Stardust memories: how Dubai is falling for Shobhaa Dé's charms

Cover The beauty who was beastly about Bollywood in a gossipy magazine that proved an instant hit has grown into a prolific, witty writer and controversial blogger with an opinion on everything.

Amy Leang / The National
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She has been in Dubai all of two days but as Shobhaa Dé breezes into the restaurant, she greets the waiter like an old friend. He in turn beams from ear to ear, as well he might: in his native India, Dé is something of a celebrity. He asks if she will have her "usual table". As she sashays across the bistro, making heads turn with her enviably trim figure, whisking off her huge designer shades, it is my turn to be charmed when she sprinkles some of her fairy dust my way.

"Look at your lovely long hair flowing down like the Ganges," she coos, leaving me temporarily stunned. This is not what I was expecting. Can this be the same woman who, as the founding editor of Stardust, the Bollywood news and gossip magazine that excoriated the superficiality of the industry and made the "star bores and star whores" quake in their boots? The same Shobhaa Dé who said of Rekha, that sultry screen siren: "It wasn't her weight but her voice that had got to me, grating, harsh, coarse - the voice of an illiterate washerwoman."

Or of the late Sanjeev Kumar, the much-loved star of classics such as Khilona and Seeta Aur Geeta, that he was "rustic, ill-mannered and uncouth". Could this be the Shobhaa Dé as infamous for her blog spats with the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan as she is for the novels she now churns out? On a brief visit to Dubai for the Festival of Literature earlier this month, where she was speaking about her recent book, Superstar India - From Incredible To Unstoppable, she is surprisingly full of praise for both actors.

"Amitabh and I have blog wars, but he is such a civilised man," she says. "I admire his professionalism. I respect Shah Rukh for the same reason. He is not just concerned about delivering his own lines, he is concerned about the whole project." Perhaps it comes with hitting 62 or from seeing her six children reach adulthood, but Dé seems to have visibly mellowed from the fiery, opinionated young woman who helped launch a magazine that rocked Bollywood to its roots.

A former model, she was plucked from a copywriting pool at the age of 23 by the visionary Nari Hira, the owner of an advertising firm who wanted to mirror the success and style of Hollywood fanzines such as Photoplay and Screenplay and saw in her just the voice he was looking for. In a glorified cabin, they spent four months working furiously on a prototype of Stardust, which aimed to cut through the gloss of its predecessors and replace it with salacious, juicy titbits of gossip and scandal, complete with unflattering pictures of the stars.

It had never been done in India before and certainly not in Bollywood, where the heroes and heroines of the day were used to sycophantic, gushing pieces. By Dé's own admission, that first edition in October 1971, complete with a bold splash asking, "Is Rajesh Khanna secretly married?", was crudely put together, rough around the edges and amateurish. But it was an instant hit and the first run of 40,000 copies sold out. The film-loving audience could not get enough of it and by the 1980s, it was India's best-selling film magazine with a circulation of 270,000, translated into three languages and sold worldwide.

"It was pretty bold at a time when all the others were sugary and syrupy-sweet," says Dé. "It was new, refreshing and totally irreverent. That was the tone that evolved and we stuck with it. "Nari had a format in mind that he liked, wanted to adapt and had the guts to do it. It worked then and still does more than 35 years on. "That it continues to do so is fantastic. It touched a chord and took Bollywood completely off guard with its tone and the fact we were not about to kowtow to the stars.

"But what is showbiz without masala anywhere in the world? It was social commentary on very dynamic, dramatic social change that was taking place in India." Dé's own self-confessed "revulsion" for the world of celebrity shaped the tone of Stardust from day one. She made no secret of the fact that she loathed Bollywood's "tinsel lives", stubbornly refusing to attend parties and only meeting those stars brave enough to venture into her office.

Instead, she sent out her fleet of reporters to snoop around film sets and fish out scandalous tales. Surprisingly, considering the tone of the publication, the titbits of gossip poured forth. Much of the format, such as the Hinglish (mixture of Hindi and English) lingo, the "court martial" section for offending celebrities and "Neetu's Natter", a catty gossip column, remains unchanged nearly four decades on.

"Bollywood was smart enough to understand it wanted to be associated with a smart publication and soon the rules of the game changed, with other magazines starting to copy us," says Dé. "People frequently tipped us off - often it was the stars themselves. Now there are publicists to do the same, but in those days they would call us directly. "I never attended parties or hung out with any of the stars. I did not want to. When you start hob-nobbing, it is very difficult to maintain objectivity and write stories about them, not to mention your credibility being in shreds.

"That does not take away from the fact that it is worth chronicling and documenting because it tells us a lot about ourselves and a world that is changing so quickly." She explains further in her autobiography Selective Memory - Stories From My Life: "If the film industry was curious about my self-isolation, I did nothing by way of explanation. I preferred the enforced distance and it worked in favour of the magazine.

"Since there were no favourites to shield, everyone became a potential target." And how. From the shabby office, nicknamed the "cat house" because of its reputation for withering, bitchy put-downs, came a series of slights to the great and the good. The actor Dharmendra became known as "Garam Dharam", or fiery Dharam, after he attacked a columnist from a rival publication. The glamorous Hema Malini was dubbed "Idli" (slang for a south Indian); and the actresses Sharmila Tagore and Raakhee earned the epithet "Bengal tigresses".

There were inevitably clashes between the magazine and the stars it mocked, together with a tide of lawsuits. Among them was a fruitless one filed by the director Raj Kapoor, who was so incensed by a two-page feature on his epic Satyam Shivam Sundaram bearing the headline "Satyam Shivam Boredom" that he sued for damages. Dé says mischievously: "The difference between lawsuits in India and the West is that they go on forever. My grandchildren will be fighting the same lawsuit. It's an interminable process as there are too many loopholes. Libel laws are much more pro-magazine than pro-individual."

Most stars got bored or simply forgot about the case and moved on. But the longest-running battle was one fought with Dé's old foe, Bachchan. During the Emergency in 1975, when India's then-prime minister, Indira Gandhi, decided the country was under threat from an opposition party, draconian laws were brought in by her son Sanjay, which meant every picture caption and headline had to be submitted to censors. They were not averse to banning up to 80 per cent of the material prompting panic as deadlines loomed.

Bachchan, who had a difficult relationship with the press, was blamed at the time because of his friendship with Sanjay Gandhi. The magazine industry responded by boycotting him. "It was believed at the time, rightly or wrongly, that he was behind it. He still froths at the mouth denying any involvement," says Dé. "The censorship paralysed the media and almost shut down a lot of magazines. We decided the only way to counter it was to block that person out. He was referred to obliquely as the 'angry young man', but some of the biggest releases of his career were during that ban, so he missed out on the publicity."

The boycott was eventually lifted in 1982, when Bachchan nearly died while filming a stunt for Coolie. It was two years after Dé had left Stardust, and it was to be several more years before they crossed paths, entering an uneasy truce when the actor visited her at home as part of an offensive to win over his critics. Today they reserve their battles for their respective blogs, and one senses Dé secretly relishes the chance of a confrontation - at least, in cyberspace. Take this recent entry from her blog: "I always enjoy running into Mr B, even when we are spatting- I'm wracking [sic] my brains to come up with a suitable blog war with him in the near future."

But back to the 1980s: after quitting Stardust in 1980 - as with her modelling, Dé says she simply became bored - she launched Society magazine with Hira, a sort of predecessor to Hello!, which gave a peek into the lives of Mumbai's jetset. Within a year, she had left the umbrella of Hira's Creative Unit firm to set up her own showbusiness magazine called Celebrity. The project was a disaster and she found herself mired in debt within three years.

At the same time, her marriage to Sudhir, her first husband and the father of her two eldest children, had broken down. She walked out on both her family and her business with a heavy heart. With refreshing honesty, Dé says: "I thought I should try my hand at being an entrepreneur, which was a huge mistake. "Celebrity was ahead of its time; it was so witty and stylish, but I did not know how to run it because I did not have the business expertise."

At 34, Dé found herself out of work and out of pocket. But just as she considered her next move after winning a journalism scholarship to the US with the news agency Reuters, her life took another extraordinary twist in a pattern which puts it on a par with the best Bollywood script. Three days before she was due to leave, she met Dilip Dé, a widower and a businessman, when she accompanied a mutual friend to a party at his house. He proposed to her within minutes of meeting her and gave her an ultimatum - it was him or the job.

"I thought, if he is so sure about this, then why would I have any doubts?" says Dé. The pair married in a low-key ceremony exactly 90 minutes after her divorce had been finalised and the scholarship was forgotten. Instead, Dé forged a new career as a writer. Columns in newspapers including the Times of India, Sunday Review and Sunday Midday followed, and she relished the chance to lavish her sharp turn of phrase on a whole new audience.

Bright, well-read and with a biting wit, there are few things Dé does not have an opinion on, be it politics - she was an advocate of the recent Women's Reservation Bill in India, which will secure one-third of seats in parliament for women - or the recent decision by her friend, the Indian artist MF Husain, to become a Qatari citizen because of death threats at home. "No one can ever be in his shoes, mainly because he doesn't wear them."

Bold and brassy, her Stardust days have made her thick-skinned when it comes to making enemies. When she wrote of her disappointment in Shah Rukh Khan for failing to condemn the attackers behind Mumbai's 2008 blasts, calling him "wishy-washy" for shying away from making a public statement, he retaliated by calling her "cynicism in a designer sari". Her response? She offered to give him one of her garments.

"We have run-ins constantly," she says. "I think stars are iconic and have a social responsibility. Do I get offended? One is beyond that stage. You slam someone, someone slams you back, you should be able to take it. "No matter how strong a running battle I may be having with a person, if they do something exemplary in the public domain, I would be the first person to acknowledge that immediately. I have no problem in saying I am wrong."

And she has had her own fair share of insults slung at her. Her career as a novelist was launched 22 years ago when Penguin Books set up an India base and approached her about writing a book. With her privileged background - she comes from solid middle-class stock; her late father was a high-ranking government official and she is a Brahmin, the highest caste in India - she was perfectly placed to hold a looking-glass up to Mumbai's high society.

Socialite Evenings, a satire on the city's nouveau riche featuring rich housewives seeking amorous adventures to escape their boredom, was her first novel and was followed by Starry Nights, Uncertain Liaisons and Surviving Men, all of which follow a similar pattern. Her no-holds-barred, flamboyant style, including sexually explicit passages, a rarity in conservative India, led to some calling her a "pornographer". Dé is unrepentant.

"For centuries women have been told what to feel about themselves and their bodies. Even the Kama Sutra was written by a man," she says. "I wanted to assert my rights to write what I wanted to. It is about freedom on every level. To me, writing is something that is exuberant as an experience. "If something is successful commercially, my publisher rejoices, but I would rather dance on my own to my own music."

Dé is prolific and takes about six to eight months to churn out a novel, writing in longhand at her dining table. Her 16th book, S's Secret, is her first aimed at pre-teens but she is already cracking on with the next, a fiction set in the world of politics called Sethji. In between she has managed to attract more than 4,600 friends on Facebook as well being a compulsive blogger and tweeter; in short, she has the energy and looks of someone 20 years younger.

She puts her stunning looks - which once graced the cover of French Vogue - down to good genes while she owes her glowing, unlined complexion, she confides, to "kitchen cosmetics" such as banana, honey and yoghurt on her skin before a shower. "I never use shop cosmetics if I can help it and I would never have anything intrusive like Botox done." Also on the cards is another untitled non-fiction work to follow on from her autobiography and a marriage manual called Spouse and Superstar India.

The latter is perhaps her most heavyweight to date: she takes on the establishment in an invective blaming corruption, the desecration of her homeland and a lack of job opportunities for the middle classes for holding India back. And as one might expect of her, she does not mince her words, saying: "On some levels, India is hugely progressive with women in positions with great clout and power. These are people driving change in corporations and banks. Women are impacting society in a big way; of my two sisters, one was a lawyer and another a successful ophthalmic surgeon.

"They were doing it long before people were talking about women's rights in the West." She says she felt it was "important to chronicle India and its traditions", while recognising its flaws: "We don't know how to protect our sacred treasures, for example. "We have the Taj Mahal but people are able to desecrate it, pull out stones or write Sweetie loves Bunty all over it. "A lot of what is hindering our progress is corruption. Right now there is also a jobs and identity crisis. The middle class is India's biggest asset, but what lets us down is that they are not getting the job opportunities they are qualified for."

What she rails against most of all is the western perception of a poverty-stricken India resigned to living in slums. "My early novels spoke about a glittering, prosperous city filled with vibrant, intelligent and glamorous denizens, the reality I understood best," says Dé. "They were rejected by readers in America and the UK because they refused to believe such an India existed. Literary agents urged me to focus on deprivation, caste and the grim realities associated with India."

But Dé has had the last laugh, with her books now translated into several languages in Europe and Russia. From Dubai, a city with which she has had a 25-year association, her next stops are Paris for the French launch of Starry Nights, then Italy on a publicity drive for Superstar India. "The world is looking at India now. Even the global economic meltdown has left India relatively untouched so far," she says.

"I am lucky to make myself heard in a conservative society that has changed so dramatically and quickly."