I had a chance to meet Gul Panag last month. This former Ms.India-turned-Bollywood actress is also one of the better known faces of Twitter celebritydom in India. In person, she turned out to be a no-nonsense, intelligent and fun person to talk to. Over coffee we discussed her varied career choices, her attitude to life, Twitter and life, in general. Some of the excerpts from my conversation with her, appear in a Social Samosa interview here:
Conversation With Gul Panag on Social Media
Meeting Gul Panag is very different from any interview or professional meeting I’ve ever had. How does one treat a Bollywood actress and a former Miss India? Will there be an entourage of assistants, stylists and agents? But wait, this is also meeting someone I’ve conversed with on Twitter before. In that case, is it okay to carry over the informality of the medium into an in-face conversation too? Then again, this is work. It’s an interview, which means there’s a set of questions that must be asked and answered and presented to an audience agog with interest.
Gul sweeps all that aside when she breezes into the coffeeshop, on the dot of 2.30 as she suggested. She does a quick scan around the room before she calls out a bright hello, that makes a couple of other tables smile back too. She drives the conversation by explaining the essence of what makes her, her:
“I think I’m able to be the way that I am because I’ve never worked for money. It’s fortunate that I’m able to do that. If my paycheck falls by 100%, I’ll still be happy. I’m conditioned to thinking I have enough. I’ve never felt like I lacked.
Of course, every now and then, when one makes an acquisition, it just throws one off-gear for a bit. It’s not like, I’m in that mental space of “Oh, I have enough!” when it comes to paying massive EMIs. That’s a very temporary phase. It’s a very momentary, a day or two of “Oh no, this is how much this is going to cost me”. But I recover from that, and feel like I have so much.
For me, the power to choose comes from not having any dependency on any one particular aspect. And yet they all tie in together. I wouldn’t be a celebrity writer if I wasn’t a film star. I wouldn’t be given the kind of value I get given on Twitter, if I wasn’t a film star. They’re all interconnected and yet at some level, mutually exclusive. ”
She traces her journey into the social space…
Gul is not only one of the early celebrity adopters of Twitter but continues to be one of the most versatile and efficient users of the medium in India.
“I had been blogging since 2007. My blog on my own website allows me to say my bit. Then I was starting the filming of ‘Turning 30’ in late 2009. My web managers, this pretty interesting bunch called Web-o-nautics, said to me “Why don’t you try Twitter?”. I said, “What is Twitter?” So, they opened an account for me. I didn’t have an app at that time for Twitter. I used to use it via the web on the phone. It wasn’t even the mobile site of ‘m.twitter.com’, it was the actual site!
I remember my first tweet was in February or March 2009, something to the effect that ‘XYZ music is great’. I was using it more like a Facebook status update. And then I got these people saying “Oh, sounds nice”. And I was like, “What is this? Why are they putting this up? Where are they reading all this?” Or I’d say I was cooking today and someone asked, “What are you cooking today?” and I was like “What is this? What is going on?” For almost two weeks, I had no idea that it’s a two-way game! I was using it to broadcast.
Five days later, Webonautics said “You have 500 followers.” I thought, “Really, how does that work?” And I’m talking, of the days when Twitter was a very small community, where papers would write if you hit 10,000 followers.”
Of course, the initial wonderment gave way to a realization of what all the medium could do.
How the medium has shaped her life thereafter…
“Let’s look at circa 2008. There was someone called Gul who was an alternative actor. But today, I go somewhere and a top A-list actor comes up and says, “My day isn’t complete unless I see what you’re writing on Twitter”. That guy probably didn’t know that I existed. Or he knew but I wasn’t part of his world, the way I am now.
I’m just who I am. I am very conscious of the power I have on Twitter. And I don’t abuse it. But at the same time, I don’t let that come in the way of who I am. So I’m extremely happy to Congress bash, if I can justify why I’m doing it, to myself. I like to think Twitter is really the essence of who I am. There’s no other medium, no other platform that allows you to do that. It’s because of this, and what I’m able to put out there, that the person that I am is found to be interesting. I don’t try to create a persona that doesn’t exist. I’m just putting what I think up there. And it turns out that, that is really interesting. ”
So what sets Gul apart?
Every celebrity worth their salt is on Twitter today. What sets her apart? Gul thinks it has to do with how she is thinking of who is receiving her tweets. How she understands them reflects in what she says to her audience.
“Most of my Twitter community are professionals, who in turn, have incredible influence in their own circles. There are only a few people who ask me “Please reply to me. Please say a hi”. But for 80% of my industry, it’s the reverse. I don’t think the intelligentsia on Twitter would be caught dead following Bollywood on Twitter. People who’re really smart, wouldn’t follow someone on Twitter, if they’re not interesting.
It was a conscious decision to put bits of my personality out there. Demystification doesn’t detract from popularity. I’ve removed the barrier, personally. I don’t only tweet when I have something to speak about myself. I do that every now and then but everybody does that! I’m just a regular person. My whole purpose on Twitter is to absorb and learn and find like-minded people who give you heads-up on various things. Also interact and be ready to defend it.
I don’t think Twitter is about putting out a controversial opinion and then sitting back. If you’ve put it out there, if you’ve shot off your mouth, you have to have what it takes to defend your point of view. So many times I’ve said something and it’s come up in the face of incredible opposition. But the point is this is what I think and if you don’t like it, you’re free to disagree.
My husband and I are entrepreneurs as well. Whatever we’ve designed, we’re aviation entrepreneurs (we have an aviation company and we also work with hobby fliers. I’m a hobby flier too) & adventure entrepreneurs (we have adventure properties, where we design adventure stuff for people). These are meant to target people like us. I’m not designing something or doing something for somebody I can’t relate to. When I do something, I’m looking at somebody of my socioeconomic group and that’s a very broad group, (because remember I think, I don’t lack for anything in my mind? So I’ve been thinking that for the last 18 years even when my bank balance was only 5000 bucks.) So in my head, my socioeconomic group is not my socioeconomic group per se but much bigger.
I do not do stuff for girls who only think about when to get their nails done and when to hit the sale. That’s not my target audience. Everything we do, is specifically targeted at people like me. There are a lot of people like me. Even though they’re a niche community, but because our population is so large, there are enough of people out there.”
And if she stands apart as a celebrity, she sets her own rules as a tweeter too.
“Do you know how much money I’ve NOT made on Twitter? That’s from people asking me to write about stuff? I’ve been offered upto 5 lakhs a tweet. I said I’m not going to plug. It’s as simple as that. Find more interesting ways to get me involved and I’ll do it. But if you think I’m going to put my credibility at stake… I remember this guy saying, “You only have some 200,000 followers, I’ll go to somebody with more.” I said “Go, see how much net influence that’ll actually generate.” I’m not The Times of India, clearly. The point is even if you want to hire a supertweeter, who has a million-plus followers, have you broken down their following? If they’re just some random kids who get their highs from them, that’s not going to help your cause.
When I write something, I’m writing for me. It’s for another Gul out there, who is as smart as I think I am. I do know that people like me don’t like plugs. I don’t want my intelligence to be insulted by being told what to do. I want to make up my own mind. At the same time I’m very receptive, to finding out what’s going on. So if I don’t want to be plugged at, that’s the way I consider myself.
I realize that there are very few people in Tinseltown who have so many interests. And when they need a spokesperson, when they need somebody, they would rather hire (and it’s a per day) somebody who can speak on the subject, with authority, than have a chick that just comes and stands. So I figured that out as well. Very clearly, there’s freedom. I mean if someone wants me to turn up at a car launch and be like a bimbo, there’s X amount of price to it. If you want me to speak about it, there’s a value attached because I know I can do it. I use Twitter because I want to create interest.
On being the Twitter face of Wills Fashion Week
“I told them, just like journalists cover an event, I am covering this event for you. Like a journalist is paid by their paper, you’re paying me. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to write flattering things about you. I’ll write whatever I think and that’s what I did.”
This is how she deals with difficult conversations…
When one spends so much time on social conversations, one is likely to come up against their ugly side. As a woman and as a celebrity, Gul is bound to have attracted her fair share of difficult people and conversations. How does she deal with them?
“You have to be very clear about who you are and what you stand for. I’ve grown a lot on Twitter, over the last 3 years. I used to get sucked into the vortex of negativity. Once I’d get involved in a conversation, it would go on and on and on and I’d find myself up until 2 o’clock continuing the thread. Now I don’t.
I was talking to @mystiquewanderr about how India needs to be more nosy about the personal lives of politicians. He said, “No, how can you judge them on their morals?” The conversation went that today’s laws are preceded by moral laws. It is wrong to cheat on your wife. There is a law that supports this point. 90% of laws that exist today are backed by morality. So the fine line between law and morals is very narrow. Somebody said, “Bollywood also has loose morals.” I replied that, “Bollywood isn’t somebody you elect into public office. They’re not handling public money. They’re not representing thousands of people.” Then he sent me a DM saying “This conversation has gone somewhere else, I don’t want to be a part of it. I’m out of it.” I said, “So am I.”
There’s this guy on Twitter, big guy, and he started off as a really charged, exciting person on Twitter. But lately I’ve found that, he has only been engaging with his detractors. That’s not the idea behind Twitter although we all get sucked into that. It’s very easy because the praise is coming so much. You’re taking on all the people that aren’t saying nice things about you, or are challenging your point of view. You have to decide how much time you have to give to people who are worth it and how much you’re not.”
What she loves about the medium?
But mostly, Gul seems to love the medium and all that it offers. It’s all about great conversations, unusual threads of thought and intriguing people for her.
“I like engaging. I go looking for interesting people, interesting things. There’s a restaurant called Wood Fired Oven, which has beer tastings. I’m a big fan of beer. I would never have heard about it if not on Twitter, because I wouldn’t be invited to places like this.
I don’t go on social media to try and paint a different picture of who I am. I’m here because it’s a great medium to gather information. I don’t read the paper in the morning. But on my Twitter timeline, if there are topics that interest me, then I open the paper and look for it. Read up further on it.
I began following this one person 3 years ago. I think he’d just gone for his dad’s funeral to Alapi. He was giving this entire bit-by-bit account of how he missed the bus from Alapi, how he caught the plane from Cochin.” I just thought, I know exactly what he’s going through. It’s fascinating.
I prefer Twitter over Facebook because Facebook has just too many things going on at any point of time. On Twitter, you’re either dealing with DMs or with reading your old replies or seeing what the rest of your community is doing. It’s uncomplicated. Facebook is too much. There’s a wall, there’s this poking and there’s just too much going on.”
On her movies and Twitter…
Gul refers often to her last film ‘Turning 30’, probably because it was so closely interlinked with her Twitter life.
“I like meeting people in real life, people that I met on Twitter. Ankita and I had also spoken once before. We’d met before for another tweet-up. She put across the idea of a tweet-up for my movie and I said, “Okay, let’s do it!” I wish it was bigger but it was good fun. I got to meet the like-minded community.
There’s an interesting theory. Women-related films won’t work because they’re chickflicks and the guy will not come along. More often than not, the girl will watch a film that the guy is happy to watch because a film outing is usually a date. My husband wouldn’t watch a film like this with me. I’m the one who has to end up watching ‘Underworld Evolution’ with him. Because that’s what happens, women are generally peace makers. I keep the romcoms to watch with my girlfriends. Instead, I watch family films or action films with him. Which is why Indian women who’re into films don’t support such films because the men in the family, who they like to watch movies with, don’t want to go for them.
I think women from social media loved the film! That’s except for a couple of media professionals, who gave it bad reviews because they were seeing it as a women’s lib film. They asked, “Why was she crying so much? Why was she groveling back for the guy?” I’ve done that, I’ve got dumped and the fact that I got dumped was more disturbing than anything else. No matter how strong you are, rejection is a very difficult thing to handle. And I think that was an interesting insight. The ‘why was she crying’ bit…the strongest women do that.
If I had to pinpoint a target audience, I’d say social media women users were exactly our target group. We had a fantastic response. To have an English language film get a mainstream release, to recover its money is a success in its own right.”
Gul’s latest pet project
The hour is nearing a close and we just have enough time to talk about Gul’s latest pet project.
“There’s a #GreenHome we’re building, which I’ve been talking about for awhile. It’s going to be one of India’s first green homes. Normally these are only industrial, corporate and commercial buildings. Ours is a weekend home. We wanted to construct something by the lake and grow vegetables. It’s a way of life. You can come visit it, learn from it, have a cup of tea, stay over, go back. It’s something both of us believe in very passionately. The whole house is off the grid. It’s not going to be powered by sarkari energy. We generate our own power through massive solar panels. We’re going to use water harvest and 80% of our requirements will be met by using rain water harvest – about 1 lakh litres.
It will be a place that people can actually visit – as a concept, see it, learn from it and also be able to avail of the hospitality there. #GreenHome is something that I am really excited about. I’m very clearly marketing but it’s because I genuinely believe it isn’t that difficult to go green. There are people out there who’d like to do it but think it’ll be a big headache. So we’re demystifying it. Again, I’m targeting my kind of people. People who have a bit of an adventure streak, who don’t mind taking a rough ride out of Pune for about an hour and a half, are most welcome to check it out, go stay there.
The drive to the #GreenHome is also quite an adventure. So you can come from Pune, towards the coast of Goa or you can come from Amby valley side. You need a vehicle and you got to have a bit of a stomach for giving your vehicle a hard time. We’ll be able to start entertaining people there as early as first week of May.
#GreenHome will have its website but that’ll only be ready in about 2-3 months, maybe June. The only place where I intend to talk about it, is social media. But it’s coming up. I’m just hashtagging it #GreenHome. That’s the one thing I’m definitely going to push on social media.”
And finally, a hat-tip to Gul’s Bollywood background with a few interview-style facts:
- Gul Panag is a Capricorn.
- Her favorite colour is pink.
- Her favorite movie is Snatch by Guy Ritchie.
- She doesn’t watch TV.
- Her favorite book is Bridget Jones’ Diary. She’ll also read anything by Wilbur Smith (whom she is going to spend a weekend with, in Niso, Capetown later).
- Her favorite cuisine is Mexican. She loves enchiladas, chimichangas & burritos.
- Her favorite time of the day is anytime after a workout (Health freak!).
- She uses an iPhone, iPad and Echofon to tweet.
- Gul has a website and is on Twitter.