HT Brunch Cover Story: Meet Anushka Sharma’s Cricketer No. 1 – brunch feature
What if we told you Virat Kohli wasn’t the first cricketer in Anushka Sharma’s life? Long before she met the Indian skipper, she hero-worshipped another: her older brother, Karnesh SSharma!
“I was in awe of him. To me, he was a star. He was into sports and one of the popular boys. But he would totally ignore me in school,” reveals Anushka.
“Guilty as charged! Well, she is almost four years younger than me and I was rather dismissive of her when we were kids!” admits Karnesh, who was a state-level cricketer, part of the Under-19 team. “Also, she would come to my class and call me ‘Kannu bhaiyya’ in front of my friends… I found it very embarrassing!”
“The four-year gap doesn’t seem much now, but while growing up, it was a lot!” chuckles Anushka. “We had different sets of friends. But since we were Army kids, always moving base and starting afresh every place we went to, we were always there for each other.”
Like all siblings, they also had huge fights, often demanding their mother’s intervention. “When we were shifting from Mhow (in Madhya Pradesh) to Bengaluru, we had packed everything. But since Wimbledon was on, we had rented a colour television to watch the match,” remembers Anushka. “One evening, when our parents had gone out, we got into a huge fight over the remote. Someone threw a comb or something at the other and it hit the television…”
Clockwise from top-left: (inset) Anushka, aged five-six months, in Roorkee; Anushka at seven-eight months, in Roorkie; (inset) On Karnesh’s birthday in Lekhapani, Assam, 1993; Anushka and Karnesh with their father, when he was promoted to the rank of Major in Roorkee, 1991; Anushka, aged five-six months, in Roorkee
“Well, you threw mom’s shoes at me and I ducked. The shoe hit the television and cracked it. In fact, the heel got stuck on the screen,” Karnesh is quick to provide the crucial details.
“Although we fought all the time, whenever there were prospects of serious repercussions, we would quickly become one team!” laughs Anushka.
“The four years age gap [between Karnesh and me] doesn’t seem much now, but while growing up, it was a lot!” —Anushka Sharma
“That day I covered up for her,” says Karnesh. “She would get away with a lot of things because she was the younger one and I would have to face the music on her behalf, but I really balanced it out by manipulating her for gifts and money. I would coax her to get what I wanted for her birthday as her gift. It was a nice barter, we managed,” he laughs.
He was also very much the ‘protective’ elder brother. “From grilling the boys who would try to get close to her to questioning her on her whereabouts, to snitching on her, I have done it all,” Karnesh admits. “In fact, I might have even roughed up a few boys whom I found getting too friendly with her.”
Karnesh, who used to be in the Merchant Navy, missed all of Anushka’s teens, because he left home to join the ship, when he was 16. “We really started bonding over letters and emails while he was on the ship,” recalls Anushka.
“We would write to each other about things we couldn’t share with our parents,” recalls Karnesh. “And those were handwritten letters. I would wait impatiently for the mail to arrive and read and reread the letters multiple times. Satellite phone calls were reserved only for special occasions. I called her from a satellite phone when she bagged the role in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008).”
Karnesh, who used to be in the Merchant Navy, missed all of Anushka’s teens, because he left home to join the ship, when he was 16. (Photo Imaging by Piyush Garg)
But it was when Anushka moved to Mumbai to pursue a career in modelling that their bond really became strong.
“I didn’t have any friends in Mumbai and whenever he had time off from the ship, we would be together,” says Anushka. “We would hang out at malls, watch movies, eat out, roam around, go for walks at Bandstand and have bhuttas, explore Mumbai.”
“We were two souls in a city full of strangers, it really gave us time to get to know each other properly,” adds Karnesh.
Today, these two are not only each other’s support systems but also business partners. Their company, Clean Slate Filmz, formed in 2013, is hailed as one of the most promising production houses in Bollywood.
Clockwise from top-left: The siblings leaving for school, Bengaluru, 1997; The siblings in Bengaluru, when Karnesh had fractured his hand, 1998; Anushka and Karnesh with their mother, Ashima, on Raksha Bandhan before leaving for Army School, Bengaluru, in 1998; Anushka, 4, and Karnesh, 8, in Assam; Anushka’s birthday celebrations, Bengaluru, 1996; Anushka, 6, and Karnesh, 10, at a wedding in Dehradun; Spending time with their dad Col Ajay Kumar Sharma in Bengaluru, 1998;( inset) Anushka’s birthday in Bengaluru, in 1996-1997, when she was 8 and Karnesh 12
When Anushka, a rank outsider with no godfathers in the industry, decided to turn producer at the age of 25, just five years after making her acting debut, and chose her brother, an ex-Merchant Navy officer, as her business partner, many were quick to write her off.
But for Anushka, it was a giant step in the right direction. “I was always looking for good content but there was a dearth of it. Where were the movies I want to be part of, the ones that would excite me as an actor?” Anushka recollects.
So, she decided to be the change she wanted to see. When she got the script of NH10 (2015) she knew it was a movie she not only wanted to act in, but also produce. “I knew if I backed the film, it would be made,” she says.
But it was not an impromptu decision. “We never really sat down and decided to start a production house, but Karnesh and I would often discuss movies and talk about the kind of films we would want to watch and wonder why those are not made in India,” says Anushka.
“I didn’t have any friends in Mumbai and whenever he [Karnesh] had time off from the ship, we would be together” —Anushka Sharma
“We always spoke about wanting to produce films. We were waiting for the right time and the right script. Then NH10 came along,” adds Karnesh, who after spending a decade in the Merchant Navy, was looking to do something different. He had already assisted his friend, director Maneesh Sharma, on Shuddh Desi Romance (2013)and was working as a unit production manager at YRF. But his experience in the business of movies was limited.
Clockwise from top-left: Anushka and Karnesh celebrating Raksha Bandhan, 2017; The duo during the shoot of Phillauri in Punjab, 2016; The siblings holidaying in London, 2011; Anushka clicking a selfie with her brother Karnesh, recently; The Sharmas celebrating Diwali in October 2017; On the first Diwali at their office, 2013
“It was crucial for me to have a certain level of comfort with my partner and it was important that our vision and values matched. So, Karnesh was the only person I could think of. As for the business aspect of it, you mostly learn on the job. We made mistakes and learnt from them,” says Anushka.
Of course, the siblings have creative differences, but they insist that it never affects their personal equation. “We were exposed to professional set-ups from a very early age. I started modelling at 15, he joined the Merchant Navy when he was 16. So, we know how to keep things professional,” says Anushka.
“We are eventually working towards the same goal,” adds Karnesh.
A failure of nepotism
Though they know exactly what kind of movies they want to make under the banner, their journeys as film lovers could not have been more different.
While Anushka really got into serious movie viewing after joining Bollywood, Karnesh had the more interesting journey. “Twenty years back, there was no high-speed Internet. But every ship would have a movie library. In a ship’s life of 15/20 years, different people bought their choice of movies, so these libraries were a treasure trove. Much later, I started reading up and watching interviews of filmmakers, and even took a few online courses to understand the craft of cinema,” reveals Karnesh.
The siblings in Panchvatika, 2012, when Karnesh was serving in the Merchant Navy
But watching movies doesn’t always help you understand movies better, says Anushka. “Our life experiences have helped us in this business. Being Army kids we are always open to new ideas and all that travelling really helped us understand local stories,” she says.
Her biggest advantage in Bollywood was that she was not from a film family, Anushka says. “Experience helps, but it also makes you look at things in a particular way from a set perspective. We, on the other hand, approached everything with a fresh mind. If we have taken the less travelled path, it is because we have followed our instincts,” Anushka reflects.
“We are both scared of horror films. As kids, we would have sleepless nights after watching episodes of Zee horror show!” —Karnesh SSharma
“We wanted to make intimate films, films that are about the journey of the characters and we wanted to focus on new talent with fresh ideas. Because universally the stories are more or less the same, it is all about how you say it,” adds Karnesh.
Today, after the back-to-back success of Paatal Lok and Bulbbul, it seems their approach has paid off. “But even when things don’t work the way you wanted, they give us learnings. The business of production is very tricky and even the most experienced can’t say that they have figured it out. You just learn from your mistakes,” Anushka points out.
But what is this obsession with horror films? “Our focus is not on the genre but on finding a unique perspective to tell stories. Pari and Bulbbul are not typical ‘horror films’. It is atmospheric horror,” says Anushka. “These films show the horrors of the society, the horrors of people and their actions.”
“Supernatural elements lend themselves beautifully to different kinds of stories and let you experiment with the narrative. Having said that, we are not trying to make films in one particular genre,” adds Karnesh. “In fact, it might sound ironic but we are both mighty scared of horror films. As kids, we would have sleepless nights after watching episodes of Zee Horror Show and Aahat!”
From HT Brunch, August 2, 2020
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