She has the friendly, instantly intimate manner of someone who is used to being a household name, who knows she is like extended family for the common girl or boy on the street. As someone who has been on television and the big screen since she was an adolescent, Jennifer Winget is at ease with fame. It comes as naturally to her as the cup of coffee she craves – and demands – the moment she gets up every morning.
It feels like home.
An entire generation grew up watching her face every evening – first as a round-faced teen in the kids’ series Shaka Laka Boom Boom, then in India’s third longest running TV show Kasautii Zindagii Kay, and later the hugely popular TV romance Dill Mill Gayye.
In between she appeared in about 20 other serials and reality TV shows, and won a critics’ award by the Indian Television Academy for her role in Saraswatichandra.
But Hindi-speaking India has known her even before that; she made her debut as a child star in Bollywood blockbuster Raja Ko Rani Se Pyar Ho Gaya, and has appeared in four other Hindi films since.
“I grew up on TV,” says Jennifer. She’s just had her lunch break while on set shooting for her psycho-thriller Beyhadh, in which she plays a love-obsessed Maya.
Launched late last year on Sony Entertainment Television, the daily TV drama has a huge fan following with web views crossing millions every day.
Her intense role, in fact, won her a pay hike from Sony last month and catapulted Jennifer into the category of the highest paid TV serial actors. She’s also recently been announced the brand ambassador for international cosmetics brand Paese.
Born and raised in Mumbai to a Punjabi mother and Maharashtrian Christian father, Jennifer and her brother, who is older by five years, learnt to be independent early on. “We were a regular middle-class family,” says Jennifer.
Their mother worked in film production, and it was through her that Jennifer got her first offer to work as a child artiste.
“I used to accompany her to work during my summer holidays, and someone on the set asked mum if I could be one of the child stars on a film. That’s how it began,” she recalls, adding she didn’t really have to struggle for roles. Everything “just worked out when the timing was right”.
Her parents played an important role in Jennifer’s childhood and early career. In light of the recent controversy triggered by filmmaker Shoojit Sircar, who called for a ban on reality TV shows featuring children, Jennifer admits she has to agree.
“My childhood was balanced between career and curriculum, and my parents made sure that I was grounded in reality. I was fortunate not to miss a ‘regular’ childhood. Having said that, there’s a huge change in recent years, and there’s a lot of pressure to fit into the stereotype of ‘star kid’. Even adults can’t handle such pressure, let alone children. The parents play a very important role here,” says the 32-year-old, who has a huge social media following among the youth, with 3.3 million followers on Instagram alone.
Extroverted and down-to-earth, Jennifer is candid about her personal journey. Briefly married to fellow small-screen star Karan Singh Grover from 2012-14, their relationship was raked up again in early 2016 when Karan married Bollywood actor Bipasha Basu in a much publicised wedding.
Many speculated that it was Karan’s relationship with Bipasha that had led to his split with Jennifer. But she dealt with the media onslaught with poise. “My father always said, ‘Believe in the word grace. Whatever you choose to do, do it with grace’,” says Jennifer, whose responses to intrusive personal questions have been controlled, honest and, yes, graceful.
“Everyone faces betrayal, men and women. The only way to deal with it is to not take life so seriously. Accept it as part of the deal, and face it head on,” she says, adding that adversity is a great teacher. “Failures are good. Battles make you stronger.”
The challenges of living in the limelight almost 24×7 have not taken a toll on Jennifer. “This is all I know to do,” she shrugs.
“There are pros and cons in every profession and I am blessed to do something I love. I am very happy in this space. I don’t mind hard work – it’s fun for me. No other profession has so many perks – you get to play so many characters and experience so many fictional lives,” she says, referring to her nuanced lead role in Beyhadh, for which she’s had to don an unconventional appearance of late.
She first shared her new bald look on social media in mid-July, and it went viral as fans and media speculated whether it was for real or just part of her character. Later, she showed off her new short (real-life) haircut by b:blunt, the popular hair studio run by celebrity hairstylist Adhuna Akhtar.
“It inspires me to see passion in others. When I see people doing things they love, it makes me want to do better too,” says Jennifer, who loves unwinding with a light book at the end of the day. Her favourite book, she says, is Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, by Richard Bach, though she admits that, being a true Gemini, she often reads two or more books at a time.
She finds travel to be deeply motivating as well: “Wherever I go, it inspires me to be part of a bigger movement, to do something good for others.”
In an industry where appearances rule, Jennifer has found it to her advantage to lay her truth bare, however difficult that may have been. There is something refreshing about her earthy personality and peppy spirit.
Instead of settling for less, she took up challenging roles and has been fearless in taking risks. And instead of letting divorce embitter her, she retained her zest for life and a sense of gratitude for her blessings.
Jennifer’s huge popularity stands testament to the importance of being ‘genuine’. Easy lies the head that is unafraid to go bald.