On a rainy Hyderabad morning, I nervously sip coffee in the lobby of Novotel Hyderabad, awaiting Jwala Gutta’s arrival for our photo shoot and interview. “She’s never late,” her manager had told me, and he’s right. She walks in exactly at 11.30am, looking fresh, with skin that naturally glows. Why am I nervous, I ask myself. Is it because of how frank she can be?
“I always liked clothes. Earlier, we never had time and money to really invest in them. Now I have a walk-in closet!”
But Jwala, with one big laugh as we go up the elevator, not only puts me at ease but also the hotel staff who gaze at her in awe. She patiently waits for the stylist to put her looks together, and asks for some coffee. We’re all set to start.
Edgy and proud
She’s been pointed fingers at for being edgy and ‘too dressed for a sportsperson’, but Jwala has time and again spoken up against the make-up and fashion shaming of sportswomen who wear their style on their sleeves. However, were there any occasions when she tried to hold back dressing up because she was afraid people wouldn’t take her seriously?”
“Never,” she says, fiddling with her perfectly- manicured nails. “People anyway didn’t take me seriously because of the way I look. And for some reason, there’s this Indian perception that sportspersons should look wanting, they should look like they’ve put up a real struggle… I don’t want to show that. Who doesn’t have a struggle?
“As long as I’m wearing what suits me, people can say what they want. I love dressing up and I love looking good,” she says.
Jwala always wears versatile outfits from gorgeous dresses to handloom saris (Skirt and shoes, Zara; sports bra, Adidas; top, Koovs)
Jwala has always had a very individualistic style when it comes to dressing and has worn versatile outfits from gorgeous dresses to pretty handloom saris on numerous occasions. “I always liked clothes. Earlier, we never had time and money to really invest in outfits. Once I was able to buy my own stuff, I started buying more clothes. Now I have a walk-in closet, and I have so many clothes that I haven’t worn even once yet!” she says.
When it comes to style and what is trending, she likes being in the loop. “What’s wrong with being updated? I try to go with the trends, but I like keeping it classic. I like wearing everything, from dresses to jeans to saris,” she says.
There was a time when Jwala tried to keep up with actor Sonam Kapoor’s fashion mantras. But soon, it got too much. “It’s very hard to keep up with Sonam’s fashion statements. It got too complicated. I think I’m more Kareena Kapoor when it comes to personal style, I like wearing more available stuff. If people are looking up to you, your clothes should be more easily available. Sonam is too out of reach!” she laughs.
From the diary of Jwala Gutta
- Best opponent ever played: Christinna Pedersen
- Most difficult match: Korean Open in 2009
- Most memorable compliment as a sportsperson: “International badminton player”
- Harshest criticism: “You cannot play badminton because of your weight!”
- Favourite doubles partner: V Diju
- Most memorable win: Commonwealth Games 2010
“I know I can come across as arrogant, or as unapproachable, but that’s only because I’m shy. Not many people know that about me,” Jwala admits. “I seem to be unapproachable only because I don’t know how to approach! I don’t know how to start a conversation but once I do, I don’t stop. I like being private, but I do like having fun. The fun part everyone knows!”
For all her outspokenness, Jwala says she’s actually the easier one in an argument. In fact, she was always the obedient child, not the rebel she’s perceived to be. “I hate fighting. I hate having to contradict someone. If I love and trust someone, I am obedient. I will listen to my friends, I listen to my boyfriend… But when it comes to my rights as a person, if I realise someone is trying to violate them, then I become the rebel that people think I am,” she says.
Jwala started playing badminton at the age of four (Skirt, Zara; sports bra, Adidas; top, Koovs;shoes, Zara)
Jwala started playing badminton when she was four, and it was always about sports for her, even as a child. “I didn’t have an option to not choose sports. I was told this is what I have to do. I was taught that playing badminton was my job. I played badminton, basketball, tennis, even cricket as a kid. In fact, I was quite good at cricket,” she says.
Jwala feels there’s still a long way to go before women get the respect they deserve (Pants, Zara; sports bra, Adidas; bomber jacket, United Colours of Benetton;sunglasses, Quay Australia; shoes, Alexander McQueen, backpack, stylist’s own)
When everyone else was dealing with teenage heartbreak or attending parties, Jwala was busy with practice sessions and tournaments. “My family, friends, everyone complains that I never attended their birthdays, family dinners, because I was always playing!” she says.
Sportswomen in the industry are changing and making a bigger name for themselves, from Mithali Raj in cricket, to Mary Kom in boxing. Jwala feels there’s still a long way to go before women get the respect they deserve. “Women still need to keep asking for what they deserve. And women who do ask for it are labelled as… well… Me! What have I asked for other than respect? Only when we’re quiet and not speaking up against injustice are we respected. From things like workplace harassment, rapes in the country, I speak about them. But I’m labelled controversial,” she shrugs.
She’s very observant, and says she has seen the game change. “I’ve seen the black and white era, when Pullela Gopichand won, to now, when other players win. The game has definitely become faster and has a more professional approach now, but the world still treats badminton as amateur, in my opinion,” she says.
The shaadi factor
In a relationship, Jwala believes, differences arise when there is no respect between two people (Dress, Shivan & Narresh, earrings, MangoxMyntra; bracelet, Fendi)
You were married to a badminton player, I slowly say, did that change things for you? “Certainly. Once I got married, people forgot that I’m a player too! His game, his kit, his practice. I had to remind people that I’m still a sportsperson. I got lost in that. I was performing nationally, but internationally I couldn’t do much. In fact, I can’t think of many married women in sports,” she says.
“Women still need to keep asking for what they deserve. and women who do ask for it are labelled as…well… Me!”
So, what about single people on dating apps? “I find it so scary! I know nowadays it’s probably difficult to meet people and everyone’s on their phones, but I can’t be on one for sure. I met my boyfriend at a friend’s sister’s wedding and we’ve been together for a few months now, but I haven’t publicly spoken about my relationship yet because the focus then just becomes about my love life, and not my game,” she confesses.
And first date, I ask, to which she says, “I grew up in a non-dating era! Dating is what you guys do these days. We didn’t date!”
Surely she must have experienced being hit on? “Umm…men are scared of me!” she says, and we laugh when her manager interrupts, “You know, when someone hits on her, she doesn’t even realise it. The person might be hitting on her outright, but she won’t know it,” to which Jwala sheepishly says, “Yes, that’s quite true. I don’t know how to flirt.”
After being married for four years and then going through a separation, she believes it’s very important to be respectful towards each other’s individual growth. “In a relationship, I’m the giver. I’m not demanding, of time, or of materialistic things. The differences arise when you don’t respect me. You need to grow as a couple without hampering each other’s growth,” she feels.
Bebo fan for life!
“I think I’m more Kareena Kapoor when it comes to personal style, I like wearing more available stuff!”
Jwala devoured Bollywood films as a child, and like most of us, she’s watched Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) umpteen times. “I’m a movie buff and Bollywood does the trick of disconnecting me from life and taking me into that fantasy world. I’ve also watched DDLJ a lot of times!”
An actor she loves is most definitely Kareena Kapoor. “Like I said about her fashion, I love her as an actor too. But I love the Khans too, not Salman so much, but the others,” she chuckles.
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From HT Brunch, October 7, 2018
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First Published: Oct 06, 2018 23:00 IST