Shruti Haasan waited patiently inside a box for her cue. It was to be a surprise performance at an event starring her famous parents: Bollywood actress Sarika, and “the Amitabh Bachchan of the South”, Kamal Haasan. Her mother was to query, “Where’s Shruti?”, and the consummate ideal of a celebrity daughter would pop out and make her singing debut in front of a 200,000-member audience. No pressure.
And then, in what most of us only experience as anxiety dreams, she popped out and the music wasn’t there to back her up – just the vast silence of expectation. But instead of cracking, Shruti thought, “Screw it, I’m gonna sing anyway,” she explains, “and I went acapella. Then the track finally queued, people started cheering, and I just went ‘This is the shiz. This is what I wanna do for the rest of my life’.” She was seven years old.
Twenty-three years later, she hasn’t much strayed from her decision, made at an age when you couldn’t be trusted to tie your own shoes. “There’s just been nothing else that gave me that feeling,” she says.
Of course for a child actor, being born to a pair of child actors is the right set-up to get that kind of career going, and with those professional family ties stretching from Mumbai to Chennai, she’s managed to become one of “how many?” she wonders, absent-mindedly biting her lower lip as she counts. “Both guys and girls? Maybe five?” Yeah, one of about five actors to successfully shuffle between regional film industries – evidenced by her Filmfare and South India IIFA Best Actor awards, plopped on her apartment floor beside a pair of acoustic guitars leaning against a hot pink wall, instruments she “can’t play for shit.” She’s more of a piano person. And yes: a hot pink wall. And hot pink lattices over some windows. Hot pink pillows and cushions. A hot pink, two-foot-high letter S by the front door. Offset that with an oversized Jimi Hendrix poster, another wall patterned with Superman comic-book covers. And the woman herself: painted-on black jeans with chunks ripped out of the thighs. A black t-shirt, a bull skull on the front, cut out at the shoulders so the sleeves hang like two black arm garlands. So much black Gaurav Gupta might tell her to lighten things up a bit. Hair so black Anish Kapoor will want to patent it. “I always wear black,” she says, unremarkably.
The maid serves green-fruit detox juice, right by the coven-grade collection of lit candles on the coffee table. It’s a dichotomy, a bit disjointed, like a Satanist baking a strawberry shortcake, but nothing about Shruti Haasan is without a counterpart, whether in her Andheri apartment, where Abba and Tom Jones records lean alongside white-tassle-Ozzy-era Black Sabbath, or in her subcontinent straddling film career, which will culminate this year with a film shooting simultaneously in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. Never without a flame for the dramatic, the as-yet-untitled project also stars her dad, the first time they’ll be seen on-screen together.
Bring up aspects of privilege and nepotism to someone with her pedigree, and Shruti has the same comebacks as any permutation of Kapoor: that their name may have got them a gig or two, but it’s their own efforts that’ve kept them working. Fair enough. And yes, she knows, “I really did suck in my first two movies,” but what separates Shruti Haasan from the Bombay pack of film brats is, looking back at her breakout performance at age seven, it was the music as much as the movie-stardom that stuck. And we’re not talking about lip-synching item numbers here, we’re talking about leaving India’s acting scene altogether, going to school in LA for sound engineering, getting a band together and gigging at places like the Roxy, where bands like Guns N’ Roses cut their teeth, tightened their chops and gave Jack Daniels enough free advertising to survive the boy-band era. Not for 200,000 people, but having a live band backing her up cut the chances of a playback glitch messing with her singing.
“Even singing in the studio,” she explains, “is nothing like singing in front of people. I get a similar feeling sometimes when I sneak into a movie screening of mine and the audience is really going nuts for a scene. Only then do I feel like I’m standing on stage. That immediate energy you receive from the audience is the stuff I live for.”
Ditching out on your famous family. Moving to LA to start a band. It’s a rock and roll thing to do. It’s a Neil Young thing to do – sabotage your expected career path, shirk all expectation, be anonymous and start from nothing. “I always believed in swimming against the tide a little bit,” she says, a little wistful, “but this was like setting out on a mission to drown.”
Shruti’s similes are consistently dark. Dark is something she does well. If you’re not into Neil Gaimann, “you’re a loser,” and she’s the only high-profile Bollywood actress with whom you’re likely to have an extended conversation about Nineties metal bands – “
God I love Maynard [from Tool] … ooh, Cannibal Corpse, my favourite…”
Beyond all this fame stuff, she’s a certain stripe of 19-year-old’s dream girl, the kind 19-year-old-Me daren’t imagine existed. The hot Goth chick who’d appreciate the weeks it had taken to play guitar to the full nine minutes of “Master of Puppets”. Nature is nothing if not cruelly timed.
“I was just a weird, awkward kid, “ she giggles, “and then growing up I was an awkward teenager, and then I became an awkward adult, and I just realized that I am awkward as a person.” She laughs harder, throwing her head back, showing that horseshoe of teeth Christopher Hitchens once claimed as the only thing a woman ever needed to seduce a man. But if you’re going to consider Shruti Haasan’s sex appeal, it isn’t as obvious as it is with some of her peers. She’s offensively attractive, yes, but she’s not using her beauty as a tool, or a poker chip, or a weapon that, wielded correctly, could send me home to my own Black Sabbath collection and cry along to Vol. 4 like a spurned 19-year-old Me.
She’s even got that tortured soul thing — that drives teenage-boy musicians to learn a few power ballads – but it doesn’t come off as disingenuous. “I’ve had crippling confidence issues, or image issues, so many things.” She fiddles with a black bracelet, bringing attention a black tattoo on her left wrist. “In this business, it’s all about what people think, what they said on Twitter, what did this person think of my movie, and then that combined with my personality was quite a devastating combination. And now I’ve just come to a point where beyond a point I generally don’t give a crap about things I can’t change. There is a kind of peace.”
“A Dark Zen?”
“Dark Zen, I like that! I guess it’s taken me longer than most human beings to get to a place where I’m absolutely cool with myself… I really don’t know how to play the game. Like I genuinely don’t. I’m really bad at it. There are people who are smarter than me, who know how to speak to someone, what to say, how to carry themselves. I am still an outsider.”
But an outsider by choice; she’s not come round to where she is because of who her parents are, but in spite of them.
“So why did you leave LA and come back to India?” I ask.
“Visa issues, for one,” she says.
“Because you had finished your schooling?”
“Yeah, I wasn’t a student any more. I did get some deals, I did get some stuff happening but I was very young. I just wasn’t ready. Plus, I wasn’t earning so I was feeling shitty about that. I’ve always been financially independent, so coming back was a very practical decision. Then I scored music for a movie, I was gigging with my band, and then my first movie just happened.”
She was lucky to be offered a part in 2009’s Luck by co-star Imran Khan. The film wasn’t so lucky at the box office, but then again, “I became an actor so I could make money really quickly, because being an independent English-language musician in India, it’s not the smartest choice, is it?”
She hasn’t played a proper music gig in the time she’s been “making money really quickly.” Because she’s been filming constantly – “Last year I worked, what, 340 out of 365 days? It’s been five or six years since I did a gig that wasn’t movie-based ‘lalalala’ stuff” – but also, “after my last gigs in Hyderabad and Bangalore, I was suffering from split personality disorder, because I didn’t know how to be both people. I had no idea how to be a movie star and that’s the truth… But now I’m better at balancing the two, they’ve grown into one big molten ball of existential egotism. Like the lava thing with that little mosquito in Jurassic Park.”
“You mean the amber?”
“Right! I am that little mosquito. I am a prehistoric mosquito.”
Aside from the trilingual movie with Dad, 2016 is the year Shruti Haasan the movie star gets back to her roots: Blues. Rock ’n’ roll. Punk. LA punk, like The Germs.
“Now I’m grown up,” she says. “I’m crazy in a way that works for me, as opposed to how it works for the business.” I wonder if she knows her body language goes from Anushka Sharma to Joan Jett when the subject changes from movies to music. “But you know, I still relate to the same stuff, I’m still pretty much complaining about the same stuff as ten years ago, the whole ‘Why don’t you love me? No, I don’t need you. Oh well, fuck it I solved it myself’. Which pretty much summarizes my whole life. So it’s fine. I work so much, if I were to actually have a boyfriend, he’d have to be a pilot that takes me around, you know? It’s angry girl music.”
Shruti’s a bit cagey with the details of how this renewed music phase will play out, aside from saying that she’s finished a track with British alt-rockers Dinosaur Pile-Up, a kind of Lemonheads meets The Ramones in a strip-mall massage parlour. And she won’t/isn’t allowed to talk about which other international artists she’s collaborating with, so we have to keep up the game where I make odd combinations of artists and exotic locations and she neither confirms or denies:
“What, like if Patti Smith sang for the Sex Pistols in a Compton studio with Dr Dre?”
“You’re not far off,” she laughs, falling back on a pink-woven charpoy. “But I have a very soulful piano side as well.”
“Soooo… like Tori Amos and Tom Morello after a bottle of whisky in Prague?”
“More like in Sweden, somewhere cold, you know, very much a ‘my soul is a dark place’ kind of a vibe.”
What she does confirm is that the lack of her musical presence online is on purpose. “All you’ll find is a trailer for a song I did a while ago, but that was more me experimenting, the new stuff is far more me.”
And that’s a relief. The YouTube teaser she speaks of slips tidily into a stream of unbearably tepid, insipid studio productions from Bollywood actors. What floats above the hackneyed droning is clear, however: Holy saggy-pants baby Jesus, this girl can sing. Like, she sings well enough you might even encourage her to quit her day job, even though her day job is being a movie star. She’s not a movie star who thinks she should be a singer because she’s a movie star (The one takeaway from the “My Day is the Sun” clip, is that she knows how to mic a room, how to boss around a sound engineer from the vocal booth. Which is super hot.)
“You said you’d be making angry girl rock,” I say, finishing my green fruit detox juice. “Do you identify as a feminist?”
“Do you remember, how at one point, it was cool when somebody said ‘Hey I’m a rockstar’, and then everybody on the street started saying they’re a rockstar. Then Kanye West started saying he’s a rockstar and then being a rockstar just wasn’t cool anymore. I think feminism, too, has gone through that kind of thing. Everybody just stands up and becomes a feminist, where the idea itself has become a piece of pop culture, a diluted term. If a woman is a feminist and she knows it, she lives by those principles. Her actions will tell you.”
“There was a time when, like most musicians, I didn’t know if I had the courage to be a front woman, the courage to put myself out there. It was music that projected my personality, and it was cinema that opened it up further. And now I’m just an uncontrollable, messy show-off.”