The question isn’t who is going to ‘let’ me; It’s who is going to ‘stop’ me! One of Smriti Irani’s favorites, perfectly describes her own story!
Smriti Irani needs no introduction. From the protagonist Tulsi in the famous Hindi television soap opera, ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’ to the youngest member of the Rajya Sabha in the history of India, she is a name all of us are familiar with. This wasn’t easy; it was Smriti’s hard work and tremendous zeal to make a difference which made all of this happen. Let’s see what this famous Indian TV actress, producer and politician has to say about her journey!
Mrs.Irani, we all know Tulsi and the political activist inside you very well. Today, we are here to interview, not Smriti Irani but Smriti Malhotra. Let us go 20 years back in time and know you more.
Twenties saw the transition from Malhotra to Irani. Even if surname changes, the temperament remains the same and that is what defines you as an individual. I was born and brought up in Delhi in a very conservative environment. I was raised in a family of 3 daughters, where the dutiful daughter was the one who got married at the ‘right’ age of 15. I was the first one in the family who wanted a career for herself. And when I said that, all hell broke loose in my family. I will tell you how I got into my idea of building a career more and more. I was a very introvert person who preferred books over people for my company. The books I read propelled me to the path of self-determination. I was put off when I saw people defined by or defining themselves by their family and status. As an individual, you should be defined by the contribution you make and not by the surname you have. As I was growing up, I was more and more driven that I wanted to make something for myself and bring a change. And my twenties were when I actually set out my plan of action. My twenties saw me as a private individual going to public sphere.
With a conservative family and your introvert nature – how did you manage to set out on your path to public sphere?
When I told my family about my interest in media, my father always said that only those who either don’t know anything or are school drop-outs opt for this career. But I wanted to be one for myself. At the age of 16, I started selling beauty products on the footpath of Janpath market in Delhi. I thought this would help me develop my marketing skills. J Then I decided to move to Mumbai. Tried my hand here and there, from Femina Miss India to Position of Flight Attendant to Various Commercials, but couldn’t get through. I wanted money – I started swabbing floor at a restaurant in Bandra.
Certainly not easy. You have struggled so much through your late teens and early twenties. How do you see that now?
I was working with a restaurant when I was called for auditions for the role of Tulsi. The fact that life can give you two extreme experiences in the same year is in itself extreme. I have been brought up in an atmosphere where there was deep rooted respect for labor. I never look down on any job; be it Chowkidaar, be it Maali, be it Peon, be it Sweeper, be it anybody! You should approach every job with same respect and dignity. And this is why I never felt embarrassed selling products at the footpath, or swabbing floors at a restaurant! The fact that I was always just doing my job and giving my best lets me talk about all those experiences even today with my head high.
All these professions you pick are just transition periods of life, they are not you, they don’t define you. You shouldn’t be enamored of them. The moment you are enamored, you get trapped into it. Tulsi doesn’t define me, being a Member Parliament doesn’t define me; they are two different phases of life with many more to come.
As you talk about Tulsi, let us ask you this. You played Tulsi, you played Sita in Ramayana – was there a specific reason to pick roles of ideal daughter, ideal wife and ideal mother?
I just picked whatever I felt like. From the very beginning, I used to get provoked when told what to do. I believe that it is very important to pick a character only when you can connect with it. Whatever you do should be close to your personality. Only then you shall do your job to the best. And I follow the same approach in my life today.
With power comes responsibility! Did you ever fear your political career?
It is demanding. I cannot deny that. I travel to every nook and corner of the country, so many times alone. But I believe that you cannot serve your country when you are afraid of its people. Citizens of my country are angry, they are upset, and idea is to restore their faith. And that is all what my job is.
It would have called for so much courage to take such bold steps. What was the scariest moment for you?
I had no scary moment. That is weird but I actually didn’t have any. The only time I have been scared in life was when I was having my first child and I didn’t know what childbirth is. 🙂
God knows why! I have been very confident of whatever I did. When you bear no malice, you need not fear. Simple!
What do you think has been the biggest support for you?
I have worked really hard to reach where I am today. And probably, this is why I value each and every moment of my life. Also, my husband has been very supportive all this while. In fact I remember when we had our son; I was still playing Tulsi and had already entered politics. I told my husband that since I have a son now, I think I should leave XYZ part of my career. To that he said, “Beta toh mera bhi hua hai, what part of career should I leave?” (Even I have a son, what part of career should I leave?) This was my first realization of being equal in a married life. And this is key to balance work and family. I would say that I am very lucky to have married my husband and get continued unconditional support from him.
What about your parents? How do you feel when you look back at those times when you struggled so much and how do your parents see you now?
I was brought up in a very conservative family where decisions like the ones I took were not appreciated. When I look back and remember my time selling beauty products at Janpath, I wonder how my parents allowed me to do that. Today, I have a 23 year old daughter. All I would say is – it is very easy to be a child and extremely difficult to be a parent. If my daughter comes with such a crazy idea as I did, I as a mother would totally freak out. Since I might not be that liberal with my daughter, I realize how strong my parents were to let me do that. All they wanted was that I am physically protected which totally made sense. So I am thankful to my parents for letting me do it though they didn’t believe in it.
And my family doesn’t give a damn to me being an actor or a politician and this is why I am not haughty of being that either.
Against all these odds, how did you actually plan all of this to happen?
I never plan! The only thing I plan is my children’s’ school and my travel for the following month or two, but not more than that. I never planned to be Tulsi and reach every house, I just acted! I never planned to be the youngest member of Rajya Sabha, I just entered politics. When you can create histories without planning, then why plan! Whatever I want, I just go and do it, making sure I am doing my best.
You mentioned right in the beginning that books have played a significant role in shaping what your thought process is today. Tell us more about it. What kind of books did you like?
I have been a voracious reader all my life. From Nancy Drew, to Charles Dickens, to Hardy Boys, to Alchemist, to Grisham, to Illusion, to all newspapers, I would read anything and everything that came my way. My friends used to make fun of me. They asked, “Smriti, are you mad or what? What do you do all day? Read?” I was like yes! That is what I like and that is what defines me.
I always believed that knowledge cannot be defined by a certificate. It can only be defined by your genuine knowledge. And this is what my books gave me. I never really wanted to go to an institution with a brand; in fact I wanted to create a brand out of myself, which I did!
The biggest compliment I got was from Soli Sorabjee, Indian jurist and former Attorney-General of India. I still remember Mr. Sorabjee saying, “Smriti, you should have studied law and joined us”. That was one of the most satisfying moments for me.
Overall, how did all these experiences impact you as an individual, on how you deal with life?
When I was young, I did a lot of analysis of both – successful people and ordinary people. While I learnt so much from them, I realized that every human being has regrets – one kind or another. That was the time I decided that I want to lead a life of no regrets. Whatever good or bad happens, you should take it as a learning of life. And especially for all the bad part, you should have the decency and courage to own it up. I never wanted to be bound or restricted by anyone else. Even when I was not sure that things would go right, I always believed that I would pay for my own mistakes rather than for somebody else’s.
What is the message that you would like to give to young 20 somethings?
I think they don’t need a message. Today, youth is very confident; young people understand their circumstances and know how to balance their priorities.
An advice from me would be quite ironical as I never followed any. I would say, listen to everyone but do what you want. Pay for your own mistakes rather than pay for somebody else’s. And life is too short. It is important to give back what you get. Even small acts of kindness will give a sense of fulfillment in life. And if life gives you more opportunities, you should definitely do more!