Flashback for a model who fell off the catwalk

Drugs and drink nearly destroyed Gitanjali Nagpal. Now there are fears a Bollywood film could do more damage. Andrew Buncombe reports

She was the model who seemed to have it all. When Gitanjali Nagpal purred down catwalks in the 1990s, surrounded by the beautiful people of Bollywood and bathed in the light of a thousand flashbulbs, it appeared as if anything was within her grasp. She had the looks, the style and the background to match.

But she also had the ability to self-destruct. Falling into a vicious downward spiral of drink and drugs, the navy officer's daughter ended up amid the rough and tumble of Delhi's side streets. Her only accessory there was an open palm that begged for money.

Now Ms Nagpal is back on the gossip pages of India's newspapers, but for reasons other than she might prefer. A movie called Fashion that highlights the dark side of the industry and is allegedly partly based on her rise and fall, is due to open across the country this weekend and a debate has broken out over whether the 32-year-old former model is being further exploited.

The controversy began last week when it was reported that the actress Kangana Ranaut had told an interviewer that her part in Fashion was based on the experiences of Ms Nagpal. This news was instantly seized upon by the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW), a group that had helped Ms Nagpal when she was discovered on the streets of the capital last year. Its chairwoman, Barkha Singh, made clear that they were not trying to ban the film outright but were concerned that the movie might portray the young woman in a bad way and that her recovery from a mental breakdown could be set back.

"From the court hearings to the rehabilitation centre, it was the commission that took care of Gitanjali," Ms Singh told reporters last week. "Now she is trying to recuperate away from public life. We want to be sure the film in question does not show anything that is objectionable or derogatory to Gitanjali Nagpal's image or character, which in turn may affect her physical or mental health adversely."

There was plenty of reason to be concerned. In September 2007 when Ms Nagpal was discovered on south Delhi's streets by journalists she could have been a million miles from the catwalks she once sashayed down. While the woman who had attended the city's Lady Shri Ram College – one of India's leading universities – still retained some of her natural looks, her hair was matted in dreadlocks, her clothes were dirty and doctors who later inspected her said her body was covered with sores.

She had apparently been living in parks and temples in the Hauz Khas area of the city, a part of south Delhi filled with old buildings dating to the Moghul empire. The woman who had once modelled high-end designer couture for the fashionistas of Mumbai said she had been working as a maid and prostituting herself to finance an addiction to drugs and alcohol. Asked if she still enjoyed fashion, she replied: "I like fission, nuclear fission." Asked about her current hobbies, she responded: "Hobbies as in Calvin and Hobbes?" Yet for all her seeming ability to shoot back with smart answers, it was terribly clear that something was wrong. "I have no clue where I am going," she said. "I have a hotel in outer space."

Precisely what condemned Ms Nagpal to such a wretched life is unclear. Newspaper reports at the time said she had lived a "tempestuous" decade riddled with failed relationships, career setbacks and a drug habit. She apparently had an estranged husband who was living with their son in Germany and more recently had been living with a British boyfriend she had met in Goa. They had been living in an area of Delhi beloved by backpackers and famous for its cheap guesthouses and hotels.

When they split up she had nowhere to go other than the city's ubiquitous temples. It was at that point that the women's commission got involved in Ms Nagpal's life. Physically shepherding her, first to a police station and then to the Vidyasagar Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, a hospital that specialises in the issues that the convent-educated young woman was facing, the organisation sought to keep her away from the spotlight.

They also obtained a court order allowing them to obtain medical help for Ms Nagpal, who required sedatives. "She was violent and had to be forced into the hospital," a member of staff told journalists. "She was administered certain psychotropic drugs after which she slept for eight hours."

Twelve months later – as a movie subtitle might say – Ms Nagpal is out of hospital and living with her mother in the town of Haridwar, located alongside the cold, clean waters of the Ganges in the foothills of the Him-alayas. Neither she nor her mother give interviews and she does not want to be reminded of the past.

It was at this point that the commission learnt of the imminent release of Fashion and of Kangana Ranaut's purported interview claiming that her role in the film was inspired by Ms Nagpal's life. What they were not aware of, however, was that the film's director, Madhur Bhandarkar, had insisted that the movie was not based on the young woman's misfortunes. There were many young models who had fallen foul of the fashion industry, said Bhandarkar, and his tale was generic rather than specific. "I know the fashion industry is very apprehensive about my film," he said. "But they are also eager to know what Fashion is all about and how I've treated it on celluloid. My films just hold up a mirror to society."

Asked directly about the inspiration for Ranaut's character, he replied: "Kangana Ranaut's role was written much before the entire Gitanjali Nagpal episode. The only common chord between them is probably the hairdo – the curly hairstyle. I don't know why the media started portraying them like Siamese twins. Kangana's role is not inspired by Gitanjai Nagpal."

This week Bhandarkar agreed to be summoned by the commission and its chairwoman, Barkha Singh, to explain his film. He left after three hours, having apparently persuaded the members that while his movie might throw some light on the seedier side of the fashion industry, it was not going to further humiliate the young women they had worked to help. Members of the commission will see the film, also starring Priyanka Chopra, over the weekend and decide for themselves.

Speaking last night, Ms Singh said: "He told us that there are lots of models who share the same story [as Ms Nagpal]. He spoke for three hours and he has given us his word in writing that it is not based on Gitanjali."

Asked about the young model who so dramatically fell from the catwalk to the gutter, she said: "She is OK but she is upset. She wants to keep a low profile."

Fashion victims Models who buckled

* Gia Marie Carangi was one of the top models of the 1970s and 1980s, whose picture graced the covers of Cosmopolitan and Vogue. But the Italian-American supermodel became addicted to heroin and died of Aids aged 26. Angelina Jolie played Carangi in a biographical film in 1988.

* The Bristol-born model Sophie Anderton was addicted to cocaine which caused her weight to drop to six and a half stone. She recovered and took part in ITV's I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here! in 2005. But she says the enormous pressures to stay thin in the industry encourage models to take an illegal substance that is well known for suppressing appetite.

* A Russian Vogue cover girl, Ruslana Korshunova, committed suicide last June by falling from her ninth-floor Manhattan apartment. The 20-year-old from Kazakhstan had complained of stomach aches after losing weight and dropping to a size four, in the month before her death. Her ex-boyfriend said she had trouble balancing her personal life with work.

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