(This piece was first published in Business Standard.)
“I understood, subconsciously, what a newsworthy ‘sound bite’ was long before it was a thing, and provided those. Whatever it was, it worked. Readers lapped it all up and gave me more love than I knew what to do with,” writes model, actor and entrepreneur Milind Soman in his book Made in India: A Memoir (2020) published by Ebury Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House. He has co-written it with Roopa Pai, who is known for being an author of children’s literature. Their collaboration has produced a work of non-fiction that is endlessly entertaining.
The skills that Soman picked up during his early years in show business continue to serve him. A candid admission about his enrolment with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as a young boy has generated tremendous curiosity in this book, which might have otherwise gone unnoticed. It is named after pop star Alisha Chinai’s musical hit ‘Made in India’ (1995), which was accompanied by a music video featuring Soman in a sultry, bare-chested avatar. There are no earth-shattering revelations in the book — other than the fact that Soman finds the song “unbelievably tacky” — but the narrative will hold your interest. It is racy, irreverent and funny.
“My dad had been part of the RSS himself and was a proud Hindu. I didn’t see what there was to be proud about, but on the other hand, I didn’t see that there was much to complain about either. It just was. I don’t know what my shakha leaders felt about being Hindu — they didn’t really air their views on it to us…Even if they had, I would not have paid attention — it would have made them sound too much like my dad,” writes Soman, who has always been much closer to his mother. The most endearing aspects of this book are the ones where he talks about her.
Soman was born in Glasgow in the United Kingdom in 1965 but most of his childhood and adolescent years were spent in the Shivaji Park neighbourhood of Mumbai. His father, like many other parents in the area, thought that joining the junior cadres of the RSS was an excellent way to learn discipline, become physically fit, and imbibe values. He resisted at first because he was a loner; in retrospect, he cherishes the experience because he made some wonderful friends.
“When I read today all the subversive, communal propaganda the media attributes to RSS shakhas, I am frankly baffled. My memories of what happened at our shakha between 6 and 7 pm each weekday evening are completely different,” writes Soman. He recalls marching in khaki shorts, doing yoga, working out in a traditional outdoor gymnasium, playing games, and chanting Sanskrit verses that none of them knew the meanings of. He also reminisces about treks and overnight camping trips to hills near Mumbai, which he and his peers eagerly looked forward to.
After the book was published recently, Soman has been applauded by supporters of the RSS and criticized by people who despise the organization. Of course, there are shades of opinion that lie in between. Is it fair to hold him accountable for a decision made by his father? Why did he need to mention this aspect of his personal history? Should he be ‘cancelled’ for not condemning a political ideology that threatens religious minorities? Is he likely to contest elections next? These are some of the questions being asked, and Soman is probably thrilled about the attention.
Having been in the entertainment industry for close to three decades, Soman has learnt how to brand himself and make an impression. Much of this knowledge comes — as he shares in the book — from entering the world of fashion, television and films at a time when liberalization provided a major boost to the Indian economy. It created the world’s biggest middle class, unprecedented demand from consumers, and an aspirational culture that thrived on novelty. He got to work with some of the most famous designers when they were just starting out. He also found opportunities to work in London and Paris.
Soman is now 54, and still a heart-throb. He runs marathons for breast cancer awareness, acts in the occasional movie, and is co-owner of multiple businesses. What makes him tick? He likes to say that his “true identity” is that of a “shy, middle-class Marathi boy from Shivaji Park,” and that the glamorous image of ladykiller and gay icon is simply a manufactured one. However, he also enjoys contributing to the myth-making. Here is a modest gem: “To this day, when I enter a room, people stop what they’re doing to cop a look, either openly or covertly. Part of it could be because they know my face, but I like to think that a big part of it is simply the innate admiration we all feel for someone who occupies space in a ‘natural’ way.” Okay, then!