Milind Soman recently found himself cancelled on Twitter following the publication of an excerpt from his memoir Made in India. The extract detailed the 54-year-old fitness icon’s time spent exercising at a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh centre as a youngster, just as several other boys in his Shivaji Park neighbourhood in Mumbai had done at the time.
Critics were outraged that Soman called the RSS a “desi Scouts movement”, and that he was “baffled” by the organisation’s uninhibited reputation for communalism. Someone declared that Soman wasn’t hot anymore.
“It’s very funny to think I am not hot anymore – or did I ever think I was?” Soman told Scroll.in. “Outrage isn’t new to me. There was outrage when I married my wife, who’s 26 years younger. There was outrage in 1995 when I did the Tuff Shoes ad. What happened in this case is one publication released just those two pages, and everyone thought the book is all about that, or worse, I wrote an article to promote the book. It feels like slapstick after a point. People getting angry and rolling over themselves like characters in a Charlie Chaplin movie.”
The RSS anecdotes take up three pages in a book that mostly covers Soman’s time as a national-level swimming champion and his love for running. Made in India, which has been co-written with Roopa Pai, also examines Soman’s years as a supermodel and a television heartthrob in the late 1990s. Excerpts from an interview:
Why did you write your memoir?
I didn’t want to write it. I didn’t think it would be interesting. A story worth telling should be about some struggle, about somebody who has overcome great obstacles, has triumphed and achieved a lot. That’s what a story of a hero should be, and there’s nothing in my life like that. So when Penguin approached me five years ago, I told them no, though they kept saying it’d be great but never said why.
Two years ago, my partner in my company Speaking Minds said that since I do motivational speaking anyway, and I have been so many things in my life – I’ve been a model, an actor, a swimmer, and now I run but nobody knows why I run – it’d be great if I put those experiences down in a book. She said I have explored so many opportunities and many people get opportunities but still don’t do much, so me writing about why and how I did what I did could perhaps be interesting.
I found Roopa Pai from one of her Facebook posts, where she wrote about some really unknown sportspeople who were representing India at the Olympics. So we asked her to collaborate, and she said yes.
You write that women have always gushed over you in social situations. What do men want to talk to you about?
Well, in my swimming days, no one did much talking. When I entered the more social world of modelling, people wouldn’t say much and stand in the background, except the women who would appreciate what I did on the ramp.
Later, as in now, both genders come to me to talk about how I have managed to sustain my fitness levels for 40-50 years, as well as running so successfully for a long time. I think that’s because today people are more aware of the effort needed to be healthy and avoid lifestyle diseases. So when they see someone do that in an effortless manner, that’s something they are drawn to. It’s a sign of the times.
Seventeen years ago, when I began running, nobody cared about it. If you saw someone just running back then, people would find him mad. But today everyone talks about health, fitness. The mindset and culture have changed. Therefore I am relevant.
To be honest, I have been doing this all my life. Whatever I have learned about myself, my mind, my emotions, who I am and what I want to be have come from being a sportsperson from the age of nine.
Today, when somebody gushes over my looks, it’s just a hangover of my modelling days. The conversations are more about someone being active and enjoying life at 55. In India, and a lot of countries, the idea is that after the age of 45 or 50, you need to slow down and step back and let the younger people go forward and do things. But I never slowed down and I don’t need to. And that is an exciting idea for people.
What about fitness do most Indians get wrong?
Discipline, and the need to understand that fitness is a mental faculty, which begins with discipline.
To be disciplined first you need to understand what your body, your mind, your emotions need. Understanding and accepting and appreciating yourself firstly is what’s important. Then comes the discipline you need to make your body better and better. There can be no fitness without discipline.
And when I talk fitness, I mean mental fitness to live life in a positive way so you can be a better human being and positively affect others and inspire them to be better.
Also, there are fitness levels. Usain Bolt is fit enough to run 100 metres in 11 seconds, but not for a full marathon. A full marathoner cannot run 100 metres in 11 seconds. You can be fit to be a parent, a wife, or a husband even, anything actually. What am I fit for and what do I want to get fit for is what people should ask.
After you became a supermodel, you acted in a bunch of interesting films. Did you ever take acting seriously?
No. I just enjoyed acting and never took it seriously, just like I don’t take running seriously. People know me because I run a lot, and I run a lot because I love to run. I just run whenever, wherever, for half an hour to 12 hours. Now if we are talking about what kind of food you need, what kind of workout, what training programmes you need to run a certain amount – which is seen as taking running seriously – I don’t do that.
That’s how it has been with my acting. I enjoy it, and I still do. I won’t call myself good or great. I like to work with people who tell stories well, are good directors, who can help me create a good character on screen.
Actually, I don’t even feel that film is an actor’s medium. It is the director’s medium, while television is the writer’s medium, and stage is the actor’s medium. You know who’s a good actor on the stage. If the stage actor doesn’t do justice to the masterpiece you’ve written, it falls flat, whereas, a director, like, say, Amol Palekar, picks actors off the streets or from a village.
Did you ever bother to get into a character’s headspace, ruminate over building a character?
No, I just followed the script and the director. Sometimes, directors said, show me what you can do or interpret the role in your way, which is fun. And sometimes directors asked me to follow exactly what they said. I am, of course, more comfortable with the second type. Sometimes I’m surprised by what comes out on screen by following the director’s exact instructions.
But I have never done serious prep for a role in terms of how I would prepare for an Ironman or an Ultraman triathlon. If I do pick a role like that, I would probably isolate myself for days and ponder on how to bring the character alive. I have never done that and I don’t think I will.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who directed you in Bajirao Mastani, is reputed to be the second kind of director.
Actually, that’s what I also thought while signing the film, but he was quite the opposite. He said, show me what you can do, how you will stand, look, move, sit, and then we discussed the character and fine-tuned it.
You write that you never understood why southern directors cast you as a villain. You have also been the “other man” to whom the woman is drawn in films such as Bheja Fry and Chef. That says something about how directors see you.
I understand that because there’s such a hoo-haa about my looks, which are, in a sense, unusual. Directors do not see me as an ordinary person. So I am always the other man. I cannot be the ordinary husband who has a happy life. I have to be the outlier, hence I am also the villain, a person who triggers something or causes a disbalance somewhere. Since directors think the audience don’t see me as normal, they don’t see me as normal.
People still fondly remember for your appearance in and as Captain Vyom, and Alisha Chinai’s music video for her song “Made in India”, which inspired your book’s title.
I had been a huge fan of Star Trek since I was five, so when Ketan Mehta approached me for Captain Vyom, I was absolutely delighted.
I acted in about 17-18 music videos at the time. Back then, I didn’t think they made much of a difference. It is only in retrospect that I see these works impacted so many kids who still remember me for coming out of the box in Made in India.
You, Madhu Sapre and Mehr Jesia were India’s first supermodels. Where are the Indian supermodels now?
Basically, supermodels were a media-created phenomena. When I started modelling in 1989, the fashion industry was just a couple of years old. There was one designer in Kolkata, one in Delhi, one in Bombay. Back then, there would only be fashion shows for apparel brands, but suddenly there were fashion shows organised for a fashion designer, and the media was like, oh, this is a fashion show... ah, this is a fashion designer.
Now a fashion designer has a different kind of cachet. He is an artist. So fashion models began to be seen as muses for these designers.
Then the media noticed that internationally, there’s something called a supermodel, who is the most sought-after model, like Linda Evangelista, who said she won’t get out of bed for less than 10,000 dollars. And the media was like, hey, where are the Indian supermodels? And we were the only models, and a little later, there was Arjun Rampal. So the Indian media was like, these are our supermodels.
The era of supermodels died not just in India, but internationally. That happened because the star system died across even film and music. What we have now is only interpretation or throwback or tribute. Once upon a time, we had stars like Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Richard Burton, Charlton Heston playing Ben-Hur. Now, everyone is an ordinary person playing an ordinary role. Ordinariness has become special. Nobody is looking for a superstar anymore. Everybody is a star, that’s why the selfie culture.
Actors now want to play everyday kind of people, like your neighbours. These larger-than-life entertainers were created at a time when people craved for superstar personalities to sell certain stories.
Today’s models are far superior to what we had in our time. They conform to an international standard, be it in grooming, styling, the way they look, the way they walk. The men have the right height, the women the right shape. So what is missing? A personality. But the industry doesn’t want personality. If they did, we’d see them. We don’t want superstars anymore. We want to see people now who are just like us.
Except in politics, where you have larger-than-life personalities.
Everyone’s a star, so the representative of the people is a superstar.
Speaking of the controversy over your time spent at a RSS shakha, is it right for a celebrity to engage in party politics?
Who am I to say if it’s good or bad? Donald Trump is the US President. Ronald Reagan was as well.
Before one becomes a celebrity, one is a person, and they have a certain life and upbringing, after which they become famous for a certain something. That is only one aspect of their life out of several. Why should you tell an actor they can’t be a painter, a gardener, or a businessman? Why can’t they be a politician?