It’s well past lunch and Khushbu has just returned home from a busy election meeting at the TN Congress HQ at Satyamurthy Bhavan in Chennai. She bursts into her living room with a flurry of apologies for the delay: she had to pick her kids up from school on her way back, and they insisted on visiting KFC. KFC is a good enough reason for getting delayed for any meeting.
She gets on with the interview straightaway, but her 16-year old daughter, Avantika, interrupts. She wants her mom’s phone. The 3G on Avantika’s phone has been blocked, “Her 10th board exams are here, so we have banned her from phone internet,” Khushbu says, even as she obliges her daughter’s request. But before she hands it over, she jokingly turns around and changes the password on the phone, as Avantika tries hard to spot the password, “Kids these days are smart,” she says, with a wide grin.
A selfie taken by Khusbu with her family
This playful mother of two, who has tattooed the names of her kids Avantika and Anandita on her right forearm, is now one of the most popular faces of the TN Congress. She began her journey as a child actor in Bollywood, weathered through an abusive relationship with her father, a painful break-up, several character assassinations and political controversies, and hopes to become an important part of Tamil Nadu’s political future.
Khushbu was born Nakhat Khan on September 29, 1970, to Muslim middle-class parents in Versova in Mumbai, and is the fourth and only girl child of the family. Most of her childhood, however, was on Veera Desai Road in Andheri. “We used to pay 10 paise to the neighbours to watch Chitrahaar,” she says.
The family had no direct links to the world of cinema. “I don’t quite remember how, but I had easy access to Hema Malini. I think one of my brothers and Hema’s nephew were friends, so I used to spend a lot of time at their house in Juhu,” and it was there that she was introduced to the star-studded world of cinema. Hotshots like Ravi Chopra, Jitendra and Dharmendra were frequent visitors, and she still remembers being the dreamy-eyed girl at the Dream Girl’s home.
Young Khushbu in Mumbai
“It was a sprawling bungalow with a double-height ceiling, and there were awards and shields stacked up to the top. I used to climb the spiral staircase in front of the wall to count all the awards, but by the time I got to the second floor, I would forget the count. And I would start all over again,” she reminisces. Sitting on Hema Malini’s lap, little Nakhat discovered more than just the idly and dosa.
One day, Jaya Chakravarthy, Hema’s mother, asked the question which would change Nakhat’s life, “Would you like to act in a movie?” Eight-year old Nakhat said yes, but had one demand — she wanted an ice cream, “I was very fond of ice creams."
And that’s how Nakhat landed her first film role, as the little girl singing Teri Hai Zameen in the 1978 Hindi blockbuster The Burning Train.
On the sets of her first film, Nakhat became Khushbu. “Everyone would ask me the meaning of my name. It’s an Urdu name which means fragrance, or Khushbu in Hindi. So I became Khushbu,” she says. To her family, however, she remains Nakhat.
The Father Who Must Not Be Named
After her cameo singing Teri Hai Zameen, zameen and asmaan changed for the child actress. She was offered several roles, and her next would be in Naseeb, as a very young Reena Roy. Films like Dard Ka Rishta would follow, and at the age of 14, she started playing an adult in films like Jaanu, Tan Badan and Meri Jung. Her mom helped her along and her dad, she says, was just happy with the money that was coming along.
Screengrab from Khushbu's cameo in The Burning Train
What she remembers most from those years is the verbal, physical and mental abuse she and her mother suffered at her father’s hands. While she reveals her mother’s name, Najma Khan, she does not want to utter or even remember her father’s name. “I don’t want to tell you his name. I have good memories with my mother, not with him,” she says.
Khushbu says she has not seen him in 30 years. “I have seen him beating up my mom, I have seen him beating up my brothers. He was very physically violent. For him money was the most important thing,” she says, “He used to whack me on the sets in front of everyone.”
As she grew older, she began to understand money, and to raise questions about where all the money she earned was going. Her father was furious. He uprooted her and her mother from Mumbai and brought them to Chennai. Khushbu was now 16, and was doing her first Telugu film. He had already cost her a couple of good roles and an important launch with Boney Kapoor in Bollywood, and Khushbu was angry about it.
He “dumped” them at a rented house at 6th Main Road in RA Puram, and left. On his way back to Mumbai, he cleared out all her bank accounts.
The 16-year-old then took it upon herself to take care of the family. It wasn’t easy, but she had bagged a role in a Telugu film Kaliyuga Pandavalu. Telugu actor Venki had spotted her in Meri Jung and wanted her to do a movie with him. Her producers in the Telugu film industry, like K Raghavendra Rao, protected her from the father. “When he went to them asking for money, they lied to him that all my dues were cleared, and gave the money directly to me,” she says. And this angered her father. When he realized that she was moving on with her life without him, things came to a head.
Khusbhu with Telugu actor Venki in her early career
“He came to our home in Chennai. I had just bought a new Maruti van, my first car. He broke the windshield in anger. Just two days after I bought it,” she says, “He told me that I will come begging him to take me back. I told him that I would kill everyone in the family and myself, but I won’t go back to him.”
Is he alive?
“I hope he isn’t.”
Temple worship and a troubled relationship
Moving to Chennai was the turning point of her career. By the end of 1987, Khushbu had done close to 12 movies in Telugu and Kannada, and had bagged her first role in Tamil in the movie Dharmattin Thaliavan, thanks to the recommendation of actor and Sivaji Ganeshan’s son Prabhu.
Khushbu then waited a year for the right opportunity, and it came when a make-up artist called Mani suggested that she go meet director Fazil for a role. At the time, Fazil was working towards Varsham 16, and had cast Nirosha and Karthik in the lead, since the pair had previously seen success on-screen. But after auditioning Khushbu, he decided to replace Nirosha with Khushbu. “And it had to be kept complete secret. They told me not to tell anyone, and it was so difficult for me because it was Karthik and Fazil after all!”
Varsham 16 set the ball rolling. Then she did films like Nadigan and Kizhaku Vasal, but the movie which catapulted her to the top was the 1991 runaway hit Chinna Thambi with Prabhu. “We were celebrating the success of the movie in each district. When I stepped out of the airport, there were hundreds of fans holding huge posters of me. They were screaming my name out, and I was so scared I ran back into the airport at first. That’s when I first realized how big I had become.”
Khushbu with Prabhu, Venki and Satyaraj at a recent reunion
In the months to come, bus loads of fans would turn up at her new house in Boat Club in Chennai. Temples would be built for her, and she would receive letters from fans written in blood. She would go on to act with Kamal and Rajini, for directors like Bharatiraja and Balachander. But even as she was relishing her professional success, she was headed towards a train-wreck in her personal life. She was in love with a married man.
Her relationship with Prabhu was widely reported, and began early in her career. The first time she met him, she was still doing Telugu and Kannada movies. She was once passing through Dr. Nair Road in Chennai with her make-up man, and as they were driving past the office of Devar Films, her make-up man spotted Prabhu, and insisted that she meet him. The meeting would help her land a role, but also lead her down the path of love.
She started seeing Prabhu in 1989, and by 1991 she was blindly in love with him. But the relationship did not go down well with the family, and in 1993, it was on the front page of a popular Tamil daily. She lost 5 film projects that day, and the industry came down hard on her. For the sake of respect and dignity, she broke off the relationship.
But she does not want to talk about it today. “What happened 20 years ago is over, done. There is no point talking about it. We have grown up, and all our families have respect for each other now. We are cordial with each other, so I want to let bygones be bygones. I don’t want to hurt anyone.” In fact, Prabhu and her husband Sundar are working together now on film projects.
Those were tense moments in her life, when no one in the industry stood by her, with some exceptions like director K Balachander and actor Karthik. It was her close circle of friends who kept her going.
Khushbu with her friends Brinda, Anu Parthasarathy and Subbu
“Thankfully I had some wonderful friends,” she says, referring to Choreographer Brinda, Anu Parthasarathy, Kala master, Sujatha Vijaykumar and Subbu, "And Karthik would barge into my house to make sure I was OK, he was very helpful then."
And then there was her rock-solid, one-woman support system — Ubin Fernandez.
Falling for Sundar, thanks to Ubin
A “carefree” Goan woman and one of the first camera-women in the country, Ubin Fernandez quit the camera after a surgery and took to helping filmstars with hairdressing. In 1984 — when Khusbhu was just 14 years old — Ubin walked into their Mumbai home to meet Khushbu’s mother and work with them. “While she was talking to my mom, I went to the kitchen, made some tea and gave it to her. She told me later that she fell in love with me on the first day, and I was with her till her last day in 2012,” Khushbu says, looking at a silver-framed picture of Ubin in her living room.
For Khushbu, Ubin was more than just a hairdresser, she was her pillar of support. “She would pamper me, scream at me and even slap me if I was wrong. But she kept me going through tough times,” says Khushbu. More importantly, it was due to her encouragement that she would fall in love with and marry actor-director Sundar.
By the year 1995, Khushbu’s career was back on track. Her comeback was the song Otha Rooba Thaaren in Kasthuri Raja’s Naatupura Paatu. “I don’t know what people liked about me in that movie. I was fat, ugly, and I had broken my foot during the shoot, so I could hardly dance,” she says laughing off the two-decade-old mystery, adding that it was after that movie that she started working with a vengeance, and on her own terms.
And along with her career, her personal life was in for another surprise. On the sets of Murai Maaman, Sundar’s directorial debut, she met her future husband. “He was not very happy with me in the movie. He narrated the script very half-heartedly. We had date issues and he even wanted me fired!” she says.
“We were shooting in Pollachi, and he was much thinner then. His tall lanky figure walked past me and Ubin aunty told me I should settle for a guy like him. I just laughed it off. But I suspect aunty and Sundar had some deal then.”
The run-up to Sundar’s proposal was cinematic, to say the least. One day, someone from the crowd spoke derisively about Khushbu. Sundar chased him through the streets of Pollachi and beat him up. Another day, they went to Coimbatore to watch a movie. When the crowd realized she was in the movie theatre, she was mobbed. Sundar took her hand and led her out to safety.
Khushbu with Sundar in 1995
Khushbu was beginning to like him. “He was bubbling with energy,” she remembers. She was still 25, and still reeling from a painful relationship. She was independent and taking work more seriously. But one day, pretending to narrate a movie script, Sundar came to meet her during the shoot, and asked, “If you and I have a kid, who would it look like?”
“I was taken aback,” Khushbu says, “and I just asked him if he was proposing to me.”
He dropped down on his knees, and said, “Imagine I have a flower in my hand,” and popped the question, “Will you marry me?”
“I don’t know what happened. I just said yes,” Khushbu says, with a child-like blush on her face.
Unbelievable isn’t it? “Yes it is, but that’s how it happened.”
It wasn’t a done deal yet, though, “He had to meet my friends. I told him that it was not going to happen if my friends were not happy.” But they hit it off the first time they met. Her mother was doubtful of Sundar, but over the years, the trust grew. In 2000, after 5 years of dating and living-in, they got married.
Politics of morality creates a politician
In 2005, during a casual interview to Peer Mohammed of India Today Tamil, Khushbu talked about pre-marital sex and the need for women to be careful. Her casual remarks were twisted out of context by political parties looking for an issue which would bring them popularity. They accused her of having insulted Tamil women.
There were massive protests against her, 22 criminal cases were filed in different places in Tamil Nadu and a concerted campaign to malign her image was waged. She even issued a clarification, but the attacks continued.
“I was sitting in Cascade restaurant and having lunch with my kid after school, and Sundar called me to come back home immediately. He said there was a non-bailable warrant issued against me,” she says. It was issued on a Friday afternoon, so that she could not get a reprieve over the weekend. If she was arrested now, she would have to spend two days in jail.
So she went underground till she could get an anticipatory bail. But her bail application was not taken up. “I was not traumatised, but it was difficult. I had young kids and I wasn’t able to see them. My phones were tapped, the police and media were outside my home, and outside my friends’ home,” she says.
Then one day, Kamal Haasan called her. “He was in the US, and he traced where I was and called me. He asked if I had killed someone, I said no. He asked if I thought I was guilty, I said no. He asked if I was scared, I said no. ‘Then surrender’, he said. I talked to Sundar about it, and I decided to surrender.”
She appeared before the Mettur court the next evening, but the court would not take up her case. The next morning when she was to appear in court, a massive protest was orchestrated.
“These political parties paid women to come there and protest, national TV channels reported on that. They did not even know what they were there for.” There were reports that eggs and tomatoes were thrown at her in court, it was a media spectacle.
The legal battles carried on for years, but in 2010, the SC rapped the knuckles of all the petitioners in 22 criminal cases, dismissing all of them. Khushbu came out not only victorious, but also with conviction. As far back as 2007, she was wondering if it was a good idea to jump into politics.
Khushbu at the Congress HQ at Akbar Road, Delhi
“The few women who were brought to protest forcefully were not the voice of seven crore people of Tamil Nadu,” she says, as her voice changes to one of a politician. After the Supreme Court cleared her, she talked to Sundar about the decision to take to politics. He gave her his full support, and later that year, she joined the DMK. At that point, she had been hosting a popular show Jackpot on Jaya TV, the mouthpiece of the AIADMK, and was widely believed to be a Jayalalithaa supporter. When she joined the DMK, she took everyone by surprise.
In 2014, however, amid speculation of differences with MK Stalin and the DMK’s first family, she quit the DMK. Cartoons and gossip columns casting aspersions on her links with DMK leaders followed. She joined the Congress later in 2014 at the Akbar Road headquarters in Delhi, and is now the national spokesperson of the party. But even now, the tasteless insinuations about her and DMK leaders continue to surface.
“I do not get angry. I pity those who have to make up stuff about me. If they spend so much effort on maligning me, that means I am worth it. And if they are getting their two minutes of fame in doing so, then let them.”