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June 25, 1997


A model actress

Suparn Verma meets the former beauty queen who has made a big impact with her first film.

A gulal-caked face bobs up in your field of view. "Happy Holi," it says.

A long hand extends itself: "Hi, I'm Pooja," and the patchy gulal parts to reveal a set of teeth the Colgate admen would have died for. You immediately recognise the mug that has been looking down at you from many a Virasat hoarding. "I'm shooting for a Holi song" she says, explaining her unseasonal couture.

Pooja Batra looks like a star being spawned, and she is glowing with pleasure after her new-found success in Virasat, the movie that brought back the audiences to theatres in a way a Mrityudaata couldn't.

A leggy lass, Batra's success is unusual in that she is a former Miss India runner-up. Few models before have made it big in this industry, and it remains to be seen whether she too is just a flash in the pan. She herself is surprised by people's reaction to Virasat's success, "In the days since Virasat's release, people have started to take me more seriously. It's a very subtle change."

However subtle the current adulation, Batra is no stranger to it: She had her fill of flattery in those heady days she strode the ramp and gambolled beneath a waterfall to sell Liril soap. But now all that's behind her and she is bursting with her brand new career. She admits, "Now I have so much to talk about. Before my release... I was embarrassed to say anything lest it boomerang on me." she confesses and flashes those pearly whites again. You could almost feel those admen stir uneasily in their offices, wondering if they were missing something out there.

Director Basu Chatterjee confesses, "I saw Pooja in Virasat and she impressed me so much that I selected her immediately for my film Hum Tum."

Her role was unusual. In Bollywood, it is an unsaid tradition for newcomers to play the typical virgin beauty in their debut film. Batra's character flouted those rules inVirasat. The gamble paid off.

The girl accompanies her boyfriend Anil Kapoor to his native place and tries to adapt to the agrarian lifestyle. " We shot the film in one stretch, and I was able to grow with the character, she says, adding that she slipped gradually into the role of the "foreign-returned girl in love with Anilji, who goes to the village, and tries to be part of Anilji's family".

The debutante is completely enamoured of Tabu. "Tabu is my favourite actress. In fact, I used to imitate Tabu's actions in my scenes. I asked her if she wouldn't mind me watching her while she performed and she was very sweet about it and let me observe her." And Tabu? "Yeah, she was impressed with my performance," says Batra, letting loose another toothy smile.

Tabu, Batra's role model
That grin has often got the girl into big trouble on the ramp.

"They said the smile was too wide and non-photogenic. Before that they complained of me being too fair. At that point, every photographer would ask for your skin tone to be like Rachel Reuben's. They would keep asking me to keep my smile less wide and not show all my teeth. All this changed after Ash (Aishwarya) came along. Until then if you did not have dark skin you were not photogenic," she drips with sarcasm. The years of modelling are showing.

"My strong point in Virasat was Mr Priyadarshan (the director). He has converted all my negatives into my positives. He has made my smile and my height my biggest assets. On my first day on the shoot of Virasat Priyadarshan told me he wants me to be completely natural and smile as much as I want... I can proudly claim to be a Priyadarshan protege. I'm totally a director's artist." Just one film and...

But Jayesh Seth, one of Bombay's better-known fashion photographers, thinks Batra's mug encourages viewing. "What I love about her face is that she is able to mix innocence with sex appeal... Pooja's eyes and her neckline are her biggest assets."