She has got a sharp sense of business, knows her market and has managed to create a niche for herself that sets her apart from the Bollywood pack.
Yet, despite an established identity that has companies queuing up to have her associated with their products, Bipasha Basu shies away from calling herself a brand, insisting instead that she is an actress first and foremost.
“I still look at myself at a human level, as an actress. Maybe someday when I go completely into making a statement of things I want to do, maybe then I will evolve as a brand,” she tells Emirates Business in her suite at The Fairmont Dubai.
Basu was in the city as celebrity guest of honour at It’s Mirchi, a nightclub at the Ramee Royal Hotel. She is certainly in the UAE a lot, what with filming and celebrity appearances. But ask about investing here, and she says she cannot afford it.
“It’s too expensive for me although I’d love a holiday home here! I think someone should give it to me,” she laughs.
She may not be able to afford it yet, but the day Basu is identified as a brand, even on her own terms, may not be very far away.
Following last week’s signing of a deal making her the face of Reebok India, which she describes as the “perfect brand fit”, she is considering launching her own sportswear line.
“There are numerous ideas to take the association with Reebok forward. We’re working on it,” she says, making it clear nothing has been finalised yet.
Her Reebok deal follows other endorsements, including Clinic All Clear shampoo, Reliance Communications and Kinetic-SYM Motor Scooters, as well as a mobile phone game, Jet Ski Champ.
These are not just the fringe benefits of life in the public eye; brand-extending endorsements and appearances can rake in at least as many chips as a film role.
Basu now reportedly charges Rs10 million (about Dh919,000) per film, up from an estimated Rs1.5m for her debut film in 2001.
Numbers for her ads are not available, but she was reportedly paid Rs8m for a 20-minute New Year’s Eve 2008 dance performance at the JW Marriott in Mumbai.
“It’s another aspect of being a celebrity, if there is a high-profile event and we check the credibility of the place, and it suits us and our time, we do travel around the globe and make time and go to events. Tonight is something like that,” she said of the Ramee event.
Basu’s earnings though, pale in comparison to those of her male counterparts. While top-ranked actor Shah Rukh Khan reportedly earns Rs1.5 billion per year from his product endorsements, even Akshay Kumar, who is someone lower down on the pecking order, charges a reported Rs30m for a single day’s advertising work.
It is a disparity that extends to the roles available to women and Basu says there are not enough roles available for actresses in Indian cinema.
“Or if there are roles, as with some of the films made for the new multiplex audiences, the budgets are not big enough. If I was a hero [or leading man], I’d open a production company right away, I’d get exactly the kind of scripts I wanted and financiers would come to me, whichever way I turned. Every hero has his own production house, and controls the TV and distribution rights for his movies,” she says.
“With the corporate sector having entered the film industry in India, so much depends on shares. If you sign Shah Rukh Khan, for instance, your share price goes up. Everybody likes to believe they’re doing something creative, but at the end of the day, it’s about business.”
When asked whether this lack of roles means she would turn her hand to producing movies to allow herself a broader range, she says she would be good at running a business, but in a few years’ time she might turn her energies to a different sort of production.
“Producing a hero in Bollywood would be a very good business venture at this point,” she laughs, hinting at getting married and settling down.
Not that marriage most likely to longtime beau John Abraham would stop her from working, as it has most Bollywood actresses up until now. With current box-office queen Aishwarya Rai already breaking the mould by continuing to work and sign big-budget contracts after marrying Abhishek Bachchan last April, Basu expects to follow suit.
“A woman looks her best after she turns 30. It is possible to keep working after marriage in film worldwide, why not in Bollywood?”
And with Rai looking set to start a family in 2009, the top spot in the Indian film world might fall vacant. Diplomatically, Basu says she has her own niche and is not interested in the numbers game.
If she does want to reach No1, she has the likes of Kareena Kapoor to get past. However, it is not as if she has not already paid her dues: part of her success comes from keeping her appeal fresh with a variety of different film roles.
Thursday sees the UAE premiere of Race. From the directing duo Abbas-Mustan, it is an all-star commercial action movie that has reportedly been sold to Ramesh Sippy’s Raksha Film Distributors for Rs70m.
The film, she says, is an intelligent, well-styled thriller that aims to keep viewers on the edge of their seats with plot twists every 10 or 15 minutes. Part of her role as a woman who marries her lover’s brother requires several intimate scenes familiar territory indeed with co-star Saif Ali Khan. But the character is totally different to the one in the film she has just finished shooting.
Arthouse director Rituparno Ghosh’s Bengali movie, Sab Charitra Kalponik, stars Basu as an expatriate Indian married to a Bengali poet, whom she only begins to understand once he’s dead.
“The roles are at opposite poles from each other,” she says.
“I could always be the glamorous Bipasha Basu, and that comes with a big package of money and tremendous acceptability from the audience who like to see me in that sort of role. But that’s too easy, I’d get bored. As an actress, I always want to play as many different roles as possible and I’d never get to do anything like my role in Sab Charitra Kalponik in Bollywood. I need to strike a balance between commercial and realistic movies and an experimental role can bring new audiences.”
Bipasha, whose name means deep dark desire, first hit the headlines as the winner of a Ford supermodel contest at the age of 17 in 1996. Since she made the move to Bollywood in 2001, she has appeared in nearly 40 films, with a portfolio that has consistently pushed the envelope, establishing her range and reaffirming her status as one of India’s sexiest women.
She experimented with a different sort of role in 2003, playing an industrialist’s wife in the box-office hit, Jism, which featured more mature content than was previously customary in Bollywood, catapulting her into sex symbol territory.
She then played a mother in Rakht (2004) and a call girl in the comedy hit, No Entry, while 2006’s Corporate won her a Filmfare award for her portrayal of a hard-nosed executive.
She is now also on the verge of an international breakthrough. British actor Ben Kingsley has signed her on for his $30m (Dh110) magnum opus on the Taj Mahal, and she is in talks on at least one other project, Quick Slip Me A Bride.
She has said she turned down Wes Anderson’s The Daarjeeling Limited and other scripts that have come her way because they typecast her as the stereotypical singsong-accented Asian. As with Bollywood, she wants the West to come to her and on her terms.
“Everybody wants to do one film that will be seen globally, but everything’s so comfortable here in India.
“Unless I’m offered something, I’m not going to go chasing it I can’t start all over again in the West,” she says.
“Here in India people make films around me, keeping me in mind, why would I throw that away to begin everything afresh?”
Up Next For Bipasha
Out on Thursday, the film stars Basu in an ensemble cast, alongside Kareena Kapoor, Saif Ali Khan and Anil Kapoor.
White Feather Films’ indie flick, set for a May release, casts Basu as a Bollywood actress opposite newcomer Maradona Rebello and Sudipto Chattopadhyay.
Bachna Ae Haseenon:
Sidharth Anand’s film stars Basu, Ranbir Kapoor, Deepika Padukone and Minissha Lamba. Set for release in August, it tracks one man’s romantic journey with three women.
Mr Fraud: The Abbas-Mustan comedy has Basu in a double role with Sanjay Dutt and Ajay Devgan. Delayed by Dutt’s troubles with the law, it is now set for a 2008 release.
Basu plays Jahanara Begum, the daughter of Mughal emperor Shah Jehan (Ben Kingsley), who built the Taj Mahal. Production has not yet begun.
Quick, Slip Me A Bride:
The son of a retiring priest decides he must find a wife to avoid joining the clergy. Principal photography begins next month.
Bipasha races into big league