The British-Indian model turned actress, Preeti Desai talks to Esquire about shedding the generic pin-up image
I loved the shoot!” she says enthusiastically. “A woman’s body is a wonderful thing. I’ve done bikini shoots before. I did a swimwear calendar for Kingfisher. But I’ve learnt from experience that you have to trust the people you are working with. Society can be a little judging and if you want to have a successful career in Mumbai, then you need to be careful with things like that. I’ve made mistakes in the past… but everything in life is a lesson.”
It is this matter-of-fact, practical attitude that makes Preeti all the more appealing. And it comes in handy when you are trying to stand out from the crowd and build a career for yourself in one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world.
The British-Indian model-turned-actress, shot to prominence when she became the first woman of colour to win Miss Great Britain in 2006. “I kept thinking, nah, they must have got the tallies wrong. It took a long time to sink in,” she says with endearing modesty.
But it was a well-deserved victory, and on the back of that success she traded her countryside UK family home for a one-bed apartment on the bustling streets of Mumbai, to pursue parallel careers in modelling and acting. “India is quite big on beauty pageants,” she says, relaxing after a hectic shoot and surreptitiously eyeing up the club sandwich that room service has just delivered. “When I won Miss GB, they picked up on the news and I got offered more acting and modelling work in Mumbai than the UK. I went from a nine-to five- job [managing a beauty salon in the North East of England] giving people manicures and pedicures one year, to getting pampered myself the next!”
The ensuing five years have seen Preeti become the face of Provogue (one of India’s largest retail brands), walk for the likes of Christopher Kane, grace the covers of Cosmopolitan, L’Officiel and Grazia, and feature in commercials for LG, Honda, Cadbury, Citibank and Nokia.
It is hard not to conclude from this roll call that Preeti must struggle with being typecast as a mere pin-up. However, once you experience her satirical, self-deprecating banter, it’s clear that she is miles away from the generic Bollywood bimbo tag. “I have quite a sarcastic sense of humour,” she admits playfully. “I’ve had to try and tone it down in Mumbai, as people have taken me seriously. I like that shock factor, though. I can be filthy with some of the things I say and my friends sometimes have to tell me off about it!”
Ask Preeti what else she misses about home, aside from the British sense of humour, and she bats her billowy eyelashes, tilts her head to the side and runs a hand through her thick, long hair.
“I miss my friends, my dog, the food…I definitely miss my stodgy British food. Sausage and mash, mince and dumplings, Sunday roast… I miss all that. You can go to fancy restaurants in expensive hotels, but it’s not the same. Sometimes you just want nice stodgy, pub grub.”
For the sake of her petite figure, it’s probably a good thing that Preeti has had to forgo the comfort food. But still, it’s another welcome example of her grounded demeanour, and it’s these revelations that throw you when you first meet Pretty (sorry Preeti; a predictable mistake).
This grounded approach to life also seems set to propel her to greater heights. She recently landed a role in Shor In The City, in which her steamy kissing scene with Sendhil Ramamurthy became synonymous with the movie upon its release last April.
But it is her relationship with actor Abhay Deol (of the Bollywood Deol dynasty) that seems to fascinate most of India – much to the dismay of Preeti, who has never discussed her relationship in the press prior to our interview. “Abhay and I are together but we are not engaged as the press keeps saying,” she replies when I ask her about the rumours circling the pair.
I assume, given her history of staying tight-lipped on the subject, that she will say no more, but then she surprises me by opening up further on the subject. “When you meet Abhay you realise how passionate he is,” she divulges. “Because he was a movie star I kind of pre-judged him, but when I got to know him I realised how down to earth he was. He shocked me and I liked the way he shocked me. It’s rare that people do that. He’s passionate and he’s a really intelligent person.”
We can’t vouch for what attracts Abhay Deol to Preeti (aside from the obvious physical), but here’s what we like. Throughout our interview, her confident exterior occasionally dims and she exposes undertones of vulnerability, which makes you all the more interested in unravelling the real Preeti – as well as feeling the distinct urge to put a protective arm around her. As she candidly goes on to admit once we’ve been talking a while, “I’ve come across a lot of people in my life that made me feel insecure. In school I was the quiet one who didn’t have many friends. I’ve seen the change from when people would ignore me, to now when these same people give me so much attention. Unfortunately this can even be the same for family. So today men come up to me and tell me I’m beautiful and I’m like, Yeah okay, whatever…”
I definitely miss my stodgy British food! Sausage and mash, mince and dumplings, Sunday roast… I miss all that!
Thankfully Preeti has channelled those experiences in a positive manner, which perhaps explains her no-nonsense attitude. “I don’t suffer fools gladly and I have a wall up when you first meet me.” Luckily she states this in a jovial tone, so we assume the defences are down today. Then she mockingly explains in her broad Northern timbre while clenching a perfect fist, “In this industry you come across a lot of fake or pretentious people, so you have to have your guard up; you can’t afford to be vulnerable.”
Speaking about other Bollywood beauties she is equally frank.“I’ve watched some actresses in films and thought how beautiful they seem, and then I’ve met them and they’ve got this really arsey personality. So now I look at people very differently. I can find the oddest looking people beautiful because their personality is something I can connect with. I’m like that with guys as well. I have a lot of beautiful men around me when I’m modelling, but I was once the person who was side-lined because of how I looked, so I try not to look at beauty in that way.”
And then Preeti snaps out of her contemplative mood and looks round at the palatial room we are sitting in.
“Dubai is amazing isn’t it?” she says in wonder, her big brown eyes twinkling as she speaks. “It’s mind boggling how the city has sprouted up in such a short period of time. You have everything you need here. I love how clean it is. Mumbai is not known for its cleanliness, so it’s nice to go to a public loo and it’s clean!”
In fact she says she likes it so much that she’d love to do some work over here. “I’ve seen City of Life and heard a lot of good things about the movie scene here and directors like Ali Mostafa and Masoud Amralla al Ali. I would love to work with them if the right opportunity came along.” Filmmakers in the city take note.
The clock is ticking and more appointments beckon for Preeti. But before we go our separate ways, she talks excitedly about the wide-open possibilities in front of her. “I’m brushing up on my Hindi and doing my dance classes, which I’m really enjoying. I’ve read a few really good scripts recently and fingers crossed, we will see what happens. I’d like to do more character-based roles. That’s what interests me about acting. I can be these people I wanted to be when I was younger and now I have the confidence to do it.”
We wish her well… how could you not?