EXCLUSIVE: As Poonam Dhillon rings in her 60th birthday, actor believes in celebrating life at every juncture

In conflict-driven Trishul, her pool-dripping sparkle and the teen babble Gapuchi Gapuchi Gum Gum… introduced Poonam Dhillon as a fresh relief. In quick succession came the tragic Noorie. Pure as driven snow, she merged with the poignant landscape of Kashmir. Moving further, in Red Rose she played a wife whose fragrant dreams die at the hands of a flagrant reality. Moon-faced and doe-eyed Poonam Dhillon, who started her rendezvous with glamour as Miss Young India 1978, slowly dug her heels into showbiz. Since then, she has dabbled with all- theatre (The Perfect Husband, The Perfect Wife…), television (Anadaz, Ekk Nayi Pehchaan, Bigg Boss 3), politics, business and social welfare.

Running parallel, her personal life has taken its own twists and turns. Marriage, motherhood, divorce… she went through the rites of passage with grace. Today her children, daughter Paloma Thakeria Dhillon and son Anmol Thakeria Dhillon, are actors waiting to unfold their promise. Life, in a surprising way, has come full circle for Poonam. Recently, her Punjabi film, Umran Ch Ki Rakheya, with Raja Babbar streamed online. Based in Chandigarh, Poonam’s homeland, the mature romance underlines that age has no bar nor does love. Welcoming her 60th birthday today, the actor believes in celebrating life at every juncture. “I am 60 years young,” declares Poonam who believes in giving every phase her best shot.https://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.510.1_en.html#goog_1889081721


Someone who wanted to be doctor… did you imagine you’d end up doing films?

Films were nowhere in the vicinity of my aspirations. I guess it was just destiny. I shot for my first two movies, Yash Raj Films’ Trishul (1978) and Noorie (1979), during my college vacations.

Even before Noorie released, Raj Kapoor uncle saw the rushes of the film and offered me his production Biwi O Biwi (1981), directed by Rahul Rawail. Kakaji (Rajesh Khanna) too wanted me for Red Rose (1980). The third film was Nishana (1980) opposite Jeetuji (Jeetendra). Being academically inclined, I said I didn’t want to work. But Yashji (Chopra) said, “Are you mad? Why are you refusing such good banners?”

Initially, I wanted to be a doctor. So, I’d taken up science in college. But my brother, who’d joined medical college, discouraged me saying it’s too much of hard work. Then I wanted to join the Indian Foreign Service. I switched to subjects like Political Science, Public Administration and Economics. So, even while I was doing films at 16, I was adamant about completing my graduation. I shot a song for Kaala Patthar (1979) during the night and appeared for the exam the next day. Giving up education was not an option.

Coming from serene Chandigarh, what were the adjustments you had to make in Mumbai?

From living in a big house with a garden blossoming with fruits and flowers to moving in a small flat was the first challenge. Initially, my mother said she couldn’t ‘breathe’ in Mumbai. In Chandigarh, I biked to school, to the swimming club and elsewhere. I hadn’t seen local trains or buses. The infrastructure of the city and the population was a kind of a shock.

Another thing was the language. The language used in Bombay, though not crude, is informal. Like, ‘Aye mundi idhar kar!’ Punjabi culture is more formal. Till today I address people as ‘Aap’. Addressing them as ‘Tum’ is still fine, but ‘Tu’ was out of question.

Putting on make-up was another task. I found the pancake too much. When a friend once remarked, “You’re looking like the backside of a monkey, all red!” it made me all the more conscious. But eventually, Pandhari Dada (late make-up artist) reassured me that on screen, the make-up doesn’t appear so heavy. Overall, I adapted quickly to the world around me. That’s been my core quality.

How did you protect yourself in an unknown world?

I got things on a platter. I didn’t have to struggle. When you are desperate to make it, people take advantage of that. I wasn’t desperate. I was lucky that my first film came without trying and the second, third, fourth… happened in quick succession. Above all, I had the buffer of Yash Raj Films. No one approached me directly. They came via Yashji. These things helped. Fortunately, I didn’t get too many of those overtures or the not-right kind of approaches. Also, my parents always accompanied me. They were extra strict, which I initially resented. Today as a parent, I understand their protectiveness. In fact, later on I’d happily use the ‘I’m not allowed to go out at night’ excuse when someone suggested we meet for dinner after work.

That also reminds me of an incident. One day I heard a mother of an actress telling her, “Be nice to him because he’s a big producer.” Undoubtedly, you have to be nice to be everyone – your driver, make-up artist, producer, director… But why underline that ‘be nice because he’s big producer’! If a parent pressures the daughter to be ‘nice’ to a producer, obviously you’re asking her to compromise.


What were the compliments that came your way?

The biggest appreciation for me was not the ‘oh she looks gorgeous’ kind. I can’t take credit for my looks, my eye colour or my hair. It’s something God-given. But yes, I was well-read, intelligent and more well-informed than the other heroines. I had a curious mind. My co-actors would say things like, ‘You’re not a typical heroine’, ‘You converse well’, ‘You’re more of a colleague’… When people said I was ‘different’ from other heroines, I believed they were just trying to make me happy. It took me a while to understand what they meant.

How did you handle rumours of link-ups?

(Laughs) Every film you do, it’s the producer, who wants you to get linked with the hero. That’s how rumours are spread. You look good in the romantic poses in the film. They send those pictures around. It was all contrived and done for publicity. I didn’t give a thought to the rumours.

Did you encounter rivalry?

I was blissfully unaware of these things. My journalist friends would tell me that I was probably one of those few, who got along with my peers. Rati (Agnihotri), Tina (Munim), Padmini (Kolhapure), Kimi (Katkar), Tina, Padmini, Kimi… we were all friends, even Smita Patil. An editor friend one revealed that an actress had remarked, “Poonam pretends to be so innocent and goody-goody. But she’s just like us.” Firstly, the actress was putting herself down by implying she was not ‘innocent’. Secondly, she was putting me down. How you view the world is a reflection of yourself. 

What’s the hallmark of your enduring friendship with Padmini Kolhapure?

Padmini and I have always been open and honest with each other. Films is just a profession. It’s not our whole life. As human beings we liked each other, we understood each other. We’ve been through the happy and painful episodes of our lives together, be it our marriages or the loss of our parents… That binds you further.

Another person I was fond of was Smita Patil. She passed away too young. We did some photoshoots and films (including Qayamat 1983 and Awam 1987) together. She was different from me. She was such a bright girl and so self-confident. I admired her. She was leagues ahead of me, where artistic skill was concerned. Those days, I was not taken seriously as an actor. I was just considered a cute face. We giggled together, we laughed so much. We had such a good time. Friendship has no place for negativity. Or else you’re only reflecting your own insecurity and anger.

Any regrets when you look back at your film career?

I came absolutely unprepared. Had I known I’d be doing films I’d have undergone training in acting, dance… As a newcomer, I worked extremely hard. But had I also been skilled, it would have been wonderful.

On the personal side, you’ve maintained a dignified relationship with ex-husband Ashok Thakeria…

Of course! Ashok was home just yesterday. We’re each other’s well-wishers. We regard each other with great respect. If Ashok has any issue or problem in life, I’ll definitely be there for him. I was equally grieved when he lost his mother a few years ago. I was extremely fond of her. She was such a wonderful person. I loved her a lot. Some relationships may not work in the format they’re supposed to work. But it doesn’t make the other person bad. Just to justify my decision to separate, I cannot badmouth Ashok.


Was remarriage a no-no?

Remarriage was not a no-no nor did I give it a thought. It just didn’t happen. I didn’t come across anyone whom I wanted to give priority over my kids (Anmol and Paloma). My focus was on my children. Unless someone was going to bring great value to my family in terms of parenting or looking after, I didn’t see any reason to be distracted. I did meet people whom I grew fond of. But obviously, they weren’t stable enough or didn’t have all the qualities of a life partner.

Do you miss a companion?

I have so many close friends, more so women friends, that I don’t really miss-miss a companion. Having said that, it would have been wonderful to have a partner, who’s with you through thick and thin. It’s beautiful if you find the right person. Someone who’s always there. If you get that kind of relationship, be it through a husband, companion, friend… why not? It’s something to be cherished. But somehow it just didn’t happen with me. It doesn’t mean there’s a void in my life. I have tons of girlfriends. In fact, they tell me, ‘How will you find a man if you’re stuck with girls!’

A message for women who fear being without a man…

You should be with someone, who makes you feel good. There’s no need to be with a man, who makes you feel awful about yourself. Money cannot be a criterion for being in a relationship. Women should be financially independent. You don’t need a man just to pay your bills.

How do you view ageing?

Aging is a reality; we all have to face. I heard someone, not so young in her 40s, passing a mean comment on an actress, who’s turned old. I said, ‘Hey you’re going to be there soon!’ How can you be disrespectful towards someone just because they’re growing old?

Times have changed. When I started my career, my mother was in her 40s. Those days 40 was regarded as old. My mother passed way when she was 56, younger than what I am today. Recently, I celebrated a friend’s 60th birthday. She was full of spirits, so happy and gorgeous. Age is a social attitude. If you tell people that they should not be wearing certain clothes or be dancing and enjoying at a certain age, it bogs them down. It’s just about being happy whatever your age. (Smiles) Like I am 60 years young!

What makes you a happy person?

I don’t know whether I am a happy person all the time. Of course, I have my bad moments like anyone else. But I try to get out of it as soon as possible. I try to look at life positively. If you crib and find faults in others it doesn’t help. I genuinely see good in most people. Most importantly, I am grateful for all the wonderful things that have come my way.


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