Mona Singh, 41, is having a moment quite like the one she had two decades ago. Or should I say Bulbul is having a Jassi moment? “The love and appreciation I’m receiving now seems even more than what Jassi received. Now there’s instant validation through social media,” says Singh, who plays hard-nosed accountant Bulbul Johari in the second season of Amazon Prime drama Made in Heaven (MIH). “The love for Bulbul has just blown out of proportion.” In the next six months, you’ll see a slew of releases featuring Singh, starting with Netflix ‘survival drama’ Kaala Paani, shot in the Andamans.
As Jassi or Jasmeet Walia, star of 2003’s Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahi, Singh played television’s most loved Plain Jane. Her sometimes furrowed, sometimes beaming visage, with eyes shining through the bay windows of her thick black glasses, saw straight into the hearts of young women who felt that, like Jassi, they too could make over their lives. Though it didn’t stray too far from traditional family values, unlike many other TV series of its time, it was the story of a single woman set in the workplace.
The show ran for three years during which time Singh swept television awards. While there may not have been any social media in 2003, the postal department produced a first day cover (a postage stamp on a limited edition envelope or postcard, franked on the day of issue) featuring Jassi and Mumbai-based publishing house, Popular Prakashan, released Jassi’s 7 Steps to Success. Think of it as a precursor to Exam Warriors.
Joking with judges
Singh became TV royalty. She followed up Jassi by winning three reality shows in rapid succession: Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa (2006), Ek Khiladi Ek Haseena (2008) and Arre Deewano Mujhe Pehchano (2009). She has starred in more TV series than you and I have seen; hosted many reality shows, joking with judges and contestants and deviating from the more formal hosting model followed previously; starred in innumerable advertisements; and even experimented with theatre. Twenty years later, she continues to reinvent herself rapidly and successfully.
Now, like her contemporaries in their 40s, she is inevitably someone’s mother. Coincidentally, most of her on-screen offspring are male and, frankly, Singh is the early feminist influence every Indian man needs. She’s usually an amazing mom, whether as Aamir Khan’s strong single mother in Laal Singh Chaddha or the mother of the kid who makes her instant noodles during his exam in the Maggi commercial or MIH’s Bulbul who constantly pushes her sons to do better by young women (Mr. Johari is not so bad himself).
She’s a blast of fresh air in real life too. Whether it’s spotlighting the shadow pandemic of domestic violence during COVID-19, talking openly about freezing her eggs (she’s a dog mother to Naila, a beagle, and Idly, a Shih Tzu), starring in an ad about infertility, or using her Instagram account to promote a non-profit that’s feeding the hungry, Singh’s voice is clear and progressive.
These days she discusses how to live a better life on your own terms with her Meri Marzi (my choice) community on COTO (from come together), a new social community platform only for women. “We are constantly told what to do and what not to do, who to marry, what job to choose. It’s high time we realise this is our life, and it doesn’t make us bad if we stand up for ourselves,” she says. Singh made all these key decisions of work and love for herself though she recognises most Indian women don’t share this privilege.
Take a compliment
When she told her parents that she wanted to be an actor, her father, an engineer in the Bombay Sappers regiment of the Indian army (also a war veteran who stepped on a mine and lost his left foot at the age of 24) and her mother, a teacher and interior designer, were both supportive. She married a man of her choice, Shyam Rajagopalan, a South Indian who grew up in the North and is as Punjabi as her. “He calls me his Julia Roberts. Now I finally accept it graciously, as Indians we are not taught to take compliments,” says Singh.
Speaking up is something she learned early. Her parents always included their daughters in any decision making and her mother who taught them that when faced with harassment to “scream, shout, do whatever you can but don’t go quiet, helpless and retreat.” Singh recalls how she was once followed by a man on a bicycle as she was walking back from school. “I could sense something was not right and he squeezed my bum as he came up to me. I kicked his bicycle and screamed. People beat the shit out of that guy. I remember coming back home and narrating the whole episode to mum,” she says. “That’s the strength I get from her.”
These days Singh and Rajagopalan are writing a thriller together. I’m guessing TV series scriptwriter will be her next reinvention.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and the co-founder of India Love Project on Instagram.