“Something that just came out of my head one day,” is how Shweta Bachchan describes her debut novel Paradise Towers, set for launch on her father Amitabh Bachchan’s 76th birthday. This year, she also launched a luxury fashion label MXS with designer Monisha Jaising. She spoke about wanting to shield her daughter from the spotlight, what her literary influences are and how she responds to allegations of plagiarism:
Anupama Chopra: What do you respond with when the great N word ‘nepotism’ comes up? When somebody says to you, ‘Of course, you would have a label and of course, you would have a book publisher like Harper Collins because you’re a Bachchan?’
Shweta Bachchan: Well, I know very well that I am where I am today, even sitting here on this interview chair because of the name I have. It is something I am very well aware of. But henceforth, what I do is all on my own. My father hasn’t written my book. They haven’t helped with designing. They are supportive as any parents would be, but it’s for me to sink or swim. So it only takes you this far and then it’s your own talent or lack of talent that kicks in.
AC: Have you seen this film called Jagte Raho with Raj Kapoor?
SB: I haven’t actually but that’s one of the things my mum said to me. She said, “You know, it reminds me of Jagte Raho.” I haven’t watched it. I need to watch it but I intentionally stayed away from it because I didn’t want it to spill into my writing.
AC: It was interesting because this man goes into a building complex and then he is mistaken for a thief and his trying to escape and run away reveals the hypocrisy of these so-called educated middle class people in each of those apartments. What were your literary influences for this?
SB: Actually, it is something that just came out of my head one day. I had read a book by an Egyptian author and I am very bad with remembering names. It was called The Yacoubian Building. It was about a building in Cairo and I just loved the premise of it, the different people there and their lives. Mine is a very very very simplistic version of that. It is a short simple story, but that would be the first reference.
AC: But what inspired you?
SB : So, you have kids?
SB : When they’re of a certain age – mine are now 21 and 18 – there comes a time when if you are wise, which I think I am, you have to learn to just take ten steps back. Or you are at each other’s throats and there is too much rebellion and you don’t want to deal with that. So I decided when I sent my kids off to boarding school that I was going to take a few steps back and I was going to let them navigate this. But that left me without a job. So I was just sitting around doing nothing. And a friend of mine introduced me to Sarita Tanwar who then asked me to write a column for her. She said, ‘Write me something’. So I did, and she loved it. People responded to it favourably and that gave me a lot of confidence. I have always written.
AC: Are you disciplined, would you write everyday?
SB: I am not disciplined, I would try to do it everyday, I would open my laptop and then I would start surfing the net, I’d go on Twitter. You know I’d just lose myself in all kinds of things but this.
AC: I was curious, why all the women in the book are either supervising the kids or gossiping? Why are all of them like that? I didn’t see any character who’s got a job apart from the one…
SB: Again, as I told you, for 44 years, I sat at home and supervised kids and that was my life. I don’t have a reference or context, so to speak, of a woman going to an office or what their day would be like. It just came naturally that this is what I could write easier but you know, you are right, some of them should get jobs. Maybe in part two. That said, being a mother and supervising kids, it’s a full time job. It is a tough job with very diminishing returns.
AC: Two years ago, I saw this column that you had done. The headline said ‘Can my daughter have her private life back?’ But after that Shweta, you have become more of a public figure and so has she. Is this negotiation between private and public hard for you because you haven’t always been in the public eye?
SB: It’s very hard. I am an extremely private person. And, yes, for certain things..if I have a book out or my line now, I have been forced to overcome my shyness so as I always say I am not in my comfort zone. Even being out there is not in my comfort zone. But if it’s something that you have to do, then you just have to do it. For the children, it’s tricky because you can only do so much and no more. I mean I have had tremendous fights with Navya about ‘stop posting these pictures on Instagram’. On the one hand I felt why am I curbing her? This is her account and she should be allowed to what she wants. She should have a normal life like anybody else in school. And then on the other hand, there are so many nasty comments. Eventually, she learnt herself. She realised what she could post, what she couldn’t post and I think it’s tapered down now.
AC: Is it sort of a daily question like ‘Should I do this? Should I not do this?’ or is it becoming easier?
SB: I don’t think it gets easier for someone like me. Also I have grown up in a fish bowl so I have also had people commenting or looking at my life from the outside, obviously not knowing anything of what life really is like. So I should be used to it. It’s a shame that I’m not. But who knows? If I can start work at 44, maybe I’ll get used to it.
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When you google ‘Airplane Mode Sweatshirt’ — the first search that pops-up is a little known loungewear brand called, @tlroom. The brand retails out of @nordstromnyc, and is known for its cool girl vibe, comfy sweats and chill silhouettes. And, now @monishajaising and @shwetabachchan’s new brand — @mxsworld — has the same sweatshirt with the exact same slogan. So, who do we blame the mess on? 🤭 . . . #gandi #copy #dietsabya #🤢
AC: Part of also being a public figure is setting yourself up for criticism. There was that whole backlash about the label and the plagiarism. How did you respond to that?
SB: You know, you have to just grow a thick skin. And you know that what you’re doing, you’re doing with integrity. So you just have to let it go. I don’t have a thick skin but I am trying to develop it. So these things bother me a lot but I guess I’ll learn. I have no choice.
AC: I don’t know a whole lot about the fashion industry but how does something like that happen where you have two things which look so similar?
SB: I think it’s a very generic motif and it’s a generic slogan. I mean if you go online there are many designs that are the same so I think that’s where it came from. No one’s going and saying, “Oh that’s a sweatshirt and I’m gonna rip it off.” It’s not something that you plan on doing and of course creative people can have similar ideas at the same time. And if you go do your research, which we did, it is a generic design and it is not just one sweatshirt. There are many slogans that are done in various ways and forms. It was not done in the same way but anyway, it is done and dusted. By the way, just wanted to tell you, it’s our largest seller. We’ve sold out of it. Ironically.
AC: What would your advice be to other women who want a sort of midlife renaissance?
SB: I would say go for it! If you have a desire, you should do it. You’re 44, you maybe have 20-30 odd years left and now is not the time to be a shrinking violet. It’s never been a better time for women to actually put themselves forward and achieve things. I am not saying it is an ideal place or platform for women but it’s better than it was. And you should go out there and do it. I know it’s easy for me to say because the people are going to say, “It got handed to her on a platter,” but I do feel that if you’re 44 and there’s something you want to do, you should try and do it.
AC: Is there almost a greater joy at this age?
SB: Again, I have no reference to context because I was a mother at 23 and that’s what I have been till now.
AC: Navya is so beautiful. Are there acting ambitions?
SB: No. She’s in college and she is studying. I would want Navya to be a professional, earn her own money, stand on her own two feet. Do her own thing.
AC: But she could do all that in the movies as well?
SB: But I think you need to have an aptitude for it. You have to want it. I don’t see that in Navya. It’s funny because people ask me that all the time and I don’t see why she should have to want to go in that line. She could become a businesswoman and do whatever she likes. So I think whatever she would want to do, I would encourage her to do it. But she doesn’t want to act.
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When daughter Shweta places her first book in your hands ; when she inaugurates her own clothing design brand ; when son Abhishek moves you to tears by his brilliance in film ‘Manmarzian’ , you wonder as you see them and their innocence in this snapshot, did we ever conceive that they would one day make us proud as they have today 🤗💖❤️💕
AC: Your dad just posted a really cute picture of you and Abhishek. It was of both of you as kids and he is talking about how proud he is because you handed him a copy of the book and he loved Abhishek’s performance in Manmarziyaan. What does that feel like?
SB: So when I look at him, I don’t look at him as an actor. I look at him as dad who I have lunch and dinner with, who I spend time with. Even in that when you have someone who even at 76 wants to push themself, learn more and do more, and is so busy through the day..it’s not just in the field of an actor, it’s just as a human being. I am actually both my parents. A lot of people tell me, ‘At 44 you started..’ but my mother is in her 50s and from being a homemaker, an actress and all that, she gave it all up and then she jumped into the Rajya Sabha. She is doing that and she is brilliant at it. She takes her work seriously. She wants to give a voice to women and she is doing it beautifully. So when you have that at home, it just inspires you. You don’t want to be lying on the couch watching TV. You want to go out there and say ‘I’m busy as well’. My dad at 76 is waking up at 6:00 in the morning and he has finished three things before midday.
AC: What’s next for you?
SB: Another book. It is already sort of semi on paper. It’s in the head. And I’ll flesh it out after all this is done. And the next collection for the brand which is out in December, so it’s already been designed.
AC: Thank you and good luck for the books and all the lovely clothes!