Indulge exclusive! Meet Aditi Arya, Aishwarya Sushmita, Pooja Chopra and Zoya Afroz - the faces of Kingfisher Calendar 2020
Atul Kasbekar had his sights set on South Africa long before it officially became the designated home of universal beauty. It’s one of the reasons, he’s known as a visionary talent scout as much as a trailblazing lensman who can spotlight natural beauty even in the middle of vast wilderness. We get chatting with him and all four top models, who will be seen in the Kingfisher Calendar 2020...
As they say, good things happen to those who always make things happen. And, Atul Kasbekar is no stranger to turning good times into the best of times. A few days after we had the chance to exchange a few thoughts over email with Atul, we couldn’t help but turn our attention to the goings-on at the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, US.
As the drop-dead gorgeous Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa was crowned Miss Universe 2019, seeming like a mythical fairy queen of yore, back at Indulge, we all held our breath collectively, and in hushed tones said to each other, “It’s about time!” And, who better to share that sentiment with, than Atul — of celebrating dusky skin, and revelling in the sheer joy of a gorgeous bronzed look.
Going by the last couple of his calendar shoots, as featured in Indulge, there’s nobody better than Atul, when it comes to speaking about the unbridled power of natural beauty. This week, we keep up that spirit, by tagging along with Atul for the 18th edition of his annual, landmark photo shoots — for the highly coveted Kingfisher Calendar 2020.
Importantly, we got to chat with all four top models who feature in the calendar this year — Aishwarya Sushmita, Aditi Arya, Pooja Chopra and Zoya Afroz — each of them seeming like mythical queens themselves. Aditi is an actress, popular model and former Miss India World 2015; Aishwarya is a winner of the Kingfisher Calendar Hunt 2015, who will be making her second appearance in the calendar; Pooja is a film actress and model, a former Miss India and Miss World semi-finalist 2009; while Zoya was the 2013 Miss India International, and is the brand ambassador of some of the biggest lifestyle brands in India.
At the risk of stating the obvious — Atul’s choice for a destination, for this year’s shoots, was Cape Town, South Africa and regions around the Western Cape, featuring sand dunes, blue waters, and rock formations in the ocean for backdrops to his pictures.
Excited as we were about this interaction, we had to take a moment with the girls, and Atul as well, to say, ‘What better time than now, to celebrate natural beauty!’ For a note on the shoots, the models were styled by Allia Al Rufai, with make-up by Kapil Bhalla, and hair styling by Marianna Mukuchyan. Excerpts from the group interview (read the complete transcripts online):
Let’s begin with South Africa! How was it to be working and shaking a leg around Cape Town? Did you get to meet the locals, and what were some of their reactions about such a celebration of Indian beauty and style?
Atul Kasbekar: The Western coast of South Africa lends itself to some really varied locations, within a short one to two-hour drive. From the Atlantis sand dunes to the ocean, from waterfalls to stunning architecture, the area has it all. We used Cape Town as a base, and travelled out in different directions every day. The 2020 edition is a celebration of what this region of South Africa has to offer.
Aditi Arya: Cape Town took my breath away literally, with its fresh, crisp and cold wind that was a blessing — though that did make shooting with the bikinis harder. I love soaking in the sunshine, and doing so in a place this beautiful, felt incredibly empowering. It was the best of all combinations you look for in a vacation spot, with the hills and beaches, both in the view at the same time. We tried grasping as much as we could about the city from the locals. They were just as curious to know about India, and it was endearing to see our country being seen with such fascination and respect.
Aishwarya Sushmita: Mmm... Cape Town! What a beautiful city, with beautiful people. A nature lover’s dream with tall mountains, many miles of coastline, and plenty of biking, hiking and exploring — I made the most of all this beauty. The locals we interacted or worked with were truly appreciative of the Indian beauty and professionalism we all carried. It was so much fun.
Pooja Chopra: Cape Town is a resilient city — they fought back from an absolute dearth of water as a resource, to becoming a sustainable, welcoming tourist town. This left them humble, warm, grounded and grateful for each moment. So, the streets and cafés are lined with happy people. It’s definitely one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to.
Zoya Afroz: It was a lot of fun. Our shoots extended throughout the day, and the rest of our time, we focused on the next day’s shoot. I remember going to Table Mountain on a cloudy day. It was heavenly. The top was covered in fog when we reached, but as soon as the clouds cleared, the view was breath-taking. I was taken aback with the scenic views, and the beautiful people of South Africa. I hope to visit again soon!
Today, there is a greater Indian presence in global fashion and entertainment circles, and an increased sense of an Indian identity...
AK: I think what Indian designers are slowly coming into, is a strong sense of identity of who we are. Case in point, I have always been fascinated by Japan and its extremely cultural ethos. If you look at the work of say, Miyake and Yamamoto the roots of their work is clearly Japanese and yet can be worn on a world stage or street.
At some point, I think, Indian designers were trying to be someone else or were completely caught up in highly ethnic wear that honestly is workable only for ornate Indian functions. I find now, there are a lot of people creating work that is wearable worldwide and yet has an Indian identity.
As far as men’s fashion goes, for example, I see the bandhgala making waves on all kinds of gentlemen of many different nationalities!
How would you describe yourself as a cultural ambassador for Indian sensibilities of beauty, talent and culture?
PC: The notions of what constitutes culture have changed. The idea of Indianness has evolved and become more global — every family has embraced more empowered women. Here, I got to present the Indian woman who’s comfortable in her skin, displaying a perfect blend of the traditional and contemporary values that an Indian woman stands for.
AA: I've always wanted to be the girl that every girl could look up to regardless of her own professional aspirations or background. This is why I have always looked for variety and balance in my work choices and strived to eliminate stereotypes. India is identified with its grounded, nurturing and warm attitude with intelligence and fearlessness converted into opportunities across the world. That is what I reflect about my country in my personality.
For me, the Kingfisher calendar is another crucial and world-renowned opportunity that will contribute to my multidimensional vision of myself. I want to touch several milestones over the course of my life, and this one brings me a step closer towards them.
AS: I think Kingfisher plays a very important role for where I am today. This platform has pushed me to achieve great heights. Hence, I took my passion - acting - seriously. From the city of Bihar to Delhi to Mumbai, my journey has been beautiful with profound experiences, watching and working with professionals around, made me more confident about myself. I personally believe, it’s very important to be yourself first before you become anything else in life and that defines the beauty of my personality and for the person I am. I’ve always loved to be attached to my roots, where I come from and tried to keep the traditions and the beautiful culture of the places I’ve been/visited. I love working hard to get something and this attitude has taken me to places. Being a sports lover keeps me disciplined and my love for art keeps my creativity alive.
ZA: The calendar has been significant in setting trends over the years, often being ahead of its time, and defining the culture in the fields of fashion, beauty and modern art. Therefore, it always inherently has made a lasting impression in the minds of people, as and when the calendar is released. To be featured in the calendar is a measure of great pride and a highpoint of my career.
Take us back to your earliest days in modelling. Did you face any manner of discrimination, and how did you come to terms with it?
ZA: Any profession, especially modelling, comes with its set of challenges. Starting out was difficult, but it took a great deal of dedication, focus and discipline to allow me to reach here. Of course, there were a lot of old-school mindsets, expectedly, when the working professional is a woman. But when you dream to achieve great things in life, you need to stand up for your dreams and be a fighter. For me, this would not have been possible without the support of the people I love the most. That would also be my advice to people who are starting out… focus on your work, encourage positivity in people around you, focus on your goal, and never take no for an answer — especially, when it’s a matter of achieving your dreams.
PC: I didn’t have an easy childhood, and I’ve always been prepared to persevere for my share of work. I believe in (the teachings of) Rumi — ‘What you seek is seeking you’. I’ve sought good people, and fortunately, got them as well. It’s natural for youngsters to be bold — Generation Alpha has it in their upbringing — however, tempering it with good values is essential. My message: find your purpose, the rest will follow.
AS: Professionally, my career flipped immediately after winning the KF hunt, and I got through into the fashion industry. Luckily, I never faced any discrimination based on my skin colour, or any other mindset. Gradually, I made it to the top, with the help of my seniors, who’ve always been good to me. With immense support of family and friends, I eventually got my recognition, and since then, I never stopped. So, to the youth out there, I suggest, ‘be unstoppable’. Believe in your dreams, no matter how impossible they seem.
AA: My first modelling experience came after I had already won Miss India in 2015. I had also been working as an Analyst, and was enrolled with a well-known MBA school at that time, so that combination shielded me from a lot of possible discrimination and judgement that I've heard models face.
Generally, for every naysayer, you will find 10 well-wishers cheering for you, through your journey. If you are trying to break into any profession of your dreams, let the quality of your work speak for itself, and stay rooted with your values. Success makes things easier, but your roots give you inner strength to keep you standing through failures.
It is possible that a thousand failures lead to one single event of success, and that one event will overcompensate those thousand tries, so just keep working at it, as long as it doesn’t impact your health in unredeemable ways.
Atul, can you tell us who your favourites were, among the models this year?
AK: We have used four girls as a practice over the last few years, to give more images to each one of them. They have been chosen for what we believe is an X factor inherent to them. Pooja has never been in better shape. She is doing a shoot like this for the first time in her life, I believe. She brings her wealth of experience in front of the camera to the mix this year.
The baby of the group is Aditi, who was quite simply sensational. She reminds you of a very young Nargis Fakhri. Aishwarya is blessed with endless legs and perfect proportion — she is a natural swimsuit model. There is an immense amount of maturity from her debut, and she tears it up to make it to the cover.
Zoya’s is an inspirational story. Once a child actor, and by her own admission, an overweight girl, she trained hard to be worthy of calendar images. I personally tend to gravitate towards duskier women for the calendar. However, with Zoya, the diametric opposite has been an absolute revelation.
Tell us a little about the styling and overall sensibilities that you maintained through this year’s shoots.
AK: For me, in terms of a style statement, less has always been more. Hence, for years now, I have collaborated with Allia El Rufai and Kapil Bhalla to provide styling and make-up inputs. All three of us tend to gravitate towards a subtler, and more natural statement, relying primarily on the model’s beauty, the location, and lighting to enhance an image.
Where we have made a statement is with the mercurial talents of Marianna Mukuchyan, our hairstylist. She has a certain madness in her skills that elevates and layers every photo with her quirky work on hair.
We've been asking the models how they look at you as a mentor, and what they believe you can spot and see talent like nobody else. Would you like to share with us what you think only you can identify, and spotlight in the fashion world, unlike anybody else?
AK: Having spent time as a talent manager, I had an intrinsic ability to spot ‘The next big thing’. I really don't know how to explain it, but if you put me in a room with a dozen people, chances are I will spot one or two people with massive potential.
Very often, it’s not just about good looks, but more of an ‘X’ factor. There is something about an individual that says more from a camera then just their faces do.
Not in the contest of the Kingfisher Calendar, but here's an anecdote. Ranveer Singh walked in through the door, many years ago at my studio. He had no appointment and was carrying a portfolio of his images. I was free and chatted with him for 10-15 minutes, and took a look at his book.
It was evident to me right then that this boy will be a star. In fact, I offered to sign him on right away. In subsequent meetings, he met with the people at YR Films, and clearly, they saw the same star quality.
Are you much of a make-up person, when you’re not working?
AA: I could live all my life in just three sets of outfits, if I could. I avoid make-up as much as possible, but I still prefer it over having to elaborately dress up on an off day. I only dress up for work or once in a while when the mood hits, and I feel excessively sparkly or celebratory inside.
When your work requires other, more fashionably proficient people to dress you up most days, you somewhat lose interest in having to put in that effort yourself, unless you see fashion as your way of expression.
I prefer to express myself in other ways, and treat the act of dressing up as a necessary social requirement, but not something that I personally find an interest in, to be honest. By not letting
any fear of judgement come in the way of my personal needs, I stay comfortable and proud in my skin.
AS: I am not at all a make-up person, but since my work demands it, I’ve been dealing with it on almost a regular basis. So, the first and the foremost thing I do when I get back home after work, is to wash and clean my face, and put a good moisturiser to keep my skin hydrated.
But the only true way to be comfortable with who we truly are is self-acceptance; work on building self-worth; love your imperfections and flaws to feel comfortable with yourself in a real sense. On a personal note, I love being in pyjamas at home all day.
If I’m going out on casual days, it’s just comfortable clothing (pair of denims & loose T-shirt) with a messy bun — that’s my all-time favourite style.
PC: I usually prefer not wearing any make-up off work, and you can typically find me in lip tints and mascara. At home, pyjamas are my comfort clothing. When I step out, I like wearing skater dresses, denims and tees. I stay grounded, connected to family and friends — being comfortable in my own skin is a part of who I am.
ZA: I love being barefaced, and in my PJs, when I’m not working. I think, it’s also because my work requires me to doll-up every day, I don’t feel the need to do that on a regular non-working day.
Also, I love taking care of my skin, and giving it its much-required rest days. When you start taking good care of your skin, and it glows and shines from within, you will have a predilection for being without make-up!
Tell us about the fun times you guys had, on the shoots. How did you unwind, after hours?
AA: I was in a constant flow state throughout the shoot, which made me live each moment to its maximum fun potential! All four of us girls would get together till late night, talking and laughing endlessly. I had my goofiest fun moments with Aishwarya, the kind you could make a reality comedy show about! The crew was the highlight, because they are all such experts in their fields. It was very inspiring to work with Atul given how well-read, witty and humble he is.
AS: Spending time with friends is a great way to pass time. I enjoyed being able to share those good times with the lovely people around. Atul is brilliant, has a great sense of humour, and is a wonderful human being. We all used to work out together. Even though the days were hectic, we never gave up, and worked harder, to look our best.
As for days and nights to remember, there was always endless talk and gossip at the dinner table, as well as post-dinner sessions in the room. The days we weren’t shooting, either we were shopping or hiking, or exploring the beauty of the city, or tasting the wine at its best vineyards, or watching penguins on the beaches. What fun!
PC: The shoot was utmost fun. We shot at some of the most scenic and iconic places, having the fun and energetic crew that didn’t make work seem hectic or least bit tedious. All of us got along pretty well, shared meals and laughs together, and we often hung out in each other’s rooms.
Atul is an iconic name in the industry, and working with someone like him was a great learning experience - the angles, what works, what doesn't, he just knows it. Also, with my ‘girl next door charm’, I hadn't really visualised myself as a Kingfisher Calendar girl - it took a trained eye like Atul's to merge my image with the Kingfisher calendar vibe.
ZA: Firstly, this was my first visit to South Africa, and nothing compares to its immense beauty. When you’re shooting in a beautiful city like Cape Town with affectionate, ambitious and most importantly super fun girls and have Atul with his spectacular team by your side, what more could you ask for? This trip was work-cum-vacation, so a total win-win situation for all of us.
It was me and the other girls having a great time with one goal in mind - to make the most breath-taking kingfisher calendar till now. Honestly, there is no one more fun than Atul - he has a great sense of humour. He makes sure the shoot goes super smoothly, and that everyone on set is comfortable - a great working place for anyone, hands-down.
Post-shoot, we would go out for dinners. That would be a delight, exploring the cuisines, and indulging ourselves in the culture of South Africa.
A quick word on your personal diets, and fitness regimens, please?
AA: I am an early riser throughout the week, but that is a recent development. It was the best lifestyle shift I made in years, and it made me very productive. My fitness routine involves days of dance alternated with days of functional workouts. I switch dance with martial arts classes every few months. I’m a vegetarian now, with no other dietary restrictions, but I avoid adding sugar.
AS: According to me, it’s very important to take care of our mental health, along with physical well-being, as they are closely connected. Mental health plays a major role in our ability to maintain good physical health.
lllnesses such as depression and anxiety affect our ability to participate in healthy behaviour — for that, you must think and feel great about yourself, if you want to start your journey to have a better body. Exercise daily for at least an hour, eat right as 70 per cent of the weight is what you eat. So, be aware.
Even though I am really fond of Italian and Chinese, I mostly prefer eating home-cooked rice, dal and green veggies. I make sure I work out regularly, I either hit the gym or go for a swim or do yoga or boxing. On a regular basis,
I play badminton to keep myself fit. Apart from all this, just be sure to get good sleep and stay motivated. On Sundays, I usually like to spend time with my family or just ‘Netflix-ing’ on my couch. Ach!
PC: My diet is simple, healthy — vegetarian and gluten-free. I am a fitness freak, I keep experimenting with different forms of exercises, apart from the regular cardiovascular and weight training.
Trying my hand at aerial yoga currently helps me push my limits, and work on my core, flexibility and strength. I am an early riser, rather a person who goes to bed really early as per Mumbai standards. I enjoy homemade food, and I love desi khaana like rajma chawal, which is my favourite.
ZA: I believe in lifestyle and not diet, and the biggest change you can try is to ensure that you follow a healthy lifestyle, which is good for your overall well-being. I make sure I go for my workouts regularly to maintain some physical exercise for my body.
For an actor, every day is not the same. Some days, I wake up at 5 am, hit the gym, go to my shoot and work 12-14 hours, and on some days, I am in bed till late, eat an extravagant brunch and go out with friends. Balance is what I strive for, without either side reaching an extreme point.
Aditi, how does the Kingfisher Calendar shoot compare to winning the Miss India World title, like you did in 2015? Is this as exciting as any other beauty pageant out there?
AA: Winning the Miss India World Title changed my course, and initiated me into the world of media and entertainment. It was a year-long journey of lessons and training in a world that was entirely new to me. The experience of shooting the Kingfisher Calendar was quite different, primarily because I had become a lot more comfortable with the camera, and the fashion world by then.
Also, this wasn't a competition where a winner was to be decided. We were all collaborators working together as a team. The whole process was relaxed and focused, but fun, and we got enough time to celebrate and soak in the beauty of the city.
Aishwarya, you've become quite a regular with Kingfisher outings since the 2015 Calendar Hunt, and the 2016 Calendar. How has the experience been for the 2020 shoots? How does this compare with your previous shoots, and how would you say, you've been learning, growing and evolving in these last few years?
I am happy and grateful to have the opportunity to work with Kingfisher, which is a brand that is not only close to my heart, but I believe, close to the hearts of my people around, since I won the 2015 calendar hunt and that’s how it all started. I firmly believe, experience always wins.
On this note, I must say, my journey with Kingfisher from being a 2016 Calendar girl to being a part of the 2020 Calendar has been great, full of adventure and learnings with new challenges to confront. Working with best of the people and team from the industry itself helped me to grow and evolve as a person.
How does the Kingfisher Calendar shoot compare to being recognised on the Miss India and Miss World platforms, like you did in 2009? Is this really as exciting as any other beauty pageant out there?
PC: For me, I looked at it more like a 10-year challenge, where I wanted to challenge myself again to be able to pull off oomph and confidence, just like I did in 2009, at the Miss India pageant. Kingfisher Calendar is definitely one of the prestigious calendars that everyone looks forward to, and to be a part of it is definitely a matter of pride, which I am genuinely thankful for.
Zoya, the same question for you. How does the Kingfisher Calendar shoot compare to being recognised on the Miss India International platforms, like you did in 2013? Is this really as exciting as any other beauty pageant out there?
ZA: The Kingfisher Calendar has been an iconic and synonymous symbol for beauty in India. The excitement for it is on-par with the pageants I have been a part of in the past, and it’s a moment of great happiness for me.
Give us your personal thoughts about Atul as a true mentor, leader and perhaps even, a spiritual guide. How would you say, his style of personal mentoring stands above the rest? What do you think he sees that nobody else can?
AA: Atul's mentorship is unique, because he doesn't mince his words. In this unorganised world of fashion and entertainment, he has organised his learnings into lessons that are realistic and authentic. He also expects people to level up and deliver their best performance without excuses, no matter what job they hold at the set. His experience, energy and enterprise speaks for him, and that makes his leadership style very charismatic and motivating.
AS: The imagination of a photographer reaches beyond the sun and sky, and that’s the strength of Atul Kasbekar. His observation while picking a potential model and potential actor is just amazing beyond doubt. Atul has always been very supportive, I personally love and respect his work, and feel blessed, being chosen as a subject of his photography.
PC: He saw a Kingfisher girl in me, when I didn't. Other than that, his wit, his charm and panoramic awareness of locations was awe-inspiring. He lives life to the fullest, is exceedingly fit, and is able to visualise spectacular images.
The films he backs have been women-driven - being a happy family man, he respects women immensely. That makes him a good friend and mentor. He pushed my limits, and connected me deeper with my own talent.
ZA: As you mentioned, his style and direction does stand above and beyond everyone else. He truly is a mentor, and I can’t thank him enough for allowing me to work with him. I was waiting for this opportunity, and I can’t wait for the calendar to come out.
Who are your favourite international models, whom you idolise as individuals? And who are your top picks, when it comes to fashion designers and stylists (even jewelry designers) in India and overseas?
AA: I'm really fond of Diana Silvers for her spunk and humour. She seems to turn the simplest of frames into art with her presence and style. Outfits by Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla somehow always sparked joy in me, whenever I wore them or even tried them on. Having said that, designers all have their own unique, signature styles, and picking one designer would require an analysis similar to comparing apples to oranges.
AS: On an international platform, I really look up to Gisele Bundchen and Naomi Campbell. As women, they made their lives into the kind of adventure that they wanted it to be. They are fearless, they followed their dreams and reached where they always wanted to see themselves. They left a mark in the industry and brought a revolution to the fashion industry in their own ways without being afraid of anything, and became idols for youngsters like us.
When it comes to stylists, I have always loved working with Aallia Al Rufai, for the professionalism she carries, it always inspires me. Also, I look up to Anaita Shroff Adajania. I absolutely love her for her work and for the person she is.
My all-time favourite designers are Manish Malhotra, and Gaurav Gupta. I love wearing their clothes as they’re fun and edgy. Also, I would love to work for Sabyasachi in the coming days.
PC: My favourite models are Lisa Haydon and Kate Moss. My favourite international stylist will be Mimi Cuttrel, and Indian stylist is Alia al Rufai. Favourite designers are Karl Lagerfield, Gauri Nainika, Gavin Miguel and Gaurav Gupta.
ZA: I really like Falguni and Shane Peacock. Their sense of style resonates with mine. However, a well-fitted vibrant outfit, which compliments my body type, makes me smile, and feel good, no matter who the designer is.
How would you like to make a difference in the year 2020?
AA: I am looking forward to January for the Kingfisher Calendar release, and February, for my Punjabi film to release. I can already identify one special event or assignment for each month of the upcoming year, and rather than revealing it all right away, I want to wait for it to unfold by the month, packaged with more unexpected surprises.
When I was 18 years old, I chose my first corporate experience with Deloitte's sustainability and CSR consulting division, and I have since then followed it with hands-on social work in the field of education, through various other routes.
Each year, I set some time aside to contribute towards children's education, but this year, I want to have it more structured, and take it to an even bigger scale around mid-year. I have been blessed in many ways, and I genuinely want to share these blessings as wide as possible. I look forward to a bright, purposeful and productive year ahead.
AS: Life is so unpredictable, and we really don’t know what destiny has in store for us. It usually happens when we least expect it. We've all experienced this before.
Right now, I am just grateful for every moment, and the good things that have happened to me. Just hoping for the bigger, better and the best.
PC: ‘Well begun is half done’ - common saying. Hence, I’m smiling! :) And apart from that, I look forward to getting possession of my house that I invested in six years ago. I definitely will cherish being a part of good stories and impactful projects, learning and honing my craft and skill, travelling, bettering myself and gaining fulfilment.
ZA: I am really looking forward to the calendar coming out. Also, I am completing shoots for a film right now, which will be releasing in 2020. So, great things are in store ahead, the excitement for next year is immense, and I can’t wait for the year to begin!
By Jaideep Sen