'm also into no-frills boxing. And guess what, I bumped into Muhammad Ali once while I was at the dry-cleaners. He was so imposing. I jumped in excitement and shouted, "Hi! I do boxing too."

Waiting game:

I launched my production company recently. But independent films are a difficult proposition. I call them enterprising compromise.

To me all films are mainstream. I don't categorise them into genres. Films must appeal and move people in some way. I'm not saying this to sound lofty. I'm now in the waiting game. Just sitting and seeing how things work. Also, Salman has to finish his book before we take up the film adaptation of his short story "The Firebird's Nest". It's lucky, having him to write the screenplay too.

As far as acting assignments go, talks are on with film personalities in Mumbai and Chennai. In showbiz, you have to be prepared for rejection. The door will be slammed on your face several times before you make it. Only passion will see you through.

When "Boom" went bust:

My first experience in the East was sad. "Boom" bombed, but I was happy I gave it my best. And there's nothing like having Amitabh Bachchan in your debut venture. Salman stood by me during those trying times. It happens when someone loves you dearly. In films, a lot of things are not in your control. Modelling is more immediate and within your control. When the show starts it's up to you — whether you fall on your face or fly!

On Proust and nail polish:

I don't recall having said I am comfortable talking about both. But yes, I can handle any topic. I don't make distinctions between low and high culture. I have friends in different age groups and professions.

Success is happiness:

Looking back, I've been through a whirl. Success means different things to different people. To me it's about happiness and being content with what you've achieved.

HEART SPEAK


I met Salman at a party thrown by my publisher. Honestly, I hadn't read any of his works before we met. But he knew all about me, having read a profile in a magazine which carried him on the cover. I guess what drew us close was the fact that both of us had one leg in the East and one leg in the West. We were in a middle land with strong currents pulling us back home all the time. I was travelling to different cities in connection with my cookbook and we were in touch. I used to tell him cheekily, "When you have the writer's bug, call me." Yes, we fell in love over the phone. The thing is that we were exposed to similar cultures. I don't think I could have married someone who had spent all his life in India. Salman is said to have this serious image. But, he's incredibly funny. That was another attraction. Life hasn't changed much after marriage, but for the fact that now, I've allowed him into my family.

Pic by S.R. Raghunathan

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