Anu Aggarwal

Whenever Anu Aggarwal would feel trapped in love or fame, she would turn to her lover– the moon. The actor, who shot to nationwide fame in the 90s with her film debut Aashiqui, dealt with a popularity that invited–and sometimes quite literally–all kinds of men wanting her attention.

In her current Bandra residence, if one could bend themselves at an angle near the window, balancing on their toes, neck tilted slightly towards the right, chances are they could get a glimpse of the street opposite Shah Rukh Khan’s bungalow Mannat, which is often thronged by fans. Fandom for Anu, however, is a thing of the past.

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Three decades after she became a national sensation, when men would write ‘I love you Anu’ on her building compound, she views fame with a sense of nostalgia, and as a once-upon-a time lover she is happy to not have around today. For when it was, it imprisoned her.

As the actor gears up for her return to screen, in talks with several writers and directors, she sits down to chat with about her life– stories and incidents that formed her, the men she dealt with, the love she had, the heartbreaks she cried over, the city that shaped her.

Edited excerpts:

Take me back in time before Aashiqui, how was it growing up in Delhi as a girl?

Festive offer

Oh, it was extremely shi**y. Maybe I just that kind of attention, but they named me sexy siren of Delhi University. It wasn’t something that massaged my ego, so I ignored it. But I remember there would be guys chasing me, they would wait for me to get out of my college, they would be in cars and jeeps.

How far was your house from your college?

It was a ten-minute walk from the Hindu college. Just those ten minutes of walking back home was so dramatic, it was a mayhem. There would be guys on the streets, there would be cars behind me playing songs, guys would stop and try to come and talk to me, sing songs to me. It was really unsafe. Back in the day, I could see why girls always went out with somebody or the other, you would never ever see them alone.

But I thought no, I would do it and took it as a challenge. If I want to go to a party at night, I will go alone. There would be bottles smashed. I would just draw that kind of attention; guys would just want to be close to me. It hasn’t ended.

Men would smash bottles to get your attention?

Yes. So, when people would tell me, ‘Oh wow you are so lucky to get all this attention from everyone’, I would tell them, ‘You have no idea how difficult it is for me.’ I was a non-conformist as well, which is why it was more difficult for me. I wasn’t the ideal ‘obedient’ girl.

Was it draining?

I mean, all of that made me feel not attracted to guys anymore. I didn’t have a boyfriend till I was 19, at a time when my school and college friends did. But I would wonder, ‘Oh God, is this what men are like? Urgh, just leave me alone!’ I just wanted to study and that will carried me along through the rest of the mayhem happening around me. I was clear about my choices and what adjustments I wanted to make and not make. Marriage was a huge adjustment which I really wasn’t willing to make. That hasn’t changed yet, and it won’t ever.

The story goes that you had a boyfriend at 19, who was in Paris. Is it the same one you came close to getting married to?

Yes, that one. What is marriage at the end of the day? When you are dating a guy and everything is nice, the obvious feeling is to be together forever. That forever feeling is then what leads to marriage. I don’t see marriage as something where the girl thinks, ‘Oh wow now this man will be my support.’ I have ended up supporting my boyfriends by the way, because I would always earn more than them.

I started earning very early in life and my choice of boyfriends weren’t the rich guys with lovely cars, great bank balances. They were artistes. One was a musician, a jazz musician at that. India didn’t know jazz then, so he hardly had any concerts, just once a month.

Your comments on marriage can be an irony for many, considering you are the star of a film that defined romance for a generation.

No, no, don’t get me wrong! I have had a lot of romance in my life! That’s why I came close to marriage, even though I didn’t agree with it. But then I redefined it for myself. I did come very close wanting to be with this particular man, but then you know… things happen. I thought marriage is no big deal, I just wanted to be with him. I have had some heavy doses of romance! I will never hide or lie about it. Being in love is one of the most liberating things that can happen to someone, whatever age it might happen then.

But, yes, that also led to a lot of disappointments for me. I realised that the idea of love, what we were taught growing up, the fairytale romance where a Prince Charming would come for you… We are raised by that but it is not like that at all.

How did you deal with heartbreaks then?

I have been through hard times. Heartbreaks are very, very hard to handle. I started to question life. I have always been a little philosophical, so I would wonder, ‘Oh God is this love? Is it what it leads to? How are others coping with their marriages?’ When you are 20-22 and have a boyfriend in a city where your parents don’t live, where you don’t have any other connections, your boyfriend’s friends are your friends. And then when you break up, suddenly you are walking the streets alone. Living is hard, socially it gets very hard. But I have managed. It has taken me more and more towards spirituality, that’s where I found the answers. When I would feel down and out, I would look at the moon and say, ‘At least you have always been there with me.’ I would heal in nature. That’s me.

What was it like to move to Mumbai? Were men around here different?

Completely different. In Delhi, I was living with my parents so that also added to my experience, you live a certain way. When you move to a different city and live alone, you meet a lot of different people, adapt to a new culture. My first love, the jazz musician, his band friends would talk in a way that was different, completely different from the men in Delhi! It was beautiful. It was a different mindset, and I was growing up with a group of people who were hugely talented and not materialistic.

I have been writing poems since I was 11. It is about my life, it is very personal, confessional. Slyvia Plath is one of my favourites and when I found her, I connected with her instantly.

Is that the reason–dealing with all sorts of attention for years– why you were pretty much grounded when the Aashiqui fame happened?

Actually, when I started meditation, it was an amazing tool that helped me deal with the stardom that happened after Aashiqui. It was just maddening. I became a sensation, I was on magazine covers… I couldn’t go out anywhere, my life completely changed.

Did you feel suffocated?

Completely. I didn’t have anyone at home either, so it was like I was sitting in a jail. I couldn’t go to a restaurant because they would then only play my music, the chef would come and stand on my table, guests would stop eating and I couldn’t eat either.

I think the story goes that once your boyfriend left the dinner place when everyone at the restaurant came to greet you one by one.

Yes, he just left me. I was there and… I was only in my early 20s. What is even that age? Even Alia is above 30 today. It was too much to handle, especially as a single girl alone in the city.

If I recall, there were men who would call you at 2AM, say that they are watching you, they are coming over to see you, that they love you and would send you dirty emails…

Yes. It was very scary. Stalkers even turned up. Thankfully I had strong staff in the building, which was of a politician, so there was a lot of police and security. I remember once I was in Ambani’s house and Amitabh Bachchan was there as well. He asked if he could drop me. When we reached the building he asked me twice, ‘You stay alone?!’ I said yes! Back then, people would get shocked, that how can a new girl in the city live alone, how does she manage!

You think the industry back then didn’t understand you? You were called a rebel, there are stories that you would wear a skirt and smoke cigarettes, openly drink champagne at a time actresses would drink whiskey out of steel glasses…

What you are saying is true, but the thing is, when somebody like that comes along, who defies the norms completely, is totally, hugely successful, it makes you to question your beliefs. This is a game changer for the society in a big way. Aashiqui defied norms back in the day, changed the entire game. Its music set a template, Anu Aggarwal the character shaped many girls, who are like that today. I have meditated, lived as a monk, and I realised to work without any expectation. In the bigger picture, I can’t say, ‘Oh people didn’t understand me’. I was bringing about a small social change, the way everyone does. This was my role that I had to play and I am very glad. I am at peace.

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