To describe Isha Koppikar as an underdog is almost contemptuous, but in a world of near tribal loyalty and a suspicious allegiance to following trends and fads and being expected to follow consensus, Isha Koppikar was just that: the underdog, the outsider. One of the finest Bollywood celebrities lost in a sea of misplaced fanaticism.
Described by one critic as a reservoir of talent, Koppikar amazed and infuriated in equal measure. Capable of playing any role from demonic villain to virtuous lover, Koppikar’s lack of a cinematic family dynasty hung around her neck like a heavy weight preventing the critical acclaim she was more than entitled to.
It’s not that nobody knew about her. She was, after all, the Khallas Girl; few have achieved such notoriety that they became known by the name of the item number* in which they appeared. But that was Koppikar’s achievement. Appearing for one song in Ram Gopal Varma’s gangland thriller Company, Koppikar’s impact was so explosive she was permanently tagged with her own performance. The perfect storm of Khallas – Gopal Varma’s direction, Ganesh Hedge’s choreography – went down in Bollywood history and took Koppikar with it. When she asked Gopal Varma what she should wear for the performance, he replied ‘wear your attitude.’
But like many outside the limited confines of Bollywood’s dynastic stranglehold, Koppikar was never able to truly move on from her item girl monicker. A devout Hindu – her family descended from Saraswat Brahmin Hindus – Koppikar was seen as the bad girl, both on and off screen. An irrational and unwarrented observation. In Qayamat she played a terrorist, in Krishna Cottage a murderous ghost, in Rudraksh a demon’s assistant, but for many, including Hindu Nationalists, her biggest crime was to play a psychopathic lesbian in the film Girlfriend.
Poster burning, a bizarre inversion of the issues by an obviously inept director and Koppikar’s co-star Amrita Arora rubbishing the film because of her parents’ disapproval didn’t help anyone’s reputation. She achieved some measure of recognition in a string of big budget blockbusters such as Farhan Akhtar’s Don and Nikhil Advani’s Salaam-E-Ishq, but controversy was never far away from Koppikar’s career.
As part of Ram Gopal Varma’s stable of actors she had a brief but enticing role in the third instalment of his gangland trilogy D: Underworld, and it was time for Koppikar to star in her own groundbreaking role: Shabri. Made up to look like the title role’s dishevelled anti-hero, Koppikar was banned from the film set when security staff failed to recognise her in full costume and make up. But in spite of her starring role, the film lay in post-production hiatus for ten years. The reasons for Gopal Varma’s refusal to release the film have never been revealed.
It was probably the shenanegans surrounding Shabri that caused Koppikar’s career to buckle, and when she met and married restaurateur Timmy Narang she decided to put her career on hold. She hasn’t made a film since (but gave birth to daughter Rianna in 2014). And if you’re wondering why this article is written in the past tense, it’s because that is where Koppikar’s career lies: in the past.
When other Bollywood stars had small dogs as pets, Koppikar had a fearsome Alsatian called Mowgli. Where other stars fawned and poured over Yash Chopra’s film Veer Zaara at the world premiere (before they’d seen a moment of the action) Koppikar told the reporters let’s see the film before we say anything about it. And when she did her own dance number on the tv show Naach Baaliye, she blew everyone out of the water, including one of Bollywood’s leading choreographers Vaibhevi Merchant.
We deserved so much more from the Khallas Girl, but what we did get was exciting, mesmerising, curious and unusual. A contrast to Bollywood’s predictable melodrama and cronyism. She wore her attitude and not enough people liked it, and those who did had no idea how to deal with it.
*An item number is a musical segment of a film featuring an actor or actress who is not part of the story (and miming to a soundtrack). They appear as guests in what is effectively a musical interlude. Khallas (below) moved the item number forward by a decade thanks to its previously unseen music video style, editing and that actress…
Are there any actors who you feel were never given due recognition?