Mrs Funnybones has a room of her own
Three years ago, we were having coffee after a long day of shooting at Twinkle Khanna’s home—she had, without a fuss, let us move an oversized fibreglass tiger from its spot in the living room, fill an indoor pond with fish we brought in plastic packets, and generally cause the kind of disruption required for a home interiors shoot. I was interviewing her for the cover story of the inaugural issue of Casa Vogue and the home of an architect’s assistant-turned-actor-turned- best-selling author was sparkling with editorial promise.
Khanna’s son, then 12, came around to meet the crew. And instead of “sing a song for our guests” or “tell them about your tennis lessons”, his “act” was imitating his mother being irritable while on her period. I can confirm that this child is already a consummate actor, should his parents decide to launch him in the movies a few years later. But the more important takeaway, given recent events, is that period talk isn’t taboo in Khanna’s own home.
Earlier this month, as part of a promotional campaign for the movie PadMan, social media was flooded with images of actors and others holding up sanitary napkins and tagging others to do the same as part of the #PadManChallenge. The film was born from Khanna’s short story, which in turn was inspired by the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the inventor of a low-cost sanitary pad-making machine. As the film’s co-producer, both she and her husband, Akshay Kumar (the movie’s lead actor), faced flak for the campaign. Their goal was to take away the taboo around menstruation but why were those napkins being wasted when they could be donated, they were asked.
It’s been two weeks since. When I meet Khanna at her office earlier this week in Mumbai, she appears unperturbed. “From where I stand, a whole lot of things have been impacted because of the movie. My old boss (the architect) Harish Shah called me to say the movie has created a new problem for the NGOs he works with…all of them are now demanding sanitary napkins. I was so happy to hear that. So whether it’s vending machines at railway stations or the World Bank’s plan to take the movie to Indian villages in March… perhaps we played a bit (of a role) in all of that.”
There was no strategic discussion. She didn’t issue an apology, as is the norm these days—designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee sent out a 900-word open letter to apologize for his sari statement at Harvard. “It’s taken me a while to get here. I don’t think I need to answer to a collective mob,” she says. Khanna counters the whataboutery about wastage with the need to “get talking about menstruation” as a parallel mission.
She plans to work with reproductive rights next. So you are an activist now? I ask. “Please don’t call me a do-gooder,” Khanna protests. “I feel I should leave the world in a better place than I found it, yes, but I also want to entertain myself thoroughly in the process.”
“And your readers?”
“No, myself. That’s first. Me. I have to get up and say this is worthwhile and this is fun and this is interesting. As far as readers go, what their personal opinion of me is is irrelevant. Whether they think I’m a do-gooder or a feminist or an activist…”
Khanna may protest vehemently but these labels—and her lack of adherence to them—are of great interest to a lot of people. Last year, she was accused of double standards, with her political critique in columns even as her husband was photographed with icons of the establishment. To this, Khanna had responded saying that anyone who thought she couldn’t have political beliefs independent of her husband was only revealing their own regressive mindset.
In PadMan, Sonam Kapoor’s character of an urban sophisticate is also a tabla player. It’s an interesting dimension that breaks another kind of stereotype, one that I was sure was Khanna’s creation. It was the director’s, she clarifies. “What I like about Balki is that he has a gender-less perspective. He doesn’t look at a character from a male or female perspective, he looks at what would be interesting for a person,” she says, going on to quote Virginia Woolf. “She said an androgynous mind is an incandescent mind. I think my mind is androgynous. I don’t know if it lights up a room though.”
Since she launched her newspaper columns and released her first book, Mrs Funnybones: She’s Just Like You And A Lot Like Me, in 2015, it is impressive that Khanna has built a personal brand that has implications beyond her four million-plus Twitter followers. In PadMan, she is credited as “Mrs Funnybones” and not Twinkle Khanna (“My husband has put my name in various productions because of financial reasons and I wanted to make a clear distinction that this was my project.”). She might not think of herself as a girl’s girl, and yet, the making of Mrs Funnybones has been championed by women in positions of power: her former editor Sarita Tanwar at DNA, who convinced her to start her weekly column, her present editor Neelam Raaj at The Times of India, where she writes a fortnightly column, and Chiki Sarkar, founder and publisher of Juggernaut Books, who gave her the definite push to publishing glory.
She has just finished the first draft of her third book, a novel with the working title Pyjamas Are Forgiving. What keeps Mrs Funnybones going ? The secret, it appears, is that she aims to please only one very forgiving judge—herself.
She tweets at @aninditaghose